21 May 1955: At 05:59:45 Pacific Standard Time (13:59:45 UTC) 1st Lieutenant John M. (“Jack”) Conroy, U.S. Air Force, a World War II B-17 pilot and former Prisoner of War, took off from the California Air National Guard Base at the San Fernando Valley Airport (re-named Van Nuys Airport in 1957). His airplane was a specially-prepared North American Aviation F-86A-5-NA Sabre, USAF serial number 49-1046. His Destination? Van Nuys, California—by way of Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York. His plan was to return to the ANG base in “The Valley” before sunset.
Several weeks of planning and preparation were involved in “Operation Boomerang”. Five refueling stops would be required and Air National Guard personnel across the United States would handle that. A deviation from peacetime standards would allow the Sabre to be refueled with the engine running to minimize time spent on the ground. (The F-86 was not capable of inflight refueling.) The six-year-old F-86A was polished to ensure that all rivet heads were smooth, seams in the fuselage and wing skin panels were adjusted for precise fit, then were sealed. The gun ports for the six .50-caliber Browning machine guns in the fighter’s nose were filled then covered with doped fabric and painted. This was to reduce aerodynamic drag as much as possible. The General Electric J47-GE-13 turbojet was overhauled, then tested and adjusted for maximum efficiency.
Arrangements for official timing of the West to East and Back Again speed run were paid for by North American Aviation, Inc., whose personnel also provided technical support to the Air National Guard.
Jack Conroy’s F-86A was nicknamed California Boomerang, and had a map of the United States and a boomerang painted on the fuselage. The Sabre remained in its overall natural aluminum finish but had green stripes on the fuselage, vertical fin and wings.
After takeoff, Lieutenant Conroy climbed to approximately 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) and headed to his first refueling stop at Denver, Colorado. He landed at 7:48 a.m. PST and the Sabre was refueled and off again in just 6 minutes. From Denver he continued eastward to Springfield, Illinois, arriving at 9:32 a.m. PST. Refueling there took 5 minutes. The next stop was Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York. He touched down at 11:19 a.m., PST and remained on the ground for 39 minutes.
Conroy departed Mitchel Field on the westbound leg at 11:58 a.m. PST and arrived at Lockburne Air Force Base, Ohio at 12:58 p.m., PST. This refueling stop required 7 minutes. Next on the flight plan was Tulsa, Oklahoma. The airplane landed there at 2:26 p.m. PST, and was refueled and airborne again in 6 minutes. The last refueling took place at Albuquerque, New Mexico. Lieutenant Conroy landed at 3:58 p.m., PST. After another 7 minute stopover, California Boomerang took off on the final leg of the round-trip journey, finally landing back at Van Nuys, California at 5:26:18 p.m., PST.
John Conroy’s Coast-to-Coast-to-Coast “dawn to dusk” flight covered 5,058 miles (8,140.1 kilometers). The total elapsed time was 11 hours, 26 minutes, 33 seconds. His average speed was 445 miles per hour (716.2 kilometers per hour). Weather across the country caused some delays as Jack Conroy had to make instrument approaches to three of the airports.
California Boomerang, North American Aviation F-86A-5-NA Sabre 49-1046, is on display as a “gate guard” at the entrance to the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station, adjacent to Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, California.
13 February 1923: Brigadier General Charles Elwood Yeager, United States Air Force (Retired), was born at Myra, West Virginia.
“Who is the greatest pilot I ever saw? Well, uh. . . Well, let me tell you. . . .”
The following is from the official U.S. Air Force biography: (Photographs from various sources)
“The world’s first man-made sonic boom told the story. On Oct. 14, 1947, over dry Rogers Lake in California, Chuck Yeager rode the X-1, attached to the belly of a B-29 bomber, to an altitude of 25,000 feet. After releasing from the B-29, he rocketed to an altitude of 40,000 feet. Moments later he became the first person to break the sound barrier, safely taking the X-1 he called Glamorous Glennis to a speed of 662 mph, faster than the speed of sound at that altitude. His first words after the flight were, ‘I’m still wearing my ears and nothing else fell off neither.’
“Yeager was born in February 1923 in Myra, W. V. In September 1941, he enlisted as a private in the Army Air Corps. He was soon accepted for pilot training under the flying sergeant program and received his pilot wings and appointment as a flight officer in March 1943 at Luke Field, Ariz.
