When the war broke out in Korea 25 June 1950 one of the greatest initial needs for the Far East Air Force was reconnaisance of the Korean peninsula. Unarmed RB-17s from Clark AF and RF-80As from the 8th Photo Squadron (jet) were sent to map and identify the Norty Korean targets,road net, and terrain. Ther was virtually no threat from North Korean Air Force to these unarmed reconnaisance flights. But all of this would change in November 1950 with the introduction of the MiG-15 into the combat arena over North Korea. The MiG-15 was much faster than the best that Far East Air Force (FEAF), could put into the skies over Korea. To counter this threat USAF ordered the 4th Fighter Interceptor Group to Korea with North American F86A Sabrejet fighters. This move was effective, and FEAF fighter-bomber and B-29 strike forces were well protected by the Sabres.
But the reconnaisance mission remained highly dangerous whenever the mission went into north western Korea - in the area known as MiG Alley. The MiGs could easily single out the bulbous-nosed RF-80 recon jets and in spite of the Sabre presence, losses began to mount. What was needed was a high speed photo jet that could penetrate MiG Alley in relative safety. The re-activated 67th Tactical Reconnaisance Wing moved to Kimpo (K-14) on 22 August 1951. The 67th was made up of three squadrons - the 12th TRS in RB-26C Douglas Invaders; the 45th TRS in RF-51D Mustangs; and the 15th TRS(Jet) with RF-8OAs.
After moving to K-14 Major Bruce Fish and Major Ruffin Garay, the COs of the 15th TRS, and Captain Joe Daley; Operations Officer of the 15th, campaigned with FEAF for a reconnaisance version of the F-86. FEACOM bluntly told them it simply couldn't be done! But the two officers were just as adamant that they needed such an aircraft and began spending every moment across the field in the 4th FIG hangars, checking all the possible locations where they could fit a camera. Finally, Colonel Harry Thyng, CO of the 4th FIG, got tired of seeing the 15th guys hanging around the hangars and allowed them to take the nose from a "Class 26" airframe across the field to the 67th side. Now they could really get down to the business of putting cameras in an F-86.
The gang at the 15th, working on the project in their spare time, found that by removing the lower two .50 calibre guns and ammo cans from the right side of the F-86A nose, there was enough room to install a single, small format camera. The camera had to be mounted horizontally, shooting into a small optical mirror set at a 450 angle. A small hole was cut in the bottom of the nose and a piece of optic glass was installed. The fuselage mockup was not bulged in any way to accept the camera installation. Colonel Edwin 'Chick' Chickering checked out the mockup, liked the concept, and authorized modification of two F-86As by FEAMCOM personnel at Tachikawa. The project was known as HONEYBUCKET.
FEAMCOM took a pair of tired F-86As from the 4th FIG, 48-187 and 48-217, ferried thein to Tachikawa, and began the conversion. The two Sabres were modified the same as the mockup, i.e. a single high speed K-25 bomb scoring camera was mounted horizontally in the right gun bay area, shooting into an angled mirror assembly through a single camera port under the right ammo bay. Again, the fuselage was not bulged in any way. The aircraft looked exactly like a standard F-86A fighter unless you got under the nose and saw the camera port. The remaining gun in the right bay, as well as all three in the left gun bay, were completely operational - but rarely used. In fact, most of the time the guns weren't even charged as the conversion suffered greatly from vibration. Firing the guns could knock the camera completely out of its mounts. Plus, 5th Air Force didn't want its reconnaisance Sabres off hunting MiGs when they should be bringing the photos back.
Joe Daley brought the first HONEYBUCKET back to K-14 in the early Fall of 1951. The HONEYBUCKET F86As retained the full operational markings as found on 4th FIG F-86As. So secret was the project that initially the twoHONEYBUCKETs were even parked on the 4th FIG ramp, mixed in with the 4th FIG Sabres. When a mission called for the HONEYBUCKETs, they launched right along with the 4th FIG combat air patrol. The patrol area of the 4th that day just happened to he over the area the HONEYBUCKETs were tasked to photograph. One of the mission flights would have a HONEYBUCKET as Flight lead. After arrival over the target area, the HONEYBUCKET would drop out of formation, get his photos, then beat it back to K-14 while the rest of flight went MiG-hunting. Joe Daley flew the first HONEYBUCKET mission within days after delivering the first aircraft to K-14.
