SABRERS RETURN TO EUROPE
by Richard A. Lucas
Its July 1961 when an Air Force advisor to the Massachusetts ANG pops the question during our two week training stint at Otis AFB - "How many of you think you'll still be civilians at Christmas?" We all raised our hands, not knowing that plans were underway for Operation STAIRSTEP just as the Berlin Wall was being built.
Dodging traffic on the Massachusetts turnpike going home, I was startled to hear a news bulletin that President Kennedy' had activated and federalized certain ANG fighter groups. POW! My unit, the 131st TFS, 104th TFG at Barnes MAP was named!
We had gratefully shed our fuel gulping, noise making F-94C Starfires for sleek, low time F-86Hs in late 1957. My checkout in the 'H' came on 4 January' 1958. It was love at first flight! By the time of our callup, I had racked up more than 600 hours in that sweet flying machine.
Preparations were swift for our deployment. Rumor was it would be a re-opened 'RED BALL' base in eastern France -Phalsbourg. We immediately began running the C-11 trainer around the clock filling squares for practice approaches at Loring, Goose Bay, Prestwick and Phalsbourg. TACANs were quickly fitted to the Sabres, replacing the ADF. We would he landing at Sondestrom AB, Greenland, where the approach meant flying up a fjord, counting Eskimo villages, and after the third village, the runway' should be in sight!
TAC headquarters at Langley was uneasy with the decision to send Guard pilots to Europe on such short notice. In those days, airline pilots were not encouraged to fly with the Guard. The reasoning was that airline pilots often worked weekends when the unit held drills. Many of the Monday through Friday guys flew every Saturday.
Sensing a possible disaster, 9th AF sent its Stan/Eval team headed up by none other than General Walter Sweeny. Were we impressed to be sitting in our briefing room with a 4 star quizzing us on emergency procedures! I think it quickly dawned on the general that we weren't a bunch of fuzzy- cheeked weekend JOPs. Our Group CO had flown P-36s before Pearl Harbor. The Squadron CO had busted trains across Europe. The 'A' Flight leader had flown on Chuck Yeager's wing. We had B-29, F6F, and F4U pilots. Three of us had been B-24 aircraft commanders. The planes from Syracuse and Boston likewise were manned by old heads who stayed with the program because we loved to fly - especially the F-86H!
Launch Day, 28 October 1961. We donned our poopy suits and GCId up to Loring for an RON. Didn't leave a single bottle of champagne or sparkling wing in the O-Club. Our Wing CO, Brig. Gen. Charles Sweeny, of Nagasaki fame, wrote a personal check for a couple of glasses we pilots may have accidently broken.
Off to Goose Bay', where the mess hall struggled mightily to feed 75+ hungry' pilots. Then a bigger problem arose - SNOW! however, the weather experts decided the upper winds were favorable to make the leg to Sondestrom. But to save fuel, the airplanes were tugged to the runway, engines started on signal and run to full power, a head nod and we rolled down the runway' into the white void.
Topping out at 20,000 with Nos. 3 and 4 in position, we settled back for the flight to Sondestrom. There were Duck Butts below, but we knew there wasn't much chance of surviving in the frigid water. But those wonderful GE J73s that we completely trusted, plus the Guard's well known maintenance skills gave us a smooth flight. We often bragged that our senior non-com 'Zebras' had grease under their fingernails, while their Air Force counterparts sat behind desks to supervise.
We normally planned an 'H' cross-country flight at FL 40 to FL 44. This was the altitude where the bird performed at its best. We often looked down from our perches at the early Century series aircraft, most of which had to go into 'burner to get up to where we flew with ease. Those 9,000 lb. J73s were great!
A night spent at Sondestrom in a cold Danish Army barracks, with an early morning breakfast of powered eggs. Yummmm... After we picked the shards of glass out of our flight boots, we headed across the ice cap to Keflavik. We'd been briefed about the free access to the base by Icelanders, and had been warned that their tiny but vocal Communist Party might demonstrate. On shutdown, the flight was greeted by a character with a sign that read Kennedy's Killers Go Home. I was tempted to restart and run up the engine to see how good his grip was on that sign. But discipline held.
We were restricted to the base that night, leaving early the next morning for Prestwick. Someone had thoughtfully placed a TACAN ship between Iceland and Scotland, making us all happy. A quick turn-around at Prestwick, and it was on to our new home at Phalsbourg. We had flown the North Atlantic and put over 75 F-86Hs in place without so much as a blown tire. I recall that the F-84F pilots did about as well. But they had air refueling and visited the Azores en route. We'd put some 235 fighter aircraft into European bases within 30 days of activation - no accidents, no incidents. Pretty good for a bunch of 'part time' fighter pilots.
Then came the culture shock at our re-opened but not yet ready base. My BOQ was fitted with an iron cot and a light bulb dangling on a wire. We were billeted across the base near the hardstands, and routinely rode the Strasbourg buses. After a theater orientation lecture, I made my first flight.
Except for busting out of low ceilings after GCA approaches at Chaumont and Etain, I never saw the ground again. We couldn't get on top of it. But my wingman held on for the entire flight through the European winter murk. Our squadron weather minimum had always been on the conservative side. Now it dropped to 301' on a 7800' downhill (often slushy) NATO runway. We all became sharp on the gauges real fast!
The Sabre had returned to Europe. And as the months rolled by, boy did we love it!
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