Mind If I Borrow It?

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

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)
Air & Space Magazine

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Even though he had come in faster than normal touchdown speed, Johnson had lots of experience in braking and steering the aircraft. Still, he took Madison’s advice and let the Sabre roll the length of the runway and plow into the cable barrier.

“It seemed to me that I was still very fast and not at all sure about getting stopped. I stayed off the brakes and was still rolling quite fast as I hit the barrier target right in the middle. The barrier engaged very smoothly and quickly slowed me down to a stop.”

Johnson opened the canopy and shut down the avionics and navigation lights. Anderson, the fire chief, ran over, hopped up on a wing, and leaned into the cockpit, where Johnson was cleaning things up. “This bird really can fly by itself,” Johnson told Anderson in amazement, adding, “It’s all over now but the shouting.”

And it was. Johnson had flown an F-86 for one hour and two minutes. For his adventure, he was whisked off to the base hospital, given a blood test (presumably to check for drugs and alcohol), and confined for the night in a guarded room.

The next morning, Page, the base commander, came in and opened the conversation with “Well, what do we do now?” Johnson had expected a tongue-lashing, but found the colonel to be a kind man. Page told Johnson that he had put on quite a show of flying skill, and under other circumstances Page might even have considered recommending him for pilot training. However, Page said, a court-martial was inevitable. If he were to show leniency, he told Johnson, “I would have half of my mechanics trying the same damn fool stunt tomorrow.”

Johnson’s general court-martial was held on March 26, 1957. The mechanic faced three charges: stealing an F-86F (valued at $217,427), causing $195.64 worth of damage to the aircraft when he hit the barrier upon landing, and flying the aircraft without proper flight orders or clearance. The trial lasted a day, and a transcript shows that members of the court were keenly interested in whether Johnson had seemed distraught or had hinted that he intended to fly the aircraft. Witnesses who spoke with him on the radio that night, and those who listened in, were unanimous: He seemed calm and completely in control of the situation.

Ultimately, the court agreed that Johnson had not intended to steal the Sabre. He was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge: wrongful appropriation. He was found guilty on the second charge of damaging the aircraft but was acquitted on the third on the grounds that the regulation applied only to Air Force pilots.

The court sentenced him to six months confinement at hard labor, which reduced his rank to Airman Basic, plus he had to forfeit $65 a month for six months. But Johnson was not discharged. He served his time in the jail at Williams, and looks back on his imprisonment as not at all depressing. Daily he was allowed outside to serve on various work details, such as mowing grass. His cell door was seldom locked, and he spent many evenings playing cards with the guards. For good behavior, he was freed after five months.

The Air Force put Johnson back to work in a different maintenance squadron, and at a desk, rather than on the flightline. Given charge of the technical and maintenance library, he soon excelled and began to earn back his rank. Johnson served another two years at Williams until the base began a transition to training pilots in the new F-100 Super Sabre. In early 1960, he was transferred to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, and assigned to the headquarters of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing. Following his overseas tour, Johnson opted not to re-enlist, and in late 1961 he was released from active duty as an Airman Second Class (equivalent to today’s Airman First Class or E-3).

Johnson went on to work in the computer industry as a customer engineering and service representative. He eventually earned his pilot’s license, flew cropdusters, and for a time owned a Mooney M20 four-seat airplane. He did not consider his Sabrejet flight a big event in his life. “It was kind of a dumb thing to do, but I got away with it,” he told me. “Had a guardian angel on my shoulder that night.”


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