by Ford Smart

During the mid-1950s there were a great many Air Force crews that stood silent alert across the borders from the (then) Soviet Union. Their mission - Stand By To Repel An Attack, should one ever come. It was a lonely vigil, with no headlines and very little praise. They were known as the COLD WAR WARRIORS.

I was one of the Cold War Warriors serving with the 36th Fighter Day Wing at Bitburg AB, Germany. The 36th was composed of three squadrons - the 22nd FDS, 23rd FDS, and 53rd PDS. During 1954/1955, we flew the North American F-86F model. Our primary mission was termed "FIGHTER DAY", which simply meant maintaining air superiority over our area of responsibility in West Germany. We sat ZULU ALERT in a 5 and 15 minute status, from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. The 36th FDW had no nuke role at the time.

Often we would rotate to Furstenfeldbruck AB, near Munich, on a TDY. basis. This brought us much closer (about 5 minutes jet time) to the Soviet Bloc nations of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Soviet-occupied Austria This was where the MiG threat was the greatest. When scrambled, we would be vectored by GCI into the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone), a 15-20 mile-wide buffer zone inside West Germany abutting the Soviet dominated countries. Our mission was to intercept incursions from behind the lron Curtain.

Normally we were airborne daily either training or on an actual intercept of a bogie picked up by GCI radar. Many times we flew within sight of various types of MiG aircraft (15s, 17s, etc) at distances of from one to three miles. We just flew side by side, warily eyeballing each other from across our respective sides of the border, waiting for someone to make a move. Actual engagements were rare in this area. Rare yes, but they did occur, with both sides claiming victories. The last one occurred, I believe, during 1954.

As one can imagine, the notorious European weather was a significant factor in the mix. For example, it was quite common for West Germany to be 'socked in'. while the Soviet hases were in the clear. During these weather conditions, the MiGs would often launch what appearred to be a massive attack toward the West. Radar would pick up entire squadrons of MiGs at high altitude and airspeed, dashing direcdy toward the border. This, of course, was designed to initiate our response scrambling everything we had on ZULU ALERT - which we promptly did!

The MiGs would then turn back and return to base, leaving many an F-86 driver sitting high and dry over a solid undercast, with many of our bases 0/0 (WXOFF). The Sabres would usually be low on fuel, and the pilots highly motivated to find someplace to land! It was a critical situation. But fighter pilot ingenuity and skill prevailed (with a little bit of devine guidance, I suspect), and we all landed somewhere safely, usually at Hahn AB, Germany, which sat on a hill, usually above the fog level.

Training and exercises were frequent. Periodically we would go down to Wheelus AB, Libya for qualifying. At Wheelus, we were required to be proficient in air-to-air gunnery, rocket-firing, bombing, and strafing. There was a conventional range inland where we pin-pointed 251b. practice bombs, fired 2.75 inch rockets, and zeroed in on the strafing panels. Air-to-air gunnery was carried out over a Mediterranean Sea water range. We fired .50 calibre that was dye dipped, on a towed target panel. Occasionally we had some air-ground practice at Baumholder, a small range located inside West Germany.

But our true love was combat air maneuvers, or 'rat racing'. The F-86F was a magical bird for 'rat racing'. Daily we patroled the skies over Germany, 'hasseling' with anything that we spotted. In those days our most formidable 'foe' (besides our own "Stick Buddies") were the Canadians in their Sabre Mk 5s and Mk 6s, flying out of Zweibrucken AB, West Germany. Many a tale has been told about these encounters with our brothers from up north - THEY WERE TOUGH!

Exercises for the Cold War Warriors of NATO were constant and continual. Many concentrated on air superiority; others dramatized 'invasion' and support of NATO ground forces and base defense. On one particular base defense exercise, I recall flying 12 missions in one day at Bitburg! The aircraft were 'clean', i.e. no underwing stores or drop tanks. We took off in one aircraft, engaged in a blur of aerial combat, landed and hopped into another waiting Sabre and repeated the scenario. Some missions were as short as 15-30 minutes in length, within 50 miles of Home Plate since we had only internal fuel available.

In December 1956 the 36th FDW mission was diversified and the squadrons dispersed. The 53rd went to Landstuhl AB, while the 22nd and 23rd remained at Bitburg. The mission became that of fighter-bomber in anticipation of the arrival of the North American F-100C Super Sabre, which we subsequently flew on VICTOR ALERT with nukes. But that is another story. The men of the 36th Fighter Wing were some of the original Cold War Warriors, sitting ZULU ALERT in Lockheed F-80s as early as August 1948. Today the 36th is relegated to air base group duties somewhere within PACAF, one of the casualties of the frenzy toward 'leaning down the military'. What a way to end a glorious career!

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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