“His first assignment was as a P-39 pilot with the 363rd Fighter Squadron, Tonopah, Nev. He went to England in November 1943 and flew P-51s in combat against the Germans, shooting down one ME-109 and an HE-111K before being shot down on his eighth combat mission over German-occupied France on March 5, 1944. He evaded capture by the enemy when elements of the French Maquis helped him to reach the safety of the Spanish border. That summer, he was released to the British at Gibraltar and returned to England. He returned to his squadron and flew 56 more combat missions, shooting down 11 more enemy aircraft.
“Returning to stateside, Yeager participated in various test projects, including the P-80 Shooting Star and P-84 Thunderjet. He also evaluated all the German and Japanese fighter aircraft brought back to the United States after the war. This assignment led to his selection as pilot of the nation’s first research rocket aircraft, the Bell X-1, at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.). After breaking the sound barrier in 1947, Yeager flew the X-1 more than 40 times in the next two years, exceeding 1,000 mph and 70,000 feet. He was the first American to make a ground takeoff in a rocket-powered aircraft. In December 1953 he flew the Bell X-1A 1,650 mph, becoming the first man to fly two and one-half times the speed of sound.
“After a succession of command jobs, Yeager became commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School (now the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School), where all military astronauts were trained.
“On Dec. 10, 1963, he narrowly escaped death while testing an NF-104 rocket-augmented aerospace trainer. His aircraft went out of control at 108,700 feet (nearly 21 miles up) and crashed. He parachuted to safety at 8,500 feet after battling to gain control of the powerless aircraft. He thus became the first pilot to make an emergency ejection in the full pressure suit needed for high altitude flights. Yeager has flown more than 200 types of military aircraft and has more than 14,000 hours, with more than 13,000 of them in fighter aircraft.
“Yeager retired from active duty in the U. S. Air Force in March 1975, after serving as the United States defense representative to Pakistan and director of the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center, Norton AFB, Calif.
“Retirement was never part of his plans. He remains an active aviation enthusiast, acting as adviser for various films, programs and documentaries on aviation. He has published two books, entitled Yeager, An Autobiography and Press On: Further Adventures in the Good Life.”
28 January 1919: Colonel Francis Stanley (“Gabby”) Gabreski, United States Air Force, was born at Oil City, Pennsylvania. He was the second child of Stanley Gabryszewski, a railroad car repairer, and Jozefa Kapica Gabryszewsky, both immigrants from Poland. He attended Oil City High School, graduating in 1938.
After two years of study at the University of Notre Dame, where he was a member of the Cracow Club, Francis S. Gabreski enlisted as a Flying Cadet in the United States Army Air Corps, 28 July 1940, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was 5 feet, 8 inches (172.7 centimeters) tall and weighed 146 pounds (66.2 kilograms). Gabreski was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Air Corps Reserve, 14 March 1941.
Lieutenant Gabreski was a fighter pilot assigned to the 45th Pursuit Squadron, 15th Pursuit Group, at Wheeler Army Airfield, Territory of Hawaii, flying Curtiss P-36 Hawks and P-40 Warhawks, when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked there on 7 December 1941.
On 1 March 1942, he was promoted to First Lieutenant, Air Corps, Army of the United States, and to Captain, 16 October 1942. He was sent to Britain with the 56th Fighter Group.
Because of his Polish lineage and his fluency in the language, Gabreski requested assignment to a Polish fighter squadron fighting with the Royal Air Force. His request was approved and he was assigned to No. 315 Squadron, based at RAF Northolt, London, England, where he flew the Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX. One of those Spitfires, Spitfire Mk.IXc BS410, is currently under restoration at the Biggin Hill Herritage Hangar.
As American involvement in the European Theater increased, “Gabby” returned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, and flew the Republic P-47C Thunderbolt. He was promoted to the rank of Major, 19 July 1943.
Major Gabreski took command of the 61st, 13 April 1944. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, 23 January 1944.
By July 1944, he had shot down 28 enemy fighters in aerial combat and destroyed another three on the ground, making him the leading American fighter ace up to that time.
Having completed his combat tour and waiting transport to the United States, on 20 July 1944 Gabreski decided to take “just one more” combat mission. As he made a low strafing run across an enemy airfield near Bassenheim, Germany, the tips of his propeller blades hit the ground, causing a severe vibration. He put his Thunderbolt down on its belly, climbed out and ran to avoid being captured. He was caught after evading the enemy for five days, and was held as a Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft I until April 1945.
Gabreski was promoted to the rank of Colonel, Army of the United States, 24 October 1945. He was released from active duty in September 1946. He then joined the Air National Guard with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, 6 December 1946.
