Flying Air Force officers around in Sabreliners

It is hard to imagine the Air Force once had more pilots than it knew how to handle and lots of cockpits to use. You’ve probably heard of the North American Sabreliner, known in Air Force livery as the CT-39. The CT-39 designation is sort of a fooler, since it was neither a cargo aircraft or really trainer. Actually, maybe it was the foreshadowing of FedEx and NetJets.

In Vietnam it had the call sign SCATBACK, moving between bases in Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand carrying photos from RF-101 and RF-4C missions to Saigon; hauling (small) high priority spare parts, keeping aircraft operational while awaiting parts from PACAF and CONUS; and moving general officers and their emissaries with “words” from headquarters to the guys flying combat missions or, in some cases feedback on what was really going on “up country.”

In my time, the Sabreliner was generally used for moving general officers about the Air Force on official business. In the seventies and eighties anywhere there was a lieutenant general (three star) or above you’d find at least one CT-39 on the airfield. At major headquarters, you’d find a small fleet. At Langley we had a Military Airlift Command (MAC) Detachment (the Det) led by a career MAC pilot and staffed with several field grade officers for planning and supervision.

The Det also had several very junior officers, a few first lieutenants and several junior captains. MAC sent their junior guys to Dets like Langley, Andrews, Offutt, and Peterson Field to build flying time, seasoning them for their next assignments in BIG MAC, the hard-core airlift forces of C-5 Galaxies, C-141 Starlifters, and C-130 Hercules.

Filling out the Det’s aircrew complement at Langley were field grade officers out of the TAC staff. Mostly guys with over a thousand hours of fighter time. I’m not really sure how this was justified. We had all met our gates in terms of flying time and had full time jobs on a staff working ten plus-hour days during the week and healthy half days on Saturday. No matter what the reason we were, to use the British term, seconded over to MAC for their CT-39 crew force.

T-39 Air Force
The T-39 was better known as a Sabreliner in the civilian world.

The move into Little MAC was straightforward. You were booked into a training program: two weeks in St. Louis, Missouri, with FlightSafety for ground school and simulator work. The third week you moved over to Scott Air Force Base for five rides in the CT-39 with MAC including a checkride in the Sabreliner.

You also got a tour of DOOF, the MAC Headquarters office responsible for scheduling CT-39 sorties across the United States. You learned they were a hard-working and generally competent group, but like weathermen, on occasion didn’t look outside their office to see what was really going on in “the world.” They knew what needed to be done, but didn’t always know what was in the way of really executing the specific mission.

Back at Langley, TAC CT-39 pilots became taffy between the Det and their bosses on the staff. The Det nominally scheduled their TAC help for two-four flying days a month. About once a quarter, you had a “local proficiency sortie.” This typically consisted of an Instructor Pilot from the Det and two TAC guys. The objective was to work on the proficiency requirements you didn’t get with passengers aboard, all the funny approaches (single engine, no flap, back course ILS and localizer-only approaches), and touch and go landings. All were performed from both the left and right seats. This sortie consumed about two hours’ flying time.

Sidebar: On more than one occasion, these locals included taking on an FAA check pilot and getting single-engine pilots multiengine qualified and, in some cases, fill ATP squares. A perk to those who wanted to have that option for sure.

Mission days were full twelve-hour crew duty days. We usually stayed east of the Mississippi.

A day’s mission usually included three flights. Lots of time in and out of Andrews, Hanscom Field and Wright Patt. We’d typically start our day around 0630 and end twelve hours later. On occasion there was a Remain Over Night (RON) when mission extension and crew duty day considerations were factors. That usually meant another day in the airlift system and away from the desk.

Important to note: all of our scheduled flights were laid on to support specific personnel movements. Usually senior officers and some of the staff they wanted for support. If we had seats open, we always checked Base Operations for any stand-by going where we were headed. I can never recall a senior officer not releasing any seats he wasn’t using for a stand-by pax.

Often no one wanted to go to places like Scott AFB near St. Louis, Missouri, or Shaw AFB in the middle of South Carolina, but in many cases they did. I recall two female Marine captains jumping at the chance to go to Dover AFB, Delaware – their response to the offer was, “Yea, Rehoboth Beach – we are on the way.” Fasten your seatbelts, and don’t bother the general.