Although these HONEYBUCKET conversions did the job with only one camera, the results were barely adequate to fulfill FEAF photo needs of the targets at or near the Yalu River. However, both 5th Air Force and FEAMCOM now recognized that a reconnaisance F-86 Sabre was not only possible, it was highly desirable. FEAMCOM authorized six additional F-86A airframes, all '48 models drawn from 4th FIG inventories, to be modified. These were officially known as Project ASHTRAY conversions. The ASHTRAY airplanes were quite different from the HONEYBUCKET conversions.
The ASHTRAY airplanes had both the left and right gun bays emptied. Also removed was the APG-30 gunsight radar installation in the nose. In place of the lower pair of M2 .50 calibre guns in both gun bays, were a pair of horizontally mounted K-9 cameras, complete with a revamped mirror assembly to shoot through a pair of camera ports on the underside of the nose. The K-9s were larger than the K-25 in the HONEYBUCKET, necessitating a large, flattened fairing over the modified ammo bay area. This gave the ASHTRAY conversion its telltale 'cheeks'. In the upper part of the nose where the radar had been, a K-9 dicing camera was installed to take photos directly ahead, or in the flight path, of the photo aircraft. The dicing camera lens was mounted in the area where the gunsight radar antenna had been installed.
Each ASHTRAY airplane, now designated RF-86A, was literally hand built at Tachikawa. And each airplane was different from the others. Some had sliding doors over the dicing camera lens in the nose; some simply had the nose flattened where the lens was. Some had only the upper two .50 calibre guns with a full aintno load of 300 rounds. Some had four upper guns with modified ammo loads. Some had no guns or ammo. The camera controls were located on the old bomb/rocket selector panel located on the lower center console. The armed RF-86As, having no gunsight, used all tracer rounds to 'track' the target. The pilots said it was simply to scare the MiGs! The two original HONEYBUCKET aircraft were also modified to ASHTRAY specifications.
Only one RF-86A was lost in combat. Major Jack Williams, CO of the 15th TRS, was shot down by North Korean ground fire in 48-217. Clyde Voss recalls the mission; "The mission was a dicing run over the hydroelectric plant north of Wonsan. It was Major Jack Williams' first RF-86A mission. Entering the mission area I repeatedly had to tell him to increase his speed over the target area. He then took the lead in a single low level pass over the dam. But he was still too slow and accurate North Korean ground fire set his aircraft afire. I was flying about 1000 feet behind him for the purpose of suppressing any ground fire with the .50 calibre guns that remained in my HONEYBUCKET."
"I saw no heavy ground fire so assume it was small calibre. Major Williams' aircraft began streaming fuel from the wing roots. I called him on the radio to tell him about the fuel leak but he never responded. His aircraft began a right hand, climbing turn - away from home. I flew alonside Major Williams and noticed his cockpit was full of smoke so thick I couldn't tell if he was alive or not. While on his wing, his aircraft suddenly began a sharp roll into me. I had to pull up quickly and lost sight of him momentarily. I rolled over and caught sight of the Sabre diving toward the ground, with a nicely blossomed chute above. I turned on my dicing camera to get photos of Major Williams' chute and his location for use in a possible rescue mission later."
"I saw the airplane impact the ground and watched as Major Williams' chute also landed in a field. Calling for a helicopter rescue mission from the Navy helicopter scow standing off Wonsan, I CAPed the spot where Major Williams went down, strafing any locals that started toward him. Before I reached BINGO fuel I heard the Navy rescue boys coming. Some Navy F4Us relieved me as RESCAP just as I hit BINGO. Major Williams was picked up by a Navy chopper, but he was dead when they got to him."
