Above & Beyond: Stealing the Show

Above & Beyond: Stealing the Show

Air & Space Magazine

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.

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