The Worst Sabre Accident?

By Lon Walter

The 4 1/2 months between the start of the Korean War, on 25 June 1950, and the deployment the 4th Fighter Intercepter Wing to Korea were remarkable in several ways. When the war started the wing was based at Langley AFB, VA. Almost immediately in response to a perceived threat to the nations capitol, its three Fighter squadrons deployed - the 334th to New Castle County Airport, DE; the 336th to Dover AFB, DE; and the 334th to Andrews AFB, MD; near Washington, DC. At these locations each squadron maintained an air defense alert posture aid scrambled fully armed F-86A to investigate unidentified aircraft approaching the east coast of the, US. Normal training although secondary to the air defense mission, Continued. This training concentrated mainly on qualifying an influx of newly graduated pilots on the Sabreo and making them combat ready. All of this ended on 11 Novembier 1950, when the entire wing began a deployment to the Far East This story describes the most dramatic event of the June-November period.
For the 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, the morning of 18 October 1950 began as most others in the preceding three months. The two F-86A-5 Sabres on 5 minute alert were positioned near the end of the main runway at Andrews, while pilots and ground crew waited in a nearby shelter for scramble orders from the air defense control center. Two other Sabres were on an extended cross-country training flight to the west coast. The local flying program was filled with such missions as two ship instrument training, formation flying practice, simulated gunnery training using cameras, and round-robin cross country flights. The pilots of the 335th ranged from experienced combat veterans of World War II, to the newest graduates of the Air Force flying training program.

The flight scheduling board showed one of the earliest flights was to be led by Ist Lt. Joseph W. Russell, a recent arrival, but a relatively experienced F-86 pilot. He had been away from the squadron on temporary duty since before the move from Langley. His wingmen were 2nd Lts. Luther C. "Bloop" Barcus, and Cornelius P. "CP" Mills. They were scheduled to fly F-86As nos. 48-248, 48-266, and 48-268. Both Barcus and Mills were brand new pilots with no more than 40-50 hours each (all in the F-86) since graduation from flying school. The mission was formation training and camera gunnery, meaning that either the flight members would engage in simulated combat maneuvers, or would take turns making 'pursuit curve' camera-gunnery passes on each other.

It was a typical Fall day in the area around Washington, with patchy ground fog and haze, and a thin layer of clouds above, giving way to blue skies at about 10,000 feet altitude.

As the flight climbed out form Andrews, 'CP' Mills might have glanced over towards the nearby Virginia landscape. A 1949 graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now Virginia Tech), he had been born and raised in nearby Northern Virginia, and his parents still resided there. Most training flights lasted about 80 minutes, and the three Sabres climbed in a "V" formation to the training area over Chesapeake Bay. There they accomplished their assigned mission, then rejoined for the return to Andrews.

According to Barcus, the three aircraft were letting down over the Potomac River (they were actually about 8 miles south of Quantico) for a landing at Andrews, when they ran into a haze layer at about 1,000 feet. As they continued their letdown, Barcus was concentrating on flying a tight formation when he saw two 'explosions' where the other two Sabres had been. Simultaneously, he was stunned by what felt like his F-86 had hit a brick wall. (p) When he regained his senses, his Sabre was alone in the sky, and was severely damaged and barely flying. Barcus, still somewhat woozy, realized he needed to find Andrews quickly and get his damaged airplane on the ground. He radioed Andrews that he thought his two companions had crashed. He was unable to get the radio compass (the only radio navigational aid installed on the F-86A) to work, and his gyro compass was acting strangely. He flew in a direction he thought would take him to Andrews, but he was actually flying away from the base. When he ran out of fuel, he found a farmers field near Aden, VA, about 30 miles southwest of Washington, and landed wheels-up. The aircraft was reduced to rubble, but miraculously, Lt. Barris was found staggering around by two farmers. He had suffered a broken leg and multiple cuts, and was taken to the hospital at nearby Quarnico Marine Base. He recovered, but never rejoined the squadron.

Although no one can ever be certain about what caused the loss of the three aircraft, several theories can be postulated:

With the aircraft in a tight "V" formation (it is also conceivable, but less likely, that they were in echelon formation) the wingmen, both fairly inexperienced, would have been concentrating on the leaders airplane - and probably were not monitoring their own flight instruments. The leader, himself with little recent F-86 time, let down into the haze expecting to catch sight of the ground at any moment. Undoubtably, the flight was in a turn, with Barcers' aircraft on the high side. The turn would have had to be shallow, and the rate of descent quite low, as Joe Russell searched for the ground. The two 'explosions' witnessed by Barcus, were Russell and Mills hitting the Potomac River. Barcus' own aircraft 'ricocheted' off the water and was thrown back into the air.

Another theory is that the the flight leader misread his altimeter by 10,000 feet. The analog altimeter installed in the F-86A, could be misinterpreted by an inattentive or inexperienced pilot. Although it was common at night or in severe weather, several accidents (not all of which were in F-86s) in those days, were attributed to a pilot letting down through what he thought was 10,000 feet, but was in fact, 0 altitude! One aspect of this theory which lessens its credibility in this case, is that if the flight leader thought he was letting down through 10,000 feet, his rate of descent would have been so great that Barcus aircraft would almost certainly been destroyed by the impact with the water. It was a tragic day for the 335th, which was described by the Washington Post in its report of the accident, as a 'crack outfit'. The remains of Russell and Mills were recovered from the Potomac, and members of the squadron consoled the Mills family in nearby Virginia. We know of no other single accident that involved the loss of 3 or more F 86 aircraft.

The author would like to thank Larry Davis, Dick Merian, and John Henderson, who provided details essential to the telling of this story.

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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