Most Sabre pilots recall then checkout in the Sabre with varying degrees of clarity, but I will never forget my first ride in an F-86! For most folks, the initial flight came after formal formal ground training school and dual seat rides in the T-33, while jocks of recent vintage are well acquainted with the exhaustive education associated with qualifying to fly a new fighter today. But it was not always like that.
In midsummer 1950 the 335th Fighter Squadron received six new graduates from advanced flying school They were "Second Balloons" in the jargon of the day. Four had graduated from jet training (T-33s and F-80s at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona), but two came from F-51s at Nellis. All had flown F-51s or F-80s for about 65 to 75 hours, with the rest of their expeiience wasin T-6s for about 200 hours. The 335th was assigned no two seat jets, but it did have access to a T-6 (which was out of commission when we arrived). The Texan was used for instrument checks and other utilitarian purposes, and there was also an F-51 available which was used for towing targets (when it was in commission, which was a rarity)
As one of the two newcomers arriving with no jet experience. I was awed with the prospect of soon flying the nation's fastest most advanced let fighter, the F-86. I had no idea that this thrill would occur so quickly. After an introduction and chat with our squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Don Nance, I was ushered into the operations officer's (either Captain Marc Varcum or Captain Sick Farrell -I forget which one had the job then) office. Everyone present agreed I should have no problem learning to fly the F-86, since it was "much easier to fly than the '51" I was issued a two page questionnaire to be completed by referencing the Dash One flight manual and I was told that I could fly the Sabre when the form was successfully completed.
The questionnaire was done by the next day, and I sat down with my instructor plot, First Lieutenant Tex Badger, to review it. Tex and I discussed the form .and then he gave me a good rundown on how to fly the F-86. I told him I had never been trained to operate jet engines, but he said it was not terribly important. The throttle worked in the manner, as the one on the 51 except there was no torque associated with adding power. When we finished. I was ready to go. The weather, however, had socked, and so my flight was rescheduled for the next morning.
One of the other new arrivals. John Hungerland. had been going through the same ritual with his instructor First Lieutenant Cal Ellos. John had a major advantage over me, I felt, since he was one of those who had flown jets at Willie, but he, too, was rescheduled for the next morning.
The big day dawned with a low overcast sky, but the weatherman said this would burn off by 0900. John and I and our two instructors trooped out to the line to our shiney new F-86s. Tex and Cal leaned over our cockpits and showed us how to start the engine then we were to be cleared to fly in the local vicinity around Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to practice some elementary flight maneuvers. John Hungerford was assigned the Sabre parked next to mine.
When both aircraft started, there was lots of noise. Tex and Cal shouted their final words to each of us over the din of the two screaming J47s. Finally they both got down and stood beside our aircraft while John and I made our final checks.
At this time, someone ran out from ops and yelled into Tex and Cal's ears. Tex then cupped his hands and shouted to me that the weather was too bad to fly, but 1 should "taxi around the field" to become familiar with the nosewheel steering. Although disappointed, I understood this decision as the overcast had gotten thicker and lower to about 500 feet. I called the tower, to ask permission to taxi around the airfield. and they cleared me to do so. Then I heard John call for taxi arid TAKEOFF instructions! I was mighty upset that my buddy would be allowed to fly when I was not, but I attributed this to his previous jet experience.
As I taxied around, I listened to John take the runway. Then I saw his 86 take off and disappear into the murk almost as soon as his wheels came up. With gloomy thoughts about my obvious stalus as a "second class citizen", I finished my taxi trip in about thirty minutes and returned to my parking spot. I shut the Sabre down and walked back to ops. When I walked in, the ops officer greeted me with a cheerful understanding of my disappointment at not flying by asking. "How did your taxiing go?"
"Fine", I said. "It IS a lot easier than the '51."
Then he replied, "Hungerford will find it a lot easier than the 80, too." (The F-80 did not have nose wheel steering). Then he asked. "By the way. where is Hungerfod? Didn't he park next to you?"
So I replied, "I guess he's still flying"
"HE 's WH-A-A-T?", the outraged ops officer fired back!
With that,. the ops officer ran to the radio in our squadron ops office and quickly turned it on . As soon as the radio cycled in there was John Hungerford calling 335th ops to advise he was about to make an instrument letdown into Andrews to land "ON HIS CHECKOUT FLIGHT!". The horrified ops officer gave him a quick (ever so quick, because he was low on fuel) briefing, and told John to be careful (an understatement of ever there was one, but what else could he say?) Then the livid ops officer tried to find out how this could have happened.
To wind up this yarn, John Hungerford got down alright. and I flew the Sabre the next day. It was easier than the '51! But why did John fly that first day? Well, after his IP, Cal Ellis, got the word for him to only "taxi around the airfield", he then relayed these instructions to John by shouting (Just as Tex did for me), but he raised his arm and made a circular motion while shouting. John thought he heard Cal say "Stay right around the field"!
A wild story? I swear it's true and and I'm sure it can be matched by any other readers out there. But it could not happen today, could it? Well, could it?!
John Hunaerford became an excellent F-86 and later F-100 pilot, but he lost his life in an F-100 accident in the late Fifties. As fate has decreed, of those six "balloons", only the other F-5I graduate, Danny Dennison, and I survive today. Only one of the other four died in an 86 and that happened when he was shot down by a MiG15. The Sabre never let any of us down.
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