THE 1956 SKYBLAZERS
by Warren Efting
So tell me. How does a second balloon get selected for one of the premier Air Force pilot slots in Europe? I only know the Final chapter of the process. The events that led to my selection died with our leader, Captain Jim Reynolds. He never told me. I don't know if he ever told any other team members how they were selected. They never said a word either.
It started when I was due for my 1955 proficiency check. I dreaded the thought of having to prove my flying abilities to someone I didn't know that well. The 48th Fighter Bomber Wing at Chaumont, France was pretty much a closed corporation. We knew the guys in the other two squadrons, but when we were TDY we became 'one' outfit, defending our lack of streets, ankle deep mud, frequent power and water outages, and the rotten weather.
Actually that last was a relative term. Chaumont was the 'best' reporting station in NATO, being VFR 49% of the time (Pittsburgh, PA, was the 'worst' reporting station in the ConUS with 51% VFR!). The ops clerk collecting 175s at Fursty used to look over the counter and remark - "You must be from Chaumont, I can tell by za mud on your boooots." (We flew in four-buckle overshoes most of the year). We were usually doing the nomal thing - looking for a shower (the water being off at Chaumont for several days, we were getting a bit 'ripe') and a decent hamburger and fries.
One Saturday in May, my phone rang and it was Capt. Reynolds, a member of the Skyblazers team and a member of the Stan/Eval Board, asking me if I was available for my proficiency test. The squadrons always bad a couple of birds tweaked and ready for flight in case of an alert. Jim was the brother of New York Yankees ace pitcher, Allie Reynolds. Although Jim was a pro-football left halfback and the Leader of the Skyblazers, Allie got all the ink. But I never saw Jim flinch when asked about his brother Allie.
I met him at the 493rd, his squadron, we briefed all the normal stuff, grabbed our gear and beaded for the flightline. I just got my wheels in the well when Jim said, "Take it in trail and stay there." Then it got real interesting. We were just through 1,000 feet when he rolled left, then right. Then he leveled off, built up the speed to 350 or so, and pulled up into a loop. I got to see the French countryside through the combining glass - up close and personal. This was before the days of all the restrictions we came to hate.
Then a Cuban Eight and he called me, "Take the right wing. At the top of the roll, go back in trail." Meaning flat on my back, I had to change positions from wing to trail. They didn't teach this stuff in pilot training! This, I learned later, was in preparation for the Echelon Roll, a maneuver the Blazers were famous for all over the Continent. Strictly a pilot pleaser, I doubt the viewing public knew what they were watching.
After about 30 minutes, I heard this call, "How's he doin' Gil?" And the response was, "He's hanging in there."Just someone else's R/T, I guessed. Far as I knew, we were the only birds airborne. It turned out that Gil was Bill Gilmore, one of Jim's Blazer-mates. He'd been shadowing us throughout the flight.
A normal approach and pitchout, and then we were shutting things down. Jim beat me out of the cockpit, came over, and asked if I'd like to join the Skyblazers in the Slot. He said the other positions were filled and that we'd be practicing over the field starting next Monday. I said "Yes!" and the team was formed.
Jim started with Bud Homan, the new #2, practicing the whole show with him until he was satisfied. Then he added Jim Foster, and the three of them practiced the show. Lastly, I came aboard. The show was a scilpted thirteen minutes. Doesn't seem like much but at the end of the season, my right forearm was twice the size of the left. It took a lot of pull to hold diamond formation in the 720° turn and stay inside the field perimeter. My flight suit was soaked after every show.
Our first show was in October 1955 at Evreux AB, France, where the resident troop carrier wing was having an Open House. Three fourths of the town showed up to watch. It was the first time I saw the white hankerchief salute by the onlookers. Someone had to explain the significance to me. Then the weather turned to low visibilty and ceilings in Central France, and there weren't a lot of opportunities to practice or put on shows.
