POPEYE INTERCEPT

by David C. Montgomery

RAF Manston lies near the Straits of Dover in southeast England. It had oflly partially recovered from the ravages of World War Two when I arrived in May 1955. There were still makeshift bomb shelters, i.e. trenches with tin roofs, and many large circles of lush green grass where Luftwaffe bombs had cratered the runway. The familiar RAF control tower overlooked a bizarre hilltop runway, which was an extraordinary 750 feet wide and 9000 feet long. The runway had a 'crown' that was high enough that planes on opposite sides of the runway were largely hidden from each other.

The runway was swept with a persistent cross-wind as its wartime builders had oriented it, not into the prevailing wind direction, but aligned it with the path of crippled bombers limping back to emergency landings from raids to Festung Europa. On the approach end of Runway 29 was the famous, old, experimental installation known as FIDO - 'Fog, Intensive Dispersal Of'. Inside were big fuel storage tanks to supply fog dispersing burners mounted on large, rusty pipes. Towards the west side of the base and concealed from aerial view was an old, unused underground hangar with a ramp leading to the surface.

Down the hill to the south was the GCI site at Sandwich, Kent. And on the parking ramp of 'my' squadron, the 514th FIS, gleamed the love of my life - nearly new silvery F-86Ds. These were the modified models of Project PULLOUT, that had all the improvements addressing the issues that fueled the black jokes about the "gear-up, flaps-up, blow-up Dog".

At the time of this tale, 1957, both Dog squadrons were operating as 'combat ready', and were undergoing a series of exercises that demonostrated the combat capabilities of Manston's 406th FIS. My Story is about "an unusual plight during a non-routine flight in the all-weather intercept racket."

It was my turn to sit runway alert. Suddenly the balloon went up and the order came to launch. Within a couple of minutes I was airborne, checked into Sandwich GCI and was being directed to the northeast over the North Sea at Angels 40. I was the sole interceptor launched against a target reported to be at 50,000 feet and westbound. There was no doubt in my mind that an intercept would not happen at such an altitude, but I pressed on.

Weather! Manston reputedly had the most favorable weather in the UK. And we had been briefed long before that despite such an advantage! the statistics on English weather suggested it to be more challenging to aviators than the worst anywhere in the US. So it was on this day as I climbed above 30,000 feet before clearing the overcast.

GIC vectored me for a beam attack with the target 100 miles distant as I continued the climb. But the controller's planned angle-off attack didn't lead the target's projected path sufficiently and the 'intercept' deteriorated into a tail chase. Now level at 40,000, 1 had closed on the target and 'locked on' from about 2 miles astern. The radar display in the lesser sensitivity of Phase 1, showed a measly 50 knot overtake rate! England's eastern shores lay unseen below and ahead and, as I had to go that way anyway, the pursuit continued.

My bird was making max speed, .94 Mach, and burning fuel at a gluttonous rate guaranteeing a flight of less than an hour. Far above me, and Out of reach, the target was barely visible. As I watched, it slowly began losing altitude. After a conspicuous delay, the steering 'dot' drifted towards the bottom of the scope. Remember, this is 1957 and the computing power of the Hughes radar was probably less than some of today's household appliances. Soon the target disappeared into the undercast. I continued the pursuit. No further instructions were made by the GCI controller and the ARC-27 radio was silent. The attack was now solely in my hands. I started down, balls-to-the-wall, and was soon on instruments.

Slowly the range decreased and he started to drift to starboard. After the 'jizzle band' (radar strobe) reached 300 starboard, I started a turn-in-trail, intending to again put the target at 12 o'clock. This was to be an ID run, and I sure as hell didn't want to come up booming on his wing while popeye in a turn with a big-time, unmanageable overtake.

The maneuver went as intended, but surprisingly, the overtake rate jumped to 1200 knots! Apparently the target was executing a jet penetration and had reversed course. The attack now involved converting a head-on pass into an ID run. It was a maneuver often practiced in the simulator and I felt confident of the conclusion. On instruments, my attack continued.

20 Seconds to go! The attack display upgraded to the increased sensitivity of Phase 2, with the target still at 12 o'clock and closing at 1200 knots. By now I was flying with the stick gently held between thumb and forefinger, holding the steering dot at just a smidgen of fly-down. I knew the fire control computer aimed for a splashtime intercept point about 40 feet higher than the target And I wanted to see the target pass headon under me in the clouds. (CLOSE!) A quick blur as the target zipped past just beneath me.

A 5G reversal put him again ahead of me, and a quick rearward pull on the radar hand control resumed the antenna's automatic, rapid back and forth sweep. Spotlighting the target by holding the 'trigger' on the hand control, I slewed the jizzle band over the fading target image. Slowly rocking the hand control made it bloom. Thumbing the control's range-gate switch caused a marker to rise up the jizzle band until merging into the radar blip.

The blended images twitched slightly as the radar lock-on was resumed and the attack display returned, which included two concentric circles. A segment missing from the rotatable outer circle was read against the overtakerate markings on the scope face. Antenna angle-off was displayed as a multiple line vertical strobe, while the embedded blip of the target's return slid slowly down the jizzle band and revealed the decreasing range.Within the inner circle, a steering dot meandered around.

The F-86D was designed to intercept propeller-driven bombers at medium altitudes, and fast targets were a problem easily demonstrated with a vector diagram. But this target had descended to altitudes where I could maneuver to advantage. Plus the overtake rate was now a couple of hundred knots. I'd soon be on him and I reduced power to idle with speed brakes out to bleed off the excessive overtake rate. This time he was held on the scope at 600 to starboard, and stabilized at a range of 3 miles. The overtake rate decreased to 0. Positive vertical clearance was maintained by holding the steering dot to a little bit of fly-up. A bit of throttle and a small amount of overtake developed.Range decreased steadily.

My Dog closed on the cloud-shrouded target from a position just below and at his 8 o'clock. As the distance closed to almost zip, a huge Vickers Valiant four-engine jet bomber materialized out of the mist. I closed in tight to a position within the span of the bomber's left wing and just below the tail. Finally, at an altitude of about 15,000 feet and descending with the target, I read off the bomber's tail number to the GCI controller!

"Roger" was the answer, then a command to climb back to ANGELS 40 for another target 100 miles east. I had to decline as my fuel was too little for a second intercept. It was time for me to go to home plate as I was far below BINGO fuel. The controller gave me a vector north to RAF Scuithorpe, located near 'Thewash' in northern East Anglia, not all that far from Robin Hood's Sherwood ForesL My arrival in the traffic there caused something of a stir as my interceptor was armed with 'live' rockets and the Transient Alert crew was unfamiliar with that. After a couple of hours, I was refueled and returned to Manston.

The whole mission had been a technical challenge involving the most demanding instrument flying. I left the Air Force after my tour at Manston and flew various other airplanes. But I never had an ILS to compare with that long ago popeye intercept. I'll bet if that Valiant's pilot had seen what was being done at his risk, he'd still be PO'd!


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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