During the the Korean War, Lieutenant Colonel Gabreski served with the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing and commanded the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing. He is credited with shooting down 6.5 MiG 15 fighters with North American Aviation F-86A and F-86E Sabres. (The “.5” represents credit for one enemy airplane destroyed shared with another pilot.) He flew 100 combat missions over Korea.
After a staff assignment, Gabreski attended the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. He was then assigned as Deputy Chief of Staff, 9th Air Force.
He went on to command two tactical fighter wings, the 354th and the 18th, flying North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabres.
Colonel Gabreski’s final fighter command was the 52nd Fighter Wing (Air Defense) based at Suffolk County Airport, New York, which was equipped with the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo interceptor.
Colonel Gabreski retired from the Air Force 1 November 1967 after 27 years of service and 37.5 enemy aircraft destroyed. At the time of his retirement, he had flown more combat missions than any other U.S. Air Force fighter pilot.
Gabby Gabreski married Miss Catherine Mary (“Kay”) Cochran, 11 June 1945. They would have nine children. Two of their sons graduated from the United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado, and became U.S. Air Force pilots. His daughter-in-law, Lieutenant General Terry L. Gabreski, USAF, was the highest-ranking woman in the United States Air Force at the time of her retirement. Mrs Gabreski died in a car accident in 1993.
Colonel Gabreski was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in combat on 26 November 1943, when he shot down two enemy Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters. His other decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with oak leaf cluster (two awards), Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with two silver and bronze oak leaf clusters (thirteen awards), Bronze Star, Air Medal with one silver and one bronze oak leaf cluster (seven awards), and Prisoner of War Medal. He was awarded the Royal Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, France’s Légion d’honneur and Croix de Guerre with Palm, Poland’s Krzyż Walecznych and the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm.
In 1991, Suffolk County Airport, New York, was renamed Francis S. Gabreski Airport in his honor.
Colonel Gabreski died 31 January 2002 at the age of 83 years. He is buried at Calverton National Cemetery, Long Island, New York.
15 September 1948: Major Richard L. Johnson, U.S. Air Force, Air Materiel Command, set a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Course,¹ flying the sixth production North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre, serial number 47-611, at Muroc Air Force Base, California (renamed Edwards AFB in 1949).
The air temperature was 70° F. (21° C.) with very little wind. Making four consecutive passes at an altitude of 75–125 feet (23 to 38 meters), the Sabre averaged 670.98 mph (1,079.84 kilometers per hour) — 0.889 Mach. The slowest pass was 669.830 miles per hour and the fastest was 672.762 miles per hour (1,077.987 and 1,082.705 kilometers per hour, respectively) — 0.8875–0.8914 Mach.
North American claimed that any F-86 coming off the assembly line could beat this world record speed. The record stood until 1952 when it was broken by an F-86D Sabre.
The Associated Press reported:
Air Force Tells Of New Speed
NEW YORK — (AP) — The Air Force announced Saturday a new world speed record of 670.981 miles an hour, made with a fully armed standard jet fighter, the North American F-86.
The mark was set Wednesday. It is 20 miles an hour faster than the record set in August, 1947, by a Navy research plane, the Douglas D-558.
It was the first world speed mark in history for a production model aircraft ready to fight.
The pilot was Maj. Richard L. Johnson, slender quiet-spoken test flier for the Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson Airbase near Dayton Ohio. He flew the course at Muroc Lake, Calif., where the record was raised three times last year.
Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Air Force chief of staff, announced the new mark at Mitchel Field, Long Island, where he participated in one of the numerous shows being held in observance of the first anniversary of the Air Force.
Major Johnson had made a previous speed record attempt flying a different Sabre, but due to a technical problem with the timing equipment, that attempt was disqualified.
47-611 was from the first production block of thirty-three F-86A-1-NA Sabres (originally designated P-86A) and was built at North American Aviation’s Inglewood, California, plant. Its NAA serial number was 151-38438.
The F-86A was a single-seat, single-engine, swept-wing day fighter, powered by a turbojet engine. The airplane’s design team was headed by Edgar Schmued, who was also responsible for North American’s legendary P-51 Mustang of World War II.
The F-86A had the same dimensions as the prototype XP-86 which had first flown almost two years earlier. The F-86A was 37 feet, 6.6 inches (11.445 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1.4 inches (11.313 meters) and overall height of 14 feet, 8.9 inches (4.493 meters). It had an empty weight of 10,093 pounds (4,578 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight was 15,876 pounds (7,201 kilograms).
The F-86 wings’ leading edges were swept to 35° and included leading edge slats, which automatically extended at low speed to provide an increase in lift.
