Tag Archives: North American Aviation F-86 Sabre

20 January 1930

ALDRIN, Edwin Eugene, Jr., Apollo 11. (NASA)
Colonel Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr., United States Air Force, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Astronaut, in the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, Eagle. (NASA)
Edwin E. (“Buzz”) Aldrin, Jr., 1947. (The Amphitheatre)

20 January 1930: Colonel Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., Sc.D., United States Air Force (Retired), was born at Glen Ridge, New Jersey, the second child of Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Aviation Director of Standard Oil of New Jersey, and Marion Gaddys Moon Aldrin.

The family resided in Montclair, New Jersey. “Buzz” Aldrin attended Montclair High School, and participated in football and track and field (pole vault). He graduated in 1947.

After high school, Aldrin turned down a full scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and instead went to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. During his Plebe Year (freshman), he placed first in academics and physical education. He was a member of the French Club, and the track and swim team. In his third year, he was a cadet corporal, and was designated as “distinguished.” He served as a cadet lieutenant during his final year.

Cadet Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr., 1951. (The Howitzer)

Aldrin graduated 5 June 1951with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering (B.S.M.E.). He was ranked third in his class. A notation in the class yearbook states,

“As is evidenced by his fine record at the Academy, Buzz should make a capable, dependable and efficient officer in the U.S. Air Force.”

The Howitzer 1951, at Page 98

He accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force with the date of rank retroactive to 1 June 1951. Second Lieutenant Aldrin was assigned to basic flight training at Bartow Air Force Base, Florida. Advanced training took place at Bryan Air Force Base, Texas. He trained as a fighter pilot and transitioned to the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre at Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, Nevada.

Lieutenant Aldrin flew the North American Aviation F-86E Sabre with the 16th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, located at Suwon Air Base (K-13). He shot down an enemy Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15 fighter, 14 May 1953, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.¹ Three weeks later, 7 June, he shot down a second MiG 15.

Still images from the gun camera film show an enemy pilot bailing out of a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15 shot down by Lieutenant Edwin E. (“Buzz”) Aldrin, U.S. Air Force, 5 miles south of the Yalu River, 14 May 1953. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Lieutenant Buzz Aldrin, 51st Fighter Interceptor Squadron, in teh cocpit of a North American Aviation F-86A Sabre, after shooting down an enemy MiG 15 fighter. (U.S. Air Force via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Lieutenant Buzz Aldrin, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, in the cockpit of a North American Aviation F-86E Sabre after shooting down an enemy Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15 fighter during the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force via Jet Pilot Overseas)

Buzz Aldrin flew 66 combat missions during the Korean War. After returning to the United States, he served as a flight instructor at Bryan AFB, Texas, and then a gunnery instructor at Nellis AFB, Nevada.

Instructor Buzz Aldrin in the cockpit of a Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star at Bryan Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force via Jet Pilot Overseas)

1st Lieutenant Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., married Miss Joan Ann Archer at the Episcopal Church in Ho-ho-kus, New Jersey, 29 December 1954. They would have three children.

Lieutenant and Mrs. Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., 29 December 1954. The bride is the former Miss Joan Ann Archer.

Lieutenant Aldrin’s next assignment was to the three-month Squadron officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. Aldrin then served as an aide to Brigadier General Don Zabriskie Zimmerman, Dean of Faculty at the newly-established United States Air Force Academy, which was then located at Lowry Air Force Base, Denver, Colorado.

In 1955, Captain Aldrin was assigned to the 22nd Fighter Day Squadron, 36th Fighter Day Wing, at Bitberg Air Base, Germany, flying the North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre. The squadron trained at Wheelus Air Base in North Africa.

North American Aviation F-100C-20-NA Super Sabre 54-1941, 22nd Fighter Day Squadron, 36th Fighter Day Wing, at Bitberg Air Base, Germany. (U.S. Air Force)

In 1959 Captain Aldrin returned to the United States to enter a masters degree program in Aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), Cambridge, Massachusetts. Aldrin and his wife were both very seriously ill at this time, and he was in a military hospital for the first six months. With nothing to do but study, he finished first among the other Air Force officers in the program.

Aldrin remained at M.I.T. to earn a Doctorate in Science in Astronautics (Sc.D.) by devising orbital navigation techniques. His thesis on Manned Orbital Rendezvous, earned Buzz another nickname: “Dr. Rendezvous.”

