Fresh out of fighter-bomber school in May 1952, I flew to Japan and caught a Douglas C-47 to my new home in South Korea: Base K-13,
35 miles south of Seoul and the home of the Eighth Fighter Bomber Wing, 35th Fighter Bomber Squadron. We were equipped with Lockheed F-80C Shooting Stars; on the other side of the field, sharing the same single runway, was the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, which flew North American F-86 Sabre jets.
My first flight at K-13 was a ride with an instructor pilot in a Lockheed T-33, the two-seat trainer version of the F-80. The instructor showed me around the area and took me up to the frontlines between the troops of North Korea and those of the United Nations. We returned to K-13 just as the tip tanks ran dry and shot a few touch-and-go landings. My next flight, a solo run in an F-80, was scheduled for that Sunday, right after the squadron’s monthly flying safety meeting.
At the meeting, we were briefed that sometime during the previous month, the pilot of a Republic F-84 Thunderjet had had a problem with an external wing tank that wouldn’t feed and could not be jettisoned. In an attempt to drain the tank of fuel, his wingman had flown under the faulty tip tank, opened his canopy, and tried to fire his handgun at the jammed tank to put holes in it to let it drain. But he had aimed too high. The 200-mph slipstream snatched the gun from his hand. (We never learned what ultimately happened to the F-84.) We were briefed on the incident because the F-80 canopy could also be opened in flight, so if one of our pilots had a bad tank, he could try the same thing. Landing with one full tip tank and one empty, or gone, was nearly impossible. At landing speed there was not enough aileron control to ensure that you wouldn’t drag the heavy tank on the runway, and a ruptured tank would spill fuel, melting the asphalt runway surface. At worst the airplane could cartwheel and crash.
After the safety meeting, I found my assigned airplane and made a preflight inspection. The crew chief had already done so before me, and a squadron flight instructor did the same right after me. Then I climbed in, cranked up the engine, taxied out, and took off on my first solo flight in Korea.
As soon as the tires left the runway, I could feel that the left wing was heavy. I had taxied and taken off using fuel from the tip tanks, but apparently the left one wasn’t feeding.
The F-80’s internal fuel tanks had electric fuel pumps to feed fuel to the main fuselage tank. But in the external wing tanks, compressed air, bled from the engine compressor to the tip tanks, forced fuel through lines to the fuselage tank. I could see that the fuel cap on the left tank wasn’t sealed—something three preflight inspections had missed—so air pressure could not build up in the tip tank and therefore the fuel wouldn’t feed.
As soon as I sensed the left wing’s heaviness, I stopped the right tip tank’s fuel flow, called the control tower, and suggested that I return and land immediately while the airplane was still pretty well balanced. The officer in the tower ordered me to fly to the bombing range, a small island about a half-mile out in the Yellow Sea, and jettison the errant tank.
En route, I used about half the fuel in the right tip tank, so that when I jettisoned the full left tank, the right one would not grossly unbalance me.
I arrived over the range at about 10,000 feet. The tip tanks were mounted on bomb release shackles, so I set up the bomb release panel to let go of the left tip tank and hit the release button. The tank did not jettison.
I reset the switches and tried again. Nothing. I reported my lack of progress to the control tower and circled around for another try.
In addition to the electrical method of releasing the tanks, there was a handle to manually release each tip tank. On my next pass over the range, I pulled the left tip tank release handle. It still wouldn’t go.
Mounted on the instrument panel was a red “panic button” that, when pressed, was supposed to jettison everything on all of the bomb shackles under the wings. On my third pass over the range, I literally hit the panic button. The right tip tank jettisoned, but the left one wouldn’t let go.
Now I was in a real pickle. There was no other way to get rid of the tank.
Then I remembered the briefing. I didn’t have a wingman to shoot my tank, but I was wearing a shoulder holster that held my Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol. Maybe I could open my canopy and shoot the tank.
I had a very heavy left wing, and no autopilot to help fly the airplane. Every time I took my hand off the control stick, the airplane started to roll left. I was going to have to get my pistol out of its holster, open the canopy, jack a round into the chamber (I never carried it with a round chambered so I wouldn’t accidentally shoot myself in the leg), and try to shoot the tank while flying the airplane with the other hand. The tower officer kept calling me, and to answer him I had to keep hitting the microphone button on the top of the throttle. What I really needed was a third hand.
I had so much bulk on—flight jacket, parachute harness, and life jacket—that I couldn’t reach across my chest with my right hand to get the gun from under my left arm. Finally, it dawned on me that I could reach the gun with my left hand. I jacked a round into the chamber, opened the canopy, and, with the gun in my right hand and flying the airplane with my left, I tried to point the gun at the front end of the left tip tank, far enough forward so as not to hit the wing.
I pulled the trigger—and missed.
I was so anxious I forgot that a semi-automatic pistol reloads after each shot. I manually jacked another round into the chamber while ejecting a round over my shoulder.
The only way I could hit the tank was to lean down and aim along the barrel of the gun. I put my head down and sighted at the widest part of the tank and about two feet from its front.
The bullet punched a hole through the near side of the tank and went out the other side. I quickly squeezed off two more rounds. Now I had six holes in the tank, and I could see fuel streaming out.
Just as I prepared to empty the rest of the magazine into the tank, the tower officer called again. He asked how many holes I had and how many rounds I had fired. I mentally counted one that missed, one over my shoulder, and three that hit the tank. “Five,” I told him. He told me to stop shooting immediately. (I later learned that when he heard that I had hit the tank only three times out of five, he envisioned me waving the gun around wildly, spraying bullets everywhere.)
I started to put the gun back into the holster, but now it was loaded, and I could accidentally shoot myself. While I was trying to figure where I could safely stash it, I held it in my right hand—the same one holding the control stick, so the gun was pointed at the instrument panel. Great, I thought, now I’ll accidentally shoot the panel. I moved the gun to my left hand, and the tower officer called again. I had to depress the microphone button on the throttle with my left hand and the gun was in the way. Finally I said The hell with it, opened the canopy, pointed the gun out, and fired until the clip was empty.
I spent the next 30 minutes flying around with the left wing down, letting the fuel drain out of the tip tank while slowly working my way back to the base. The tank held 165 gallons, so I hoped I could drain 150. By the time I got there, the tank was empty, and I made a normal landing.
Several years later I told this story in a letter published in the Air Force Times newspaper’s “Stake Your Claim” column: I claimed to be the only pilot in the Air Force who shot his own airplane to correct a malfunction. No one else claimed to have also done it, so I guess I still hold that dubious distinction.
Excerpted from Hangar Flying, available from www.authorhouse.com