EARLY JET AIRCRAFT MECHANIC
By RICHARD W. KAMM
As an early jet aircraft mechanic I will try to recall some of my personal experiences as remembered almost 60 years after the facts. I was not an engine specialist so I cannot vouch for their experiences.
I joined the Army Air Force in January of 1947 (often called the Brown Shoe Air Force to differentiate it from the soon to come Air Force with the blue "bus driver" uniforms and black shoes). After completing Basic Training at Lackland AFB, I was sent to Keesler AFB at Biloxi, Mississippi for Aircraft Mechanic's training. At that time we were taught very little about Jet Aircraft in the normal mechanics courses; therefore after completion of the basic course in October of 1947, I was transferred to Chanute AFB for Jet Specialist training. In retrospect the item that stands out in my mind was the lack of jet engine knowledge among the instructors teaching the courses. One fable, taught by instructors, was that the noise from jet engines would NOT hurt our ears. Another fable was during the part of the training discussing the conversion of thrust to horsepower. Using the conversion formula: Thrust times Speed in Miles per Hour divided by 375 gives you Horsepower, at 0 MPH you are producing no Horsepower. Therefore, according to our instructor, if you initially did not let the aircraft move you could hold back a jet aircraft with your hands even at higher powers. The instructor apparently did not understand the difference between power and work. We should have asked the instructor why the jets on the flight line were tied down with cables. But we were all privates or PFCs and who were we to question a sergeant. Upon completion of the course I was given Christmas Leave and transferred to Panama. Due to several transportation problems (none of my doing) I did not arrive in Panama until February 1948.
Upon arrival in Panama I was assigned to the 4th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) at France Field whose primary aircraft was the Lockheed FP (RF)-80A-5. Structurally the P/F-80 was an ideal aircraft for a fledgling mechanic to develop his maintenance skills. It had a simple, rugged airframe and most components were readily accessible. There were two major problem areas with the aircraft: these were pilot training and engine controls.
At this time there were no two seat jet trainers available. Although the prototype of the first two seat jet trainer (T-33) would fly in 1948, they would not be readably available at group and squadron level for at least another year. A pilot was checked out in the aircraft by reading the 53 page flight manual, (by today's standards the information covered would be highly inadequate) being briefed by other pilots and by a cockpit checkout. Then the pilot would be sent out solo in an aircraft that had markedly different flight characteristics than fighters he had previously flown. Acceleration characteristics of the engine-aircraft combination were extremely poor when compared to piston-engined fighters. Early jet engines required careful throttle movement. Rapid throttle movement could cause flameouts (a problem soon to be solved by more advanced fuel controls). The engine start procedures had to be carefully followed as there was no automatic sequencing of starting events. An error in the sequence could cause flames to shoot out 50 feet from the tailpipe and possible engine over temp. And even worse than that for the perpetrator, was that everyone on the airfield would know what happened because the engine would produce a loud rumble that made the error obvious. Most pilots were flying an aircraft that was 100 MPH faster than anything they had previously flown and frequently they got behind the aircraft. Instrument training was inadequate for practically all fighter pilots and this was accentuated by the jet aircraft's speed (again lack of 2 seat jets to train the pilots and what self-respecting fighter pilot would want to receive instrument time in the group hack (usually a C-45 or C-47)). Many jet aircraft and their pilots were lost shortly after flying into weather conditions.
The engine installation fitted on early P/F-80s was primitive. Early aircraft did not have water injection provisions. This meant that the engine bay (plenum chamber) was uncluttered. When the bottom access doors were open the mechanic could stand on the ground and work on many of the engine accessories. The YP-80s used for mechanic's training at Chanute AFB were examples of this installation. When water injection was fitted to the aircraft, the tanks (two tanks of 30 gallons each) were located at the front of the engine bay and work area was considerably reduced, but most engine accessories were still readily accessible. All F/P-80s I worked on in the field had the water injection system installed even though I never saw the system actually used. The engine was fitted with a throttle to control fuel (the engine was fitted with a control valve that could not be called a fuel control in the modern sense of the term), a barometric to compensate for altitude changes, and a governor to prevent over speed. Early P-80A models initially had engines fitted with a simple single stage fuel pump with no engine driven back up fuel pump. These aircraft had an electrically driven emergency fuel pump fitted, a Pesco I-16 pump, and it was up to the pilot to activate this pump in case of main pump failure or during critical flight conditions. To provide the high fuel pressure necessary to run the jet engine meant that the electric motor driving this pump drew extremely high current. I was told that this was the same type of motor used in propeller feathering systems. Later model J33 engines would be fitted with a dual fuel pump; one side being the normal fuel pump and the other side the emergency fuel pump. There was a simple flapper valve installed in the line between the two pumps and it was actuated by fuel pressure differential. The main pump was set a few pounds above the emergency pump and when the emergency fuel pump pressure became greater, the pumps would automatically change. This installation removed the I-16 pump and it's electrical complexities from the aircraft. Initially the aircraft could either have the 3750 lbs. of thrust Allison J33-A-9, J33-A-17 or the General Electric J33-GE-11 installed. The only way the mechanic could visually tell which manufacturer's engine was fitted, other than the data plate, was that the G.E. engine's magnesium accessory case mounting truss ring was black and the Allison's aluminum truss ring was gray.