This was when we practiced the horizontal show, which could be put on under a 2500 foot ceiling. We eliminayed the vertical stuff and stuck with rolls and low pass turns. At least we didn't disappoint the spectators who often stood in pouring rain to watch. Even their hankies got soaked.
We did practice over Chaumont whenever weather permitted. But what we really needed was a period of concentrated training before starting the '56 season. In March 1956, we flew down to Marseille and practiced for two solid weeks. An RF-80 pilot named Russ Tansy was down there with us and took most of our publicity pictures. When I asked him how he got some of them, especially the shot of us vertical, he said, "I use the second welded seam on the left drop tank." While we were down there, one of the crew chiefs came running up as we approached the planes yelling that the launch would be delayed. During the intake inspection, they found little piles of stones near the engine screens! We were at a civilian airport, and in the mid-1950s, the communists were very active.
We opened the '56 season at Dreux, then ToulouseBlahnac and Bordeaux, where we used smoke for the first time. We saved it for the 'Bomb Burst' and the 'Thread-The Needle' so the crowd could keep track of us throughout the maneuvers. We really hit it that day, and the 'Thread-The-Needle' looked like four aircraft heading for a huge mid-air. Fifty thousand people lined the taxiways to watch. The Bordeaux mayor was so impressed that he gave us a just bottled case of Chateau LaFite-54 as his way of saying thanks from the people. I was a beer drinker then, and gave my share to Jim. I'd kill to have those bottles back today. The wife of the President of the Aeon Club of France presented Jim with a silver cup commemorating the occasion.
Then it was on to Zurich and the International Air Show. It would be our first real test against other aerobatic teams. They were expecting over a million people at Dubendorf Airport on 26/27 May, and we weren't permitted to practice there, so we'd have to use Garcheranorn, an auxilliary field some miles away. We could survey Dubendorf from the observation deck at base cps to get a feel for the layout.
Dubendorf sat down in a bowl, with mountains sloping away from the runway on all sides. It'd be an inretesting challenge. There was a wooden shack between the runway and the taxiway - almost exactly in the middle of the airport. That would be our vertical focal point for the 'Thread-The-Needle'. The viewing stands were already in place on the ops building side of the runway, and the hills across the runway were avadable for additional spectators.
On the 27th, we were next to last on the schedule, just ahead of the Swiss Air Force Vampires. There were the flyovers of big stuff, team demonstrations and single ships. We inched our way to the head of the line and finally we were airborne. We were east of the field when the call finally came to proceed with our show. Normally, we opened from behind the crowd in trail and then pull up into a loop in front of the crowd and switch to diamond where they could all see us. Not having practiced at Dubendorf, Jim wasn't familiar with the terrain contours as we approached. We had to climb (thereby losing valuable airspeed) to clear the small hills as we approached. When Jim called 'Go Diamond!", we all cobbed it to get into position.
As we proceeded into our loop, something strange happened at the top - a feeling of lack of control! I could wipe out the cockpit with the stick and nothing happened. Same for the rudder. Four airplanes all falling in formation, and there wasn't a thing we could do to make corrections. In an effort to keep everyone calm, I keyed the mike and gave the guys the first line of "Cruisin' Down The River on a Sunday afternoon" (it was Sunday afternoon), and by the time I finished, we had control again. But the crowd was coming up at a very rapid rate. The 300 knot loop made our pullout rather low. I wouldn't say it was dangerous, but when I looked out the combining glass, spectators werediving to get out of the way on the far hillside.
The rest of the show was just as spectacular, if the press notices are to be believed. We nailed the "Thread-The-Needle" using the little shack as our focal point. The show coordinator then asked us to hold clear of the field until the Swiss Vampires finished their demonstration.
