The Man Who Gave Us a SAC-ful of Fighters

Jan. 1, 1957
Fighter pilots are restless men. Their hands must be quick, for the many moves a man must make to ride ten tons of metal through the sky at supersonic speeds. Their eyes are alert, never relaxed because it is through alertness that they are alive. And because they are fighters by nature, they have developed an inquisitiveness which makes them say, “There must be a better or a faster or a simpler way of doing this.” And in finding it, the fighter business improves.

The late Col. David C. Schilling was a fighter pilot, one who left probably as great a mark upon his profession as any other. He was a colonel at twenty-four, an ace with twenty-three and a half air kills against Germany. After the war he fought, with a small group of friends, for recognition of the fighter plan’s place in modern aerial warfare. More than any other American officer he was responsible for the development of aerial refueling techniques for fighter aircraft. He led the first jet fighter aerial flights over both the Atlantic and Pacific. He made the first non-stop jet flight from England to the US, for which he received the Harmon Trophy.

The word spread quickly when Dave was killed last summer. It spread from England, where the accident happened, to fighter groups in France and Germany, to the Far East, and to the States. Services were at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, and, the night before, the fighter clam gathered in a suite at the Carlton Hotel. They had come from every part of the world.

It wasn’t a wake. Death was no stranger to this group. They talked a bit too loud because most fighter pilots are slightly deaf. They remembered, and their reminiscences usually centered around Dave, whose name they brought in without self-consciousness. They remembered him as a wingman, a squadron leader, and a commander of the Eighth Air Force’s 56th Fighter Group because he had grown up with it. They remembered December 23, 1944, when he shot down five enemy planes, and they remembered his skill at tactics and leadership and just plain flying.

“He used to say,” one recalled, “that the only time for sloppy flying was when someone was shooting at you.”

The names in the room were as legendary as Dave’s some of them from the old 56th and an ace with nineteen and a half kills, was there himself. Hub used to tell his pilots:

“A fighter pilot must possess an inner urge to do combat.” And, “When attacked by large numbers of enemy aircraft—meet them head on.”

Zemke turned command into the 56th over to Dave on August 12, 1944. Under Zemke and Schilling the 56th produced more aces and shot more enemy aircraft out of the skies than any other group of the European Theater.

From the 56th also, there was Col. Francis S. “Gabby” Gabreski, ranking aces of the Air Force with twenty-eight victories in the ETO and nine plus in Korea. There was Col. Gerald W. Johnson with eighteen, Col. Dingy Dunham with sixteen, and Lt. Col. Frank Klibbe with seven.

There was Col. Art Salisbury, who commanded the 57th Fighter Group in the ETO, youngest Air Force officer ever to make full colonel. And Col. Bill Ritchie, a Ninth Air Force type who flew a Republican F-84 with Dave on the first non-stop jet flight from England to the US. Col. Albert Schinz, veteran of the Pacific fighting, was there. His sharp, analytical brain directed the non-stop directed the non-stop flight and he, Ritchie, and Col. Bill Bacon shared in the Harmon Trophy honors won by Dave. Bacon was there. He had flown the refueling tanker. The fighter guys always referred to him as a “bomber pilot who thinks like a fighter pilot.” Actually, he may be a little too big to fit into a fighter cockpit. Col. Dave McKnight was there. He did a tour in bombers in Europe, then a tour in fighters, plus an additional fighter tour in Korea.

There was Ken Ellington of Republic Aviation, who probably knows personally more fighter pilots than any man alive. And Charles Blair, whose Pan American bosses loan him to the Air Force occasionally as a navigation expert. He flew the first fighter plane (a North American, P-51) over the North Pole and worked with Dave in trying to solve the long-range navigation problems of the fighter with its limited space for equipment.

David Schilling was born in Leavenworth, Kan., just after World War I, on December 15, 1918. His family moved to Kansas City, Mo., where he went to high school. He was graduated from Dartmouth College with a B. S. degree in, oddly enough, geology in June 1939 and became an aviation cadet three months later.

During the war he spent twenty-eight months oversees, flew 132 missions totaling 360 hours, and emerged the sixth ranking ace of the ETO and the twelfth of all the American Air Force. It also brought him the Distinguished Flying Cross with eight clusters, the Air Medal with nineteen clusters, the British Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and other honors.

When he returned to the States at the age of twenty-eight, streaks of gray were already showing in his black hair, and his restless energy fought against the constrictions of a new order. The years of 1946 and 1947 were hard ones for the flyers who elected to stay in. The Air Force was still part of the Army. There was a tendency to go back to the days of the rifle and the bayonet, to tradition and, especially, seniority. Dave, along with scores of other young flying colonels, was knocked down one grade in rank. Even worse, perhaps, he and the other dedicated fighter pilots felt themselves submerged by the necessary emphasis on bombers.