Inspection periods for the engine were short. Every 25 hours of operation the
engine tail cone was removed and the nozzle diaphragm, turbine wheel and buckets
checked. Every 100 hours (50 hours according to an acquaintance of mine) the
engine was sent to depot for overhaul. Within two years this overhaul time would
be 400 hours and it seemed to increase logarithmically from that time on. We
also periodically inspected the outer tube of the combustion chambers for discoloration
that would indicate failure of the inner liner. Another pre-flight inspection
procedure was to climb up the tailpipe, spin the turbine, listen for unusual
sounds and inspect the nozzle and turbine assembly for damage. On one occasion
I found a whole turbine blade missing yet the pilot had reported no unusual
engine operation. On other occasions after the pilot reported high engine vibrations
we found only small portions of a blade would be missing. Another time half
a turbine blade had broken loose, punctured the tail cone and imbedded itself
in the upper rear fuselage near the vertical stabilizer fillet. As a result
of the tail cone damage, once the engine stopped, the turbine could no longer
be spun by hand.
Despite having to split the fuselage to remove the engine, engine replacement was the easiest of any aircraft I ever worked on. The record time for replacing an engine and having the aircraft again airworthy was 17 minutes; any experienced crew could easily replace an engine within 30 minutes. To remove the aft fuselage, nine tasks had to be accomplished. Disconnect the tailpipe through a small access door in the side of the aft fuselage. Disconnect a large cannon plug and a small electrical connector, located in the wing fillet. If it was an unmodified A model a pitot tube connection also had to be removed. All later model F-80s and modified A models had the pitot tube in the nose which eliminated this connection in the wing fillet. Unbolt the two push rods that actuated the elevators and release the two cable disconnects for the rudder control, both located in the upper aft of the engine bay. Then all that had to be done was to remove the three large bolts that held the rear fuselage to the aircraft. Since many of these components were located in different areas of the aft fuselage the secret of quickly removing and replacing the engine was good crew coordination preventing overlapping tasks. The aft fuselage was light enough that in emergencies it could be removed without the special cradle designed for the task. One time during maneuvers the rear fuselage was removed using kneeling mechanics to support the aft fuselage for both removal and installation. Without additional help, I once removed the aft fuselage and engine, had a specialist come to the aircraft, did some repairs to components in the engine bay, and replaced the engine and aft section of the aircraft in less than 4 hours.
The original runways at France Field were too short for most modern aircraft and we shared the longer runways belonging to Coco Solo Naval Air Station. This made the taxi time from France Field to the runways excessively long. Therefore our aircraft parking area was moved from the France Field to revetments next to the Coco Solo runway. This was great (and also distracting) for the maintenance personnel as they never knew what kind of aircraft they would see landing or taking off. It also meant that we were located right next to the jungle and, since political unrest was common, we were often given guard duty. As if we could have done much about any prowlers since we were furnished rifles but given no ammunition. I guess they were afraid we might shoot ourselves. It was also quite common to see a black panther or similar wild animal and that sure made you wish you had more protection than an empty rifle. Most minor maintenance was done in the open at the hardstands. If the aircraft required major maintenance there was a covered hardstand for rain protection. The barracks we lived in and the chow hall were located at the old base. Since this was pre air conditioning, the barracks were designed with a large overhanging roof to keep out the sun and screens instead of glass windows. Your uniforms were simply hung up in the open barracks bay. A light bulb was kept burning in the footlockers to protect clothing and other items stored in the locker from mildew. Another interesting thing about the base was that it was cut in half by a highway and there was a walkway over the highway to get from our barracks to most of the base facilities.
During the six months I was stationed in Panama the 4th TRS lost two aircraft. I cannot recall how one aircraft was lost, but the other accident is stuck in my memory. That is because the accident happened shortly after takeoff. As previously described we often watched aircraft taking off and landing from our parking area. This aircraft had just started climbing out after takeoff when a cloud of white vapor, an indication of a flameout, came out of the tailpipe. The aircraft then crashed into the jungle and almost immediately a cloud of black smoke arose. Even though the fire was in plain sight of the ground crews in their revetments it took several minutes for the rescue party to reach the site because of its overgrown jungle location. The pilot Roy Gray was badly burned and as a result of the accident lost both arms. This must have been very hard on him as he was an ex football player who had played for Oregon State in the 1942 Rose Bowl.
In July of 1948 the 36th Fighter Group (FG), located at Howard Field in the Canal Zone was informed that it was to be transferred to Germany in support of the Berlin Airlift. Since some of the Group's personnel were married and did not want to leave their families even for the period of time necessary to have them obtain housing in Germany, our squadron was asked to provide replacements. Being a normal nineteen year old, I was one of the first in line applying for a transfer and I got it. Howard Field was at the opposite end of the zone so I was transferred in style, I rode across the zone in Super Stud, the base's B-17. As a side note, shortly after the 36th left Howard Field the 4th TRS was transferred from France Field to Howard Field. I also heard through the grapevine that the primary aircraft that I had worked on at France Field had been lost when it entered a rainstorm on an approach to Howard. I also heard that during its first year of jet operation the 4th TRS had lost 7 of their 15 FP-80s.
