TOURING EUROPE IN THE F-86E
by Major Gary E. Sparks, USAF Ret.
I think everyone feels his career could have been much different, depending on the timing. In my case, I flew the P-51 Mustang in the wrong war (Korea), the F-86 Sabre when we had no war, and never 'went north' in the F-4 Phantom. But, as one of my friends said - "We're still alive!"
By 1954, 1 had flown the F-86F at George AFB, California, home plate for the 21St Fighter Bomber Wing, and was now at Chambley AB, France, where I was a flight commander in the 416th FBS. The 416th was commanded by Lt.Col. Morgan R. Beamer, one of the finest officers I ever knew. He had been my squadron commander in Korea, where we flew the RF-51D. in the 45th Tactical recon Squadron during the 'Police Action'.
Although we were flying the '86F, Chambley sure wasn't the place any of us would go on vacation. Certainly not if you were a young bachelor. Under the NATO agreement, we weren't allowed to have nuclear weapons in France. Thus, all our 'Victor Alerts' were pulled in Germany. My flight was assigned to Bitburg AB, Germany, so we got to know a lot of the guys in the 36th Fighter Day Wing. The 36th had just gotten the F-100 Super Sabre. It just didn't get any better than that in those days. And most of us would gladly have traded places with any of them. When we were on 'Victor Alert', we were carrying a pair of 200 gallon drops, a single 120, and a 'shape'. And this configuration did nothing for the performance of the F-86F.
I had been lucky enough to get a 'FOX ABLE' flight back to the States in early 1955, ferrying an 'F' model Sabre, and had met a lovely English gal. So, when Col. Beamer called and asked if I'd be interested in going to England for a 90 day TDY, I jumped at the chance. As it turned out, it was a PCS, not a TDY. I was one of the Air Force acceptance pilots who were test flying some F-86Fs that had been overhauled by British aircraft companies.
The RAF had received about 350 Canadalr Sabre Mk. 45 (F-86E equivilant) in the early 1950s, and since they were now getting the Hawker Hunter, they were unloading their Sabres They were scheduled to go other NATO countries - Italy being among them. Prior to being delivered, they had to be returned to original specifications, and after a British company flew a test hop, I would give the aircraft a final check on behalf of the US Air Force.
The program headquarters was called the London Air Procurement Office, which was located in downtown London about three blocks from the US Embassy. I was assigned to Airwork Ltd., one of the British companies that were refurbishing the Sabres. On my first day, I drove down to Dunsfold to meet the civilians with whom I'd be working. When I arrived at about 0745, the main gate was locked and the gate guard looked at me and said, "You must be the American chap who's going to be working on the Sabre program." I told him that I was, and offered to show him my AGO card. To which he replied, "No, that's not necessary. There's no one here at this hour anyway. They normally come in about 8:30 or thereabouts."
That certainly seemed like a reasonable hour for people to come to work, compared to the hours we worked in the squadron. He offered me a cup of tea and we shared a cigarette. (Most of us smoked in those days, as well as doing some other things that might not readily be accepted in today's society.) Not only was Airwork Ltd. located at the field, but so was Hawker Aircraft which did all the final testing and fine tuning of the new Hunters they were producing for the RAF. During the next three years I got to know the famous Neville Duke and many other fine Hawker test pilots.
Looking back at my Form 5, I see that I flew the first flight out of Dunsfold on 4 January 1956, delivering the first Sabre to Italy on 23 January. We flew them to Practia de Mari Air Base near Rome. Normally, we made a refueling stop between England and Italy, but I delivered several aircraft non-stop. There had to be decent tail winds and you had to get the bird up to 40-45,000 feet - but it could be done. For a short time, I held the unofficial world's speed record from London to Rome. One of the Hawker pilots actually set the official record from London to Rome using the data from the flights I had made. Good publicity for the Hunter, although there were several planes flying at that time that could probably have beaten the Hunter.
We'd return to England via commercial airliner. What a deal! Pan Am was flying DC-7Cs (possibly the finest piston-engined airliner ever built.), and flying first class from Rome to Paris on the return (Pan Am didn't go into London from Rome) in a DC-7C was really living it up! There were free drinks, steak or lobster, and the stewardesses were always young, pretty, and friendly. And they usually RONed (Remained OverNight) in Paris. You could catch BOAC or Air France from Paris to London the next day to complete your trip home. All of this was courtesy of MDAP, the Mutual Defense Assistance Program
I made forty-three trips to Rome, and most of them were enjoyable. But one of them stands out clearly in my memory. It all started with a busted weather forecast from Practia de Mari. Instead of the forecast 5,000 ft. scattered and 5 miles visibility, I broke out over the ocean at 600 feet in a snowstorm, with about 2 miles visibility! Practia de Mari had no GCA, and while trying to home in on their beacon, I kept getting lower and lower. Finally, I broke out right over a 10,000 foot runway. But there were trucks and heavy equipment all over the runway, so I knew that this field wasn't open. (I found out later that I had just buzzed what was to be Rome's new muni airport.)
By now I was very low on fuel, and I decided it was either land there or bail out. I buzzed the field twice, and all the trucks cleared the runway for me. I went straight in, landed, then radioed a TWA Connie and asked them to let Rome Air Traffic Control know that I was on the ground OK and please close my flight plan.
The real fun began when I tried to explain to the Italians that this was an airplane that I was delivering to the Italian Air Force. And that I needed a telephone so I could call the American Embassy in Rome. I spoke no Italian, and no one around me spoke American (or even English!). Finally a guy came up who spoke some English and he took me to a small nearby village. We found a phone, which just happened to be in a bar, and I asked the Embassy to send a car to take me to Rome. They said it might take about 45 minutes or so, but they'd get a car on the way.
By this time, quite a crowd had gathered in the bar. And through my English-speaking friend, I was informed that someone wanted to buy me a drink. I had gotten pretty well chilled unloading the '86. Looking around I noticed a bottle of Canadian Club on the back of the bar. I said I'd like one of those, and the bartender poured a very generous shot into a water glass. Many words were then spoken in my direction, none of which I understood. Then my new friends made the universal gesture of holding the glass up and drinking it down. Since I didn't want to appear unappreciative or unfriendly, I emptied my glass. Well now, it turned out that there were quite a few Italians who wanted to buy a round of drinks. And by the time the Embassy car arrived, I was ready to promise them that I would land the next Saber on that exact same spot on the field. A photographer arrived at some point, and several weeks later I received a copy of their local newspaper with a front page picture of me and my new friends in the bar. Several comments were offered by my boss, none of which need repeating here.
It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime- assignment, and it's no wonder that all the young F-86 pilots stationed in Europe, were scrambling to get those 'TDYs' to the London Air Procurement Office. Looking back on those great days, I'm afraid I didn't appreciate what I good deal I had. Life is like that, I suppose
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