The Ultimate Range Extender

By Robert W. Smith

Ed. Note: Bob Smith had a remarkable career in the USAF. In Korea, he destroyed two MiGs, had one probable, and two damaged. Between wars, he set a world altitude record of 120,800 ft. in an NF-104A at Edwards AFB, California. In Vietnam, as a squadron commander in F-105s, he won the Air Force Cross. He also holds the Silver Star, five DFCs, and 13 Air 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 was presented in two parts when it appeared in the Sabrejet Classics.

You invited stories about the F-86H, and this is one, but I must preface it with related tales from a thousand hours I enjoyed flying the A, E, and F models. Only a fool would tell this story, but I have been judged worse, so here goes. This fool flew more than 50 military aircraft types and never enjoyed any of them more than the Sabre.

This F-86 story really began upon my graduation from Class 50C at Williams AFB, in the F-80A/B, the day before the Korean War began. Those of us who had orders to Japan were reassigned stateside within days, and I went to the 1st Fighter Group at March AFB, then to Griffiss 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. 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, but only below 3,000 feet.

My good fortune with Sabre assignments then led to the 335th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, 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 that I lacked the eyes of an eagle and not aggressiveness and gunnery skill, which are other traits of the great aces.

After a couple of weeks at Johnson AB, Japan, I joined the 335th at Kimpo AB (K-14) in Korea. 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, 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, and before long I was a spectator watching Hoot shoot down a MiG. I was trying diligently to check six while we were tracking the MiGs, but confess I was fascinated by the sight of tracers and the many, many hits on the MiGs, which seemed 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, so I told Hoot about this. He told me to let him know if I had to break. The lead MiG on my tail started shooting far enough out so that the "golf ball" tracers were falling short, but he closed and fired a burst that passed right over my right wing. I'm sure he was using the MiG's 37mm because the red balls were so large, and the rate of fire was slow. Right then, I notified Hoot 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 so that I could make a diving turn to gain a speed advantage as I had been taught, pulling just enough g's to make it unlikely they could draw a lead. I pulled hard while holding aft trim, since my "A" model was in that 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, and I found my head down in my lap as I felt many g's for an extended period. Because I didn't feel the side load associated with a snap roll, I have always surmised that I had runaway trim. Because 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 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, still between Anju and Sinuiju.

At this point I had real fuel problems and turned towards home as I continued to climb. The four MiGs were still there, and now began a series of high-side firing passes on me that looked like gunnery school. I 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 slip in behind me for an easy kill, except maybe they didn't know my problem and didn't want to force me to break. This went on for what seemed to be an eternity, and I continued working my way to the south. I tried to increase their attack angle by turning into them as best I could without varying too much from my southerly heading. As Elvis said, I was "all shook up" since my "breaks" were 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 fifties in one long burst as the next MiG passed 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 fifty caliber rounds tumbling out of burned-out barrels before the last shot left. Thank goodness, the MiGs then left, and while I'd like to think they had had enough of that crazy American, the truth was likely that they too were low on fuel.

I climbed toward home base until I had 15-20 gallons showing on my fuel gage, then shut down my engine to save that precious fuel for landing. At the right time, I made an airstart and landed after a long, straight-in approach. Everyone else had landed long ago, and Hoot said they had already written me off. Major W.W. "Bones" Marshall, the 335th commander, met me on the ramp and we inspected the airplane. 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 at the max. 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-off 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.

After leaving Korea, I was assigned to the 93rd Fighter Squadron at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, once again flying the trusty '86A. Major W.W. "Bones" Marshall, my old squadron commander and an ace from Korea, was the 93rd commander. Now, one of our favorite assignments at Kirtland was to fly to Yuma, Arizona, for air-to-air gunnery practice, but this was a long haul (Albuquerque to Yuma) for a clean Sabre. Unfortunately, drop tanks were in short supply stateside, because the Korea groups were dropping them regularly and naturally had the priority for resupply.

One fine day I was scheduled to fly to Yuma with Bones and Capt. Ken Chandler, another Korea ace and a great pilot who had performed stunts with Chuck Yeager in the F-86 for the 1950 movie "Jet Pilot", which starred John Wayne. My own radio failed on take-off, so Bones and Kenny pressed on while I returned to Kirtland for a new radio. This was accomplished in short order, and I also headed for Yuma. The headwinds were pretty strong, so I found it necessary to shut down my engine once again and dead-glide to the maximum in order to make Yuma. Bones and Kenny had stopped at Williams to refuel, so I was waiting for them when they finally got to Yuma. I think to this day, Bones can't figure out how the headwinds had died so suddenly.

After graduating from Test Pilot School in 1956, I found myself assigned to the Air Force Armament Center at Eglin AFB, Florida, and flying the F-86F and H on gun test projects. After about a year, AFAC was absorbed by the Air Force Operational Test Center, also at Eglin, and my new commander was Brig. Gen. Ernest Warburton, a well-named man of Native American descent. I had not met him, but soon would.