At the time, the 36th FG consisted of three fighter squadrons, the 22nd, 23rd and 53rd plus the normal support squadrons. Upon arrival at Howard Field I was assigned to the 22nd FS whose aircraft was the P/F-80Bs. The aircraft were prepared for shipment to Germany and then 69 of the aircraft were loaded as deck cargo on a small escort carrier, the USS Sicily (CVE-118) and the remaining aircraft had their aft sections removed, so that they would fit in the cargo hold, and loaded into a US army cargo ship (I believe it's name was the Barney Kirshbaum). After corrosion proofing, the aircraft were towed to the docks by using weapon carriers and during the trip clearance was checked by mechanics riding on the wingtips (pre-OSHA). Howard Field was located on the Pacific side of the Canal Zone so after the aircraft were loaded and the personnel boarded the carrier, it proceeded through the canal to the Caribbean side. From there we proceeded across the Atlantic Ocean to Glasgow, Scotland. Once unloaded, the aircraft were towed though the streets to Renfrew RAF Station to clean off the anti-corrosion compounds and given a preflight inspection. The one thing that stood out most vividly in most of our mind's was all the white skinned, red headed women; quite a change from the dusky, dark haired, population of Panama that we were used to. The Scottish people welcomed us warmly as it had been approximately three years since most Americans left. The children would run alongside our trucks yelling "Any gum chum".
From Glasgow the jet aircraft were flown to our new station at Furstenfeldbruck, Germany, near Munich. The ground crews followed their pilots and aircraft in C-47s and by late August the Group was established at its new station. Fursty was a wonderful station. One predominant feature of the base was the main enlisted mans barracks. It was a one kilometer long two story building shared by several squadrons. Because of its length, several arched roadways went through it and the only way you could walk through it from one end to the other, without going outside, was on the top floor. To begin with many of us lived in a large room with 10 to 12 other airmen but as the time went by and we were promoted most of us were moved to smaller 2 person rooms. In 1950 the squadron received its first black airmen. In 1948 President Truman signed an executive order barring segregation in the armed forces. Being an executive order it did not have to go through congress for approval. Truman is seldom given credit for firing one of the first shots in the desegregation battle. It is my observation that the Air Force was the first service to implement the order with the Army following and the Navy dragging its heels, kicking and screaming, was the last to comply. This is not to say that Blacks were welcomed with open arms, as a good percentage of military personnel were from the south or areas where de-facto integration was practiced. But since there was no choice, the races soon learned to live with each other. Looking at photos in a 36th Group publication from early 1951 I was surprised to find that the 22nd was the only fighter squadron in the group to have black airmen (the support squadrons did have some black airmen). I guess there was some de-facto segregation even then
We soon learned that the primary black market trading compound was cigarettes. These were rationed and you were given a ration card limiting the amount that could be purchased at the Post/Base Exchange (PX). I did not smoke so much of my recreation was assured at a reasonable cost. Practically all of my camera equipment was bought with cigarettes. Munich was a wonderful town to be stationed next to. It was surprising how much of the bombing damage had been cleaned up in the short time since the end of the war. Another contrast we soon noted was that, despite loosing the war, economic conditions seemed much better in Germany than in England. This was particularly noticeable with the food; the English diet was very austere while the German diet was much heartier. Our introduction to German culture came soon after our arrival with the advent of Oktoberfest. At the time (1948) most American Beer was limited to 4.2 percent alcohol and some German beers could have up to four times greater alcoholic content. Needless to say many Americans woke up looking at the bottom side of a table. American beer was not readily available and when we did obtain some it tasted like soda pop to us. Many of my compatriots gained considerable weight due to the effects of their liquid diet.