In October 1963, Major Aldrin was selected as an astronaut for the Gemini Program. He was one of 14 members of NASA Astronaut Group 3, which was announced 18 October 1963. He flew with James A. Lovell, Jr., aboard Gemini XII, 11–15 November 1966. They made 59 orbits of the Earth in 3 days, 22 hours, 34 minutes, 31 seconds. Aldrin performed the first successful “space walk.” He was outside the spacecraft for three “EVAs,” of 2 hours, 29 minutes; 2 hours, 6 minutes; and 55 minutes.He then went on to the Apollo Program. A rendezvous and docking with an Agena target vehicle was also successful.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing in the open hatch of Gemini XII in Earth orbit. (NASA)

Gemini XII was the final manned flight of the Gemini Program. Buzz Aldrin moved on to the Apollo Program.

Along with Neil Alden Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon, 20 July 1969.

Astronaut Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr. on the surface of The Moon, 20 July 1969. (Neil A. Armstrong/NASA)

Aldrin resigned from NASA in July 1971. Returning to operational service with the Air Force, Colonel Aldrin was assigned as Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He retired in March 1972.

Colonel Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., United States Air Force.
Colonel Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr., United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

In Return To Earth, (Random House, Inc., New York, 1973) Buzz Aldrin wrote about the depression he suffered: After you’ve been to the Moon, what else is there?

Aldrin has been married three times. He and his first wife, Joan, divorced in December 1974. He married Mrs. Beverly I. Handelsman Van Zile, 19 December 1975. They divorced 10 April 1978. On Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1988, Aldrin married his third wife, Mrs. Lois Driggs Cannon. They divorced 28 December 2012.

Buzz Aldrin has written several books and he continues to advocate manned space exploration.

HAPPY 88th BIRTHDAY, Colonel Aldrin!

Edwin Eugene (“Buzz”) Aldrin, Jr., Sc.D., Colonel, U.S. Air Force (Retired), and NASA Astronaut, August 2016. (Mike Marsland/WireImage)

¹ Soviet records indicate that a MiG 15 of 913 IAP (Istrebitel’nyy Aviatsionnyy Polk, Fighter Aviation Regiment), 32nd IAD (Istrebitel’naya Aviatsionnyy Diveeziya, Fighter Aviation Division), based at Antung Air Base, China, was shot down by an F-86 on 13 May 1953. The pilot, Senior Lieutenant Hristoforov, ejected safely. There were three MiG 15 losses that occurred on 14 May 1953. Two MiGs of 224 IAP collided and both pilots, Senior Lieutenant Odintsov and Lieutenant Evgeny Stroliikov, ejected. Odintsov was seriously hurt. A third MiG 15 crash landed at Myagoy Air Base. Its pilot, Senior Lieutenant Vladimir Sedashev, 518 IAP, was killed.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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13 December 1951

Major George Andrew Davis, Jr., United states Air Force, 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, Korea, 1951. (U.S. Air Force)
Major George Andrew Davis, Jr., United States Air Force, Commanding Officer, 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, Korea, 1951. (U.S. Air Force)

13 December 1951: Major George Andrew Davis, Jr., United States Air Force, commanding officer of the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, flying a North American F-86E-10-NA Sabre, serial number 51-2752, led his unit on two “MiG Sweeps.”

Film from the gun camera of Major Davis’ F-86E Sabre 51-2752 shows a MiG 15 smoking after being hit, 13 December 1951. (U.S. Air Force)
Film from the gun camera of Major Davis’ F-86E Sabre 51-2752 shows a MiG 15 smoking after being hit, 13 December 1951. (U.S. Air Force)

During the mid-day fighter sweep, the 334th encountered Mikoyan Gurevich MiG 15 fighters of the 18th GIAP, 303rd IAD,  Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (the Soviet Air Force), and an air battle ensued. Major Davis was credited with shooting down two of the Russian fighters. The pilot of one of the MiGs, I.A. Gorsky, was killed. The identity and fate of the second Soviet pilot is not known.

During a second sweep in mid-afternoon, George Davis and the 334th again encountered enemy MiG 15s of the 40th Regiment, 14th Division, of the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (Chinese Air Force). At 3:52 p.m. (1352) Davis shot down one of the Chinese MiG 15s. One minute later, he shot down another, his fourth aerial victory for the day.

