Fox Able 9

by Stewart S. Stabley

In January 1951, the 81st Fighter Interceptor Wing was alerted for a 90 day TDY with the Third Air Division in England. The deployment included the three combat-ready Squadrons of the 81st FlW - the 91sdt, 92d, and 93rd Squadrons, plus support organizations. The original plan was for the wing to deploy from Larson AFB, WA, to England in August 1951.

However, there would be a couple of changes before the actual deployment took place. First, in July 1951, the movement was changed from TDY to PCS - Permanent Change of Station. Second, the 93rd FIS would move to Kirtland AFB, NM, to defend the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory. Their place in the deployment to England would be taken by the 116th FIS, a Washington Air Guard squadron that had been federalized in February. But first, the 116th had to convert from F-51Ds to F-86As.

At 0450 hours, 13 August 1951, 25 F-86As from the newly transitioned 116th FIS, departed their home base, Geiger Field, WA. Col. Robert Garrigan, 81st Group Commander, led the formation, with Lt. Col. Frank Frost, the 116th Squadron Commander as second in command. The take-off was in two-ship elements, joining into flights of four for the first leg to Hill AFB, UT.

The weather was clear all the my, and the flights cruided cruised at 35,000' and .85 Mach. About 90 miles out from Hill, the Sabres began a throttle-back letdown. Col. Garrigan entered the pattern with about 257 gallons of fuel remaining after the one hour and forty minute flight from Geiger So far so good. Upon arrival, one pilot experienced hydraulic problems and his Sabre was towed off the runway. That aircraft remained at Hill and another was flown in from Larson to take its place.

At 0820, the remaining 23 Sabres departed Hill under CAVU weather conditions. One flight leader remained with the pilot whose Sabre was coming from Larson. One how and twenty minutes later, the 23 Sabres landed at Kirtland. At 1240 that Same day, they departed Kirtland for Tinker AFB, OK. The short (450 mile) hop to Tinker was made on top of a broken cloud deck in one how and twenty minutes.

The Sabres let down through a 5000'ceiling, which allowed everyone to log an instrument approach. The two pilots who had remained at Hill waiting for the replacement aircraft, rejoined the squadron at Tinker before the end of Happy Hour. The troops checked into on-base quarters, quaffed a few, had a good meal, and hit the rack. The first day of Fox Able 9 was history. At 0845 the next morning, the squadron, again at full strength, left Tinker for Wright-Patterson AFB, OH. Two hours later, despite a solid undercast all the way from Tinker, the squadron penetrated a 3000' ceiling and landed without incident. At 1300, the squadron was again airborne, minus one airplane that had a 'no-start'.

Next stop was to be Griffis AFB, NY. But within five minutes after take-off, two more J47s started acting up and both pilots returned to Patterson Field for repairs. One hour and forty-five minutes later, the remaining 22 Sabres began the let-down to Griffis. The weather had been heavy the entire flight, with clouds building to over 40,000'. The local conditions were deteriorating rapidly, and the last pilot touched down with a 500' ceiling and three miles visibility.

The 116th stayed at Griffis for an extra twenty-four hours because of weather along the leg to the next stop - Dow AFB, ME. But at 0820 on 16 Angust, the ceiling at Griffis lifted and the squadron was able to depart. At Dow, the ceiling had dropped to 900', but everyone was one the ground after one hour and fifteen minutes.

The weather looked good at around 1515, so the squadron left Dow and headed towards Goose Bay, Labrador. Weather was again a problem, with clouds up to 35,000'. But after passing the St. Lawrence River, the cloud deck went to scattered and landings were made at Goose Bay at 1650. Once again it was time for a little R&R.

The "little extra R&R" turned into six full days (and nights), as weather and communications problems at Goose Bay and Bluie West 1, Greenland, held up departure until 22 August. All the troops were plenty relaxed by that time. However, the delay allowed the Sabres that had remained at Wright Pat, to rejoin the squadron at Goose Bay.