An interesting feature of 36th Group aircraft was that they carried large identification numbers on their noses in the style of pre-WWII groups. The 22nd Ftr. Sqdn. (FS) was assigned the color red and the buzz numbers from 10 to 39. The 23rd FS was assigned blue and the buzz numbers from 40 to 69. The 53rd FS was assigned green and given the buzz numbers from 70 to 99. The aircraft also featured a large lightning bolt in the squadron color along the side of the fuselage and smaller lightning bolts on the tip tanks. Diagonal circles on the fuselage, just behind the wings further helped identify the status of the pilot. Three diagonal stripes identified it as a Group Commander, two stripes as a Squadron Commander and one stripe as a Flight Leader. The Squadron Commander's aircraft was further identified by carrying the lowest buzz number in the squadron, in this case 10, 40 and 70. There is an often reproduced photograph of the three Squadron Commander's aircraft shortly after leaving the Lockheed factory showing them in tight formation. The aircraft shown are 58599, 58600 and 58601 (58598 was the Group Commander's aircraft and had a tri-colored lightning bolt on its fuselage). For some time after joining the 22nd I was assistant crew chief on number 10 but by that time the commander's aircraft had changed to 58651. I was told that shortly after arriving in Panama 58599 had mechanical problems and become a "Hangar Queen" therefore the Squadron Commander had picked 58651 as his new aircraft. It was not until early spring of 1950 that the powers that be discovered we were still using the old style aircraft numbering system and we were ordered to go to the more conventional standardized USAF Buzz Number system. (For the F-80 it was FT-last three numbers of the aircraft serial number). They also further sterilized our aircraft by requiring removal of all personal nose art from the aircraft,
As an aside I would like to comment on some falsehoods about the P/F-80s that keep on appearing in the popular press. Many of these were probably started by 'Jane's all the World's Aircraft' in 1948. One was that the F-80B had a thinner wing than the F-80A. All production models of the F-80, T-33, F-94A and F-94B had wings of the same thickness. To confirm this fact I wrote to Clarence "Kelly" Johnson in January 1986. Although Mr. Johnson happened to be in the hospital at the time, I received a reply from Ben Rich stating the following "Kelly Johnson confirms there was no difference in the wing thickness between models". The only exception to this was the specially produced F-80R which had a different wing leading edge fitted. In Panama, the 4th TRS Pilots flying the FP-80As reported that their aircraft would outrun the 36th F-80Bs. This may have been because of the lighter weight or the slightly improved fineness ratio of the RF models. Another statement often repeated is that the F-80Bs came equipped with ejection seats. No F-80 I worked on in either Panama or Germany had an ejection seat fitted. The seat mounting rails were designed so that with slight modifications an ejection seat could be fitted but it is my understanding that at that time no suitable seat had proved to be safe. This is understandable. Designing an ejection seat for the F-80 would have been particularly difficult because of the cockpit's compact internal dimensions. Also during the time I worked on F-80s I never saw one equipped with mid wing hard points for external stores. Since any bombs or rockets were carried on the wing tip hard points our aircraft had to have the tip tanks removed when carrying external stores, greatly reducing their effective range. This fact would hurt their effectiveness early in the Korean War. I did see a photograph of one of our F-80Bs (58599) modified as a QF-80 carrying mid wing stores but this was well after it was used as a fighter.
During the years between the end of World War II and the Korean War the Air Force's Budget was relatively low. This was particularly noticeable in May and June when flying and many unessential activities became restricted due to the lack of funds (we were on the old style fiscal year then). Spare parts were always a problem. The squadron supply was only allowed a very limited supply of spares. To assure that squadrons did not cheat on their parts inventories the Air Division Inspector General would make surprise inspections of the squadron supply rooms. Under some conditions the pipeline for spare parts could be slow to respond and the affected aircraft could be grounded for an extended period. When an aircraft was in the hangar for an extended period for major repairs it was not unusual for some airworthy parts to be exchanged to keep another aircraft flying. This cannibalization was illegal and officially frowned upon by headquarters but since squadrons were graded on their readiness rates it was not surprising that this practice flourished. Because of this, so many faulty parts ended up on the hangared aircraft that it was difficult to get the aircraft airworthy again. The aircraft would then become known as a Hangar Queen. Mechanics would keep many small illegal spare parts in their tool boxes. Supply rooms would find ways to hide stocks of high usage parts from the inspectors. Our squadron's parts warehouse was a room under a manhole cover in the hangar floor. It looked like a normal manhole but it hid a fairly large room (probably 10 by 12 feet) that was never found by the inspectors. Many an aircraft was saved from being grounded by our underground supply system. It was rare for a squadron to have a full complement of personnel; we were always short of a few specialists.
The squadrons became tight knit units with high esprit de corps. The squadrons of the 36th Group were very competitive and were always trying to outdo each other yet they were all loyal to the group. The 22nd and 23rd had adjoining hangars but the 53rd had a large hangar on the other side of the airfield. Squadron parties were something to behold and added to this spirit. Upon entering the party all rank was removed. Officers, NCOs and enlisted men mingled freely and quite often got drunk together. Once the party was over everyone reverted to their normal ranks. At the time we were the only American Jet Fighter Group in Europe. The only other American Fighter Group then stationed in Europe was the 86th Fighter Group at Neubiberg, AFB on the other side of Munich, and they equipped with P-47Ds. There was a healthy competition between the two groups and on more than one occasion I was startled by a surprise morning, low level, visit of P-47s. I gather that this activity was restricted by commanders because of the danger of some of these low level passes.
The aircraft revetments were stationed along the taxi-way several hundred feet from the hangars so that each flight of mechanics soon set up tents and, as materials became available, small shacks where we could find shelter when the weather became harsh. As anyone who has worked on aircraft knows, nothing is hotter during the summer and colder during the winter than a flight line. Originally the stoves in these shacks used wood as a fuel but it did not take long for us to devise a method of using jet fuel for heat. These was usually a fuel tank mounted outside the shack and high above the stove was a nozzle so that gravity could slowly feed the fuel into the fire. Surprisingly we never had a flight shack fire. The dumb are just lucky, I guess. A cup of coffee brewed over these stoves was a primary source of winter heat. It was during this period that I developed a habit that stays with me to this day. I very seldom hold a mug of coffee by the handle. I grip the outside with my hands to warm my fingers. Wing, tail and canopy covers were used to protect the aircraft during the winter and removing them could be difficult when they were ice covered. We tried to de-ice the aircraft using running jets to blow the ice and snow off the aircraft. The results were disastrous. The melted snow would enter any open space and then because of the aircraft's temperature immediately refreeze. This ice would often jam the control surfaces or prevent opening of canopies.