Having two bosses – the Det, and your one on the staff – was a source of tension. Det planned on your availability about 90 days in advance and understandably didn’t take to changes to their crew schedule. Your boss didn’t have much sympathy when staff deadlines arose or the questions on your action were coming across his desk while you were on the road. One thing for sure: your future depended on keeping your boss at TAC happy.

T-39 cockpit
Early T-39s had very basic cockpits – no autopilots here.

Now my impressions of the Sabreliner. A good-looking biz jet – it had a look of the MiG killing F-86 namesake that appealed. Our CT-39s were basic. No autopilot, no anti-skid, no weather radar, usually four passenger seats, a bench in the back that covered the commode – don’t think anyone I ever had on board had the courage or need to use it. We had a carry-on coffee urn we filled at the start of the mission. Usually base ops joe in a paper cup or a can of Coke was the bring-your-own refreshments.

The cockpit was relatively modern and comfortable. Left seat felt pretty much like a T-38 with a flight director. Right seat felt and looked like you were in a T-37 – crosscheck was like typing, opposed to the classic T on the left side. Wheels were different for me. One MAC procedure that I never got comfortable with was that the pilot flying didn’t talk on the radio. The non-flyer was the talker. If I concentrated I could put the gear and flaps down and have the other guy call it, but it never felt right.

Flying qualities were enjoyable. One negative for me was the narrow main gear and the tendency to be a touch light on its feet and weathervane in a crosswind. Of course, most things do feel light when you’ve flown the F-4 for very long. Wet runways and crosswinds reminded you to fly it all the way to turn off and be conscious of hydroplaning where there was much rubber on the runway. In the air, it was easy trim and synch the two engines for a pleasant and low workload ride.

With the Sabre-like wing it was a very comfortable cruise in the high 30s, and even in the low 40s, although up high the cruise speed could be close to where the engines were worth minding. I want to say it was fun to fly, but with passengers you really weren’t looking for fun, just smooth work and on-time arrivals.

I accrued a little over 200 hours in the Sabreliner, and fortunately had few notable events where I had that pucker factor that comes with the business. Some things I do remember:

  • Taking a senior officer to the Air Force facility at O’Hare International, and being stepped to four different runways inside ten miles. Rolling out and turning off the active and getting a call from ground, something like, “Little fellow, just listen up and I’ll get you to the Guard ramp without a stop in the penalty box.” Progressive taxi in other words – good by me.
  • Picking up two plain clothes fellows with “permits to carry” and dropping them off at the end of an airfield near Buffalo, New York, to watch them depart in a dark Suburban. Also OK by me.
  • Making an early takeoff out of Offutt one February where 8000 feet of the middle of the runway had to be scraped and de-iced so a senator could get home for a luncheon. His only comment on deplaning at Andrews was the coffee was cold and he wished we could have landed at Washington National.
  • One day when our third leg would have us make a night approach into Dayton International per the direction of DOOF. Weather near our minimums, ice on the runway, strong crosswinds, and Wright Patterson closed due to visibility and ice. Our ILS was unreliable but my young MAC colleague was convinced it was imperative for us to go because “DOOF said so.” Nope, we didn’t even have a passenger, and the morning weather looked much better. A teaching moment. We had dinner at the Andrews Club and made our pick up in the AM – per the pax schedule.
  • Night flight topping a thunderstorm at FL410 and having hard rain (aka hail) hitting the top of the cockpit so loud that we could barely communicate. Never heard a sound like that with a canopy! All the while watching the TAS, IAS and EGT. Weather radar would have been nice.

I mentioned earlier the CT-39 was used mainly for the transportation of generals. It was a business jet in the true sense of that term. In my experience, the ranking passengers either worked on papers they were obliged to review, discussed matters with their staff, or actually got in the cockpit to do what they joined the Air Force to do – fly. (For the record, I never saw or loaded any golf gear on the jet. No doubt some golf was played while they were on extended trips – most courses had quality clubs to rent, and as long as you had suitable shoes you were good to go.)

F-86
The CT-39 was based on the famous F-86 “MiG killer.”