For a while after the war Dave served as liaison with the RAF in England and then returned to command his old love, the 56th Fighter Group, then at Selfridge AFB, Mich. Then, late in 1948, as the Army Air Force, he was assigned to Air Force Operations in the Pentagon, Headquarters, USAF.

Here he found many of his old crowd—Ritchie and Schinz and Majors Monty Montgomery, Bill Ellinger, and Barney Barnhart, all working for Col. Joe Moore, another stalwart of the lighter pilots. And here he got back the eagles of a full colonel.

There was no Fighter Section in Operations at this time, nor was there to be for several years. There was a Bomber Section with eight or ten officers and a lot of weight. The honeymoon with Russia was well into the cooling-off period. People were already talking about “the deterrent force.” B-50s came out of mothballs, and the B-36 came off Convair’s production line at Fort Worth. The Air Force began to gather back some of the great strength it had demobilized after the war.

But little of this seemed to reach the fighter people. The bulk of production money was going into heavy bombers. There were at this time only seven fighter groups, mostly equipped with World War II P-51s and P-47s. The new jet F-80 was just making an appearance in some of the groups. In headquarters there was no real fighter representation—or so Dave and his group felt. So, operating largely surreptitiously, frequently out of channels and occasionally almost illegally, they set about to correct this—to them—almost criminal deficiency.

They were trying to create a Fighter Section with monitoring responsibilities, to insure the same objectives for all the fighter groups. They wanted to build one office where commanders could get answers—the right answers. Most of all, they believed passionately in the purpose and the role of the fighter aircraft.

Dave worked furiously. He wooed anyone in authority who would listen for a moment to his song of the fighter pilot. He took Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington for his first jet ride in a Lockheed T-33. He got on a first name basis with Assistant Air Force Secretary Harold Stuart (and they remained close friends), He courted Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg and other high-ranking personages with all the charm he possessed—and this was considerable.

Meantime, with the blessing of Col. Joe Moore, who backed his boys when they were risking his own career along with theirs, Dave was running the Air Force operational side of air shows—the National Air Races at Cleveland in 1948 and 1949, and the Presidential Air Show in 1949. It was to this latter unprecedented display of air might that President Truman came for ten minutes and stayed two hours, joining the crowd’s gasps when squadrons of giant B-36s lumbered past information, their bellies almost dragging the ground. He probably didn’t know that many of the Air Force gasps were pure fright.

About this time, too, Dave conceived, and with his little group carried out, the idea of the Air Force gunnery meet at Las Vegas. Here the best Air Force gunnery, rocketry, and fighter-bomber teams meet in bitterly-fought competition. Even more, it is a place they can put different systems and techniques in competition, find which is best, knock out the bugs and, in general, swap ideas.

The first gunnery meet in 1949 was national. The second, in 1950, was for Air Force units on a world-wide basis as have been all the meets since. And SAC has since taken up the idea and now holds its own bombing competition.

These things—the gunnery meets and the air shows—were all a part of the times. The airmen of the US military were first fighting for a separate Air Force and then for its public recognition. Aerial exhibitions sold, airpower and the fighter pilots saw to it that fighter aircraft took top billing.

While still at Selfridge in early 1948 Dave conceived the idea of Fox Able One: Fox for Fighter, Able for Atlantic, and One because it would be the first. One more blow in the fight to improve the range, mobility, and navigational capabilities of the fighter plane.

When a US fighter group in Germany was rotated, or when spares were sent over, they traveled on, of all things, an aircraft carrier. The F-80, first of the jets, had a range, with wing tanks, of about 900 miles. This was almost exactly two hours flying time.

The Air Staff at this time thought it was impossible to ferry jet fighters across the Atlantic and it was a logical enough fixation. The fighter pilots, however, didn’t figure the same way. It was that old probing curiosity—”there must be a better way to do this.”

Dave was always a “gadget man.” He liked to work with his hands in a never-ending search to find that better way.

For instance, when jets came to Selfridge, the flyers had trouble with snow and ice on the runway. The propeller of a small aircraft helps considerably in its braking operation and, without this, the fighter pilots were having difficulty stopping their landing craft on the wintry runways.

Dave, after getting permission, mounted a jet engine on the back of a six-by-six truck, rigged a hydraulic lift for directional guidance and used the heat from the jet blast to blow off light snow and to melt ice on the runway.

Schilling attacked the ferrying problem in the same spirit. He and Ritchie, with the other pilots at Selfridge, schemed days—and nights, while patient wives talked children and housework—and came up again with a plan. This time Dave took it direct to Gen. Carl Spaatz, then Air Force Chief of Staff.

