The (Almost) Inaugural Flyby
by R. L. " Bob' Makinney
It was January 1953, and the country was about to inaugurate a new President - Dwight D. Eisenhower. The word came down from Headquarters, Air Defense Command, that each of its fighter squadrons would provide 16 aircraft for a mammoth flyby at 1,000 feet, right down Constitution Avenue in Washington during the cermony. Bases at Delaware and Maryland would host these airplanes, and there would be one practice flight before the big day.
At Ceorge AFB, home of the 94th Fighter Squadron, things really started happening. The squadron ops officer beggn selecting the lucky pilots who would go, and those who would stay to perform our primary mission. Maintenance crews worked overtime to make sure the most reliable Sabres were ready for the long cross-country mission. A special effort was made to paint distinctive markings on the birds so that they could be easily seen among the hundreds of airplanes in the formation.
Our squadron commander, Lt.Col. James Raebel, and a wingman, took off two days early for New Castle, Delaware, our assigned staging area. There, he was joined by other commanders to plan the myriad of details required of an operation of this magnitude.
On the day of departure, the rest of us were briefed about the flight and our aircraft assignment. The plan called for three flights of four and a two-ship element. We'd refuel at Albuquerque and Oklahoma City, with an overnight in St. Louis. On the second day, we'd refuel at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, and make a final landing at New Castle. We were to fly under visual flight rules, no IER weather flying.
The first day went without a hitch. The next morning, however, there was an overcast in the St. Louis area that extended about 10 miles to the east. After takeoff, we stayed below the clouds until we reached a large patch of clear sky, then climbed through to "VFR-on-top" and proceeded to Wright Pat. The first two flights and the element landed without incident, retiring to the snack bar for coffee.
The third flight never located the field. The flight leader received a station passage to Wright Patterson radio, began a let-down to the east and made a procedure turn back to the field. Unfortunately, during the turn, the radio station went off the air. He had turned down the volume on his ADF receiver and didn't notice, missing the field on his approach from the east Now he had to fmd it again.
After too long at a relatively low altitude, the entire flight ran very low on fuel. The leader flamed out near the Ohio-Indiana border, making a dead-stick, gear up landing in a corn field. The other three airplanes landed on a 2,000 foot grass strip a few miles northwest of Cincinnati.
Back at the Wright Pat coffee shop, things became quite tense because no one knew what had happened to the third flight. Pilots from other units enroute to the ceremonies were asking the embarassing question, "What happened?" Finally, we got the word that no one got hurt, and that three of our F-86s were flyable. But their immediate future was somewhat uncertain.
As the situation calmed down, the rest of the birds continued on to New Castle. Ironically, shortly after landing, we were notified that the Inaugural Flyby was canceled.
Lt.Col. Raebel's attention now turned to the problem of the three birds near Cincinnati. The dilemma he faced was how to get the aircraft out with minimum effort and risk. The three F-86s were on a short, muddy landing strip, with 50 foot trees on the far end of the strip. The Pilots Handbook presupposed that all takeoffs would be made from a hard surface runway. To run the J47 to 100% rpm necessary for takeoff would probably cause the landing gear to dig into the mud. Could an F-86 achieve sufficient acceleration for liftoff speed in that short a distance? And if it could, would the pilot be able to clear the 50 foot trees at the end?
Lt.CoL Raebel asked the aeronautical engineers at Wright Pat (the 'experts' in matters like this) what options we had. Specifically, could the F-86 be modified to accept JATO (Jet Assisted Takeoff) bottles to shorten the takeoff roll? Their answer - "No, not readily." They reccommended the birds be hauled out on flatbed trailers after removing the wings. At that point, ownership of the airplanes would pass from our squadron to Wright Patterson, i.e. we'd just lost three Sabres.
After carefully evaluating the situation, Lt.Col. Raebel decided to test three of the Sabres at Wright-Pat to determine the best short field takeoff procedure. Several ideas were put forth, including increasing the tailpipe temperature and deflecting thrust by positioning 'mice' in the tailpipe. This would create more thrust. And the internal fuel load was held at 600 pounds, about 100 gallons. As a bonus, the tests would be flown by the pilots who had been chosen to bring the Sabres out of the muddy strip.
For three days, various configurations were tried. Was it better to have full flaps on takeoff roll or lower them at takeoff speed? Would full flaps provide greater lift, thus reducing the weight of the bird moving through the mud?
Observers were placed along the Wright Pat runway at 100 foot intervals, to mark exactly where each test aircraft broke ground. With 600 pounds of fuel, the Sabre easily broke ground in 800 feet. Once airborne, they could easily clear a 50 foot obstacle at the 2,000 foot mark. But, the tests were measured from a concrete runway.
Based upon the tests, and after personally inspecting the muddy strip, Lt.Col. Raebel drew heavily on his own experience in the F-86 and made his decision. (I suspect there was also a silent prayer involved here.) Contrary to the advice of all the 'experts', we'd fly the Sabres out!
The big day turned out to be cold and blustery. Typical February in Ohio - temperature about 30 degrees, wind gusts to 30 knots, and snow showers. About 150 square feet of PSP (pierced steel planking) was laid on the muddy strip. At a time coordinated with Greater Cincinnati Airport, each F-86 was pulled up onto the PSP, the engine was started, and the takeoff roll commenced.
One by one, the three Sabres accelerated to liftoff speed well short of the field boundary, then cleared the trees at the far end. WHEW! Each one climbed to an altitude of several hundred feet, turned south across the Ohio River, and landed at Greater Cincinnati Airport, where they were refueled and made ready for the return to George AFB.
EPILOGUE: This incident demonstrate a number of factors relating to leadership and decision-making by a unit commander responsible for the safety of personnel and care of costly property entrusted to him:
1) Consultation with recognized 'experts' was certainly the proper course of action. However, the commander rejected their recommendation and proved that operators who know their equipment sometimes have a better grasp of how that equipment performs
2) While the successful completion of this operation was a happy event, had the results ended in disaster, there would undoubtably have been many an "I told you so!" from the experts.
3) A good commander must be ready to stick his neck out to support his strong convictions.
4) A little luck never hurts either!
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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