The 720th Fighter Bomber Squadron

by Bill Caffery

The 720th Fighter-Bomber Squadron was activated at Ladd AFB, Alaska, on 25 December 1953, with the call sign SHARKBAIT. Our first Squadron CO was Lt.Col. Harold Graham. The mission of the 720th was threefold: Maintain air superiority over the Alaskan Territory (It wasn't a state yet.), provide close air support to Army units in that theater, and gather operational/ maintenance cold weather test data. Upon activation, the 720th received twenty-eight brand new F-86Fs twenty new F-30s from North American/Inglewood, and eight Columbus-built F-25s.

Most of the thirty-six squadron pilots were in place by April 1954, with many of them coming in fresh from Class 53F at the Nellis AFB Fighter School. Unit personnel occupied an old WW2 hangar, and personal equipment was very limited. We had to share everything with a TDY SAC unit. Following a short orientation schedule, the 720th began flight operations in February 1954. On 17 May 1954, the squadron moved to Eielson AFB on the Tanana River, about twenty-six miles from Fairbanks. At Eielson, we again shared the base with a TDY SAC outfit. Operations worked out of four portable 'shacks' that were adjacent to a very large hanger. Again, we had to share the hanger with first B-36, then later, B-47 maintenance crews.

We had five flights within the 720th - A, B, C, D, and E. I was in Flight D. Our aircrews rotated alert duty between Ladd, Eielson, Galena AB (about 250 miles west of Fairbanks on the Yukon River), Nome Field (on the Seward Peninsula adjacent to Norton Sound), and Kotzebue Field (just north of Seward Peninsula across the Kotzebue Sound). All the aircrews had to complete the three day Alaska Air Command Arctic Indoctrination School, at Fairbanks.

During 1954 and 1955, the squadron participated in various missions. Air to air gunnery missions were flown west of Eielson, while air to ground missions were flown at the Blair Lake Range, which was about 20 miles west of Eielson. Many close air support practice missions were flown in conjunction with Army units stationed at Fort Richardson. We also flew support missions from King Salmon Field near Bristol Bay with US Navy units.

Weather was a major problem as you can imagine. And the problems lasted for about eight months in any given year. Aircraft had to be moved into the main hanger, or heaters were used on the flightline to keep fingers from freezing when touching the ice cold metal skin. There was also a problem with a lack of field maintenance support, including experienced F-86 mechanics and specialists. An in-house training program was conducted by the two North American Tech Reps assigned to the squadron.

But that was just the beginning. A lack of field maintenance support presented a problem with spares and test equipment. Spare engines, repairable assemblies, and many items of test equipment were not authorized for use in the tactical squadron maintenance operation. For example, there was a lack of tailpipe temperature calibration equipment. This resulted in heat damage in the combustion chamber after about 3-400 hours of operation. A special inspection of all the J47s revealed an extensive problem, and additional engine parts had to be requisitioned. Some time later, the proper calibration equipment arrived, and all tail pipe temperatures were quickly re-calibrated, cockpit guages were replaced, and the consumption of parts returned to normal.

A true cold weather problem was that of ice crystals forming in the JP4 jet fuel. Pilots began reporting rough engine operations and fuel flow fluctuation. But the condition couldn't be duplicated on ground run-ups. One day, one of the Sabres landed, the engine was pulled immediately due to a pilot 'write-up' for the above conditions. When the fuel filter was removed, it was clogged with ice crystals. Fuel additives and water separators alleviated the problem. Most of the problems could be traced to the fuel being delivered in 55 gallon drums, which could develop a moisture problem.

One of the most notable accomplishments of the 720th FBS was its safety record - we NEVER lost an F-86. After the squadron became operational (February 1954), it maintained a high OR rate, logging over 1000 flying hours per month in June, July, and August 1955.

Another source of pride to all former members of the 720th was the aerobatic team. They were known as the Arctic Gladiators (UGH!), with Lt.Col. Graham as Leader; Capt. R.E. Ross on Left Wing, Capt. L.J. Lynch on Right Wing, and Capt. T.B. Stables in the Slot. Strangely, our Supply Officer - Capt. Bill Patillo - wasn't a member of the team, even though he had been with the Skyblazers and Thunderbirds teams. All performances were limited to the bases in Alaska. On 8 August 1955, the 720th FBS designation was changed to the 455th FBS, with Major Bob Bell as Squadron CO. In November 1955, the squadron launched, on schedule, for its next post - Bunker Hill AFB, Indiana, where it was assigned to the 323rd Fighter-Bomber Wing, transitioning into the F-100A Super Sabre in late 1956 in preparation for the coming of the new F-100D. The 720th Squadron was reactivated at Foster AFB, but was now designated a Fighter Day Squadron, and was equipped with F-100Cs

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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