POWER IS SET AT 80 PERCENT. I've been briefed that setting the thrust any higher while holding the brakes is dangerous because the tires could rotate around their rims. I glance at the engine gauges, then look to my right, at my instructor's airplane. He nods; he's ready. I look ahead, down the expanse of the two-mile runway at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, release the brakes, and advance the throttle to 100 percent. The acceleration presses me back in the seat as my eyes dart down to check the instruments again. I flick the throttle grip outboard to light the afterburner. As my instructors warn me, there is an immediate loss of thrust, and I go forward against the harness. But suddenly, there is a tremendous bang behind me and I'm nailed back in the seat as the afterburner kicks in. Airspeed increases rapidly: 120 knots, 140, 160, 180. Pull back on the stick, rotate the nose up about 15 degrees as the fighter becomes airborne. Gear up. The runway falls away behind me, and I steepen the climb to reduce airspeed. I pull the throttle grip inboard to bring the engine out of the afterburner at 300 knots and get on the climb schedule—a strictly prescribed flightpath with specific altitude and airspeed callouts—that I was taught only a day before. My instructor's aircraft is behind me and I ease the throttle back and start a shallow right turn so he can join up.
I'm flying the North American F-100A Super Sabre for the first time. It's September 20,1957.
My classmates and I, at Nellis to master the first of the now-legendary Century Series fighters, were at the bottom of a steep learning curve. The aircraft we had been flying—T-33s, F-84s, even F-86s—were either designed or conceived during World War II. The F-100, on the other hand, represented a new generation of fighter aircraft, the first to make use of the knowledge gained by the Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558 supersonic research programs. The Super Sabre was the first operations fighter capable of reaching Mach I in level flight. Speed that a few years earlier had been the sole province to stars like Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield was now being made available to use rank-and-file fighter pilots.
Our education in the F-100 would be revolutionary in another sense. Our training class arrived at Nellis just three years after the Air Force had transformed its Fighter Gunnery School there into the Fighter Weapons School, built around a core of visionary Korean War aces who believed combat maneuvers could be quantified in terms of energy transfer and therefore standardized. The Fighter Weapons School instructors were the best fighter pilots in the Air Force, and they frequently came down to the training squadrons to fly with us trainees, sometimes using the training flights as practical experiments in the emerging science of aerial combat. We could hardly know at the time—many of us reported to Nellis on our way to our first fighter wing assignments—that we had stumbled into an opportunity in our careers that would never be repeated. Our short time there—six weeks and a mere 30 training flights—had a profound influence on us and ultimately paid dividends when we flew combat missions in Southeast Asia a decade later.
The 3595th Combat Crew Training Group at Nellis was made up of the Fighter Weapons School, which was organized at its own squadron, and five training squadrons, which introduced pilots to the F-100. Group commander Bruce Hinton had led an F-86 squadron in Korea and was the first F-86 pilot to shoot down a MiG in that conflict. Before the war ended, he had bagged two more MiGs and damaged seven. Hinton was always ready with a word of encouragement for us students—an unusual trait in a group commander.
We were given three flights to learn how to handle the F-100—we shortened it to "the Hun"—before our training in combat operations began. Those introductory flights were brief—less than an hour—and were intended simply to give us a feel for the airplane. Its wings were only a foot longer than those of the F-86F I had been flying, but the fuselage, which housed a Pratt & Whitney J-57 engine, was nearly seven feet longer. In full afterburner, the J-57's power—16,000 pounds of thrust—was more than three times that of the General Electric J-47 in the F-86, even though the Hun was only 3,000 pounds heavier. It was pure fighter. It could climb to 40,000 feet in four minutes. But it was also vicious.
Chuck Wood, one of the young lieutenants who started his training several classes ahead of mine, had a close call in the Hun and ended up finishing his training in my class. We all remember our first takeoff in the F-100, but Wood's introduction may have been a little wilder than most. "I flew the F-84 at Luke [Air Force Base]," he recalls, "and it accelerated so slow on takeoff you could deal a deck of cards while waiting for something to happen. Well, that first takeoff in the Hun, I was just hanging on. My instructor called and said, 'Raise the gear, shut off the [afterburner], and wait for me.' Man, I was out of control."
On Wood's second check-out flight, unfortunately, he found out what "out of control" really meant. Wood was climbing from takeoff through 18,000 feet when his instructor pilot advised him that he was losing fuel. "Here I was just getting some small level of confidence after that first wild takeoff, and he goes and says that," Wood recounts. He turned back toward Nellis, but halfway through the turn, the fuel gauge hit zero.
"It got quiet," Wood says. He set the glide speed at 220 knots so the RAT, or ram air turbine, would get enough air blowing through its ducts to supply hydraulic and electric power after the engine quit. "I was coming down like a rock, and on short final somebody said, 'Pull up and bail out.' [Another voice] said, 'No, don't. You'll never make it.' Later, when I listened to the tapes, [I heard myself saying] 'Will somebody make up their damn...'