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 3 of 4)
Though Johnson wasn’t worried, the men on the ground were. For one thing, Johnson had no parachute. His only hope, base officials felt, was to make a survivable landing with their help. “There was quite a lot of [radio] chat back and forth,” Johnson recalled. “Everything got pretty well stabilized with me at slow cruise and orbiting the base. I could see everything moving on the taxiways and runways. I don’t recall being frightened, although I was being very careful with the controls.”
Johnson asked the tower to contact Second Lieutenant George Madison to come and fly on his wing. Madison, an F-86 check pilot, had until recently been Johnson’s supervisor, and Johnson respected and trusted him. One of the senior maintenance officers, Captain Linden Kelly, also a pilot, rousted Madison from bed and briefed him on the situation. Madison quickly dressed, grabbed his flight gear, helmet, and parachute, and rushed to the flightline, where a crew had readied an F-86. Madison asked Kelly to accompany him in another F-86. Within minutes, both were airborne.
“The F-86F is very stable in smooth air and the night was smooth,” Madison told me via e-mail (he wouldn’t say where he lived). “I knew that if we could get him in a controlled descent of about 500 feet per minute at around 140 knots [161 mph] and keep him lined up with the runway, there was a chance he might survive. I told George to just relax when the aircraft smacked the runway and keep it straight. All the time I was hoping the aircraft would not bounce or porpoise. I told George to forget about the brakes and let the barrier stop the aircraft.”
Said Johnson: “When we turned to final approach, they [Madison and Kelly] had me lined up with the runway very nicely. On their instructions, I had extended the speed brakes and landing gear, and put the wing flaps down. Madison had me back off the throttle at just the right time, and I touched down very smoothly, right on the runway centerline. I saw both of them accelerate and begin climbing away. One of them said ‘Good boy’ as I touched down.”
Even though he had come in faster than normal touchdown speed, Johnson had lots of experience in braking and steering the aircraft. Still, he took Madison’s advice and let the Sabre roll the length of the runway and plow into the cable barrier.
“It seemed to me that I was still very fast and not at all sure about getting stopped. I stayed off the brakes and was still rolling quite fast as I hit the barrier target right in the middle. The barrier engaged very smoothly and quickly slowed me down to a stop.”
Johnson opened the canopy and shut down the avionics and navigation lights. Anderson, the fire chief, ran over, hopped up on a wing, and leaned into the cockpit, where Johnson was cleaning things up. “This bird really can fly by itself,” Johnson told Anderson in amazement, adding, “It’s all over now but the shouting.”
And it was. Johnson had flown an F-86 for one hour and two minutes. For his adventure, he was whisked off to the base hospital, given a blood test (presumably to check for drugs and alcohol), and confined for the night in a guarded room.