For a few weeks during the summer of 1949, 1950 and 1951 we were sent to the old German Fighter Base at Giebelstat for bombing and gunnery training. The first thing we did upon arrival was to remove the tip tanks. Since these were the old type of under slung tanks, removal was an easy task. After removing the access panel above the tank, mechanics would grab the front and rear of the tank and another would release the bomb shackle that held the tank. Due to the limited fuel capacity, if an aircraft stayed up more than 45 minutes the mechanic would start to worry. The 80s leading edge tanks had small internal passages between sections and had to be filled slowly. We usually would start by filling them to the top, leave the filler caps off, go fill our other tanks and then come back and top off the leading edge tanks. One pilot landed after a normal gunnery mission and as he was entering the hardstand his engine died. The aircraft had enough momentum that he was able to properly park the airplane. When asked why he had stopped the engine he reported he had run out of fuel. Upon further questioning he told the crew chief not to bother filling the leading edge tanks because he had not bothered to use them. Talk about cutting it close. One blue 100 lb. practice bomb was loaded on each wing tip and two guns were loaded with ammunition for normal missions.
The German summers could be warm therefore when at Geibelstat, away from the brasses prying eyes, dress was casual and no one seemed to mind. I recall one pilot showing up to fly wearing shorts and a lightweight shirt with his parachute over his shoulder. Tents were the living quarters and the NCO and officer's club were a small circus tents.
Early in the spring of 1950, I became crew chief of F-80B, 45-8663 and Cuthbert A (Bill) Pattillo became my pilot. To understand this terminology you must understand the close bond between a crew chief, a pilot and their aircraft. Pride is such that to a crew chief or pilot, once assigned, an aircraft becomes his property and it is through his generosity that he is letting the Air Force put its name on the aircraft. Despite rank differences, pilots and their crew chief often form friendships that last the rest of their lives. I was lucky in another way in that Bill was part of a newly formed jet aerobatic team called the Skyblazers. The Skyblazers would become the USAF's jet aerobatic team for Europe. At the time the team consisted of Bill, his twin brother Charles C. (Buck) Pattillo, who were the wing men, Vincent Gordon who was the lead and Larry A. (Dagwood) Damewood who was the slot. I was told that the original lead was supposed to be Harry Evans but he developed some sort of form of jaundice and was temporarily grounded. This was when Vince Gordon was moved from slot to lead.
During the winter of 1949 a new line chief was assigned to the squadron. He was a rarity in that he had been in the Air Force since well prior to WW II. For some reason he and the squadron engineering officer, his direct superior, did not get along. An intelligent engineering officer lets the line chief run the flight line and only interferes if he sees errors in procedures. This officer tended to be pompous at times and his interference was starting to negatively affect the line chief's authority. One day the Air Division Commander, a Brigadier General, walked into the hangar and went directly to the Engineering Office, where the engineering officer and the line chief were located. He walked right past the officer, who was standing at attention and saluting, to the line chief, shook hands with the sergeant and said something like, "Hello Sarge. I haven't seen you since you were my crew chief in 1936". Needless to say the line chief never had any more problems with the engineering officer.
Under today's conditions it may seem strange but even after the Korean war had started we were basically under a five day week and unless night flying was scheduled we seldom worked after 5 pm. At that time being part of a jet aerobatic team was almost like extra duty. The team was still part of an operational squadron and personnel had to complete all normal duties. Today most demonstration teams are a separate unit with their own support staff and training schedules. The advantage came during the weekends when we made trips to air shows, which to us meant free trips to many European cities. The ground support group usually consisted of the aircraft's crew chief, usually a ground flight chief and a systems specialist or two plus of course the transport aircraft's flight crew. Our mode of transportation was usually one of the group's C-47. Not that we could be much of a tourist because we usually worked during the day but we had some awfully good nights. Accommodations depended on our destination. If it was a military base we were usually accommodated in the barracks but if it was a major city we were usually given hotel rooms. Most times we stayed at different hotels than the pilots as they were sent to a higher class establishment.
