Flight Line

DENIS J. CALVERT

One of the results of a memorable sortie on 22 August 1984: four Florida Air National Guard F-106As with a KC-135E Stratotanker of the Tennessee ANG. DENIS J. CALVERT

As a young lad, I had several ambitions. However ridiculous it might seem in retrospect, they included meeting my boyhood hero ‘Chuck’ Yeager and flying in the English Electric Lightning, that most sleek and genuinely supersonic fighter that I watched in awe at September’s Farnborough displays. This was all, I should add, many years before my other hero, Debbie Harry of Blondie fame, first came to prominence. As things turned out, I would get to fly in a Lightning in 1982 and later to meet Yeager but never Debbie Harry, although she did, perhaps coincidentally, release the track ‘Denis’ in 1977.

Alongside the Lightning, one other pure air defence type has always held a fascination for me. This was the Convair F-106 Delta Dart, an extraordinarily clean design from the ‘50s which would form the backbone of USAF Air Defense Command’s front line. Like the Lightning, it was designed purely for the air-to-air role — no multi-role capability and no concessions to ‘air-to-mud’. Do you remember ‘Not a pound for air-to-ground’, the mantra of McDonnell Douglas when promoting the F-15A Eagle — before, that is, the advent of the F-15E Strike Eagle?

The F-106 was only produced in two variants: the single-seat F-106A and the tandem two-seat F-106B. Despite a service life with the USAF that spanned almost 30 years, the type was never deployed to Vietnam and only once to Europe — Hahn Air Base, West Germany for Exercise ‘Autumn Forge’ in September 1975. During all this time the aircraft remained externally virtually unchanged, the only major updates being the fitting of a clear-view bubble canopy and the addition of an M61A1 Vulcan rotary cannon in the weapons bay under the nattily-named Project Six-Shooter.

The standard USAF face mask used a pressure supply system. With my beard, I’d have an excessive leak of oxygen around the face

I have an aviation enthusiast friend in Jacksonville, Florida, whom I was in the habit of visiting each year. Sharing my passion for the F-106, he was on very good terms with the Florida Air National Guard (FANG)’s 125th Fighter Interceptor Group that flew the F-106 from its enclave at Jacksonville International Airport. The unit held air defence alerts both at its home base and 350 miles south at Homestead AFB, manned by reservists and a cadre of 12 full-time alert pilots. This was a professional outfit from every angle; the more I saw, the more impressed I was.

Anyway, when visiting the unit in August 1984 I was offered the chance of an F-106 flight. “Get the pre-flight checks and clothing sorted today and we’ll fly you tomorrow”. It didn’t take me long to accept, but there was one problem. The standard USAF face mask used a pressure supply system; with my beard, I’d have an excessive leak of oxygen around the face. In short, it was ‘off comes the facial fuzz’ — or no flight.

Following a novel close encounter with a razor, I flew the following day in F-106B 72-509/01. The flight was not totally without incident as, shortly after take-off, a red light indicating a hydraulic problem forced our return to the airport. Following what is best described as a very quick safety briefing, we taxied out and took off again in a T-33, aiming to catch up with the four FANG F-106s planning to refuel from a Tennessee ANG KC-135E in Warning Area 158. Photographing the aircraft at altitude over the Atlantic and against a deep blue sky was a magic experience and showed the F-106 in its element. Not for nothing was it nicknamed ‘the Cadillac’.