If the career of a wartime fighter pilot is reckoned in op’s, or tours of op’s, the career of a peacetime FP is reckoned in fly-pasts. For there is nothing more beloved by military Brass, politicians, or air show committees than majestic flights of jet fighters pooping by in impeccable formation. The larger the better.
The moguls of NATO are no different and the skies of western Europe resound to the thunder of jet engines as someone somewhere is being impressed by our military might.
The mechanics of a fly-past vary but little. Someone is appointed fly-past master. Someone else – the less senior the better – is appointed to lead the gaggle. The number of aerodynes involved is a function of the importance of the personage or occasion, i.e.: the Queen, or the Paris Air Show, would qualify for a maximum effort.
For the individual pilot, nothing much is required except his presence at the briefing. This is always conducted in a room too small for the number of pilots. Once everyone is jammed in, the doors are bolted and cigarettes lit.
“Pay attention, chaps,” the fly-past master is apt to say. “Let’s have a time hack.”
Everyone synchronizes chronometer. A very formal atmosphere prevails through this ceremony, even though nobody’s watch but the formation leader’s will be used. However.
“. . . four, three, two, one hack!”
The FPM walks to map illustration of fly-by route. It is becoming difficult to see him from the back of the room. He is wielding a pointer.
“Punch tits at one-three, gentlemen. I want everyone airborne by twenty. Got that?”
People write with ballpoint on their hands. The start engines time joins the radio freeks written there.
Tap-tap-tap goes the pointer.
“Here is the IP . . .” pause to look at the audience. “Initial Position for those of you who don’t know. We hit the IP at thirty-eight. That gives your leader eighteen minutes to get straightened away. Questions?”
There are never any questions.
“Right. Our run-in time is seven minutes, we hit the reviewing stand at forty-five.” Pause for effect. “That is the exact time of the ‘general salute’.”
The FPM is lost to the view of those half-way up the room. Enough oxygen remains to support combustion, however, and fresh cigarettes are lit. The non-smoker can now slide safely to the floor. He will not be missed.
“We have sixty-four aircraft, that gives us four spares. Do the spares know what they are to do?”
Four pilots relegated to be ‘spares’ nod affirmatively. They will get themselves airborne the same as everyone else and fit themselves into any slots that happen to go empty due to unserviceabilities. You can listen to all this from your place under the table.
“You section leaders can be prepared to step-down on the inside of the turns. Got that?”
There is sometimes more oxygen under the windows, if one is open. Crawl toward it.
“The sections flying line-astern will step-down to remain clear of jet wash.”
The smoke is congregating at the window too? Crawl the other way, toward the door. There might be a crack under it. Feel your way among the legs.
“And watch your spacing . . .” the voice drones on.
Forget the voice. All you have to do is fly formation anyway. Lie flat. There, didn’t I tell you? There is fresh air along the bottom edge of a door.
* * * * *
There is, indubitably, pleasurable excitement in flying fly-bys. Fighter pilots are inveterate show-offs no matter what they appear to be. So enjoy your brief moment on the stage. Taxi out with the mob, turn up your oxygen to avoid asphyxiation as everyone’s tailpipe points directly at you. Things get better when you’re airborne.
Tick-tick-tick goes the clock in the corner. What time did the Fly-Past Master say? No matter. You won’t take-off until your turn. ROAR go the four J-47’s of Alpha section. They take-off.
ROAR goes Bravo section, four Swords start rolling as Cocoa edges out on the runway.
Your time! Delta leader is rolling out and where are you, faithful number Two? Too much throttle, too much . . . nose bobs as you save a wing tip by harsh use of the brake. Thump thump thump, heart works okay. Reach down and turn off the oxygen. Line up in position beside the leader. He twirls his finger in the signal to wind the rubber bands. ROAR goes J-47, and blends with the roar of the other three Sabres of Delta section.