Because of the distance to be flown, tip tank fuel was required to reach most European cities. The under slung tanks fitted to the F-80s had to be removed before flying aerobatics, but this was easily done (as previously described) upon aircraft arrival. The first air show that I can remember was a military show at RAF West Raynham and the second was at Orly Field in Paris. The Bomb Burst as originally practiced by the Skyblazers was different than presently used. They did not use a four way pass after the burst.. Vince Gordon gave an individual aerobatic show that required set up time. After the burst the three remaining aircraft would do a two-way pass. Two aircraft would fly very low (probably under 5 feet) down the runway in one direction and the third aircraft would key the slot flying between the two aircraft in the opposite direction. Though it looked spectacular this was a relatively safe maneuver. The two aircraft coming one way put their inboard wingtip on the edge of the runway while the singe aircraft flew the centerline. The lack of altitude restrictions meant the pilots could fly extremely low and this was the case on that 1950 day in Paris. You would think that it would be more spectacular if the aircraft passed each other in the center of the air show area, but this is not necessarily true. The two runway edge aircraft were just a second early and the crowd's eyes were naturally following them down the runway when the centerline aircraft suddenly appeared from the opposite direction. If you think several hundred thousand people gasping at the same time cannot drown out a jet aircraft, you are wrong. Our pilots must have given a hell of a show because the British magazine The Aeroplane reported we had two four plane formations of F-80Bs when we only had a grand total of four airplanes. In the 1951 air show season the team went to the more conventional four-way pass but I personally enjoyed watching the two way pass more.
In the fall of 1950 the group was scheduled to change aircraft from the F-80B to the F-84E. Because the F-84 required more runway length, the squadrons were often deployed to other airfields while runway improvements were being made. The squadron's last operation with the F-80s was one to be remembered. In September 1950 during "Exercise Rainbow," the 22nd Squadron was based at Kaiserslautern, Germany and flew off of a partially completed portion of the Autobahn. This was an approximately two kilometer straight section, four lanes wide that ended where construction had stopped during WWII. It was in the middle of the forest and there was a hump in the middle caused by a bridge over a railway. Because there were no taxiways, landing aircraft had to taxi to the end of the road and wait until all other traffic had landed prior to taxing back to the aircraft revetments located at the completed end of the runway. C-47s and C-82s also landed on this road. Originally this created a problem as the trees were so close to the road the aircraft could not turn around unless they taxied all the way to the end. To remedy this situation German Foresters cut back trees in selected areas to make turn around points. A platform was built high in the trees, close to the railway bridge so that both ends of the runway could be seen, and when communications equipment was installed this became the control tower. We lived in tents dispersed in the forest and for most of us it was like a big camping trip.
Two aircraft were lost during the Autobahn operation. One could not be blamed on the operation as it was due to pilot disorientation when the aircraft flew into weather during a low level flight. The other one was due to a common problem of the F-80. The nose landing gear of the F-80 had a set of two shimmy dampeners to eliminate nose wheel oscillations. These were two small hydraulic units, one on each side of the nose strut, acting much like shock absorbers on a automobile. The problem was that even small amounts of contamination could block the orifices in the dampeners, reducing their efficiency and causing the nose wheel to move from side to side (shimmy). Upon landing, one of the aircraft from our flight had the nose wheel cock to one side, but the pilot was able to hold the aircraft on the road. The pilot could not get the nose wheel to straighten so we were called to rescue the aircraft. The flight chief, crew chief and me were sent to rescue the aircraft. After cleaning the dampeners and making a preliminary taxi test, we hopped on the wing of the aircraft and with the flight chief in the cockpit, started the engine and had a nice cool, fast ride back to the revetments. Not the wisest decision as later events would prove. The next day was to be our last day of Autobahn operations so dependents from the nearby US Army base were invited to watch our jets take off. They (and we) got much more than bargained for. The jet aircraft we had just repaired was part of the show. Everything appeared normal during the first half of the take off run but then the nose wheel suddenly turned to the right. Unfortunately the aircraft was going too slow to allow the nose wheel to be lifted and the aircraft skidded off the road. By the use of brakes the pilot was able to keep the aircraft on the road until it had passed over the railway overpass. As soon as it went off the road the dirt embankment caused the landing gear to collapse and the aircraft came to a stop, on its belly, at the bottom of the embankment. The aircraft burst into flames but the pilot, Major John Pedigo, was able to safely exit the airplane without major injury and quickly departed the area. The crew in the control tower was almost directly opposite the accident and being treated to an unparalleled view of the burning aircraft and probably wondering why the pilot left so quickly. Then the aircraft exploded, sending parts of the aircraft high into the air, and they quickly evacuated the tree fort. Discretion became the better part of valor. The visiting military dependents got a show they, and we, hadn't counted on.
Shortly before the Autobahn operation a new, 21 year old, Second Lieutenant Lear was assigned to the squadron. There was a large tally board that contained flight statistics on each pilot giving data such as total flight time, night flying time, instrument time, fighter time, etc. The operations officer was making these entries on the new pilot and was surprised at the new pilot having over 1000 hours of fighter time. This was more fighter hours than some of the WW II veterans in our unit. When questioned about this time, the pilot admitted to flying surplus WW II P-38 fighters in air races and air shows prior to entering the Air Force and flying other types of surplus fighters when he got the opportunity. He was William P. Lear, Jr. son of the famous inventor.