Finally, at 1215 on 22 August, all 25 F-86As departed Goose Bay, on a course of 080º for Greenland. It was a nice sunny day, and the squadron made the flight to Bluie West 1 in an hour and thirty-six minutes. 'Duck Butt' #1 and #2 both came in loud and clear on the radio, as did the weather ship Yohe Baker. But the next leg on that same day would be somewhat different.

At 1810 (local time), the flights took off at five minute intervals, climbing on course for Keflavik, Iceland. Clouds built up to 38,000'. A three hour time zone change, which had not been anticipated, put everyone on night instruments for the last half of the flight. l/Lt. D.P. Sartz slid his F-86A in real tight on his leader, using only the wingtip and canopy lights as reference.

About 100 miles out, the squadron started its descent to Keflavik. After a 'tear-drop' letdown, they broke out at 600 feet in rain and darkness. The ceiling over Keflavik was down to 400'. But everyone made it after a flight of slightly over two hours. 1/Lt Kit Carson noted the local time - 2330 hours. He was thankful for the weather layover and some much-needed rest.

However, Col. Garrigan's sleep was interupted almost before it began. Slightly after 0100, a member of the airbase security guard awakened the somewhat fatigued colonel (and that's the worst kind!) informing him that a large group of communist agitators was at the main gate and were attempting to sabotage the F-86s. The security officer wanted Col. Garrigan to have his troops report to their aircraft and protect them.

Col. Garrigan, now completely lucid, politely informed the security officer, with an excellent choice of words, that base security was HIS job, and in no way was he going to disturb his nesting airmen. The following morning, the aircraft were under guard by Base Security and the incident passed.

Col. Garrigan, a nice enough fellow most of the time, seemed to have a penchant for finding trouble in Keflavik. While in a rest room at the airport, a German civilian waiting for a commercial flight, sneered at Garrigan, making some remark about the poor showing of the US Air Force during WW2. Garrigan grabbed the guy by his lapels, gave him a few shakes, and suggested that he (the German) let the past rest in peace. The German, wisely, left quietly.

On the 26th, the squadron departed Keflavik bound for Stornoway, Scotland. At least they started out that way. A total communications blackout forced a return to Keflavik. The next morning, all the 'Duck Butts' were in the air as the squadron again left Keflavik. The weather was clear and the squadron climbed to 35,000'. One hour and fifty minutes later, at 1025, the squadron touched down at Stornoway.

Remaining at Stornoway only long enough to refuel, the Sabres were airborne for the final leg of the Fox Able 9 journey. Next stop: Shepards Grove RAF Station, Suffolk, England. Two hours later, after a radio steer and a few flares from the Shepards Grove control tower (a WW2 technique), the 116th FIS located the base under an 8,000' ceiling. The time was 1520 hours, and Col. Garrigan had the distinction of being the FIRST F-86 Sabre pilot to land in England. There was no red carpet, only an RAF Vice Air Marshal and the 3rd Air Division Commander. The 116th had arrived at its new home.

The 91st and 92d Squadrons

On 11 September, 1951, Colonel Gladwyn Pinkston, 81st Wing Commander, led 50 F-86As from the 91st and 92d FIS out of Larson AFB, WA. They followed the same route as the 116th FIS had flown a month earlier. But the final destination was slightly different. Where the 116th had set up shop at Shepards Grove, the 91st was bound for RAF Bentwaters, while the 92d would join the 116th at Shepards Grove.

As it had been when the 116th had stopped there, a large group of communist agitators was waiting for the Sabres to land at Keflavik. However, Base Security was now well prepared and kept a good watch on the parked F-86s. However, security in town was not quite as tight.

There was only one gathering place in town, a night club of sorts. The free spending Americans seemed to be a constant source of irritation to the communists. Captain John Fink, a pilot in the 92d, was approached as he entered the club. He was confronted by a pink-faced, short, but stocky agitator, who walked up to the captain and said, "You US, me SU!" And then slapped Fink across the face.