Delta lead drops his hand and you release the brakes. Sabre stops shuddering and begins to roll. Leader creeps ahead. Whang! with the throttle. It was already at 100%. Slow down, slow down! Your mental pleadings have no effect on Delta leader’s airplane. He’s three feet ahead of you now.
His nosewheel begins to lengthen. Check back on the pole. Only two feet ahead, congratulations. Main wheels – tiny things for so big an airplane – blur and separate from the asphalt. Go flying. Left hand grabs at the gear handle, flies back to the throttle. Ease it off! Pour it back on as it starts its customary sink.
Leader’s D-doors flump, the wheels begin their uncertain journey to the wells. The nosewheel D-door is the last to slam. Cleaned, it’s a magic silver Sabre sliding over the greens and browns. Nudge in closer.
Bloody fine take-off, that. You wonder if anyone on the ground saw it.
A glance back beneath the leader’s tail. No sign of Three and Four. Return to that all-important wing tip. The leader’s wing tip. You line up the tiny green nav light with his head. He hand signals the turn, and eases into it. And so do you. Tum-te-dum-dum. Some guys, you reflect, are just naturally good formation pilots.
Delta Three and Four close it up, and Delta leader closes with others. In no time it’s a sky full of airplanes all going the same way. And now it’s work. See-sawing on the throttle as Delta leader see-saws on his trying to formate on the formation leader who is intent only on making the IP on time. It can get wild.
But not today. The formation leader knows what he’s about, Delta section is reasonably close to the head of the procession, and none of the turns have you eyeball to eyeball with Mr. Sun.
“Showcase formation,” announces the leader, “we’re five seconds slow at the IP. Opening to eighty-nine.”
You risk a glance at your rpm dial: 85%. No sweat.
Aside from the normal sweat, that is. Formation flying – when it’s done for show – can be hard work. It’s a matter of concentration. Other things too, of course. Anticipation of the leader’s actions, of throttle lag and power surge, airplane characteristics. That sort of thing.
Hitch yourself sideways in the seat. There, neck feel better? Peering hard port for extended periods of time can get agonizing. What’s that you say? Forgot to loosen the shoulder straps to start with, and now the automatic harness lock has locked? Hmmm.
Using your famous fighter pilot’s ‘split vision’, you may notice the radio compass needle swing as Delta section crosses the IP. Time to clamp. To settle into position so well that witnesses on the ground will think you’re welded there. Concentrate on the wing tip, your distance out so that it will match your opposite number, the Three man. Fifty yards beyond him, is another diamond four. You hope they are flying the correct spread – like yours.
Work, sweat, concentrate. Just a little while longer. Forget your neck muscles. Don’t bash the throttle. Relax on the pole. There, it needs a jab of trim. Funny you didn’t notice sooner. Leader bobs . . . or did you drop? Ease it up. Slot man is five feet below the leader’s tailpipe. He doesn’t appreciate wingmen dropping.
The button of an unknown runway appears beneath. A pang of fright stabs deep. The reviewing stand is somewhere close. Hold it, hold it now. Along with the neck ache comes a trickle of sweat into one eye. It stings and smarts and your eye is awash with tears. Hold it, fly it smooth.
Rectangular blobs of green appear ahead and beneath your leader’s snout. The hangar line. Somewhere a fathead general is saluting. You wonder if the sweat is trickling down his flanks. Or if his neck is crikked to the breaking point.
The hangars and the ant-like crowds slide under. You’re by. The pass is complete. Delta leader lifts his hands and languidly spreads them outwards. ‘Relax’, he is saying. Gratefully you slither out three feet. The slot-man sees both you and number Three slide out, so he drops back three feet. The diamond looks the same, but everyone is relaxing.
* * * * *
Everyone likes to tell of the hairiest fly-past they ever participated in, and those Sabre pilots who flew in NATO Europe during the nineteen-fifties can probably tell the most hirsute stories of all. In the early years of that decade, the fiascoes were apt to be generated by weather. In the latter years, more often by senior and desk-bound pilots who thought it glorious to lead but had forgotten how.