These frames of film from the gun camera of Davis’ F-86 Sabre show a MiG 15 trailing smoke after being hit by the Sabre’s six .50-caliber machine guns. Chinese sources confirmed the loss of two MiG 15s, but again, the identities of the pilots and whether or not they survived is not known.

This North American Aviation F-86E-10-NA Sabre, 51-2849, seen here in flight over Edwards Air Force base, california, is the same type fighter that was flown by Major George Davis, 13 December 1951. (U.S. Air Force)
This North American Aviation F-86E-10-NA Sabre, 51-2849, seen here in flight near Edwards Air Force Base, California, is the same type fighter that was flown by Major George A. Davis, Jr., 13 December 1951. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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30 November 1951

Major George A. Davis, Jr., commanding officer, 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, 5th Air Force, Kimpo Air Base, Korea, 1952. The airplane behind Davis is North American Aviation F-86A-5-NA Sabre 49-1272. It is on display at the Fresno Air Terminal, Fresno, California. (U.S. Air Force)
Major George A. Davis, Jr., commanding officer, 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, 5th Air Force, Kimpo Air Base, Korea, 1952. The airplane behind Davis is North American Aviation F-86A-5-NA Sabre 49-1272. It is on display at the Fresno Air Terminal, Fresno, California. (U.S. Air Force)

30 November 1951: Major George Andrew Davis, Jr., commanding the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, based at Kimpo Air Base, South Korea, led a patrol of eight North American Aviation F-86 Sabre fighters near the Yalu River, dividing Korea from China. This area was known as “MiG Alley” because of the large numbers of Russian-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 fighters which were based on the Chinese side of the river.

North American Aviation F-86A Sabres of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, South Korea, circa June 1951. (U.S. Air Force)

At about 4:00 p.m., the American pilots saw a group of nine Russian Tupolev Tu-2 twin-engine medium bombers, escorted by 16 Lavochkin La-11 fighters. The bombers were on a mission to attack Taewa-do Island.

Tupolev Tu-2 medium bomber. NATO reporting name "Bat". Major George Davis shot down three of these and a MiG-15, 30 November 1951.
Tupolev Tu-2 medium bomber. NATO reporting name “Bat.” Major George Davis shot down three of these and a MiG-15, 30 November 1951.
Lavochkin La-11. (AirPages)

Davis led his fighters in an attack, making four firing passes on the bombers. He shot down three of the Tu-2s, when one of his pilots, Captain Raymond O. Barton, Jr., called for help. Barton’s Sabre, F-86A-5-NA 49-292, was under attack by 24 MiG-15s which had arrived to reinforce the bombing mission. Barton later described the battle:

“. . . I broke left again and was going to make another pass when I checked my ‘six o’clock’ to clear for my wingman. All of the sudden the SOB started shooting at me, and only then did I realize that I had attracted far more than one MiG. I turned into them. . . I called for help, and the only response I got was from my roommate, Major George Davis. I’ll never forget his reply. ‘I don’t have enough fuel left either but I’m on the way.’  All the MiGs except one had left the area. I had a huge hole where my left fuel cap had been, but I was still flying. When George reached me, he asked me to make a couple of identifying turn reversals. I reluctantly did and he shot that SOB right off my butt.

F-86 Sabre Aces of the 4th Fighter Wing, by Warren Thompson, Osprey Publishing Ltd., Oxford, 2006, Chapter 2 at Page 32.

Distinguished Service Cross

Major Davis escorted Captain Barton back to their base, landing with just five gallons of fuel remaining in his tanks.

For his actions, Major George A. Davis, Jr., was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Having shot down four enemy aircraft during one fighter patrol, Davis’ score of aerial victories during his short time in Korea rose to six, making him an ace for the Korean War. Davis had previously shot down seven enemy airplanes during World War II with his Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Davis was the first American pilot to become an ace in two wars.

George Davis would soon be credited with another eight victories, making him the leading American ace up to that time. He was killed in action 10 February 1952 in an air battle for which he would be awarded the Medal of Honor.

