FLIGHT LINE

by Rick Mitchell

My perspective as the son of an F-86 Sabre pilot is greatly different from what most of our members will recall. I only stood on the sidelines and watched the Sabres while most other members flew or maintained them. But I do have a few favorite Sabre stories that mean a lot to me.

The Maryland Air National Guard flew the F-86E from 1955 to 1957, and then the F-86H from 1957 until the summer of 1970. My father was a part-time Guard pilot until 1958, and then fulltime until he retired in 1978. I was all of a first grade student in elementary school when the "E"s arrived. and I truly do not remember them. But the F-86Hs were different. By the early 1960s. I was a teenager. and my recollection of events during those days is much better! I do, however, remember the summer of 1958 when we were temporarily living in Rantoul, Illinois while my father went through maintenance officer training at Chanute Air Force Base when he became a full-time air technician. The aviation movie "The Hunters" premiered that summer. 1 remember sitting in the Town Theatre in Rantoul several afternoons in a row watching Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner chase MiG-15s (actually F-84Fs painted grey with red stars) across the skies daily in that movie. It was pretty exciting stuff to see the movie's fictional "bad guy' leader. "Casey Jones." get shot down, and then Robert Mitchum deadstick his F-86 in among the scrub brush to rescue another pilot who had been shot down. "The Hunters" was my first real exposure to the excitement of the F-86. It is still exciting today as an adult to watch this movie when it occasionally shows up on late night television.

During the early 1960s, the MD ANG held open houses every May for Armed Forces Day. Maryland had their F-86Hs by then, and they were still in their natural metal finish. During the day, the Guard would put on an air show for the visitors. By then, my father was the group commander, and many times he was the solo pilot in one of the F-86Hs during the show. After he landed and taxied back to the ramp and shut down, the crowd would cheer his flying. l remember one year in particular watching him climb out of his Sabre, still with his parachute on, and walk back to where the spectators were, and a handful of kids about my age ran up to him and asked for his autograph. I remember being highly in awe of that! That one event sticks out so clearly in my mind today that it is as if it occurred last week instead of thirty years ago.

During 1966. Maryland's Sabres were repainted in camouflage. This made them look even better than they did before! By this era, however, and unlike today. America's youth was in a more rambunctious. anti-war fervor (a mood I personally wanted no part of). and Maryland soon stopped having its annual displays for fear that someone in the crowd would sabotage their military property That was very unfortunate as it ended the air shows at the MD ANG forecer for the public, as it turned out.

One of my last memories with Maryland's Sabres occurred one afternoon during the summer of 1970 when I took my girlfriend. Dorothy, whom I married in 1975, to Martin Airport on a date to see the F-86Hs. Maryland was slowly transitioning into brand new A-37B Dragonflys at the time. but in my estimation then, as well as today, the A-37B could not hold a candle to those older Sabres as far as good looks and performance were concerned. That was the last time I saw the ramp at Martin Airport filled with so many F-86Hs. 1 would give a million dollars today (if I had it!) to go back to that warm. sunny afternoon again and see those beautiful Sabres. Nothing since then. except for maybe a visiting F-16, has ever looked so good at Martin Airport.

Today. the Maryland Air National Guard has one of its original F-86Hs on gate guardian duties. and it is a treat to see "411" as 1 enter the front gate on visits. It is also very rewarding to follow the restoration of another former Maryland Air Guard F-86H Sabre, "250", which Spirit Fighters near St. Louis is restoring. I hope to see that 'H' fly someday. Not only will it be a beautifully restored Sabre taking to the air once again, but somewhere in my past. I remember when "250" and 23 more F-86Hs filled the ramp at Martin Airport. just like that last afternoon in 1970. Seeing "250" fly will be like going home again.


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