In less than a second, the communist's comrades were picking him up off the floor with a bloody nose, and hurriedly escorted him out of the club. Captain John P. Fink was awarded the "Iceland Combat Medal", and was not allowed to buy a drink during the rest of the time that he was in Iceland.

On 2 October, "passing showers" stopped just long enough for Col. Garrigan to take the 91st Squadron to Stornoway, then on to Beirwaters. The 92d stopped at Stornoway, which resulted in more unexpected community relations with the locals.

The village leaders, upon learning that the Americans were going to stay until the weather cleared, re-scheduled their monthly Highland Fling for that night. All the village maidens, about fifty total, were bussed to the Community Hall. Transportation was also provided for the men of the 92d Squadron.

The Highland Fling lasted from 7 to 11 pm, with four bagpipers standing off to the side of the dance area, piping up a storm. The maidens danced like they never danced before. Between sets, they sat and waited for the handsome Americans to ask them to 'fling'. Most of our men were sporting brand new ankle-high, wool-lined boots which had been bought in the village that afternoon, much to the delight of the local merchants. The maidens put on a magnificent display of athletic skill, easily out-performing and out-lasting even the fittest of the Americans. 2d/Lt. Jim Adams was the last to go down.

The local males didn't dance - they drank! The few who were there, were huddled around a small wooden bar at the end of the hall, guzzling Scotch, and getting very drunk. About once every 30 minutes or so, they would become very boisterous and shout at each other, nose to nose. The bar tender would then close the bar, pick up all his bottles, and walk out through a doorway behind the bar. Fifteen minutes later he was back and all was calm - for another 30 minutes.

All the while, the bagpipes were screeching and the maidens and Americans danced wildly. The maidens said hardly a word. They just kept dancing and dancing and dancing. Finally about 2230, after a particularily raucous argument among the Scottish men, the bartender packed up his bottles and left. This time he didn't return. And promptly at 2300, all the maidens, as if on cue, lined up and marched out of the hall to the waiting buses. The Americans also returned, without delay, to their quarters. The next morning, 3 October, as anticipated, the weather at Stornoway was good enough for flying. Col. Pinkston flew into Stornoway to lead the 92d Squadron into Shepards; Grove. The British air bases had no published 'let-downs', and were difficult to identify, because all the old WW2 RAF bases looked very similar. Additionally, the ceiling was hanging at 800', with a 2 mile visibility. But Col. Pinkston got all the 92d pilots on the ground at the Grove following the two hour flight from Stornoway.

All except one - your author, I/Lt Stewart Stabley I had started out with the 91st Squadron, but was forced to join with the 92d at Keflavik when my engine wouldn't start for the leg to Stornoway. I made the penetration into Shepards Grove with the 92d, then took up a heading for Bentwaters at 500' to rejoin the 91st. A radio steer and a flare had me on the ground at Bentwaters in a scant few minutes. S/Sgt V.D. Gunder, crew chief on my P-86 (#48-300) gave me a big grin and a hand shake as the turbine was winding down. He informed me that I had the distinction of being the LAST Sabre pilot of Fox Able 9 to land.

I immediately thought of my wife, Nancy, who was about to give birth to our second child. That evening, I sent her the following telegram: "WUA 10417 PD INTL FR=CD WOODBRIDGE VIA RCAOCF 3 1951 1850 = MRS STEWART STABLEY JUNIOR = 66 EAST HIGH ST RED LION (PENN) = ARRIVED TODAY STOP CABLE ME ON B DAY STOP MY LOVE = STEW". Our daughter Sue Ann was born ten days later on the 13th of October 1951. FOX ABLE 9 had been a complete success and the first US Air Force F-86 wing was in place defending Europe against the vaunted Soviet MiGs.

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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