A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15bis in a hangar at Kimpo Air Base, South Korea. A defecting North Korean pilot, Lieutenant No Kum-Sok, flew it to Kimpo, 21 September 1953. It was examined and test flown by Air Force test pilot Major Charles E. Yeager. The United States offered to return the airplane, but the offer was ignored. In 1957, the MiG-15 was placed in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force).
MIG 15 Red 2057. A North Korean Peoples’ Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15bis in a hangar at Kimpo Air Base, Republic of South Korea. A defecting North Korean pilot, Lieutenant No Kum-Sok, flew it to Kimpo on 21 September 1953. It was taken to Okinawa, examined and test flown by U.S.A.F. test pilots, including Major Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager. This MiG 15 is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force).

Raymond Oscar (“R.O.”) Barton, Jr., was born at Omaha, Nebraska, 8 March 1927. he was the son of Major General Raymond O. Barton and Clare Fitzpatrick Barton. He was a 1948 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Barton flew 100 combat missions during the Korean War. He is credited with three MiG 15s destroyed and another 7 damaged. R.O. Barton died at Augusta, Georgia, in 2003.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 October 1947

North American Aviation test pilot George S. Welch, flying the first of three XP-86 prototypes, serial number 45-59597. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

1 October 1947: After three years development in which 801,386 engineering hours and 340,594 drafting hours had been expended, the first prototype North American Aviation XP-86 (company designation NA-140), serial number 45-59597, was ready for its first flight at Muroc Dry Lake in the high desert north of Los Angeles, California.

Completed at North American’s Inglewood plant on 8 August 1947, it was trucked to Muroc in mid-September. It was reassembled, everything was checked out, and after a few taxi tests, company test pilot George S. Welch took off for a initial familiarization flight. Chief Test Pilot Bob Chilton flew chase in an XP-82 Twin Mustang with a company photographer on board. The duration of the first flight was 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Recently completed, the first prototype XP-86, 45-59597, waits inside the North American Aviation plant at Inglewood, California, 14 August 1947. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

During this first flight, George Welch climbed to 35,000 feet (10,668 meters):

“In a little more than ten minutes he had reached 35,000 feet. Leveling out, the test pilot smiled as he watched the indicated airspeed accelerate to 320 knots. He estimated that should be 0.90 Mach number. . . Rolling into a 40 degree dive, he turned west. . . The airspeed indicator seemed to be stuck at about 350 knots. The Sabre was behaving just fine. Then at 29,000 feet, there was a little wing roll. Correcting the roll, George pushed into a steeper dive. The airspeed indicator suddenly jumped to 410 knots and continued to rise. At 25,000 feet, he pulled the Sabre into level flight and reduced power. The wing rocked again and the airspeed jumped back to 390.”

Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1, by Al Blackburn, Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, 1998, at Chapter 5, Pages 144–145.

George Welch was the first to report instrument readings that would be referred to as “Mach jump.” It has been argued that George Welch flew the XP-86 beyond Mach 1 during this flight, breaking the “sound barrier” two weeks before Chuck Yeager did with the Bell X-1 rocketplane. During flight testing, it was firmly established that the XP-86 could reach Mach 1.02–1.04 in a dive, so it is certainly possible that he did so on the Sabre’s first flight.

North American Aviation Model NA-140, the first XP-86 prototype, 45-59597, at Muroc AAF, 1947. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation Model NA-140, the first XP-86 prototype, 45-59597, at Muroc AAF, 1947. (U.S. Air Force)

The XP-86 was unlike any airplane before it. It was the first airplane with a swept wing. After analyzing test data from the Messerschmitt Me 262, North American’s engineers designed a wing with a 35° degree sweep back to its leading edge. The wing tapered toward the tips, and its thickness also decreased from the root to the tip. In order to create a very strong but very thin wing, it was built with a two-layered aluminum skin, instead of ribs and spars, with each layer separated by “hat” sections. The wing sweep allowed high speed shock waves to form without stalling the entire wing. The wing also incorporated leading edge “slats” which were airfoil sections that automatically extended below 290 knots, smoothing the air flow over the wing’s upper surface and creating more lift at slow speeds. Above that speed, aerodynamic forces closed the slats, decreasing drag and allowing for higher speeds. Effectively, the wing could change its shape in flight.

