by George Marrett

After graduation from Basic Flying School at Webb AFB, TX in April 1959, my wife and I packed up again, our third move in my twelve month Air Force career. My next assignment was a six month Advanced Flying School at Moody AFB, near Valdosta, GA, flying the F86L advanced version of the F-86D Sabre Dog, assigned to the 3553rd Flying Training Squadron.

Our 1958, robin's egg blue MGA roadster made the trip from Texas to Valdosta, GA, which was located about 80 miles east of my Primary Flying School assignment at Bainbridge, where I'd flown the T-34 and T-37 only six months earlier. The Moody flight training area encompassed the Okefenokee Swamp, a huge wildlife refuge that consisted mostly of moonshiners and alligators.

The F-86D/L was a single seat, all-weather interceptor. Over 2500 were produced by North American during the 1950s. With the Hughes E-4 fire-control radar, 12 inch extended wingtips, 24 2.75" rockets, and an afterburner, the F-86L was an interceptor stationed at bases along both coasts and the northern border with Canada. Under control of Air Defense Command, the F-86L mission was to intercept and destroy Russian bombers attempting to penetrate to the heartland of the US. Although unglamiorous compared to its day fighter brothers, the Sabre Dog held several world speed records while defending the Free World during the early stages of the Cold War.

Checkout in the F-86L consisted of a ground school, simulator and flying training. The simulator training focused on aircraft performance, emergency procedures, and airborne intercept tactics. Since there was no dual control F-86 for pilot training, passing the final simulator check was all that stood between me and my first solo. After much study and hours sweating out the multitude of emergency procedures, I finally passed my simulator 'check ride' and was scheduled for my first flight.

Four years earlier, my cousin had married a jet pilot Major Charles 'Chuck' Teater, a veteran of World War Two and Korea. At that time, he was a Dog pilot flying out of Sioux City, ]A. Chuck was the first jet pilot I had ever met, and he invited me to be an usher at his wedding. But in 1959, Chuck was an instructor at Moody, and would chase me on my first flight in the Sabre Dog.

Climbing into the F-86L was easy enough, once my knees stopped shaking from excitement. The view from the cockpit was excellent. You sat much higher above the ramp than in the T-33. Looking back at the wing, I became conscious of the drooping leading edge slats and the odd excitement of a wing sweeping back at 35°. The F-86L had a combined one piece movable stabilizer and elevator. The flight controls were light in both pitch and roll. As I made a full sweep of the cockpit, I was ready to taxi.

When the control tower cleared me onto the runway, I thought I could hear my own heart beating. In takeoff position, I set the brakes, ran the engine up to military power, and checked the flight controls one last time. Releasing the brakes, I lit the afterburner, remembering to make sure the variable nozzle opened. My instructor had warned me that if the nozzle didn't open, the back pressure in the engine would cause the RPMs to slow down. Then the electronic fuel control would sense the low RPMs and add more fuel, which caused even more back pressure, which dropped the RPMs even more and still more fuel would be added to the fire. After 14 seconds of this, the aircraft would explode in a ball of fire.

I finally found the nozzle gauge on the instrument panel - OPEN! But by the time I looked up again, I had exceeded the takeoff speed. Pulling back hard on the control stick, I made one of the fastest rotations and steepest takeoffs ever made at Moody. I retracted the gear as soon as I could find the handle, and started to climb. At about 180 knots, the slats retracted and Chuck joined up with me. We leveled off at 20,000 feet and I got my first chance to maneuver the Sabre as the designers had intended.

Unlike the T-33, with its slow roll rate caused by the weight of two wingtip fuel tanks, the F-86L rolled smartly with just a small amount of aileron movement. Using 250 knots as an aim speed, I slowly rolled into a 3G turn. Both slats started to creep open. Chuck warned me that if only one slat came out, the added lift on one side could cause the bird to roll inverted and possibly fall off into a spin. But it didn't. My Sabre flew like a dream. I felt like I'd been flying the Sabre forever.

Next I got to push the power up to full military, dive at 300 and accelerate to 400 knots. With a smooth application of 4Gs, I looped the Sabre, going over the top at 150 knots.. Next came several Immelmanns and a Cuban Eight. For the first time in my life, I was flying a jet fighter. It was a dream come true. I rolled into a high 'G' descending turn and pretended I was closing on a Russian MiG. "Pow-pow-pow", I spoke to myself in the oxygen mask, making sure I didn't transmit over the radio. Chuck might think I'd lost my sanity.

After feeling the Sabre out at altitude, it was time to enter the traffic pattern. Chuck followed me as I made multiple low approaches, before making the landing. Concentrating on holding the correct pattern speed, I rolled out on final and called Moody Tower for clearance to land. The tower cleared me to land on the one runway, then cleared Chuck to land on the other, parallel runway.

I heard the transmission, but thought the tower had cleared me to land on the parallel runway. I angled over to the other runway. Seeing my mistake, the tower cleared Chuck to land on the runway I had originally been assigned. Again, upon hearing the new radio call, I thought it was intended for me and reversed back to the first runway and landed. Meanwhile, Chuck was doing S-tums behind me planning to land on whichever runway I didn't use! After landing, Chuck remarked that we looked like an aerobatic team.

One entire training flight in the F-86L was devoted to supersonic flight. Using the 'burner, I climbed to 40,000 feet, leveled off, and accelerated to .9 Mach. Still in full power, I rolled the aircraft inverted and pulled the nose straight toward the ground, aiming at an imaginary moonshiner's still in the heart of the swamp. At about 30,000 feet, the L exceeded the speed of sound and created a sonic boom for all the 'gators to bear. For me, their was no physical sensation when I broke the sound barrier. All I could see was a jump in the Mach meter. In seconds it was over. The boom ended, most of the fuel was depleted, and I was back in the Moody landing pattem. For breaking the sound barrier, a pilot received a North American Aviation "Mach Buster" card and tie tack. It was another rung in the ladder to becoming a fighter pilot.

In October 1959, with 77 flight hours in the Sabre Dog and the end of my advanced flying school program fast approaching, I anxiously awaited my first permanent assignment. I had been promoted to 1st Lieutenant by then. The assignments were based entirely on class standing, not on recomendations from instructors. All 39 graduating pilots gathered in the base auditorium. There were 39 assignments listed - from fighters to bombers, with base location and aircraft type chalked on a blackboard. The top ranking pilot bad his choice of any squadron and airplane type listed. After he chose, the squadron that he selected was erased and the next highest ranking pilot would choose.

My position was 9th, plenty high enough to assure that I would get a fighter assignment. But now I had raised my personal expectations - I wanted to fly the Century Series fighter aircraft, and somewhere other than the hot and humid South. The Century Series fighters were the newest aircraft in the Air Force, and all flew faster than the speed of sound in level flight, not in a dive as required by the F-86.

Luck came my way. This time the blue MGA roadster would cross the entire United States, ending in California. My new squadron was to be the 84th FIS at Hamilton AFB, CA. And I was flying the Mach 1.73 McDonnell F-101B Voodoo. I was anxious to leave Georgia for California. But I was very thankful that I had had a chance to fly the Sabre for at least a few hours. And of course, with all my supersonic experience, my assignment in Vietnam was in the low and slow Douglas A-1 Skyraider, nicknamed the "Spad" for obvious reasons

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.

Return to Classics Page