General Spaatz told him, somewhat paraphrased:

“Do you think you are the only ones who worry about these things? I am just as anxious to get over this ferry hump as you are. If you can prove on paper that you can ferry F-80s to Europe, get it to me and we’ll get some action.”

Said Dave Schilling:

“I can’t get it to you direct, sir. I’d get fired.”

Said General Spaatz:

“Then slip me a carbon.”

So, the plan went on paper and a copy got to General Spaatz.

“It took a hell of a lot of doing,” said Dave after his plan was approved, “but it worked.”

As part of the operation, the USAF invited the RAF to send a squadron of jet Vampires to the US, and Dave, with an assist from Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, then commanding the US Air Forces, Europe, was invited to Germany.

The flights were carried off without mishap. With Dave leading, the F-80s of Fox Able One flew from Selfridge, near Detroit, to Dow AFB in Maine, to Newfoundland, to Greenland, to Iceland, to Scotland, to England, and to Germany where they ended up at Furstenfeldbruck as replacement aircraft for the US fighter group there. The British followed the same route to America and the two units met in Iceland for a celebration.

Bear in mind that most of the hops on this route are just about 900 miles some of them right on the button. The flights used B-29 orbiting navigational aiming points over the water hops, and cargo planes with spare parts also went along. There were no mishaps, no miscalculations, no errors. Every plane made it.

A year later Dave led a second flight over the same route, Fox Able Two, with eleven F-80s and four T-33 jet trainers. Dave flew one of the T-33s and I flew as a passenger in the back seat. Going into Iceland we caught the B-29 navigation plane at the far side of its orbit and flew an extra few miles getting down. We landed with less than four minutes air time left.

These two flights proved the feasibility of such a ferry route. With NATO rapidly coming into being, the need was obvious for we would be and have been furnishing our European allies literally hundreds of fighter aircraft.

The next year, 1950, Fox Able Three was staged. Col. Cy Wilson since killed, led 190 jet aircraft over the same route in two flights. They were F-84s, sent over as replacements for the US fighter groups at Furstenfeldbruck and Neubiberg, Germany. And—the route is still in use. (In mid-November, an F-100 Super Sabre touched down in Europe and became the 2,000th jet fighter to cross the Atlantic unescorted.)

With one great step in their mobility fight established by the Fox Able Bights, the dreams of the fighter pilots went further. Why should there be a practical limit to the range of a fighter plane? Aerial refueling was a logical step. With their own tankers the fighters could range anywhere in the world and fight indefinitely by refueling from aerial filling stations, so to speak.

About this time, the British were at least as interested in the subject as were the Americans, and Schilling, using his old RAF connections, went to Manston, England, where a British firm, Flight Refueling ,Limited, was testing the probe-and-drogue system. Here he flew a British jet in a refueling operation, landed, and said:

“Couldn’t have been simpler.”

He returned to this country and personally sold the Air Force on a research and development contract to modify two F -84s to utilize the British probe-and-drogue system.

When the job was done he and Col. Pat Fleming, since killed in the first B-52 crash several months ago, flew the F -84s to England over the same old route. Here Bill Ritchie joined Dave and the two spent months remodifying and flying the American jets in practice refueIings with British Lancaster and Lincoln tankers.

At the same time a B-29 already in England had been modified into a tanker and now Col. Bill Bacon, the bomber pilot who thought like a fighter pilot, went to England to fly it back to refuel Schilling and Ritchie in the first nonstop jet transatlantic flight—Fox Able Four.

It was a tremendously complicated operation, with the first refueling to take place off the coast of Scotland and the second over the tip of Iceland from British tankers, with the third off Labrador from Bacon’s B-29. Both weather and navigation were obstacles, with the then almost uncharted jet stream also figuring into the planning.

When the flight was about ready to take off, Al Schinz set up a special room with special weather, navigation, and communication assistance. He was in direct radio contact with Schilling and Ritchie from their take-off at Manston through the finish of the historic flight.

Their first refueling contact off Prestwick came off without difficulty, and they both took on full loads. Over Iceland they ran into difficulty. Trouble with the radio homing beacon equipment in the planes cost them more than an hour’s delay and here Ritchie had trouble. A valve stuck as he was topping off his tanks.

At their third contact point, between Greenland and Labrador, Dave was able to get a full load but Bill Ritchie, on his first try, found the valve still stuck. He got nothing. He called to Dave.

“Shall I try again?”

“Have you got enough fuel to reach land now?” This from Dave.

“Just about.”

“Ritchie, there’s a lot of water down below.” From Bill Bacon.

And from Dave. “If you try again and miss you’ll be in the ocean. Don’t try it.”