Test pilot George S. Welch, wearing his distinctive orange helmet, in the cockpit of the prototype XP-86. This photograph was taken 14 October 1947. (U.S. Air Force)
This photograph of the XP-86 shows the 35° wing sweep. Test pilot George S. Welch, wearing his distinctive orange helmet, in the cockpit of the prototype XP-86. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The XP-86 prototypes were 37 feet, 6½ inches (11.443 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1–7/16 inches (11.314 meters) and overall height of 14 feet, 9 inches (4.496 meters). The empty weight was 9,730 pounds (4,413.5 kilograms), gross weight, 13,395 pounds (6,075.9 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight was 16,438 pounds (7,456.2 kilograms).

The XP-86 was initially powered by a General Electric-designed, Chevrolet-built J35-C-3 turbojet which produced 4,000 pounds of thrust. This was soon changed to an Allison J35-A-5. Performance testing was conducted with the Allison engine installed. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engine with an 11-stage compressor and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-5 was rated at 4,000 pounds of thrust (17.79 kilonewtons) at 7,700 r.p.m. (static thrust, Sea Level). The engine was 14 feet, 0.0 inches (4.267 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,400 pounds (1,089 kilograms).

The three North American Aviation XP-86 prototypes. Front to back, 45-59598, 45-59597 and 45-59599. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The maximum speed of the XP-86 at Sea Level was 0.787 Mach (599 miles per hour, 964 kilometers per hour), 0.854 Mach (618 miles per hour, 995 kilometers per hour) at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) and 575 miles per hour (925 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters)—0.875 Mach.

The prototype fighter was able to take off at 125 miles per hour (201 kilometers per hour) in just 3,020 feet (920.5 meters) of runway. It could climb to 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) in 12.1 minutes and had a service ceiling of 41,300 feet (12,588 meters).

George S. Welch, North American Aviation test pilot, wearing his orange flight helmet. An F-86 Sabre is in the background. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Photo Archives)

George Welch was born George Lewis Schwartz, in Wilmington, Delaware, 10 May 1918. His parents changed his surname to Welch, his mother’s maiden name, so that he would not be effected by the anti-German prejudice that was widespread in America following World War I. He studied mechanical engineering at Purdue, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939.

George S. Welch is best remembered as one of the heroes of Pearl Harbor. He was one of only two fighter pilots to get airborne during the Japanese surprise attack on Hawaii, 7 December 1941. Flying a Curtiss P-40B Warhawk, he shot down three Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers and one Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter. For this action, Lieutenant General H.H. “Hap” Arnold recommended the Medal of Honor, but because Lieutenant Welch had taken off without orders, an officer in his chain of command refused to endorse the nomination. He received the Distinguished Service Cross.

During World War II, George Welch flew the Bell P-39 Airacobra and Lockheed P-38 Lightning on 348 combat missions. He had 16 confirmed aerial victories over Japanese airplanes and rose to the rank of Major.

Suffering from malaria, George Welch was out of combat, and when North American Aviation approached him to test the new P-51H Mustang, General Arnold authorized his resignation. Welch test flew the P-51, FJ-1 Fury, F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre. He was killed 12 October 1954 when his F-100A Super Sabre came apart in a 7 G pull up from a Mach 1.5 dive.

North American Aviation F-86-A-NA Sabre 47-630. (North American Aviation, Inc./Chicago Tribune)
North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre 47-630. (North American Aviation, Inc./Chicago Tribune)

After testing, the North American Aviation XP-86 was approved for production as the F-86A. It became operational in 1949. The first squadron to fly the F-86 held a naming contest and from 78 suggestions, the name “Sabre” was chosen. The F-86 Sabre was in production until 1955 at North American’s Inglewood, California and Cleveland, Ohio plants. It was also built under license by Canadair, Ltd., Sain-Laurent, Quebec, Canada; the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; and Mitsubishi Heavy  Industries at Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan. A total of 9,860 Sabres were built. They served with the United States Air Force until 1970.