The F-86A was initially powered by a General Electric TG-190A (J47-GE-1) turbojet engine. This was a major improvement over the Chevrolet-built J35-C-3 that had powered the prototype, and it produced almost 25% greater thrust. The J47-GE-1 was rated at 4,850 pounds of thrust (21.57 kilonewtons), or 5,820 pounds (25.89 kilonewtons) with water injection. The J47 was an axial-flow turbojet with a 12-stage compressor, eight combustion chambers, and single-stage turbine. The engine was 12 feet, 0.0 inches (3.658 meters) long, 3 feet, 3.0 inches (0.991 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,475 pounds (1,123 kilograms).
Early in F-86A production, the engine was standardized with the J47-GE-13, which was rated at 5,200 pounds of thrust (23.13 kilonewtons) and 6,000 pounds (26.69 kilonewtons) “wet.” The -13 had the same exterior dimensions as the -1 engine, but weighed 50 pounds (23 kilograms) more.
The F-86A had a maximum speed of 679 miles per hour (1,093 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and 601 miles per hour (967 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters). The service ceiling as 48,000 feet (14,630 meters) and it could climb to 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) in 10 minutes, 24 seconds. It had a range of 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers).
Designed as a day fighter, the F-86 Sabre was armed with six air-cooled Browning AN-M3 .50-caliber aircraft machine guns with 267 rounds of ammunition per gun. These guns had a rate of fire of 1,200 rounds per minute. The F-86A-1-NA had electrically-actuated doors covering the gun ports to maintain the aerodynamically clean surface. Because of their complexity, these doors were deleted beginning with the F-86A-5-NA aircraft.
The fighter could also carry bombs or rockets.
Dick Johnson flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt during World War II. Following the war, he was selected for test pilot training. He was the second U.S. Air Force pilot to be publicly acknowledged for breaking the “sound barrier.” During the Korean War, Johnson was sent to supervise field installations of improvements to the F-86. He was “caught” flying “unauthorized” combat missions and was sent home.
Lieutenant Colonel Johnson resigned from the Air Force in 1953 to become the Chief Test Pilot for Convair. He flew the YF-102, the F-106 Delta Dart (which had originally been designated F-102B) and the B-58 Hustler supersonic strategic bomber. He was Chief Engineering Test Pilot for the F-111 “Aardvark.” In 1977, Dick Johnson, now the Director of Flight and Quality Assurance at General Dynamics, retired. He died 9 November 2002.
14 July 1922: Brigadier General Robin Olds, United States Air Force, was a fighter pilot and triple ace with 17 official aerial victories in two wars. Robin Olds was born Robert Oldys, Jr., at Luke Field Hospital, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii. He was the first son of Captain Robert Oldys, Air Service, United States Army, and Eloise Wichman Nott Oldys. In 1931, the family name was legally changed from Oldys to Olds. As a child, Robert, Jr., was known as “Robin,” a dimunuitive of Robert.
Robin Olds entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, on 1 July 1940. During the summer months, he received primary, basic and advanced pilot training. With training at West Point accelerated because of wartime needs, Cadet Olds and his class graduated one year early, 1 June 1943. Olds was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army, (number 589 of 620 on the Air Corps list of second lieutenants), and was assigned to fighter training in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning at Williams Field, Arizona. On 1 December 1943, Second Lieutenant Olds was appointed to the rank of First Lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.). (His permanent rank remained Second Lieutenant, Air Corps, until after the War.)
On completion of all phases of training, Lieutenant Olds was assigned to the 434th Fighter Squadron, 479th Fighter Group, and deployed to England aboard the former Moore-McCormack Lines passenger liner S.S. Argentina, which had been converted to a troop transport.
The 434th Fighter Squadron was based at RAF Wattisham in East Anglia. First Lieutenant Olds was promoted to Captain (A.U.S.) on 24 July 1944. He became an ace during his first two combat missions, shooting down 2 Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters on 14 August 1944 and 3 Messerschmitt Bf 109s on August 23.
The squadron re-equipped with North American P-51 Mustangs and Captain Olds continued to destroy enemy fighters. On 9 February 1945, just 22 years old, he was promoted to Major. On 25 March 1945, Major Olds was placed in command of the 434th Fighter Squadron. Major Olds completed the war with a record of 13 aerial victories,¹ and another 11.5 enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground. He had flown 107 combat missions.
