The two Sabres were right in the eye of the hurricane at 35,000 ft! (How's that for an opener?) Well, maybe not actually IN the eye, but probably pretty damn close. How did they get there? Read on.
The place was Eglin AFB, Florida, a huge complex of airfields and test ranges almost the size of Rhode Island. The date was 26 September 1953, and the time was early morning. A major hurricane was heading north, and the eye was about 90 miles south of the main base. At Eglin, the two big test units, Air Proving Ground Command (APGC) and the Air Force Armament Center (AFAC), had sheltered most of their fighters in sturdy hangars and had flown out those aircraft which couldn't be accommodated in hangars. The base was ready.
As a project officer and test pilot in AFAC, I was catching up on my paper work. The two F-86E-1 test beds (50-581 and 50-583) assigned to my project (testing the new K-19 gunsight) were among those hunkered down in the AFAC hangar. Everyone expected to be released before noon to return to their quarters and to ride out the hurricane with their families. A telephone call was about to change all that.
The call was from the base operations officer. He had received a call from the TAC fighter squadron commander whose outfit had been shooting gunnery out of Auxiliary Field #2, about twelve miles from the main base. The squadron commander stated that he didn't have enough qualified pilots to fly all of his F-86s out of Field 2, and could some of the Eglin test pilots come over and help out? I said, "sure", called my wife (She was not terribly happy that I was "bailing out" and leaving her alone with our baby daughter to face the storm's fury.), picked up my flying gear, and drove up to Field 2. There I joined about 12 APGC and AFAC F-86 pilots - apparently most of the TAC squadron pilots were not weather qualified.
As we filed our flight plans to Perrin AFB, TX, the rain was coming down in buckets and the dark clouds were solid from about 500 ft to Lord-knows-where-the-tops-were. The TAC Sabres were almost-new F-86F-30s, and we planned to launch in flights of two. The hurricane clouds were forecast to extend inland almost to Jackson, MS along our flight path. I was to fly wing on Major Lyle King, one of the greatest fighter pilots I ever knew, and a real gentleman. (He died when his F-86D quit on take-off a few years later, and the huge King Hangar at Eglin is named for him.) Neither of us had flown an F-30, but this didn't seem to present any problem.
As we lined up for take-off, I estimated the eye of the hurricane was 70-80 miles to the south and the rain was beating down on us, but we were going to fly northwest (away from the storm). It should have been fairly routine.
On take-off, I tucked in real tight on Lyle King's right wing as we plunged into the murk, and was able to keep him in sight in spite of incredibly thick clouds. He was a smooth and considerate leader, and this helped a lot. As we climbed through dark clouds, rain, and turbulence, I decided it was more important to keep from losing sight of Lyle than to check my instruments, and after we leveled off at 35,000 the flight conditions were, if anything, getting worse - not better. Our only navigation aid, the radio compass, was useless with all the thunderstorm activity (No radar in those days!). At that time, Major King asked me if I could tell him what my gyro compass read. After a quick glance, I replied in a surprised voice that it showed we were heading SOUTH! We were approaching the eye of the storm! Major King said that he had suspected his gyro compass was 180 degrees off, but hadn't been able to confirm it because the turbulence had his standby compass (called a "whiskey" compass - but that's another story) bouncing around so much. "Lon, would you take over the lead and get us out of here?" Gulp! "Rog, I'm going to head northwest until we break out."
We popped out of the clouds somewhere between Mobile, AL, and Jackson, and the rest of the flight to and from Perrin was relatively uneventful. But we were not the only ones who had problems.
Another AFAC test pilot, Bill Snyder, recalls that he and his wingman, Frank Flanagan, took off and immediately lost all of their gyro instruments. They somehow managed to stay beneath the clouds (which Bill says were about 200' a.g.l.), and after some expert low-level flying in miserable weather, they were able to return to Field 2 and land their fully loaded Sabres.
An APGC pilot was climbing out over Crestview, FL (about 30 miles north of Eglin Main), when he, too, lost all of his flight instruments. He bailed out after he found his Sabre in a spin, but his wingman managed to recover and land at Barksdale AFB, LA, with his "g" meter showing +9. Several other flights reported major problems with their airplanes.
I heard later that the squadron commander had been canned, and that TAC was embarrassed that the beautiful F-86Fs were in such lousy condition. Additionally, there were some questions about why the commander waited so long to evacuate his fighters, and why his own jocks weren't "qualified" to fly them out. All in all, it was not one of TAC's finest hours!
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