Mind If I Borrow It?
The day an Air Force mechanic commandeered a North American F-86.
- By Paul D. Mather
- Air & Space magazine, November 2011
Courtesy George R. Johnson
(Page 2 of 4)
Before the evening shift’s work could be signed off on, the mechanics had to perform a functional check, to be followed the next morning by a pilot’s flight check. While one mechanic connected a ground power unit to the aircraft, Johnson gave the Sabre an external check, grabbed his headset and microphone from his toolbox, climbed into the cockpit, and started the engine. Normal procedures called for the aircraft to be taxied to a run-up area, a short concrete spur near the active runway, where the engine could be monitored for normal operation up to full power.
Donning his headset, Johnson called the control tower, manned by Airman First Class Theodore Davis Jr., who cleared him to taxi to the run-up area. A few minutes later, after the engine check, Johnson called again and asked for permission to use the runway for a high-speed taxi test—a common procedure after any work on the brakes or nosewheel. The F-86 had a history of problems in which the nosewheel shimmied, so the damping mechanism had to be carefully adjusted. Davis again granted clearance, and watched as Johnson taxied the Sabre to the active runway, 30L, which was seldom used at night.
“My intentions were still just to do a high-speed taxi,” Johnson recalled. “I never had a conscious intention to fly that airplane. The nose lifts off the runway at about 105 knots [120 mph]. As I approached 105, I could feel the nose getting light, and I thought I would just wait a few more seconds to see if I could feel the plane getting light on the main gear. The few seconds passed, and I just didn’t think I had enough room to stop. I wasn’t thinking about being in trouble. I was thinking about maintaining climb airspeed, and when I was in a definite climb, I retracted the landing gear. I was off and committed. There was no wind at all that night. The air was smooth as glass.” The time was 10:34 p.m.
Reaction on the ground was immediate. As the F-86 climbed northwest into the moonlit sky, Davis tried, unsuccessfully, to contact it. He then alerted the Officer of the Day, Captain Robert McCormick, who in turn notified other officers, including the base commander, Colonel Jerry Page, and the fire chief, Edward Anderson.
As all of them converged on the airfield, Johnson finally came on the radio, calmly announced that he had taken off, and asked what the tower thought he should do. McCormick, who by then had arrived in the tower, asked Johnson to orbit eight or 10 miles from the base and to avoid flying over residential areas. McCormick, who was an F-86 pilot, talked Johnson through the proper engine power adjustments to conserve fuel and to cease his climb and level the aircraft.
Johnson told me that while he was a bit apprehensive about his predicament, he was not afraid for his life. “I knew that airplane,” he said, “and I knew the numbers on various approach speeds because I knew the pilot’s handbook. I knew that intimately. Spent a lot of time studying that. I was as prepared as you could be without actually flying.
“The F-86 had one nasty characteristic. You could get into trouble on takeoff. If you lifted the nose too high at 105 [knots], then you get [too much] drag, and it wouldn’t accelerate out of it. You had to put the nose down to get the speed on up.
“I knew all about things like that, so I flew the airplane largely with trim. I knew all about over-controlling. I wasn’t gonna do aerobatics or anything like that. It was very stable. And it instantly obeyed where I told it I wanted to go. I just spent my time at 10,000 feet circling the base.”