So they went on. Ritchie was 130 miles east of Goose Bay at 43,000 feet when the tanks of “Lovely Lynn,” his F-84, went dry. He started a Iong glide for the coast of Labrador and jumped at 3,000 feet, just thirteen miles short of the air base.

Air-Sea Rescue helicopters picked him up from the sparse Labrador coastal forest in the darkness and returned him safely to the base.

Dave went on and landed at Limestone just ten hours and one minute after take-off. He had flown 3,800 miles with three in-flight refuelings.

Fox Able Four brought Dave the Harmon Trophy and the tenth cluster to his DFC. Ritchie got a twenty-fifth cluster to his Air Medal and Al Schinz got a commendation.

AI got his promotion to full colonel before Ritchie, and became chief of the long-sought Fighter Section when it finally was established. Schinz later went to Korea, was shot down, and walked out safely, thirty-nine days later and fifty pounds lighter.

Somewhere along about this time came Dave’s association with Charlie Blair, another Harmon Trophy winner. Navigation in fighter aircraft on long-range missions had always been a problem. Due to both size and weight complications, it simply wasn’t possible for a fighter to carry even a small part of the navigation equipment which is standard for the bombers.

Dave, who didn’t know Blair, read in a newspaper that Blair, a Pan American pilot, had bought a P-51 Mustang with his own money, fixed it up, and made the first fighter plane flight over the North Pole. Schilling got in touch with him, hired him as a consultant, and put him to work developing the present navigation systems. These include the use of auto-pilots, fighter-sized sextants, and Borti computers, now all standard equipment in strategic fighters.

The last of the great flights which Dave led came in the summer of 1952—Fox Peter One. Fox for Fighter, Peter for Pacific. One for the first.

One June 24, the order came from SAC Headquarters to move the 31st Fighter Wing, which Dave commanded, from Turner AFB, Ga., to Misawa Air Base in Japan.

The base mobility plan, previously worked out, was put into operation. Thousands of men were processed on a round-the-clock basis with maintenance and operations personnel working on the same schedule. Control, communications, and supply men went on ahead in cargo planes. On July 4, while thousands of other Americans were happily holidaying. Dave led the first flight of Thunderjets on the Turner runway. Midway, all sixty of the F-84s made a successful rendezvous with a fleet of tankers and refueled. Six hours and forty-five minutes after take-off they touched down at Travis AFB in California.

On July 6 they left Travis for Hawaii. On the first refueling over the Pacific, Dave’s plane and another were damaged and both had to turn back. The next day they continued with the second flight and Dave resumed the leadership spot on to Midway, Wake, Eniwetok, Guam, Iwo Jima, Yokota, and Mishawa. At Iwo Jima Lt. Col. Elmer G. DaRosa’s plane exploded as he came in for a landing. DeRosa was killed—the flight’s only casualty.

It had been the first mass movement of jet fighters over the Pacific, the first mass mid-air refueling movement of jet fighters, the longest mass movement of a jet fighter wing by air, and the longest non-stop overwater flight of jet fighters—San Francisco to Honolulu.

Dave Schilling was a man who frequently stepped on toes. His continual driving force aroused resentment at times in superiors. He had a tremendous impatience with delays and obstacles. Incompetence was unforgivable. Any frustration was an immediate challenge. He lived, his friend said, two years for each one the calendar showed.

But there was never a real failure in the Air Force to recognize his ability and accomplishments or to trust his great leadership. Nor did he fail in his dedicated mission of getting recognition for the essential role of the fighter plane in the US posture of defense. Modern-day fighters are equipped to carry nuclear weapons, and no one disputes the role assigned to them in their military picture. After Fox Peter One, Dave was selected by SAC Headquarters to be deputy chief of staff for operations of the Seventh Air Division, a B-47 unit in England.

A serious illness, which for a time looked as though it might halt his Air Force career or at least his flying, sent him to the hospital for weeks and a long convalescence. Recovered, he went to England and to a revised assignment with the Seventh. During his days at Turner he had become interested in sports-car racing and bought an English custom-built Allard sports model. He was driving it back from Mildrenhall to Lakenheath when the accident happened. Of his death his friend Bob Considine wrote:

“Dave Schilling, who couldn’t be downed by the Luftwaffe nor swallowed by the oceans he successfully challenged, was killed in an automobile accident on a peaceful road in England, SAC’s gruff, tough Curt LeMay, deeply moved, said of him, ‘He was one of the most able and fearless air commanders I have ever known.'”

Frank Clarke Newlon, Chief of the Public Information Division, Office of Information Services, Hq., USAF, is a native of Griswold, Iowa, and a graduate of Grinnell College in that state. Before joining the AF in July 1942 he worked as a newspaperman and during World War II served in Europe. He assumed his present job in October 1956.