Above & Beyond: Stealing the Show
- By Doug Hinton
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
For a young fighter pilot, Europe in the 1950s was an exciting place to be. The Canadian NATO air contingent in Europe was located at two bases in France, Marville and Grostenquin, and two in Germany, Zweibrücken and Baden Sölingen. At each was a fighter wing of three F-86 Sabre squadrons.
Not only was the exposure to different cultures fascinating, but the flying was the best to be had anywhere. The rules of engagement were practically nonexistent. We attacked, in mock combat, Royal Air Force and Belgian Hawker Hunters, French Mystères and Vautours, Dutch Vampires, German Thunderstreaks and Sabres, U.S. F-86Hs, RB-66s, F-86Ds, and each other. Anything was fair game.
It was good fun and at the same time honed our skills for a confrontation with Ivan, should he and his minions ever come west. The tactic, unchanged since World War I, was to get as high as we could, with the sun at our back, then swoop down on some hapless target before he knew we were there. As it was generally considered in poor taste to actually shoot down an ally, we had to content ourselves with recording the “kill” on gun camera film. This footage was later screened in debriefings, accompanied by considerable ribald commentary.
These encounters were often hairy and sometimes fatal. If the target was alert to the attack, he would often break in either direction, climb, or both. Then began the “high scissors,” with each aircraft turning into the other and reversing the turn as they passed dangerously close, the object being to get on the other’s tail for the shootdown. As energy was lost during the high-G turns, the airspeeds got lower and lower. To stall the aircraft was to invite disaster. The only way to regain energy necessary for the turns was to descend, eventually ending up in a “low scissors,” sometimes right at the treetops. It was a game of aerial chicken that on occasion resulted in collision. Eventually the procedures were drastically modified—perhaps to the possible eventual benefit of the MiG pilots whose contrails we saw practically every day, to the east. But we were young, relatively well paid, flying the hottest fighter in Europe, and, in our minds, invincible.
The Brits were coming out with what would be called the English Electric Lightning, the French with the Super Mystère. And the Mirage was already in experimental flight test. What did the Americans have up their sleeves to replace their F-86s in Europe?
That was the scenario as late one sunny morning, Flying Officer Dave “Crocodile” Alexander of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 413th Fighter Squadron ambled across the ramp toward a Canadair F-86 Mk.VI Sabre, signed out for a test flight following some maintenance work. (His reptilian sobriquet had come from an incident in which he had allegedly bitten the commanding officer’s wife on the ankle during a mess party.)
Alexander began his preflight inspection, being particularly attentive to the job at hand. One didn’t take anything for granted with an aircraft that had just come out of major maintenance. Who knows what mechanic had had an overdose of suds at the local Gasthaus the night before and left a wrench in the landing gear retract mechanism, or what crew chief had had a fight with his wife and, distracted, signed off on all items without personally checking? A Martin Baker ejection seat notwithstanding, it was Alexander’s life at risk.
Satisfied that everything checked out, he strapped himself into the cockpit, then twirled his finger at the ground crewman to indicate engine start. Five minutes later he was airborne.
All Canadian aircraft in the late 1950s were camouflaged in dark brown and green, so they were difficult to see from above against the European countryside. We never understood whether it was arrogance or just stupidity that dictated all U.S. Air Force aircraft be as silver as the day they were born. A flash of sunlight off aluminum made them easy to spot long before the actual aircraft could be seen.
The first part of the test flight was to be conducted at low altitude, and Alexander, once a safe distance from base, began going through the test checklist, recording readings as he continually scanned outside the cockpit. Any fighter pilot who kept his gaze inside the office longer than 15 seconds at a time sooner or later ended up road kill. It was during one of these eyeball sweeps that Alexander noticed a flash in the sky, high to the east.
Well, the test flight could wait. Might be a MiG-17, threatening the security of Western Europe, all by itself. Maybe only a French Mystère. Didn’t matter. Checking out a strange bogey was his sworn duty.
Staying low, Alexander headed east. There! Whatever it was flashed again. Closer, he could see three aircraft, circling to the left in a “V” formation at about 6,000 feet. Arriving underneath the trio apparently undetected, he began a slow, climbing spiral in their blind spot and was able to slide directly behind and below the lead aircraft. What were these ugly silver monsters with blackened afterburner nozzles, swept-back wings, and drooped snouts? At least their fuselages had the U.S. insignia, which was comforting.
Below and 10 miles away from the circling aircraft was Ramstein Air Force Base. Bleachers were set up on the ramp facing the runway, and in those bleachers sat the cream of the allied forces in Europe, with various government and civilian dignitaries from the surrounding German towns.
The occasion was the arrival in Europe of the F-100 Super Sabre day fighter, supersonic in level flight and heralded as the guarantor of air superiority throughout Western Europe. At least that’s what the public affairs officer was probably telling the assemblage in the bleachers via the public address system, directing them to look to the east as the control tower called the formation leader in to initiate a pass in front of the crowd.
Alexander was getting some nice film on the gun camera when he noticed the formation steepening the turn and starting a descent. Not being on the same radio frequency as the F-100s, he had no idea what was going on, but decided to tag along for grins. This required adding some throttle, as the much heavier Super Sabres were gaining more speed than the F-86 in the descent.
Sneaking only a quick peek away from the formation, Alexander saw they were lining up on the main runway at Ramstein and descending faster. At this point, black smoke began pouring out of the tail pipes of all three aircraft as they began to pull away. Not without me, guys, he thought as he jammed the throttle forward.
But Alexander was losing it. With the throttle to the stops, the aircraft was shaking so badly it felt like a bucking bronco. He was just starting to slide backward from the trio ahead as they flashed by in front of the crowd: three silver top-of-the-line fighters and one grimy, camouflaged something or other with a red ensign on its tail.
As the F-100s banked and climbed to the left, Alexander broke right and headed for home, exultant. This was some serious coup! But he had also glimpsed the turnout on the ground and realized he’d been where he shouldn’t have. Better do an extra-long test flight so he could collect his thoughts and come up with a good alibi.
Sure enough, as the tires of his Sabre touched the runway, a delegation was there to meet him. After the obligatory chewing out, with the commanding officer trying not to break into a giggle, Alexander modestly proceeded to the officers mess, gun camera film in hand. It is difficult to be humble when you’ve got three Super Sabre “kills” on film, your mates are carrying you through the bar on their shoulders, and drinks are on the house. He never even tried.