FLAK's FIGHTER FLING

My brief tour as a fighter pilot came as I went to the Weapons School at Cannon AFB in Clovis, N.M..

Clovis is a quaint, picturesque town where there are 100 cows for every person, and 100 flies for every cow. At the end of runway 22 was desert and a tumbleweed farm. At the end of runway 04 was a feedlot. You got up in the morning, you sniffed the air, and you knew the direction of landing. For many aircraft in the Air Force inventory, the first thing you do in an emergency is to jettison all ordnance, and punch off external fuel tanks. At Cannon, the worry was about the day when the Air Force would have to purchase 600 Tons of barbecue beef.

Cannon AFB is at an elevation of 4702 feet. The highest terrain within 100 NM is 4702 feet, except north of the field where there are mesas, tops of which are 4702 feet. One could see the gain elevators of towns 50 miles away. It is no wonder that some people still believe that the world is flat. Typical Southwest flying weather prevailed. As the sun went up, so did the wind speed. One waitress told me, "Most of New Mexico blew into Texas years ago".

The entry point for the gunnery range was "The Trees". This was a group of 7 trees growing around a water hole. They were visible from flight as far as 100 miles away on a good day.

Speaking of watering holes, the local dance hall (there's no other way to describe it), was called "The Boot Hill Saloon". We would drive around the parking lot, check the pick up trucks with the gun racks, count the cars with the Air Force stickers, gave the cowboys a few extra points for being in shape, ourselves a few extra points for being sober, and made a decision about going in. At any rate, we'd have to clear out prior to 1 AM (which is 2 AM, bar closing time, across the border) when the liquored up Texicans would show up.

All of this was a totally alien environment for the boy from New York City who once believed that the entire world was one contiguous piece of concrete, but I learned to appreciate country and western music, learned to wear western style boots, and learned how to become a fighter pilot.

TAC had set up a "Tinker Toy" fighter squadron using T-33's scraped up from every part of the inventory including the bone yard. The purpose of the school was to teach us fighter tactics with a particular emphasis on ground attack. This was particularly important to us fledgling FACs (Forward Air Controllers), who would eventually be telling real fighter pilots "where to put it".

The diverse histories of some of the T-33's yielded interesting results. In each aircraft, the attitude indicator was on the center of the instrument panel. After that, anything goes. So much for developing a good instrument cross-check! Avionics? Take your pick. We had any conceivable combination of navaids from the following list: VOR, TACAN, ADF, and/or ILS. It made for IFR flight planning interesting. Without a scorecard of tail number / avionics, you never knew which initial approach fix would be useful, or for that matter, what your weather minimums were.

Even emergency equipment was not standardized. All models had an "all tanks cross feed" switch. On some models it was on the right side of the panel. On other models it was on the left. On the models where it was on the left, the "gravity feed" switch was on the right where the cross feed switch should be.

One of the birds had a tube running down the side and terminating about 6 inches from the tailpipe. I asked the crew chief about this unusual appendage, and he told me it was part of the smoke generation equipment from when the plane was part of the Thunderbird Bird team. Another bird rolled off the line in late '48. I rolled off the line in early '49.

The T-33 is so primitive that fuel quantity is measured in gallons instead of pounds. If I remember right, the full 813 gallons would give you about 1.5 hours of play time. G-wise, it was limited to 6.5 G's positive, and ??? G's negative. I was never fond of sustained negative G flight so I have a tendency to forget these numbers.

Airspeed limits were 505 knots, point something or other mach or aileron buzz; whichever occurred first. The T-33 cabin was unpressurized which meant you had to undergo pressure breathing1 above 43,000 ft.

The flight controls had hydraulic assist. Unfortunately, they weren't exactly linear in response. In fact, there was a dead zone in the vicinity of neutral stick. That means move the stick about a half inch, and you get almost no response, move it a millimeter more, and the hydraulics kick in. This makes for interesting takeoffs when airspeed is low. The tendency is to over control (you just can't help but to do so). Because of this, there is a "T-33 salute" which consists of holding the hand out parallel to the ground and rocking it back and forth. Aileron responsiveness varied from aircraft to aircraft. What the captain means is: some birds had bigger "slush buckets" than others.

The T-33 was a jet-powered aircraft, but barely. It was powered by the first U.S. production jet engine. To accelerate the engine from idle (about 40%) to military power (100%) could take up to 15 seconds. RPM "spooled up" non-linearly. It would sit at idle for a while before accelerating towards 100%. This meant that you spent more of the 15 seconds at low RPM than at higher RPM. Since thrust is also non linear (90% of the thrust is in the last 10% of RPM), this means that most of the 15 seconds was spent at virtually no thrust.

