Memories Of Great Fighter Pilots


by Earl Brown

As with most great men and women of history, stories abound which shed light on the source of their greatness. With this in mind, SabreJet Classics presents the second in a series of anecdotes received from you, our members. Lt. Gen. William E. Brown, USAF (Ret), of Alexandria, Virginia, sent us the following story. We invite other members to send their memories of the great ones they have known.
I was a 24 year old 2nd Lt when I met Capt. Blesse. We were in the 334th FIS, 4th FIW, at K-14 (Kimpo), ROK, and flying F-86 Sabres into North Korea looking for MiGs.

Boots was clearly the best pilot in our squadron and probably the best in the wing. Not only could he fly and fight in the Sabre, he could tell others how to do it.

He was also the natural leader of the squadron. I had the impression that if we were all on a Desert Island with no visible signs of military rank, Boots would still be the leader. He used to say that "Rank is your ace in the hole. Don't use it until it is necessary."

He led by example. He was a ferocious competitor. In every game he played, he refused to lose. An exceptional fighter pilot needs the same skills as a superb athlete.

First, start with DESIRE TO BE IN THE GAME. Many people trail to be fighter pilots, but not all will fly to the sound of the guns. Boots was always listening for the sound of the guns and would go uncommanded to that sound. Like Michael Jordan, when the game was on the line, he wanted the ball.

Second, hand-eye coordination and physical strength and stamina are absolute requirements. I try to tell my civilian friends that there can never be old men flying actively as fighter pilots. The physical demands are too great. Strap on the oxygen mask for an hour and a half, maneuver to pull Gs that magnify your body weight by 4, 5 or 6 times, maintain awareness of the situation around you in 3 dimensions, anticipate your enemy's moves, plan your own moves, fly the airplane within its prescribed limits of airspeed, altitude, engine temperatures, and do these things continuously during the flight. Boots did all of these things exceedingly well.

Third, calculate and think about the tactics of the engagement between two fighter planes. Scheme about ways to maximize your airplane's advantages and zero in on the opponent's weaknesses. Boots had thought about the problem of air-to-air combat for many years. He had trained and practiced and honed and polished tactics for years.

I have been told that he has been an excellent golfer for many years. The skills he learned in observing the effects of tiny changes in the angle of the club head and velocity of the swing translated almost directly into the sensitive handling of the Sabre at the limits of its flying envelope, when the aircraft is very close to stall at high altitude or when you are turning as hard as you can at maximum speed at low altitude. Most fighter pilots could fly the Sabre well in the heart of the envelope defined by maximum and minimum speeds and maximum altitudes. Only a few could get top performance from the plane while flying near or at the limits of the airplane's normal envelope.

Boots delighted in taking young pilots up and showing them how to fly at the edges of the airplane's capability. There was a mission when he shot down a YAK-9, a Soviet fighter that looked like a cross between a P-47 and a FW-190.

Col. Royal Baker, the group commander, had engaged two YAKs and was attacking them. As he closed into firing range, the YAKs would pull into a tight turn and evade his bullets. Boots heard the melee on the radio and we flew to the fight location. Boots set up an orbit high above the fracas and watched Col. Baker make two or three passes. Each time the YAKs would simply out-turn him as he reached firing range. Finally, Boots asked if he could make a pass and the frustrated Col. Baker approved. Boots started down on the classic high-side approach, just as though he were on a towed target. As he slid into range, the YAK almost casually, racked up into a hard turn, surely thinking "Another dumb American!" Was he surprised when instead of over-shooting and zooming up for a re-attack as Col. Baker had done, Boots popped the speed brakes on the Sabre and slowed to just a mite faster than the YAK! He continued to close and could now match the turning capability of the propeller plane and just hosed bullets into the fuselage. The YAK went down.

This maneuver is one that Boots had used in training against P-51s and he knew from experience that it could work, especially if the prop plane pilot was not expecting it. The danger was that, once he had the speed brakes out and slowed down, he only had one pass to make the kill. His Sabre could not accelerate as fast as the prop plane and if he missed, he would be a sitting duck for the enemy pilot. But he knew that he would not miss. He had done this before in training and had the film to prove it.

In 1970, I think it was, Boots was commander of George AFB and a one star general. The mission of the base was F-4 replacement training. The general came down to the squadrons and flew to the gunnery range as a member of the training flights. It was a custom for each flight member to put up a quarter for each event and the high scorer in that event won the quarters. Usually if a higher ranking officer flew and won the quarters he would turn them back to the young officers. Boots always won and ...he always kept the quarters!

I'll always remember Boots Blesse as a competitor, a winner, and a leader. He had the guts, and he deserves the glory!

Editor: Retired Major General "Boots" Blesse is a member of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association, and lives in Melbourne, Florida. A Korean War ace, he was credited with ten kills. His famous book, "No Guts, No Glory", is legendary among fighter pilots.

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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