We landed without incident and the white hankies were fluttering. We felt pretty good about the performance. Then someone keyed the mike to ask, 'Where's the wooden shack?' It seem the Swiss demo was a napalm attack on the little wooden shack and it was still smouldering when we taxied in. What would we have done for a vertical checkpoint if they had preceded us! Chaos! Anyway, it was a great birthday present as the 27th was my 23rd birthday. In September, we did three shows on the 20th at Spaak, Biggin Hill, and Hucknell for Battle of Britain Day. Busy day, but the Brits really appreciated our efforts.
Coming back to the Continent from Norway and Denmark after shows at Oslo, Stavanger, and Copenhagen, we were going to make our night landing at Welsbaden for General Cook's retirement ceremony the next day. Nothing out of the ordinary about this, right? Well, it was moonless and we were all on 'brigh/flash' when we left the high cone. Before we hit the soup, we switched over to 'dim/steady'. All except Jim. I never realized just how bright 'bright/flash' really was.
We were in diamond formation as we started down when Jim's lights went on. Blink! There he was adjust position. Blink! He's gone, hold what you have. Blink! Adjust. Blink! Hold. All the way down to breakout at about 2000 feet. It was a bit of a nail biter. Jim was one of those gifted stick and rudder men who could pull something like this. You always knew where be was or was going to be. He was rock-steady in the cockpit.
When we stopped on the ramp, all three of us stormed over to Jim's bird and started yelling. He just smiled and offered to buy us a beer. All was forgiven! Jim, one quarter Creek Indian, had an impish grin that could disarm anyone with anger. You just couldn't stay mad at him. Of course, it wasn't just Reynolds and I up there. Lt. Bud Homan flew Left Wing, and Lt. Jim Foster was Right Wing. Bud and Jim were always there, ready to fly, whether it was a practice or a show, pumped and primed. I was just the guy in back. Bud really controlled the formation. He had to be very precise in his placements because (especially in the Echelon Roll where you start out in left echelon and end up in right echelon) if Bud moved even a foot or two too far forward, he could throw off the entire formation. Talk about steady. We kept to a five foot wing overlap and I could read the 'mil. spec.' on the wingtip nav light while in the diamond!
Being a "Blazer" meant you had to fill all the same operational squares as the regular squadron jocks. But at 5 o'clock, we got to practice over Chaumont - just in time for Happy Hour at the O-Club when every critic in the wing was watching.
Looking back over the forty four years since we flew together, a lot of things came flooding back. As the junior birdman of the team, I supervised the refueling of our aircraft. We had just landed at Weisbaden for General Cook's retirement ceremony where they employed German transient maintenance people. Jim wanted me to hang around and make sure the tanks got topped off properly. I was up on the wing filling one of the tanks when I noticed a strange looking aircraft with outriggers under each wingtip, being towed out of the hanger.
The ground crew spotted the aircraft pointing west on an east/west runway, giving it only about 1,000 feet of concrete for takeoff. 'Must be a full-power trump check, not a takeoff.' I moved the refueling hose over to the other wing so I could see the aircraft better, and had just started filling the tank when I heard the roar of full power. I looked up and saw the aircraft lurch forward. Rolling about 500 feet, the ourriggers dropped off and it pulled up into a 450 climb and disappeared through a 2500 foot ceiling. Stunned by what I had just witnessed, I shouted, "What the hell was that?" The transient maintenance guy, without even blinking, said "Das ist der new Messerschmidt, ja!" It was a U-2 of course, and the maintenance guy knew he had a sucker on the hook, and reeled me in.
In all, the '56 Skyblazers did twenty-six shows around Europe, Scandanavia, and North Africa, in front of an estimated 3 million people. Hopefully, we helped sell F-86s to our NATO allies. That was our official mission. But along the way, we shared a lot of experiences together. Flying with the same three guys for eighteen months builds a bond not easily broken. We trusted each other with our lives - any mistake could lead to disaster. We were fortunate to finish our tour as 'Blazers with nothing more than a wrinkled aileron and a dimpled drop tank. Too much overlap!
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