There was one major problem with the ASHTRAY conversion - blurred photos. This was caused by the cameras themselves and the installation, which required a mirror. Captain Bill Coffey recalls; "The RF-86As were not a good photo bird, primarily because the camera lay flat pointing forward, shooting into a mirror and then vertical. The mirror setup was not the strongest and the pictures were affected by vibration. You would have the mirror vibrating in one mode and the camera vibrating in another. Result - blurred pictures. Lt Bill Cress did come up with a modified mirror mount that took out most of the problem. The other problem was that the cameras were not designed for that kind of aircraft speed. Consequently, the shutter speeds did not jibe with aircraft speed. It all resulted in some pretty poor pictures. Not always, but often enough. This wouldn't be solved until the introduction of the factory-built RF-86Fs with vertically mounted cameras."
The mission of the ASHTRAY RF-86A was high speed recon of the MiG Alley area - and beyond! Yes, sometimes it was necessary to cross the Yalu River to get the photos. Bill Coffey recalls one such mission; "It was about 1200 hours on a beautiful summer day in 1952. I was just coming back from lunch when a crew chief ran by yelling something about Russian bombers coming! It sure scared the hell out of me. I ran to Operations to see what the hell was going on. Seems a returning 4th FIG pilot had reported Antung was loaded with IL-28s with red stars on them. The IL-28 was a high speed Russian jet bomber, something akin to our B-45 Tornado. Bombers meant only one thing - an offensive strike at the airfields in South Korea, possibly followed by a ground offensive."
"The whole wing, and probably the rest of South Korea, was immediately put on alert and contingency plans made. All photo birds were prepared for immediate departure for Japan. The escort F-80Cs we had, and all the RF-86As, were armed and towed to the edge of the flight line. Any aircraft unable to fly were prepared for destruction. Flyable airplanes had the pilots in them, ready to go at a moments notice."
"In the meantime Captain Chandler launched in one of the RF-86s for a looksee at Antung. As I recall we sat on that hot runway for a long time waiting to hear from him. Anyway, Chandler crossed the Yalu on the deck, flew to Antung, and went straight down the runway shooting dicing pictures all the way. The pictures were great! MiG-15s lined up tip-to-tip, with very surprised communist ground crews in, on, and around the MiGs - all looking at this lone American Sabre coming straight down the main runway!"
"As it turned out, the 4th FIG pilot had apparently seen a batch of new MiGs that had arrived at Antung and were parked very tightly together. From altitude, they must have looked like IL-28s. Or someone was expecting the worst and jumped the gun. Anyway, before Chandler returned to base, he called in that the airplanes were just MiGs, not IL-28s, and everything went back to normal. But it did put everything in a tizzy for awhile."
Although the ASHTRAY airplanes were capable of mixing it up with the MiGs if they were jumped, they were under orders to get themselves and their photos back to Kimpo. But sometimes that rule was forgotten. Bill Coffey recalls one time that a new lieutenant was flying one of the RF-86s. He had just gotten the mission pictures and flew into some nearby clouds. When he broke out he found himself right on the tail of a MiG. His first thought was 'Oh boy, a chance for a photo jock to down a MiG!' Pull the trigger as he would, the loaded upper four .50 cals would not fire! And since it only took a second for the MiG to notice the 86 on his tail, the MiG driver lit the fire and pulled away across the river. It was then that the Sabre pilot noticed that the selector switch was set on PHOTO instead of GUNS. The one chance for a photo jock to get a MiG was lost forever.
When the war ended the 15th TRS was beginning to reequip with new RF'-86Fs, some converted at Tachikawa and others built by North American. But that's another story. The RF-86A ASHTRAY airplanes that survived were brought back to the States and sent through the North American facility at Fresno, to be refurbished and upgraded with the other F-86A combat veterans. The refurbished F-86As were then delivered to Air Force or Air National Guard units. The RF-86As went to the 115th FIS/California ANG. Although still designated RF-86A, the airplanes were stripped of their cameras and flew a standard fighter mission. The California Guard pilots especially liked these airplanes for coast to coast flights since the empty camera bays could hold a lot of personal luggage. As with the rest of the F-86A inventory, the ASHTRAY conversions that flew one of the most dangerous missions in the Korean War were unceremoniously scrapped after release from duty with the Guard. Thus ends the story of the RF-86A.
No portion of this article may be used or reprinted without permission from the President of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association or the editor of Sabre Jet Classics magazine.
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