XP-86 45-59597 was expended in nuclear weapons tests, Operation Snapper Easy and Snapper Fox, at the Nevada Test Site, Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada, in May 1952. The second and third prototypes, 45-59598 and 45-59599, met similar fates.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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30 August 1952

The left wing attachment points of this Northrop F-89C-30-NO Scorpion, 51-5781, failded during a fly-by at the Inaternational Aviation Exposition, Detroit, Michigan, 30 August 1952. (U.S. Air Force)
The left wing of this Northrop F-89C-30-NO Scorpion, 51-5781, failed during a fly-by at the International Aviation Exposition, Detroit, Michigan, 30 August 1952. (Wikipedia)

30 August 1952: At 4:40 p.m., a tragic accident occurred during a fly-by of two new United States Air Force Northrop F-89C Scorpion all weather interceptors at the International Aviation Exposition at Detroit, Michigan.

Two F-89Cs of the 27th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4711th Defense Wing, based at Griffis Air Force Base, Rome, New York, made a low-altitude, high speed pass in full view of 51,000 spectators, including General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, then serving his second term as Chief of Staff, United States Air Force. Suddenly, the left wing of the lead interceptor separated. The tail also broke away and the fighter crashed and exploded. In the resulting fire, the Scorpion’s 20 millimeter cannon shells exploded.

Photograph by B.J. Mullof from The Detroit Free Press, Sunday, 31 August 1952, Vol.122, No. 118, Page 1, Columns 1–3.

Major Donald E. Adams, a fighter ace who had won the Silver Star in Korea just months earlier, was killed, along with Captain Edward F. Kelly, Jr., the radar intercept officer. Five people on the ground were injured by falling wreckage.

The second F-89 was flown by Major John Recher and Captain Thomas Myslicki. They landed immediately at Selfridge Air Force Base.

This was not the first wing failure in an F-89C, nor the last. The Air Force grounded the Scorpions and ordered Northrop to return the airplanes to the factory or to modification centers using the company’s pilots. Northrop engineers began an intensive investigation to discover the cause of these catastrophic failures.

When designing the airplane engineers tried to use materials that provided the greatest strength at the lightest weight. A new aluminum alloy had been used for the wing attachment fittings. This material had properties that weren’t understood at the time, but when subjected to certain types of dynamic loads, it could fatigue and become brittle rapidly. It was also very sensitive to surface imperfections, such as scratches or machining marks, that could rapidly propagate fatigue fractures.

Northrop F-89C-30-NO Scorpion 51-5785, sister ship of Major Adams’ interceptor.

A second problem was that, under certain conditions, the Scorpion’s wings could enter a sequence of rapidly increasing oscillations, actually twisting the wing. This occurred so quickly that a pilot was not likely to see it happening. The twisting motion focused on the wing attachment points, and resulted in a catastrophic failure.

Northrop redesigned the wing to reduce the oscillation, and replaced the aluminum attachment fittings with new ones made of forged steel.

The F-89 was returned to service and became a very reliable airplane.

Pilot and radar intercept officer of a Northrop F-89C Scorpion. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

Major Adams’ Scorpion, Northrop F-89C-30-NO 51-5781, was a two-place, twin-engine, all weather interceptor, designed as a replacement for the World War II-era Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter. It was 53 feet, 5 inches (16.281 meters) long with a wingspan of 56 feet (17.069 meters) and overall height of 17 feet, 6 inches (5.334 meters). Its empty weight was 24,570 pounds (11,145 kilograms) and maximum gross weight was 37,348 pounds (16,941 kilograms).

The F-89C was powered by two Allison J35-A-33 afterburning turbojet engines. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet with an 11-stage compressor section, 8 combustion chambers and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-33 was rated at 5,400 pounds of thrust (24.02 kilonewtons) and 7,400 pounds (32.92 kilonewtons) with afterburner.

It had a maximum speed of 650 miles per hour (1,046 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level and 562 miles per hour (905 kilometers per hour) at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). The service ceiling was 50,500 feet (15,392 meters) and maximum range was 905 miles (1,457 kilometers).

An Air Force master sergeant loading 20mm cannon shells for an F-89’s six 20 mm guns. (LIFE Magazine)

The interceptor was armed with six 20 mm M24 cannon in the nose, and could carry sixteen 5-inch rockets or 3,200 pounds (1,451.5 kilograms) of bombs on hardpoints under its wings.

Northrop Corporation built 1,050 F-89 Scorpions. 164 were F-89Cs. Variants produced after this deleted the six cannon in the nose and used aerial rockets instead. Scorpions served the Air Force and Air National Guard in the air defense role until 1969.

