THE FIRST SABRES ARE DELIVERED
by Donald M. Cummings
I was Squadron Commander of the first P-80 Shooting Star squadron in Europe with the 55th Fighter Group at Giebelstadt AB, Germany. We received thirty P-80As in the Spring of 1946. General Barcus gave them to our squadron as we had the best accident record in the ETO at the time. We flew them until the Spring of 1947 when we ran out of engines. We ferried the remaining F-80s to Bremen using our last four engines.
Because of my P-80 time, I returned to the First Group at March Field only to find that the 94th Squadron already had two lieutenant colonels and four majors assigned. Everyone in the Army Air Force (we were still in the Army at that time) was trying to get assigned to the First Fighter Group, the only jet group at March Field, along with Col. Leon Gray's 12th Reconnaisance Squadron, also flying a variant of the P-80 - the FP-80A. March Field was the home of 12th Air Force Headquarters and considered 'The Country Club of the Air Force'.
In 1949, Lt. Gen. Curtis Lemay decided he wanted March Field for Strategic Air Command. He also convinced Air Force Headquarters that he needed a fighter group assigned to SAC for escort purposes. General Lemay got both March Field and the 1st Fighter Group, just in time for our conversion to the new North American F-86A Sabre. In 1950, the 1st FG was transferred back to Air Defense Command and redesignated a fighter interceptor unit. But between July 1949 and April 1950, the 1st FG was attached to the 22nd Bomb Group!
On the 7th of February 1949, five pilots from the 1st FG went to Muroc Dry Lake AFB (later Edwards AFB) for approximately ten days to check out in the brand new F-86 Sabre, which was still undergoing Air Force acceptance checks. I'm the last of those five pilots still living, but it was certainly one of the highlights of my Air Force career.
The F-86 was a big improvement over the P-80 Shooting Star. It was the first jet plane that felt like a fighter plane should feel enough speed, climb, and maneuverability to give you the confidence that you could perform the mission. And it was much easier to fly. I can not recall any portion of the flight envelope in which the Sabre was not better than the Shooting Star.
On 15 Februiry 1949, we went up to Mines Field, now LAX, to accept delivery of the first F-86s. I don't know if I accepted the actual first F-86 or not. But we checked the aircraft out with the people at North American (we had a close relationship with them, including gratuities - the good old days), and flew them straight to March Field. These were still some of the '47 model F-86A-ls with the round windscreen and Mk. 18 gunsight.
I picked up three more aircraft, two on 3 March and a third on 14 March. It was on the 14 March delivery flight that disaster struck. My roommate at the time, Robert 'Knobby DeLoach, went with me on that trip. I took off first and he followed right behind me. Shortly after becoming airborne, Knobby's Sabre suffered a broken auxiliary drive shaft and he lost all hydraulic power and control of the airplane. Sadly, Knobby did not survive the crash. It was the first F-86 to crash when flown by an Air Force pilot. There would be more from compressor failures, mid-airs, and crash landings when the pilot got behind on the power curve. The F-86 was very forgiving except on landing.
One of the new innovations on the F-86 was the ejector seat. It was a subject often discussed by the Sabre pilots in those early days. Would it actually work? It hadn't as yet been tested in an F-86. While I was with the 1st FG, we had two ejections - another 'first' for the group. One resulted from a mid-air between a pair of F-86s that were making practice firing runs on a B-36. The collision killed one of the Sabre pilots, and fired the seat of the other pilot straight through the still-closed canopy. He had pieces of plexi-glass embedded in his shoulder, and was very happy that he had been wearing one of the new bone dome helmets.
The other ejection occurred during a crash landing in a rocky river bed. The airplane broke up on impact, folding the wing. Again, the ejection seat actuated on impact and fired the pilot out of the aircraft horizontally! Luckily, the pilot had already fired the canopy off prior to the crash. He broke some bones but lived to file the accident report.
In February 1950, 1 was selected along with several other reserve officers, for removal from flying status by Defense Secretary Johnson's 'cost reduction' program. Suspended from flying on 29 April 1950, I went to school at Lowry Field on 14 June. Ten days later the Korean War broke out. I thought they might need experienced F-86 combat pilots and went to Operations with my Form 5. They informed me that I couldn't return to flying status while I was in school, but could once I finished school and was assigned to a command. I was assigned to Western Air Defense Force, the primary air defense force in Southern California, flying F-86s. But alas, they calmly told me that my new job didn't require flying and I was turned down on my request to return to flying status. It was the end of my flying career.
I am proud to have flown with the First Fighter Group from April 1947 until March 1950, and I was Operations Officer for the 94th Squadron when I left. It was the 'best of times'.
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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