The criterion for getting a CT-39 scheduled was rank based. Generally (ha!) speaking two stars and above, as well as their civilian Senior Executive Service (SES) colleagues, were able to get a Sabreliner in the time slot requested. Lower ranks not so much. But, Americans are wont to game the system. Here’s one scheme I am familiar with. There was a System Program Director (SPD) with responsibility for a program very important to TAC. He was drawn to Langley routinely for discussions on the program and status updates. The SPD was a brigadier general select – low on the CT-39 totem pole. Howsomever, he had acquaintance with a SES on the staff at Wright Patterson.

This individual (informally known as “The Ticket”) had almost an emeritus status – not much responsibility on any given day and a very flexible schedule. So, the SPD would let him know he was going to Langley and ask him along. The answer was always OK. So, the trip was booked in the rank of the SES. The SPD had a ride to Langley and back, and the SES enjoyed a nice lunch and discussions with folks on the staff or at NASA.

I mentioned golf clubs. OKhere’s a flying fish story relating to what can happen when outside circumstances enter into VIP transportation situations. During the Nixon era, there was a Wing Commander at Homestead AFB with a son in the early teens who caught a nice but not trophy-sized fish. He was so excited he convinced his dad, a colonel at the time, to have the creature mounted – at no small cost. Time passed and the Wing Commander was promoted and reassigned to Germany.

The guy ordering the fish was gone when the trophy was delivered. It was prepaid, so it was dropped off for further action. Remember the Nixon administration? Here’s the connection. Key Biscayne. While Nixon was at his Florida White House, he didn’t encourage business visits. However, there were high-powered visitors, often landing at Homestead AFB. One was Henry Kissinger, making a visit before going to Paris for a Vietnam peace talk session.

The staff at the former wing commander’s office got the fish included on Kissinger’s military jet, and for forwarding on to its owner in Germany. No one knew the journey would include franking of the package with markings such as, Secretary of State’s aircraft enroute to the Paris Peace talks, then passed by the State Department to an official courier and again marked Diplomatic Material – Special Handling Required and expedited to Germany via official car.

The fish was delivered to the now Brigadier General’s office with fanfare. He had no idea what it was. Opened with his secretary in presence, he was dumbfounded to find “the fish.” Thoughts of fraud, waste and abuse quickly entered his mind. He made a few phone calls to Homestead and they pieced together the circumstances leading to the priority package. The brigadier advised his seniors of the situation. Fortunately, they were understanding and the record was set straight. Today that fish has a place of distinction in an “I love me room” and an unusual provenance. Why is this tale included? Just because it demonstrates how sometimes innocent intentions lead to misuse of government resources and actions. Sort of like buying a $30,000 desk for a government office.

The CT-39 played a useful role for years in the Air Force; it provided a good capability to transport senior officers quickly and cheaply and a platform to season young pilots, preparing them for bigger and better future assignments. Not mentioned in this discussion, it also served as a flying testbed for many avionics systems, particularly the generation of advanced radars and electronic warfare systems successfully deployed in Desert Storm. Today many of those trips by CT-39 are accomplished by video conference, documents go by internet, and priority parts go by FedEx, UPS and the like. For guys like me, it afforded a look at another part of the Air Force and an appreciation of how lucky we were to return to the flying we loved. And in spite of the conflict of being out of the office flying – it was still flying.

15 Comments

  • I was an E-7 assigned to the NORAD alternate command Post at Malmstrom AFB MT. We utilized the T-39s many times to attend conferences and cross training. The highest rank passenger I can recall was a Lt Col. One flight from Peterson to Malmstrom had only senior NCOs, not space A , but scheduled. Speed brake was a bit noisy, but a nice ride overall.

  • My only ride in a T39 was as a senior ROTC cadet during summer camp at Lowry AFB, flown out of Buckley AFB (Lowry had no airstrip then), in 1965. Later while on EAD at Elmendorf AFB in 1971 or 72, I became aware of an inappropriate incident, in which the Alaska Air Commander, a USAF 2 star, and the Alaska Commander, an Army 3 star, flew in a T39 to Cold Bay to go hunting. Seems they forgot shotgun shells, the Cold Bay BX didn’t have any, so the T39 crew was dispatched back to EDF to pick up a couple boxes. All in a day’s work.

