“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.”
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.”