The winter rains beat against the windows and dribbled in melancholy rivulets from our unhangared Sabres. We hadn’t turned a wheel in a week.
“The minister of national defense is visiting Gros Tenquin this Friday. Every squadron in Air Division is putting up twelve Swords.”
Nine squadrons times twelve Sabres each equals . . . equals. The flight commander helped us out.
“One hundred and eight Sabres.”
“In the same patch of sky?” Incredulous voice.
“Right. Two Wing flies over here, picks us up, we fly over to Four Wing and pick them up. Then we all fly back to Gros Tenquin for the fly-past.”
“They going to have enough fuel for all that?” grumbled someone.
The plan called for the three Sabre squadrons of 2 Wing (Gros Tenquin) to take-off one behind the other, fly to 3 Wing (Zweibrucken) where our three squadrons would fall in behind them, continue to 4 Wing (Soelingen) where three more outfits would tag on ... and then back to GT for the ceremonial fly-past. From that point each Wing was free to return to its own base.
The briefing was held the day before. Our station C Ops O explained it.
“With eight squadrons stacked back at two hundred foot intervals, it leaves the last squadron at four hundred feet. Question?”
“What are the weather limits, sir?”
“If we don’t have two thousand feet, we don’t go.”
It seemed fair.
The next day the rain had stopped. Now it was fog. We sat in the flight room kitted, but not really expecting to go.
“What’s the ceiling now?” someone asked.
“Two thousand. It’s the viz. We only got three miles.”
I do not, personally, believe that we’d have flown a fly-past in that kind of weather had it not been for the gung-ho attitude of the chaps at Gros Tenquin. They may have been inspired by the presence of the minister of national defense, but I think not. The pilots of 2 Wing were just like that. If there was a chance that anyone else would chicken because of weather, they’d make it a point to go.
The schedule time to start engines came and went. We remained in the fight room waiting for the word to stand-down. Outside it had started to rain again. The phone rang and the flight commander answered. As anticipated, it was the C Ops O.
“They’ve left, sir? Right. Right. We go.”
Twelve pilots won’t fit in a doorway constructed for one. But it gave illustrious flight commander the chance to say:
“The GT guys are airborne. They’ll be overhead in fifteen minutes.”
That did not leave much time for the 36 Sabres of 3 Wing to fire-up, take-off and form-up. But we did. And the leader of the first 3 Wing squadron pulled smartly in behind the third 2 Wing squadron. Our particular squadron came next and hapless 413 Sqn brought up the rear. I say ‘hapless’ because of circumstance; the pilots of 413 that day brought nothing but honor upon themselves.
In the crush of getting airborne, no one paid too much attention to the rain, or the fog, or the indeterminate ceiling that was a mixture of both. The surprise awaited us up there. At a thousand feet the ground disappeared.
You might well ask how it was that the fifth squadron out of six fell into cloud when the preceding squadrons were supposed to be at successively higher altitudes. Well the 200-foot vertical displacement between squadrons had changed to a 10-foot separation.
Eastward to 4 Wing.
Your correspondent was flying the box, which is as good a position as any for it permits you to observe what is going on all around. The claustrophobia induced by wing tips waving in your face is balanced by the blessing of not getting a crik in your neck. You avoid this by not moving in close to the leader’s tailpipe until the final run-in. But I digress.
When we got to Soelingen, the home of 4 Fighter Wing, the ceiling had lowered to 800 feet. And lower than this over the hills of the Black Forest which lay just beyond. It was raining and the formations were in and out of cloud. In the gloom that lay beneath us, ghostly patches of stratus obscured the deeper gloom that was earth. It was a terrible day.
Apparently the 4 Wing types thought so too. The word filtered back: “Four Wing cancelled out.”