Upon returning to Furstenfeldbruck we began the process of converting from F-80Bs to Republic F-84E Thunderjet (often referred to as the Repulsive Blunderjet). Seventy Five F-84Es had been ferried across the Atlantic by the 27th Fighter Interceptor Group arriving at Fursty on September 18, 1950. At approximately the same time the 86th Group converted from the P-47s and received a similar amount of F-84s. After working on the 80s the F-84s seemed like monsters. It stood much higher off the ground, which allowed it to carry a greater assortment of weapons than the 80 but it also meant that ladders were required for most maintenance. Like all Republic aircraft it was built like a tank. It did not have a good reputation because early models had suffered from wing failures. Both it and the Northrop F-89 had similar types of failures and though not an aircraft design engineer I believe they were due to the wing structure being built very rigid and therefore flight loads were being transferred directly to the wing fittings (rather than being absorbed by the flexing of the wing structure) and this caused fitting failure. By the time we received the aircraft these problems had been solved but another problem was occurring. This was with the Allison J35 engines. Without any warning engines would fail, often just loosing power but at other times catching fire or exploding. Because of the unpredictability of these problems it soon earned the nickname of "the Allison Time Bomb".
Both the F-80 and the F-84 had cockpit canopy problems. Until modified in the early 1950s the F-80As and Bs had manually operated canopies. The problem with these canopies was that when jettisoned they tended to go sideways. This caused pilot's head injuries and may have caused fatalities. To solve the problem small side plates were added to the bottom of the windshield at the fuselage to windshield juncture forcing the canopy to lift and catch the wind forcing the canopy back during jettisoning. These aircraft were later modified to 80C standards with electric canopies that solved the canopy jettison problems The F 84E had problems with canopy failures. To solve this fiberglass straps were glued on to the canopies absorbing the stresses eliminating the failures.
There were always surprises. In the spring of 1951 my aircraft 49-2229 had
just completed a low level mission and, upon taxing back into the hardstand
and stopping, had the left hand tip tank break in half and fall to the ground.
The tank had not broken along a normal seam, it was cut in half vertically;
the seams were horizontal. Apparently the aircraft had hit some cables and these
had cut the tank in half. Upon inspection some cable marks were found on the
wing, and the aileron on that side had cuts in the skin. Why the tank stayed
together until the aircraft parked will always be a mystery. During the aircraft's
first 500-hour inspection (it was one of the first F-84E's to reach 500 hours)
the heat shroud in the aft section that surrounded the tailpipe was removed.
Upon inspection the fuel tank vent tubes that went to posts at the bottom rear
of the fuselage were found to have corroded and had small pinholes throughout
their length. Probably to save weight these tubes were made of a magnesium alloy,
a poor decision. Jet fuel is acidic and it reacted with the highly corrosive
Engine problems continued to plague the F-84E to such an extent that within a nine month period there were 69 in flight engine failures between the two F-84 fighter groups (150 aircraft) in Germany. Remember these were single engined fighters. Pilots were instructed to simulate a minimum of two engine-out landings on each mission. Capt. Larry Damewood had 5 complete engine failures in his two years of flying the F-84E. After a harrowing emergency landing on a short runway, during which the aircraft was damaged, Bill Lear, Jr. told the operations officer that he would no longer fly the F-84. There was talk of taking him before a flight evaluation board but cooler heads prevailed and he was transferred to group where he no longer had to fly the F-84. Even though Bill never asked for preferential treatment, I wonder if his name had not been William P. Lear, Jr. if he would have been handled the same way. The accident rate was so high that in 1952 a F-84E fighter group now stationed at Manston AFB in England had an investigation for suspected sabotage in 1952. No traces of sabotage were found and the results of the investigation were hushed up. Certainly my admiration goes out to those pilots who flew the F-84 combat missions in Korea, but I wonder how many lives were needlessly lost because of engine failures while using this aircraft in combat.
Bill Pattillo was one of the squadron flight leaders and as such quite often had to test fly squadron aircraft after maintenance. In the spring of 1951 shortly after take-off on one of these test flights he had an engine fire warning light come on. These fire warning systems were not known for reliability so Bill did not panic, but when he looked into the rear view mirror and saw flames coming from both sides of the fuselage and with the planes reputation of exploding he immediately jettisoned the canopy and ejected. The ejection seats used at that time had very few of the automatic features used on modern systems. The seat had no drogue parachute and the pilot had to manually un-strap from the seat. Upon releasing himself from the seat the seat's shoulder harness became tangled in his unopened parachute harness and Bill found himself spinning down with the seat still attached. Tearing the seat harness from his parachute harness he was able to separate from the seat and open his parachute. After his parachute opened, Bill looked up and saw the burning airplane slowly turning toward him. The F-84 had four 50-caliber guns in the nose and two guns in the wing roots. The ammunition for the two wing guns was carried in the fuselage above the engine. This ammunition was starting to cook off because of the fire. Bill tried spilling air from his parachute trying to avoid the burning airplane and the fiery ammunition. Just about the time he thought there was no way he could avoid both, the airplane exploded. He was never so glad to see an airplane explode. He landed next to an army anti-aircraft installation. The army personnel immediately put him in a jeep and delivered him to the squadron. Because everything happened so fast no emergency radio call was given and even though the aircraft was in sight of the tower no one saw the incident. Bill announced the bailout by walking into the operations room with an open parachute over his shoulder.
