SYLVIA TWO THREE
by John Powell
My home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is near the Willow Grove NAS. As I passed the base a few weeks ago, I noticed two old 'friends' from my USAF past. There on display were an F-80 Shooting Star and an F-86 Sabre. I couldn't pass without stopping to get reacquainted with those beautiful old fighters. As I sat on the bench in front of them, my thoughts took me back to the early 1950s, shortly after the Korean War ended. I had just been assigned to the 330th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Stewart AFB in Newburgh, New York. This was a lovely place to be after eighteen months in pilot training and all-weather interceptor schools. During pilot training, I had become very proficient in flying the F-80, an aircraft I dearly love to this day. I developed complete confidence in its ability to get me home, and it always did - even through two dead stick landings.
The 330th FIS was the only fighter unit at Stewart AFB, and we fighter pilots were looked upon as akin to football stars or 'jocks', a status completely new to me. There at Stewart, my USAF wings gave me instant recognition as a real, live jet pilot, during the days when jets were new and thrilling, always drawing crowds of onlookers.
After six months at Stewart, we were being re-equipped with F-86s, as they were returned from Korea. These were not new aircraft, but were somewhat tired and combat-worn. At first, I didn't think they were as 'user friendly' as my beloved F-80. I loved the '80 as one loves a beautiful mistress - and she loved me. She had always taken care of me. Because of this, I volunteered to ferry our F-80s to the Air National Guard units which were picking them up. Finally, however, "we ran out of F80s, and I had to make friends with the famous 'MiGKiller' of Korea, the F-86P - the glamorous lady starring in all the war movies from Hollywood. As 1 transitioned into the Sabre, I found it much more comfortable than the '80. The cockpit was spacious and well designed for my 6'2" frame.
The 330th shared its aircraft with senior officers assigned to headquarters, Eastern Air Defense Force, which was located on the hill above the flight line. Most of these officers were of WW2 and Korean vintage, fresh from the latest war and now assigned to desk duties, which they disliked but recognized as essential to advancement. One of these was a lieutenant colonel named Robin Olds, an ace in WW2 and married to a movie star. He would later become the only pilot to score victories In both WW2 and Vietnam (12 in WW2 and 4 in Vietnam). He loved flying, and had put out the word that he would buy steak dinners for any pilot and his lady IF the pilot could shake him off his tail when Olds 'bounced' him.
I thought I was as good as most of my squadron in the role of aggressor or evader, and needless to say, even without the diner offer, to 'wax' such a formidable foe would be a feather in any pilot's cap. Then, one crisp February day, as I was flying an P-86 at 25,000 feet practicing my assigned aerobatics and feeling in love with the sky and my ability to fly, I felt quite alone with the deep blue above and the pure white clouds below. The F-86 and I were becoming real friends! Just as I entered my last maneuver I became aware of another '86 right on my tail! Unfortunately, with my limited experience in the F-86, I had lots to learn about swept wing flying characteristics and slats. I was pulling far more 'g' forces than I had ever done before, and was careless about keeping the aircraft from yawing while turning. My old friend the F-80, was very forgiving about uncoordinated flight I had been told by the operations officer that in uncoordinated flight during high 'g' loads, the slats on the F-86 might not operate together. One might extend while the other remained closed, producing some very unexpected and nasty results. If this happened, I was to 'unload' the g's, which would reduce the angle of attack and result in a return to more or less normal flight conditions. This had never happened to me, so I forgot all about it in my effort to get Jumping Jack off my tail.
I was determined to do this, however, and as a last resort I extended my speed brakes and reduced power to idle, hoping he would fly right under and past me as I pulled up into a vertical position. When the aircraft had slowed almost to a stall, I retracted the brakes and applied hard left rudder to execute a 'wing-over'. As I did so, I checked my six o'clock and observed Jumping Jack still on my tail!
Suddenly I felt my Sabre enter a violent maneuver such as I had never experienced. The nose began swinging around in a wild circle, and I saw earth and sky rapidly changing places. All sorts of debris from the cockpit floor was floating around. I was bewildered and frightened, and might have bailed out, except that I figured the gyrations might preclude a successful ejection. I was headed for the ground - fast - and had just about given up hope of recovery. Then I heard, "Two Three, extend your speed brakes, advance your power to 100%, and neutralize your controls."
It was Jumping Jack, and his voice reassured me. Following his directions, the cartwheeling stoped, and the landscape (much to close now) settled down. I was under 5,000 feet, and Juming Jack calmly said, "Reduce your power and start a 3 ' G' pullout!" I did, and soon resumed level flight - an older but wiser fighter pilot. Jumping Jack got landing clearance for the two of us and suggested I write up the aircraft for an "over G" inspection.
After landing, I sat in the pilots lounge, drank a Coke, and tried to assess all that had happened to me that day. Jumping Jack had been the spokesman, but it was Divine intervention that had saved me, I felt sincerely. I was just about to go home for the evening when I was told that our CO wanted everyone to report to the Officer's Club at 1730 hours. I wanted to call my wife to let her know I'd be late but there was no time and I headed for the club.
When I arrived with three of my buddies, we were directed to a large private dining room. As we entered, my entire squadron came to attention. And our CO introduced me to Lieutenant Colonel Robin Olds and Mrs. Olds. Next to Mrs. Olds sat my wife of six months wearing a million dollar grin. As I was ushered to a seat beside my wife, Colonel Olds called for a toast: "A toast to First Lieutenant John Powell, the first pilot in this group to ouffly me and shake me off his tail!" Modestly, he continued that it was not the first time he had been bested, and probably not his last. But because I had so little time in the '86, 1 had earned the promised steak dinner. As my squadron mates congratulated me with applause, cat-calls, and whistles, I noticed that I had once again taken on the demeanor of an ice-cool jet fighter pilot. Inside of me, however, I knew there was a frightened young pilot who had almost 'bought it', but for the sake of God and Robin Olds.
Back at Willow Grove, with nostalgia sweeping over me, I realized that over forty years had passed. I recalled feelings long forgotten. And as my eyes filled with mist, my right hand formed a fist, and I beat softly on my arm rest. "Ah God, if I could only fly one of those magnificent machines again." And with that wish, "Sylvia Two Three" slipped back into my memory once again.
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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