When the United States Air Force was established as a separate military service on 18 September 1947, Major Olds (along with hundreds, if not thousands of other officers) reverted to their permanent rank of First Lieutenant, with his date of rank retroactive to 1 June 1946. Olds retained the temporary rank of Major.
After World War II, Major Olds transitioned to jet fighters with the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star at March Field, near Riverside, California. He flew in an aerobatic demonstration team, and on 1 September 1946, flew a Lockheed P-80A to second place in the Thompson Trophy Race, Jet Division, at Cleveland, Ohio. Olds averaged 514.715 miles per hour (828.354 kilometers per hour) over ten laps around the 30-mile (48.3 kilometers), four pylon course.
While stationed at March Field, Olds met his future wife, actress Ella Wallace Raines (formerly, Mrs. Kenneth William Trout). They married on 6 February 1947 at the West Hollywood Community Church, just south of the Sunset Strip in the West Hollywood area of Los Angeles County, California. Rev. Gordon C. Chapman performed the ceremony. They would have two daughters, Christina and Susan. They divorced 15 November 1976.
In October 1948, Major Olds returned to England as an exchange officer in command of No. 1 Squadron, Royal Air Force, at RAF Tangmere. He was the first non-Commonwealth officer to command a Royal Air Force squadron. The squadron flew the Gloster Meteor F. Mk.IV jet fighter.
Following the tour with the R.A.F., Olds returned to March Air Force Base as operations officer of the 94th Fighter Squadron, Jet, 1st Fighter-Interceptor Group, which had been equipped with the North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre. Soon after, he was placed in command of the 71st Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, another squadron within the 1st Fighter-Interceptor Group.
Olds was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, 20 February 1951, and to colonel 15 April 1953. From 8 October 1955 to 10 August 1956 he commanded the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Group based at Landstuhl Air Base, Germany. The group flew the rocket-armed North American Aviation F-86D Sabre. The 86th was inactivated 10 August 1956. Colonel Olds then was assigned as chief of the Weapons Proficiency Center for the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) at Wheelus Air Base, near Tripoli, Libya.
After assignment as Deputy Chief, Air Defense Division, Headquarters USAF, from 1958 to 1962, Colonel Olds attended the National War College, graduating in 1963. From 8 September 1963 to 26 July 1965, Colonel Olds commanded the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, at RAF Bentwaters, England.
Robin Olds returned to combat as commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in September 1966. Flying the McDonnell F-4C Phantom II, Colonel Olds scored victories over two Vietnam Peoples Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17s and two MiG-21s, bringing his official score to 17 ² aerial victories. ³ He was the only Air Force fighter ace with victories in both World War II and the Vietnam War. (There have been rumors that he actually shot down seven MiGs, but credited those to other pilots to avoid being pulled out of combat and sent back to the United States.)
For his actions during the attack against the Paul Doumer Bridge, 11 August 1967, Colonel Olds was awarded the Air Force Cross. He flew 152 combat missions during the Vietnam War. His final combat mission was on 23 September 1967.
On 1 June 1968, Robin Olds was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and assigned as Commandant of Cadets at the United States Air Force Academy. In February 1971, he was appointed Director of Aerospace Safety in the Office of the Inspector General at Norton Air Force Base, near San Bernardino, California. He retired from the Air Force 31 May 1973.
During his military career, Brigadier General Robin Olds had been awarded the Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters (four awards), Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with five oak leaf clusters (six awards), Air Medal with 39 oak leaf clusters (40 awards), Air Force Commendation Medal, as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross of the United Kingdom, the Croix de Guerre (France), and the Republic of Vietnam’s Distinguished Service Medal, Air Gallantry Medal with Gold Wings, Air Service Medal and Vietnam Campaign Medal.
In 1978, Robin Olds married his second wife, Abigail Morgan Sellers Barnett. They were divorced in 1993.
Brigadier General Robin Olds passed away 14 June 2007 at the age of 84 years. He is buried at the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Note: Thanks to Ms. Christina Olds and Lieutenant Colonel R. Medley Gatewood, U.S. Air Force (Retired), for correcting a number of errors in the previous version of this article.
¹ Source: Air Force News Agency
³ Under the rules in effect at the time, a pilot and WSO shared credit for an enemy aircraft destroyed, with each being credited 0.5 kills. Colonel Olds was officially credited with 2.0 kills. The rules were changed in 1971, retroactive to 1965. This gave Olds an official score of 4.0. —Source: To Hanoi and Back: The United States Air Force and North Vietnam 1966–1973, by Wayne Thompson. Air Force History Office, 2000. Chapter 4 at Page 11.