GLIDING THE F-86
The Ultimate Range Extender
by Robert W. Smith
Ed: note: Bob Smith had a remarkable career in the Air Force In Korea, he destroyed two MiGs, with one probable and two damaged Between wars, he set a World Altitude Record of 120,800 feet in the NF-104A at Edwards AFR During the Vietnam War, as a squadron commander in F-l05s, he was awarded the Air Force Cross. He also holds the Silver Star, 5 DFCs, and 13 Ar Medals. After he retired from the Air Force, he had a successful twenty year career with the Martin Marietta Company. He is retired in Montverde, Florida, and enjoys golf and traveling. The story which follows is presented in two parts. Part II will appear in the Fall issue of Sabrejet Classics.
You invited stories about the F-86H. And this is one. But I must preface it with a related tale from a thousand hours 1 enjoyed flying the F-86A, E, and F. Only a fool would tell this story, but I've been judged worse, so here goes. This fool flew more than 50 military aircraft types, and never enjoyed any of them more than flying the Sabre.
This F-86 story really began upon my graduation from Class SOC at Williams AFB, flying the F-80 Shooting Star. It was 24 June 1950, the day before the Korean War started. Those of us who had orders to Japan were reassigned stateside within days. I lucked out and went to the 1st Fighter Interceptor Group at March AFB, then to Griffis AFB, where I spent a year and 340 flight hours learning and enjoying the F-86A.
I also spent 20,000 feet learning to recover from a flat spin during my one and only flight in the F-51D Mustang. This occurred after I intentionally entered a normal spin for fun - only to have it become the dreaded flat spin. All this because I had a full fuselage tank, which I later learned was a big no-no. I found out recovery is possible in the Mustang, but only below 3,000 feet.
My good fortune with Sabre assignments then led to the 335th' Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Group at Kimpo AB, Korea, and my first combat tour. Although I ultimately got two MiG kills, a probable and two damaged, I like to think that my record would have been better except I lacked the eyes of an eagle, and not aggressiveness and gunnery skill, which are the other traits of the great aces.
After a couple of weeks at Johnson AB, Japan, home plate for the 4th, 1 joined the 335th at Kimpo (K-14). There, I was assigned to the tent of Captain Ralph D. 'Hoot' Gibson, who showed the kind of leader he was by always putting the new guys on his wing for their first mission. Others might have done it differently, since he was so close to becoming the second jet ace of the war. But not Hoot.
So there I was, on his wing, and we had cruised south of the Yalu for quite a while, when I got my first look at the awesome sight of a large (make that huge!) gaggle of MiGs approaching in the cons. We jettisoned our empty tanks and engaged the Migs. But before long I was a spectator watching Hoot shoot down a MiG. I was trying diligently to check our 6 o'clock while we were tracking the MiGs. But I confess, I was fascinated by the sight of tracers and the many, many hits on the Migs. They looked like big sparklers to me. Watching a MiG kill for the first time seemed almost surrealistic.
That MiG was history in no time, and Hoot closed on another one and began hammering him. Soon, other MIGs were cutting us off and closing to near firing range behind me. I told Hoot about the MiGs closing at our 6, but he told me to let him know if I had to break off. The lead MiG on my tail started shooting far enough out that his golf ball tracers were falling short. But he soon closed the gap and fired a burst that passed right over my right wing.
I'm sure he was using the Mig's big 37mm cannon, because the red balls were so large, and the rate of fire was slow. Right then, I called Hoot and told him that I was breaking hard right. Then told him that all four Migs were sticking with me! He asked if I needed help, and pride and bravado prompted me to say that I could handle it! I thought I could easily shake these birds. However, we were near 'Bingo' fuel, so I knew I had to do it quickly. We were high enough that I could make a diving turn to gain a speed advantage as I had been taught (the Sabre was much faster than the MiG in a dive), pulling just enough g's to make it unlikely that the Migs could draw a lead on me.
I pulled hard while holding aft trim, since my 'A' model was in the speed range where the elevator pulled like a gigantic rubber band, but produced little g response unless you used elevator trim. Suddenly something occurred that I had never encountered. I found my head down in my lap as I felt many g's for an extended period of time. Because I didn't feel the side load associated with a snap roll, I have always surmised that I had runaway trim. And since I never used shoulder straps as a wingman in Korea, I literally could not look outside.
All my efforts to push the stick forward and retrim the airplane, were useless. Although I was still concerned about the MiGs, I finally extended the speed brakes, pulled the throttle to idle, and found that I could raise my head again. My Sabre and I were down to 4,000 feet, and we were climbing steeply somewhere between Anj and Sinanju.
At this point I had real fuel problems and turn towards home as I continued to climb. And the four MiGs were still there! They now began a series of high side firing passes on me that looked like gunnery school. found that I now had very little roll response - slow and sluggish. The Migs took advantage of my vulnerability and continued their passes. I couldn't understand why they didn't just slip in behind me for an easy kill. Maybe they didn't know my problem, and didn't want force me to break.
This went on for what seemed an eternity, and continued working my way south. I tried to increase their angle of attack by turning into them as best I could without varying too much from my southerly heading. A Elvis said, I was " all shook up", since my breaks so gentle. I thought each of their passes would be the end of me. Suddenly my fear turned to blind fury, and I emptied my six .50s in one long burst at the next MiG. that passed in front of me. Of course, it was futile, because I wasn't able to get my sight on him until he was long gone. To this day, I can visualize the .50 caliber rounds tumbling out of burned out barrels before the last shot left.
Thank goodness, the Migs then left. While I like to think that they had had enough of that crazy American, the truth is, they were probably also low on fuel. I climbed toward home base until I had between 15 and 20 gallons showing on the fuel gauge. Then I shut down the engine to save those precious few gallons for the landing. It was still over 175 miles back to K-I 4, and I started the long glide home. I knew it could be done as others had done it before me.
However, that little bit of knowledge didn't make it any easier on my nerves. As I approached Kimpo, I called the tower and told them of my situation. They didn't have to clear the pattern as I was the airplane returning from the mission. At the right time, I made an air start, and landed after a long, straight-in approach. Everyone else had landed long ago, and Hoot had already written me off!
Major Winton W. 'Bones' Marshall, the 335th PIS commander, met me on the ramp and we inspected the airplane. There weren't any holes, but that was the only consolation. The wing stress plates were severely damaged. And the ailerons were so deformed that they were physically binding. The resettable 'Max G' needle (removed on later airplanes) was pegged. If my memory serves me (and it often doesn't anymore), that was 12-14 g's. That mission began my use, or abuse, of power~ff cruise descents. In my own defense, I think I did better on my next 99 missions, and even had the honor of leading the wing on a mission as a first lieutenant.
- to be continued -
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