Two weeks later Buck Pattillo was asked to fly the squadron's T-33 to the Air Depot at Rhine Main to pick up some red paint. Since this was our squadron color we were always short of red paint. There wasn't any baggage space in the T-33 so common practice was to load any cargo in the two ammunition cans located in the nose. After the red paint was loaded, Buck took off for Fursty. Upon reaching altitude flames started coming out of the air conditioning system. This meant that flames were at his feet and by one side of his helmet. Buck tried to jettison the canopy but it would not release. He stated that the last thing he remembered was pounding the canopy with his feet a physical impossibility under normal conditions. The next thing he remembered was floating down in his parachute. He landed safely but had extensive burns in his ankle area. Luckily there was no rider in the second seat of the aircraft. Upon inspection of the aircraft wreckage a red paint streak was found coming from the nose to the engine intakes. Due to the pressure in the cans and the lower outside pressure at altitude, the paint cans had popped open allowing volatile paint into the air intakes. Once the red paint entered the engine bleed air for the air conditioning system, a fire resulted. Since this accident might reflect on the officers that sent him on the mission, the OPA (Officer Protective Association) took over and reported the accident was due to an engine fire of unknown origin. We leaned something about what flammable cargos could do when carried in unpressurized portions of an aircraft. Unfortunately despite this and similar accidents fatalities involving the transportation of hazardous cargo in aircraft still plague the aviation industry Although the brothers' accidents were not related they were kidded for some time about trying to emulate each other.
Though the Air Force would not officially admit it was having problems with the F-84Es, they first refused to let the Skyblazers fly as an aerobatic team. I have been told that after much haggling, the decision was finally made by General Vandenberg, the Air Force's Commanding General, allowing the team to fly. One major change was made in personnel. Capt. Vincent Gordon had been re-assigned to the United States and Capt. Harry Evans returned as team leader. The first air show of the season was again at West Raynham and the second was on 1 July 1951 at Le Bourget in Paris.
The Le Bourget air show probably had the most spectacular ending to the bomb burst ever seen. By this time the team was using the more conventional four way bomb bust practiced by most of today's aerobatic teams. The bomb burst was the last maneuver before reforming to land. Our parking area was near the end of the runway and as I was watching my pilot diving down for the four way pass, I saw a woman walking in the grass at the end of the runway. The aircraft was actually lower than her head and Bill lifted a wing and swept over her. The aircraft was so close that upon passing over, her skirt went up and at the same time she raised her arms and fainted. Bill who does not remember the event (he probably thought it was a post of some sort) lowered the wing and continued down the runway. Upon pulling up to reform he found himself on a collision course with a staggered formation of 48 French built Vampires (the papers reported there were 50 of them, but they were in groups of four). There was nothing Bill could do because any turning would just increase the chance of collision. Someone in the formation or in air show control must have yelled the French equivalent of "Break" because just as he approached the formation the formation broke up. They broke up in singles; consequently the sky was full of Vampires going in all directions. The crowd on the ground applauded wildly as they thought it was a planned maneuver. Upon landing, while I was unstrapping Bill from the ejection seat, he looked up at me and said "I swear I went between the twin booms of a Vampire".
In February of 1952 I was transferred to Williams Air Force Base Arizona and became a maintenance flight chief in a jet training squadron equipped with F-80s and T-33s. The F-80s were mostly A models converted with some C model equipment. They had electric canopies and ejection seats. After 6 months at Williams AFB I was transferred to Chanute AFB to attend B-29 Flight Engineer's school. This ended my career as a jet fighter mechanic.
I would stay in the Air Force for 15 years becoming a ground instructor in the B-29 Flight Engineers School at Chanute AFB, go through cadets and become a Flight Engineer in B-36s (unfortunately near the end of the B-36s life), then become a Navigator-Bombardier in B-47s. The 36th Group would move to Bitberg AFB, Germany shortly after I left. I was told that my F-84 (49-2229) caught fire while taxiing at Bitberg and was completely destroyed. Apparently this was not that unusual for an aircraft equipped with the Allison Time Bomb. When the 36th group replaced the F-84s with F-86s they produced a short film celebrating the event. This film was accordingly derogatory to the F-84s and Republic asked the Air Force to have all copies destroyed. Apparently at least one copy escaped destruction as it was shown approximately 20 years ago at a Group Reunion. My crew chief's jacket from the Skyblazers was donated to the Air Force Museum and was on display in the demonstration teams exhibit for approximately 25 years. Recently the Museum has moved the exhibit so I do not know if it is still on display.
All the pilots from the original Skyblazers would retire from the Air Force. Harry Evans would retire as a Lt. Col.. Vince Gordon and Larry Damewood would retire as Colonels. The Pattillo brothers would return to Luke AFB, Arizona in 1952 and become the wing men in the original Thunderbirds. Bill Pattillo would retire from the Air Force as a Major General, Buck Pattillo would retire as a Lt. General. This is probably the highest rank attained by a set of twins in any of the United States military services. A few years ago the Pattillo brothers were enshrined in the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.
Used with permission © RICHARD W. KAMM
Posted January 2006