Major Donald E. Adams, United States Air Force. (Imperial War Museum)

Donald Earl Adams was born 23 February 1921 at Canton, New York. He was the first of two sons of Alonzo Deys Adams, a wallpaper and paint salesman, and Mae C. Hurd Adams.

Adams attended Western State Teachers College, Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was a member of the baseball, boxing and wrestling teams.

After graduating from college, Adams enlisted as a private, Enlisted Reserve Corps, at Rochester, New York, 10 October 1942. He was 6 feet, 0 inches (1.83 meters) tall and weighed 155 pounds (70 kilograms). Private Adams was appointed an Aviation Cadet, 18 November 1942.

Miss Mary Ann Lewark, 1942

On 13 February 1943, at Montgomery, Alabama, Adams married Miss Mary Ann Lewark, the 21-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Glenn W. Lewark, and a graduate of Western Michigan College at Kalamazoo. They would have three children, Donald, Nancy and Steven.

On completion of flight training, Cadet Adams was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.), 30 August 1943.

Lieutenant Adams was assigned as a flight instructor until July 1944, when he underwent operational training as a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot.

Second Lieutenant Adams joined the 343rd Fighter Squadron, 55th Fighter Group, at RAF Wormingford (Air Force Station 131), Hertfordshire, in February 1945. He was assigned a North American Aviation P-51D-15-NA Mustang, 44-15372, with squadron markings CY R. He named his fighter Sweet Mary, after his wife. Adams is credited with destroying a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Me 410 and damaging a second Bf 109, in strafing attacks on the afternoon of 9 April 1945, and a second Bf 109 damaged, 17 April 1945. He was promoted to First Lieutenant, A.U.S., 2 May 1945.

1st Lieutenant Donald Earl Adams, 343rd Fighter Squadron, 55th Fighter Group, 1945. (Imperial War Museum)

On 24 August 1946, Lieutenant Adams was appointed a second lieutenant, Field Artillery, with date of rank to 30 August 1943, his original commissioning date. In November 1946, Lieutenant Adams was assigned to the 307th Fighter Squadron, 31st Fighter Group, on occupation duty at Kitzigen Army Airfield in Bavaria. The 307th was one of the first units to be equipped with the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star jet fighter. On 1 May 1947, Lieutenant Adams was transferred to the Air Corps.

Returning to the United States in June 1947, Lieutenant Adams was assigned to the 62nd Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, at Selfridge Air Force Base, near Mount Clemens, Michigan. The squadron flew P-80s and F-86 Sabres.

In October 1951, Major Adams joined the 16th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, 51st Fighter-Interceptor Group, at Suwon Air Base (K-13), Republic of South Korea, flying the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre.

Silver Star

On 3 May 1952, Adams was leading a flight of six Sabres. He and his flight attacked a group of twenty Chinese MiG 15s. During the battle, he shot down the enemy flight leader and then the deputy flight leader and damaged three more enemy fighters, completely breaking up the enemy flight. He was awarded the Silver Star.

While flying the the 16th, Major Adams was credited with destroying 6½ enemy aircraft in aerial combat, and damaging another 3½. On his twentieth mission, he had just shot down a MiG 15 when he was attacked by four more. The enemy fighters chased Adams out over the Yellow Sea before he could break away. By this time, he was 250 miles (402 kilometers) from base with fuel remaining for just 100 miles (161 kilometers). He said, “I climbed to 45,000 feet [13,716 meters], shut of the engine and glided 150 miles [241 kilometers] before starting up again.”

Adams flew 100 combat missions during the Korean War. He returned to the United States 16 June 1952, and in July, was assigned to the 27th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, 4711th Defense Wing, Air Defense Command, at Griffis Air Force Base.

In addition to the Silver Star, Major Adams had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with one silver and two bronze oak leaf clusters (seven awards), the Presidential Unit Citation with one oak leaf cluster (two awards), the American Campaign Medal, European African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three service stars, World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with three service stars (three campaigns), the Air Force Longevity Service Award with one oak leaf cluster (ten years service), the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, the United Nations Service Medal for Korea, and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.

Major Donald Earl Adams, United States Air Force, is buried at the Clinton Grove Cemetery, Mount Clemens, Michigan.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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