  • In the mid to late sixties, I was commanded to perform my civilian responsibilities in Vietnam (think “Tet Offensive”). With an assigned rank of colonel in the USAF, with a presidential priority of 1-4, I was scheduled for weekly flights in our “Scatback Baker”, L-39, flights from Bangkok, to Da Nang, Vietnam, and Udorn Thani, Thailand. Often I had to bump high ranking USAF officers. The first such flight, we landed at Udorn to find a deep blue staff car and driver awaiting me. The colors were cased, of course. I thought I as being arrested for posing as an air force officer!

    As we pulled away, the driver, an Airman 1st Class, looked in the mirror and asked, “The O-Club all right, sir?” You cannot imagine my relief at that . . .

    There was always a USAF non-com who served coffee to the three passengers aboard. Memorable flights, certainly.

  • In about 1977 I was a young engineer at Rockwell International, LA Aircraft Division. The entire fleet of T39’s was being cycled thru the LAX facility for installation of an engineering system to extend the airframe fatigue life limit. Strain gages were installed on various critical parts of the structure. A multi-channel tape recorder would record real-world airframe strains. These would be used to update the predicted fatigue spectra with the goal of extending the airframe life limit. The system was named Flight Data Recording System (FLDRS). I quit Rockwell prior to hearing how the program turned out.

    One incident does stick in my memory. One of the T39’s was in the Rockwell flightline hangar at LAX. Evidently there was a failure of a check valve in the hydraulic system and the low pressure hydraulic reservoir was pressurized by the accumulator charge. A technician removed the reservoir cap and the cap blew through the top of the tailcone skin.

  • After retiring from the US Army, I got a job with a Fortune 50 company’s flight department. My second jet with them was the civilian version Sabre 60. What a joy to fly. All ‘steam gauges’ and no de-ice capability. We flew all over the US and were based out of EHT. I remember never seeing any leading edge ice form on those slats and wings no mattter what conditions we were in. I was amazed. The funnest part of a flight was returning to base and challenging each other with zero thrust landings from altitude. Power all the way back, and glide it in to landing. Great practice. We trained at FSI in STL as well and had much fun with the USAF crews in attendance.

  • Somehow you missed the fact that the US Navy had a fleet of T39s configured as navigator trainers at a NAS Base on the east coast of Georgia. It was a great assignment many of us tried to get at the end of the Jet Training Pipeline.

    Don Elliott
    USN A-4 community
    Retired FedEx Express

  • Call that USAF blinders on the Navy T-39s. I have several friends (retired AF and some AF Navs on exchange) that flew those nav trainers and I appreciate the work done training RIOs–lots of low altitude on hot humid days! Maybe one of your community can tell the tale. i’ll let them give their impression of the assignment

  • Does this ever bring back a few memories. We had a T-39 at RAF Wethersfield too. I remember the tail number -24462 – since it was my first bunch of jet rides with a local major who used to invite me along since I worked in the GCA.

    Crazy thing but he’d always ask if anyone from tower or GCA wanted to go for a ride, but only me and a buddy ever took him up on it … until the major filed an RON down to Italy.
    We had a ball of course.

    After that more folks took him up on his offer!

  • I had the great opportunity to fly the CT-39 sim at the Air Force Advanced Instrument School in the late 1990s a number of times. The description of “-38 on the left, Tweet on the right” is dead-on. It forced the world’s most efficient cross-check from the right seat, but the sim handled well (I assumed the real airplane did, too!).

  • The right seat cross-check reminded me of typing on line over and over while moving in three dimensions. Training on the Vertical-A, B, C, D maneuvers gave discipline and ability to time share invaluable to achieving instrument flying proficiency and multi-tasking in dynamic situations. Thank goodness!

    And the sim was very representative of the jet in every important aspect.

    Glad to hear from you.

  • i was a flying crew chief on T39s 12 years. 1 year in Thailand (SCATBACK) 2years Clark AFB PI. over 7 years as flight chief at Maxwell AFB a couple of years at McClellan AFB. Over 3000 hours on that little beauty.

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