One Friday I was instructed to ferry a clean F-86H to Bradley Field, Connecticut for transfer to the Air National Guard. I had never been to Bradley, but approached the flight with some urgency, since my good wife had invited about 85 people to our house for a party that night. At the airline ticket office I found that the only way I could catch the only flight home from Bradley was to make it to Bradley non-stop. Wasting no time departing, I grabbed a map, checked the weather, and noted that Bradley was on the south bank of a large river. I calculated that the distance and weather (CAFB) would allow me to make it non-stop if I used my cruise-climb and engine out descent.

Things went well, and visibility from altitude was unbelievable. My progress showed it would be tight, but I'd make it with a full power-off glide from cruise altitude. I made all the necessary radio calls enroute, shut down the engine and began my slow glide. Someone had told me that the field was right across the river from the Pratt and Whitney engine plant, and I was sure I saw it from way out. I never even unfolded the map from the moment I picked it up, but I saw the plant on it and the letters BRA...disappear behind the fold line. About fifty miles out - still gliding - I tried to call the tower, but got no response from the tower or anyone else. No radios! So I continued to an IP for a power-off 360, and planned to start my engine at the last possible moment, saving about 30 pounds of fuel for use if required. Suddenly my full attention was focused on a light aircraft on an extended downwind. I didn't have enough fuel for a go-around, but was able to cut inside him and roll out to a short but unbelievable final approach view. There was a high earthen dam at the approach end of a runway that now seemed more like a short country lane. It proved to be somewhat less than 2500 feet in length and about 75 feet wide, with grass growing through the blacktop. Of course, all my other options had been abandoned at 38,000 feet, but I landed successfully. Because I had been practicing short field landings in the F-100, stopping was no real problem.

Before I could dismount, an Army National Guard jeep pulled up, and I hollered, "Is this Bradley Field?". "Nope, this is BRAinerd - BRAdley is thirty miles up the river!" The kind Army lieutenant happened to have access to a UH-1, and after I grabbed the aircraft documents, we helicoptered over to Bradley. Unfortunately, I had to leave the '86H where it was because there were no taxiways at Brainerd (Fortunately, there wasn't much traffic, either.) At Bradley, I hurriedly got the Guardsmen to sign for the airplane, and felt sure they would recover the Sabre and forget the matter.

The party that Friday night back at Eglin was a great success (Yes, I made it in time!) and was a catharsis for my lingering concerns about the consequences of my most recent Sabre sortie.

Early Monday morning, I was summoned to General Warburton's office and learned first hand about an Indian on the warpath - and how! I decided my best defense was stupidity, since grounding was the alternative. It seems the Air Force advisor at Bradley had called the Eglin command section to ask what kind of idiot pilots they had. I will never forget the anger of that general, and I stuck by my story that I had landed there because I thought it was Bradley, and yes, the field looked OK to me. I still contend that this answer was close enough to fact that I have never outright lied to a superior officer.

As luck would have it, I was soon to get back in General Warburton's good graces. At the next Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, one of Eglin's famous "firepower demonstrations", I was chosen as the alternate shooter in a new event. An F-100 was to shoot down a towed "Redbird" target (very tiny), on time and right in front of a grandstand full of VIPs. It hadn't been done before, and I had some trepidation that if I became the primary shooter, and failed, my position on General W's hit list would advance to Number 1.

Sure enough, on the day of the show the primary had to abort with a mechanical problem, and I became the designated shooter. Thankfully, I was able to blast the target to pieces, an event I later repeated at The World Congress of Flight at Las Vegas in April 1959. At the flying suit beer party after the show, General Warburton came over and gushed to the primary about his great "kill". My good friend modestly pointed to me and told the general that I had done the shooting. The general's smile faded, and he wheeled about and also faded into the crowd without a word. But thereafter, he treated me as if nothing bad had ever happened, and I truly don't believe that he had an ulterior motive when he helped get me transferred in response to an invitation by the Thunderbird leader.

Shortly after my chewing-out from the general, Captain Lon Walter, the assistant fighter ops officer, presented me with a nameplate for my desk, properly including my correct initials, "Rong Way Smith". Things picked up even more when I received a clipping from a Connecticut newspaper that reported the first jet to land at Brainerd Field, and how they took the wings off to truck it to Bradley.

The last times I used my F-86 dead-glide proficiency were in a test program at Edwards on a highly modified NF-104A with a liquid rocket engine and reaction controls, in which I reached 120,800 feet for a world record in 1963. On over 100 flights I had many occasions to make an engine-off reentry, but only once in this airplane and the Sabres did I have to actually dead-stick.

For a long time, Lon Walter and another great friend, Lt. Gen. Howard Leaf, retired USAF Assistant Vice Chief of Staff, tormented me about my only mistake in twenty years of flying, except for the times when.....

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