Eminent good sense, I thought, but knew a perverse satisfaction too.
Ahead – quite out of sight – the formations were swinging westward for Gros Tenquin and the waiting minister of national defense.
“I can’t see,” someone complained.
“Nothing. But if I fall out of this cloud, look out.”
“Want to try it down here in the trees?”
For it was a fact that while the boys on the top of the turn were lost in clag, the ones fighting to hold the inside of the turn were dragging wing tips through the foliage.
As our squadron staggered round in the turn, I was alarmed by the proximity of the hills. Strips and tatters of ground fog clung to the wet pines and soggy undergrowth. My view was of the lead Sabre’s tummy compressing an already thin horizon line. And I didn’t know what 413 Sqn behind us was using for flying room.
We got away from the hills, recrossing the mud-roiled Rhine and on into France. Everyone breathed easier, even though the ceiling wasn’t going up any. The rain was everywhere and I had opportunity to be glad that I was just one of the workers and not responsible for getting this gaggle to a fly-past, or home afterward.
Lower and steadily lower as the raggedy cloud pressed on the squadron ahead. It was – I hazard the guess – about 300 feet by the time the formation leader said:
“By the IP chaps . . . clamp.”
Clamp? All right for him to tell his squadron to clamp, they were sitting fat at 300 feet. The rest of us had been flying ‘clamped’ for the past 15 minutes. It was ‘clamp’ or get scraped off. Clamp! Ha!
Ahead, in the rain-swept murk which I viewed beneath the oil-streaked aluminum slab that was my leader’s belly, was 427 Sqn. We were following them. Trouble right now seemed to be that 427 Sqn were too low. I realized that they were just staying below who they were following, but we didn’t have room to stay beneath them.
Tin hangars appearing out of the gloom. A wide grassy space that must be the infield. Trees on the other side. A construction derrick at the level of my head. 413 Sqn behind us must, I thought, have broken off long before this. For we were at ground level.
Rain piddling down. Hangars coming on. Horizon gone above my glorious leader. Yowee! Small wet crowd standing on the concrete. An honor guard. Poor sods. What of the minister of defense? Still standing there? Surely not. But if he was, he was watching the hairiest fly-past he’d ever see.
Somehow, and to this minute I don’t know how, somehow I got over the hangar.
What about 413 Sqn? I winced and waited for the sound. Either the death shriek, or the announcement that someone had bought the ranchero. Nothing happened. We were sweeping over the countryside once again. Wet brown fields lined by wet green trees. A church steeple stabbed upwards. What was happening to 413 Sqn? Had they gone home?
They were behind and beneath us. But they were pursuing a weaving course as entire sections of four flew between the hangars, not over them, round the construction derricks, the trees and the church steeples that line the escape route. For the affair wore the manner of a rout as we left Gros Tenquin for home.
Being short of fuel, and in suspect weather as it was, I suppose we should all have landed at Gros Tenquin. The thought never occurred. To our leaders – and indeed all of us – landing at GT would have been an admission of something or other. No one ever defined what.
But nobody thought of landing on the nearest jet runway, either. Heavens no. We all got back to Zweibrucken and gave the control tower operator the worst five minutes of his life.
The final four Sabres to land flamed-out on the runway.
Grostenquin today, closed and abandoned
* * * * *
Excerpt from "The F-86 Sabre" by R.J. Childerhose. Arco Publishing, 1966. Part of the Famous Aircraft Series. The book is still available through Amazon.
R.J. "Chick" Childerhose joined the RCAF in 1950 and flew the F-86 Sabre aircraft from 1952-1958 with, successively: 434 Fighter Sqn.; No. 1 Overseas Ferry Unit; 411 Fighter Sqn. Auxiliary. In August, 1956, in company with Sqn. Ldr. Ralph Annis, flying Sabre 6 aircraft, he set the present cross-Canada speed record of five hours elapsed time Vancouver to Halifax.