Run For The Border

by Dick Gilbert

(shooting down a MiG-15 on my 97th mission in the Korean War was one mission I'll never forget But my most memorable flight was a real boo-boo, or in Air Force terminology, "Head's up and locked".)

It was late 1952 and our class was just completing gunnery and fighter tactics in the F-86 at Nellis AFB. There were six or seven pilots in the class who needed another hour of night cross-country time. We were briefed by the instructor that our flight would be from Nellis to Flagstaff to Phoenix to Blythe, and then return to Nellis. Make sure you have your maps, flashlight, and money. Now why would I need money? I'm going to be back in an hour and I have twelve cents in my flight suit!

It was just getting dark when I departed Nellis. Fifteen minutes later I reported over Flagstaff. Looking south, I could see the lights of Phoenix glowing on the horizon. Twelve minutes later I was over Phoenix. The heading to Blythe, California, was ~ And this folks, was where the boo-boo began.

I reached up and turned the slaved gyro to 207 and departed from Phoenix. The leg to Blythe was also about fifteen minutes. But ten minutes later I was in clouds and flying completely on instruments. Other pilots who left Nellis with me were reporting that they were in the clear. But I was busy on the gauges and wondering when I was going to get station passage from Blythe on my radio compass.

After about twenty minutes, I knew I was off course. I called the instructor and told him I was lost. He told me to go to 38,000 feet, and get a DF steer back to Nellis. I turned north and coaxed that F-86A up to 38,000 feet. Still nothing. Even at 38,000 I couldn't pick up the Nellis beacon. What to do now?

I switched to 'D' channel and declared an emergency. Almost immediately I got a response from a San Diego tower, and from George AFB and El Centro Naval Air Station. Help was on the way! They asked me for a count so they could get a DF steer on me. I was getting a little nervous by then. I could count to ten OK, but from ten back to one didn't come out right. They all heard me but couldn't get a bearing.

By now my fuel was getting low, and I announced that I was starting down. At 12,000 feet I broke out under the clouds. Pitch dark, no city lights anywhere. Below me to the left was a dark line. After two more minutes I saw a few scattered lights and then a small town. And at the edge of the town were some runway lights. I chopped the throttle, put out the speed brakes, and went down fast. My fuel gauge was now reading 400 pounds.

Straight down the runway, I called the tower, "Air Force jet 1021 over an unknown field. Request landing instructions!" No answer. By now I had no choice - I had to land! After pitching out, I lowered the flaps and gear and lined up for a short final. As the main wheels touched down, the landing light didn't show either concrete or asphalt - just dirt. The runway lights were going by. But wait, those aren't runway lights! They're flare pots! It must be a small private field. I better ease on the brakes.

I finally stopped about 200 feet from a fence. Turning around took a lot of power and kicked up a lot of dust. Back at midfield was a small concrete pad that I pulled up onto and shut down the engine. As the engine spooled down, I opened the canopy. I looked around and saw several hundred people gathering around the airplane. I removed my helmet, looked down and asked the nearest man where I was?

He looked up and said "Mexicalli"!!! I said "Where?" He repeated himself, "Mexicalli, Mexico." Oh boy! I just sold an F-86 to the Mexican government. My buzzing the airport had stopped the baseball game that was going on across the road. The entire crowd had come over to see the nice, shiny new jet airplane. The dark line that I'd seen as I broke out of the clouds, was the coast line of the Baja Peninsula I'd been out over the Gulf of California and it sure was dark down there!

Fortunately a gentlemen who spoke English, came forward, and said he'd take me across the border to a telephone. Four Mexican Army troops, with guns, guarded the airplane while we drove to the first motel across the border near El Centro. Reversing the charges, I called Nellis Base Ops and told them that I was down safe and the airplane was OK. What should I do now? The guy at Nellis asks if there are any good looking girls down there. I answered "Yes - but what about the airplane?" He's calm - "Sit tight! We'll come down tomorrow and get you out." So I returned to Mexico and my Saber.

The Mexican Army guys stayed with the airplane all night. I sat in the cockpit for awhile. Then crawled up inside the air scoop, but still couldn't sleep. The next morning I got a good look at the strip. It was only 2800 feet long, and the flare pots had been put out for a DC-3 that had landed at 9PM and then departed for Mexico City. At 6AM, another DC-3 landed and 'the co-pilot, who had flown 109s in World War 2 got out to look at the Saber.

About 7AM, the gentleman who had taken me across the border returned and bought me breakfast. He also gave me $2.50 in American money to help get me home. I told him that someone would pick me up later and tried to return his money. But several of the locals told me that I had to keep it or I would hurt his feelings.

About 1pm, a truck arrived from El Centro. Then a B-26 flew in with two Nellis pilots aboard. The truck was borrowed from the Navy, and it carried a starter cart and 100 gallons of JP-4. The 100 gallons of JP-4 cost $11.00 duty to cross the border, which I later paid into the Nellis "Knucklehead Fund". One of the Nellis guys climbed into the cockpit. The plan was to take the airplane to El Centra, refuel, and then return to Nellis.

With several hundred Mexicans watching, the starter cart was humming and the pilot started the engine. He got a 'hot start' and a ten foot long flame exploded from the tailpipe. This spooked everyone in the crowd and they all took off running. On takeoff, the pilot held all three wheels on the ground as long as possible before slowly lifting off the dirt strip. He just cleared the fence, leaving a big cloud of dust behind.

We drove the truck back to El Centra with the starter cart in tow. I then climbed into the rear of the B-26 for the ride back to Nellis. Walking into the squadron operations building, I noticed a large sign on the blackboard - "GILBERT BACK FROM FOREIGN DUTY -3 POINTS". NOT FUNNY GUYS!

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.

Return to Classics Page