GETTING THE "L" HOME
by the late Neil Fossum
In December 1956, I was a junior first balloon flying F-86Ds at Tyndall AFB in Florida. I was getting plenty of flying, fishing and golfing. And yes, my wife was eight months pregnant About the middle of the month, my boss asked if I would fly to Fresno, California to ferry our first F-86L back. I told him my wife was expecting within a month. But he assured me I would be home for Christmas. As my bride was not having any problems, I agreed to go.
The next day I was asked by maintenance to ferry one of their F-86Ds, a hangar queen, out to Fresno so North American could modify the bird into an 'L'. I agreed and they worked day and night to make the airplane flyable. I gave it a test hop on December 18th. Right after takeoff, when I retracted the flaps, the bird started rolling to the left I pulled some power off and put the flaps back down in a takeoff position. After gaining a little altitude I discovered three things: first, the flaps were not coming up on both sides; second, the airplane would not fly with its wings level above 200 knots; and finally, I was not going anywhere in this beast in that condition! Maintenance jumped on it after I landed, and the next day I started my ferry flight with my first refueling stop at Greenville, Mississippi.
While getting lunch in Greenville and working out my next leg, the weather rolled in and the field dropped below minimums. The next day the weather was still lousy, but I think they were tired of my hanging around Base Ops and they temporaily jacked up the ceiling and let me go. Clearance delivery gave me an awfully complicated departure with several crossing restrictions. But after figuring out where they were, I cranked her up and called for taxi instructions. I went on the gauges immediately after takeoff. At 500 feet I was informed of two things: one, Greenville had again gone below minimums; and two, if I continued my flight I would be under violation! I asked them what the problem was and they calmly informed me that Flight Services said I had insufficient fuel to reach my destination at Big Spring, Texas.
The weather was bad to the west but I remembered that Dyess was forecast to improve. I informed Flight Services that Dyess AFB was my new destination. That satisfied Greenville, but when I approached Dyess they informed me that Big Spring was VFR and I landed there as planned. A check with the Airdrome Officer to see if a violation had been filed (or if the flying evaluation board had convened and was waiting for me) revealed I had not violated any rules. So I gassed up and headed for George AFB, with another fuel stop at Tucson.
It was great to get into the BOQ at George and then hit the club. After a tough day I was looking forward to some rest before heading to Fresno the next day. Next morning, December 21st, I arrived at Ops only to learn that the whole San Joaquin Valley was socked in and Fresno would be below minimums all day. By the next day, the 22nd, the weather at Fresno came up a bit and I snuck in that afternoon - at last! The troops at North American told me that my F-86L would be ready by 1000 hours the next day. But it was closer to 1230 hours before I finally got airborne.
One of the strange things about this particular F-86L was that its gear would not retract So after burning out some fuel for about thirty minutes, [landed back at Fresno and returned the 'L' to North American. Rather than carry my chute, helmet, and flashlight around, I left them in the cockpit. The North American people started working on the bird. They finally had it ready on Christmas Day and 1 took off about noon. By now my attitude needed a major adjustment as my clean clothes had long been depleted, as well as most of the contents of my wallet I was concerned about my wife and it WAS Christmas Day!
I filed a flight plan for George AFB as they had maintenance if I needed it. During the flight my attitude did not improve because when I engaged the autopilot I immediately got my head banged against the canopy! The autopilot wanted to do rolls all the way to George! I also noticed my oxygen was leaking at a rate of about 200 pounds per hour. At George I didn't mention any of these problems, nor the leaks that I saw. It was time to get the 'L' home, and I didn't want any delays because of a few stupid oxygen, fuel, and hydraulic leaks!
