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Airman George Johnson (in a T-33 in late 1955) spent hundreds of hours maintaining Sabrejets and much less time flying one. (Courtesy George R. Johnson)

Mind If I Borrow It?

The day an Air Force mechanic commandeered a North American F-86

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Even as the powerful F-100 and other Century Series jets were carrying the U.S. Air Force to supersonic speeds in the 1950s, the North American F-86 Sabre was still a trusted fighter. Its reputation as a MiG killer, earned during the Korean War, made flying the Sabrejet a young airman’s dream. It wasn’t easy, especially considering the competition. Many F-86 pilots were World War II veterans with combat experience.

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New Sabre pilots faced at least a year of training, including several hundred hours of classroom work and several hundred more of dual and solo flight time. After that came 15 hours in a cockpit simulator. During the student’s first flight in the single-seat fighter, an instructor flew on his wing, teaching via radio.

And then there was Airman First Class George R. Johnson. A 20-year-old mechanic at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona, Johnson skipped the preliminaries; on the evening of September 20, 1956, he took a Sabrejet up for a ride. Up to then, Johnson’s piloting experience amounted to two hours with an instructor in a Piper Cub.

I learned about Johnson from an article in the now-defunct Argosy magazine, published in February 1959. At the time, I was a senior at Iowa State University studying aeronautical engineering and in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program. (I was commissioned in November 1959 and entered active duty the following January.) There were no quotes from Johnson in the Argosy story, and the piece did not say what happened to him after his adventure. I always wondered about him, and when I asked around in the rather large community of former F-86 pilots, I was surprised to find how little anyone knew about his exploit. After retiring from the Air Force, I decided to look him up.

Now 75, Johnson was amazed that anyone would still be interested in his long-ago flight. An intensely private man, he nonetheless agreed to meet me at a motel in Safford, Arizona, near his hometown, last November.

He grew up fascinated with airplanes. Johnson still remembered the bright yellow AT-6 Texan trainer that buzzed his family’s Pima home early in World War II. After his family moved to Los Angeles, he rode his bicycle to Inglewood to watch airplanes take off and land at the airport. At 17, with a letter of permission from his mother, the underage Johnson enlisted in the Air Force in January 1954. He got his first airplane ride on a chartered Convair 240 to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for basic training. Having worked on cars in high school, Johnson had mechanical skills, and so was sent to jet engine school at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. There, he accompanied pilots in the T-6, rode in the nose of a B-25, and in his spare time logged Cub flight time. Though Johnson dearly wanted to fly for the Air Force, he knew he never would; as a boy, he had stared at the sun during an eclipse and had slightly burned one retina, making it impossible for him to pass the physical for military pilots.

In October 1955, Johnson arrived at Williams, about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix. The base was just beginning to transition from a basic training site, where students flew the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star jet trainer, to an advanced fighter training base stocked with F-86s. Assigned to the 3525th Periodic Maintenance Squadron as a T-33 mechanic, Johnson did hydraulic and electrical repairs, engine changes, flight control and system checks, and flight instrument calibrations. He learned how to start and run the engine, and how to taxi the aircraft.

Johnson was proficient enough to be reassigned to the Sabre early the next year. On September 20, he and several other mechanics were working the evening shift on the flightline. The day shift had done major maintenance on an F-86F, no. 52-5039, but the work had not been done correctly; as a result, one of the aircraft’s control cables became inoperative. Fixing it required that the aft section of the Sabre be pulled off, the cables realigned, and then the aft reinstalled before all wiring, cables, and tubing could be reconnected.

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.

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