Moving the throttle forward fast had the effect of increasing the fuel flow, raising the TIT (Turbine Inlet Temperature), and causing a louder rumble. The increase in RPM was best seen in time-lapse photography. The standard joke about go arounds is that they were a part of preflight planning. Actually, approaches were supposed to be flown at 70% power. At this setting, there is still virtually no thrust, and it only takes 5 seconds to get to military power.

Flying the T-33 was quite a letdown after flying the T-38. The T-33 weighed more, had less power, and, thanks to the modifications mentioned below, had more drag. Combine these factors with hot summer days and a 4702 ft field elevation, and you begin to believe that the only reason it got airborne, was because of the bump in the runway were it intersected another runway. The flight manual actually had statements like "If airborne..." instead of the customary "Once airborne..." One of the recommendations was to make a small bank (5 degrees or so) after takeoff to turn off runway heading to avoid the approach lights on the departure end.

However, once you got good airspeed (somewhere over Oklahoma usually) it climbed and handled well.

In modern aircraft with retractable gear, the lever that controls the extension and retraction of the gear resembles, in accordance with human factors design, a wheel. In the T-33, you're supposed to know that the thing on the floor on the left side of the cockpit is not a parking brake, although it does rather look like one. At least, pulling the handle up meant "gear up", and putting it down meant "gear down". Naturally, there was the "jiggle check" to make sure the gear was really down. I don't know if this did any physical good, but it does reinforce the habit pattern.

The T-33's were refitted into AT-33's (1 centerline mounted, 4-station bomb rack; 1 nose-mounted, .50 cal machine gun; and 4 wing-mounted, 4.75 in. rocket tubes). We also had a few BT-33's (no rocket tubes). Typical ordnance load was 4 BDU-33 (little blue bombs -- about 30 lbs -- that go "poof" instead of big green ones -- about 500 lbs -- that go "BOOM"), 4 rockets with "spotter" heads, and 100 rounds of standard ball .50 cal.

If you consider the range of the aircraft, and lethality of the weapons, the squadron could barely pull off an attack on an armadillo ranch in Lubbock.

The modifications necessitated the placement of some switches in some rather unusual places. A lot of them were located behind the elbows. (Vertigo City!). The ordnance jettison "T" handles were located on the floor behind the left side of the seat.

Sitting in the seat, I noticed several things at once. For starters, my knees were under the instrument panel. I wondered if I would leave them behind in an ejection. We were told that the seat tilted back before ejection, but I wasn't so sure.

Secondly, with the seat full down, there was about a half inch between the top of my helmet and the canopy. I had to get used to bending over forward before turning my head around. However, that wasn't the worst of it. The ejection sequence was to raise the handles, and squeeze the triggers. When you raise the handles, the canopy blows. When you squeeze the triggers, the seat goes one quarter of a second later. If the canopy doesn't blow, squeeze the triggers anyway, and a quarter of a second later, the seat will go. For this eventuality, the manufacturer mounted a canopy breaker tool on the back of the seat to knock a hole for the seat to go through. Unfortunately, the tool was located about an inch lower than the top of my head.

Nonetheless, people bigger than me have gotten out of the T-33.

Another disadvantage of sitting so tall in the saddle was that I could not see the pipper in the gun site at certain mill settings (most notably dive bomb settings) unless I bent forward. That's the position I would be in during the 4-G pull-off. I complained about a sore back, but the only sympathy I got from my wife was some comment about all the hard landings I had made.

There's really not much more to tell about my stint at Cannon except, the time my wife was strafed by F-100's, the time I landed with emergency fuel, the time we were down for a week with fog (in the dessert), the time I flew the hung ordnance route twice in the same day, the 500 knot, 500 ft flyby down the main drag of Ft. Sumner, N.M., and the time our 4 ship spent looking up at the tops of the mesas.

It was, after all, only a 4 month tour.


  1. For those of you who never had this experience, it's like breathing backwards, or constantly blowing up a balloon. Normally, when you relax, you expel air. You actually have to make a slight effort to inhale. In pressure breathing, as soon as you relax, the pressure delivered by the oxygen system inflates your lungs. You have to work to exhale. It makes talking difficult, and tires you out after a while

For information on the T-33 click here.