After refueling, I filed a flight plan for Big Spring with a stop for more fuel and oxygen. Departing Big Springs my takeoff roll seemed much longer than usual. But the bird finally started flying. I pulled the gear up and moved the flap handle to the 'up' position. But my flaps were already up! I had forgotten to place them in the takeoff position. It was now sundown and it had already been a long day. But at least I knew now why my takeoff roll had been so long. I made a mental note to be more careful and continued on to Alexandria AFB, Louisiana. While I was gping by Ardmore, Oklahoma I made a position report. Because it was Christmas night, and almost everyone was where they wanted to be, I had not heard any radio chatter for about thirty minutes. When Ardmore Radio called with a current altimeter setting, the operator was slurring his words so badly I could not understand him. I just replied - "Roger. It sounds like you're having a little party!" He replied -"Yeah, ha, ha! We've made a few trips to the parking lot!" I said - "Well, have one for me!", and he replied "Yeah, OK!" A few seconds later I received a very clear, very sober transmission with a current altimeter setting. I suspect the Ardmore boss overheard our conversation as his voice sounded more than a little agitated.
By the time I landed at Alexandria, my Sabre didn't have enough oxygen left to keep a canary alive. But there was only one short leg left so I didn't mention it. I also noticed that my flashlight was missing. It was probably at Presno in someone's tool box.
There was a Major on duty in Base Ops at Alexandria. He was in a really foul mood, probably because it was Christmas and he was stuck with A.O. duty. Because I did not have my own clearing authority, and I was a First Leutenant, I treated him with kid gloves. When I placed my flight plan on the counter for his signature, he said - "You're ferrying this airplane, aren't you?" I said "Yes Sir!" He said "You're not supposed to ferry a plane at night or in weather, are you?" He was correct on both counts. I then said " You're not going to Stop me, are you?" He replied "You're not going to crash on my airdrome, are you?" I quickly said "No Sir!". He looked at me for a moment, signed my flight plan, and I was out the door.
On the way out I turned to the Major and asked if he knew where I could buy a flashlight? He said "You don't have a flashlight?" Realizing I had just goofed, I mumbled something about it being stolen, but all my cockpit lights were working OK. As I walked out I heard him say - "I've heard about all I want to hear about this flight --!"
When I arrived at transient alert, the buck sergeant informed me that I had a severe oxygen leak, which had lost 200 pounds since he had topped it off. I said "That's OK. But I would appreciate it if you would top it off again after I crank her up." He looked at me a little strange but said "OK".
After getting clearance, I fired the engine up. About this time a Convair twin-engine landed - maybe a Southern Airlines bird. I didn't think anything about it. Finally, the sergeant topped off the oxygen, pulled the wheel chocks, and the tower cleared me to taxi.
As I approached the active runway, the tower asked if l was going to use the afterburner for takeoff?. I replied I hadn't planned on it because of its high fuel consumption and I was flying all the way to Tyndall on this leg. When I asked why, he said the two commercial pilots in the Convair had seen me getting ready to go and had stopped in the tower to watch my afterburner. As it was a very black night in that part of Louisiana, and the flame pattern from my afterburner was so obnoxious, I said "Sure. I'll plug it in!" The tower cleared me for takeoff. As my speed rapidly increased I decided to give them a max performance takeoff. While I was at it, I held the Sabre down until I thought the tire treads.would peel off! Then I rotated her and sucked up the gear.
I was looking into a black hole with no stars, no clouds, and no city lights. My artificial horizon at the bottom of the instruments was of no use at all. Looking out over the canopy rails provided no clue as to my altitude. It was as black as a Louisiana swamp! My airspeed held at 140 knots. I couldn't get it out of 'burner until I got the nose down. So my only course was to ease the stick forward. As soon as the artificial horizon provided some useful information I pulled it out of afterburner.
At this point I had scared myself, and my knees were shaking. Realizing that my voice would probably be several octaves higher than normal, I conciously lowered it and asked the tower - "How did they like that?" The answer was - "They loved it and wished they could change jobs with you!" After considering this entire trip and the headaches, I replied "I might be talked into that about now!"
After landing at Tyndall I parked, filled out the log, left my chute and helmet in the cockpit, closed the canopy and went home. My wife was fine. But Christmas Day was long gone. She asked how it went and I replied "It went all right." Now she knows the truth becuase she typed this!
Two months later a Captain Howard flew the second F86L into Tyndall. The base photographers took pictures, and he arranged for a nice article in our base newspaper about how he flew the first F-86L into Tyndall. Oh well! Anyway, it was nice to get the 'L' home!
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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