06 Dec The Sabre Dance History — “Deadly Sabre Dance” by Alan Cockrell
When you’re preflighting an airplane that has just rolled out of the factory, you expect it to be perfect. But every pilot knows that perfection is elusive in aviation, and simple mistakes can snowball into disastrous mishaps within seconds. First Lieutenant Barty R. Brooks found that out the hard way on January 10, 1956.
That afternoon Brooks and two other U.S. Air Force pilots reported to North American Aviation Corporation’s Palmdale, Calif., factory and signed acceptance papers for three shiny new F-100C Super Sabres. The three men, members of the 1708th Ferrying Wing, Detachment 12, based at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas, would be flying the “Huns” to their new duty station at George Air Force Base, barely a 10-minute hop to the southeast, at Victorville. For the ferry pilots, who routinely trained to deliver new planes across oceans, the day’s assignment must have seemed like a walk in the park.
Brooks walked around the jet, checking for the usual signs of trouble: leaking fluids, unlatched fasteners, underinflated tires and the like. Since he was new to the F-100, like most pilots in 1956, he may not have known that when ground crews towed the plane they disconnected the torque link from the nose gear scissors by removing the pivot pin, which had to be reinserted and secured before flight. Brooks didn’t notice the pin wasn’t secure. Completing his inspection, he mounted up with the others.
All three pilots started their engines, and the leader, Captain Rusty Wilson, checked the flight in on the radio. The third pilot in the group was Lieutenant Crawford Shockley. They took off at 1512 hours, undoubtedly expecting to make happy hour at the George officer’s club.
The Making of a Jet Pilot
Brooks was born into a farming family in Martha, Okla., in 1929. His family later moved to Lewisville, Texas, northwest of Dallas. Bart studied at Texas A&M, where he joined the Cadet Corps. At 6-feet-3, Brooks towered over most lowerclassmen, to whom he became known as “Black Bart.”
By the time Brooks graduated in 1952 with an agriculture degree, flying had captured his fancy. After collecting his ROTC commission, he headed to Columbus, Miss., for basic flight training. John Wilson, Bart’s friend and classmate at Columbus, reflected that because of his training at Texas A&M, Bart was a model officer: “He wore the uniform well. He was well liked and represented the Air Force as well as any officer. He was just a super person.”
Brooks went on to Laredo, Texas, for jet training, then reported to the 311th Fighter-Bomber Wing in Korea, where he flew Republic F-84s and North American F-86s. Although he arrived in Korea too late to see combat, Brooks gained a profound sympathy for the Korean people in the aftermath of the fighting. He joined an organization that cared for Korean orphans, supporting a girl and three boys.
After Korea, Brooks was assigned to the 1708th as a ferry pilot. The idea was to get the planes from factories to bases without interrupting the training routines of operational units, just as the WASPs had during World War II. Former ferry pilot Joe Hillner recalled that Bart Brooks was one of about 100 pilots in the outfit. “We were required to maintain currency in at least two jet fighters,” he said, “and as many [propeller] planes (such as the F-51, L-20, T-6, B-25, B-26, etc.) as we wanted.”
Brooks went to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for his F-100 checkout. The ferry pilots were given a short course because they had been previously qualified as mission-ready in older fighters. So when Brooks took off from Palmdale that fateful day in January 1956, he had only logged a bit more than 40 hours in the Super Sabre.
Brooks had already had one brief brush with fame. While he was still in gunnery school at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, he was one of three trainees featured in an article in The New York Times Magazine’s May 2, 1954, issue, “The Making of a Jet Pilot.” Describing Brooks as “very tall and blond,” author C.B. Palmer added: “His height and spareness give an impression of awkwardness. His physical movements are slow but they cover the ground. He is rough-cut in appearance, very open and simple in his responses to questions.” Following the trainees through a day of briefings, gunnery practice, academics and time off, Palmer described them all as “acceptable men and the only concern here is to make them the best possible.”
Emergency Diversion to Edwards
The flight of three Super Sabres roared over George Air Force Base late that afternoon, sequentially breaking to the downwind leg. Then all three slowed and lowered their gear—and that’s when the trouble started.
One of Brooks’ flight mates noticed that his F-100’s nose wheel scissors was disconnected. The unsecured pivot pin had worked loose and fallen out, causing the scissors assembly to fall open and allowing the nose wheel to swivel at random. Fearing his aircraft might swerve off the runway on touchdown, Brooks powered up and went around. He decided to divert to nearby Edwards Air Force Base, home to the USAF Flight Test Center.
Fighter pilots never allow one of their own to fly alone if he is in trouble. Wilson escorted Brooks to Edwards, whose 15,000-foot runway provided a wide safety margin and whose fire and rescue crews were accustomed to emergencies. Brooks’ decision to go to Edwards set the stage for arguably the most famous film footage in aviation history.
Edwards was then in its heyday. Its cadre of test pilots frequently vied to best each other, routinely breaking speed and altitude records, while engineers worked to analyze the data gathered from their efforts. As the afternoon of January 10 was winding down, the base’s film crew was gearing up for yet another test, with camera operators readying their equipment. Suddenly firefighting equipment roared toward the runway, and the cameramen spotted an F-100 coming around the final turn on approach. The crews switched on their equipment and swung their viewfinders toward the incoming jet.
Behind the Power Curve
Brooks’ experience in Korean War–era jets hadn’t fully prepared him for the new generation of fighters, particularly the dicey F-100. The Hun was the result of North American Aviation’s quest to improve on its success with the F-86 Sabre, which established a 10-to-1 kill ratio in Korea. First produced in 1953, the F-100 was bigger than the F-86 and capable of supersonic flight, with a meatier engine, more wing sweep (45 degrees versus 35 degrees in the F-86) and a new device that generated powerful pulses of thrust at the touch of the pilot’s throttle hand—an afterburner.
Early models, the A and C (there was no B), had no trailing edge flaps, which meant their approach speeds were much higher than with previous jets. Hun pilots had to think faster and farther ahead. And because of its highly swept wings, the new fighter had vicious stalling characteristics. At low speeds, the tips stalled first, with the stall progressing inboard. This not only rendered the ailerons less effective but also shifted the center of lift forward of the center of gravity, resulting in a tendency to pitch up—which in turn aggravated the stall.
The Hun had other insidious tendencies. As Curtis Burns, one of Brooks’ friends, pointed out, “The F-100C had…a dangerous tendency to [develop] adverse yaw and roll-coupling at a high angle of attack.” These are complex aerodynamic and inertia forces that interact with each other. A roll at slow speed and a high angle of attack can produce unwanted pitch or yaw. The F-100 was notorious for this. Jack Doub, a veteran of the legendary Misty F-100 squadron in Vietnam, put it succinctly: “Most of us quickly learned to deal with low-and-slow issues—we avoided them!”
But Barty Brooks had not yet learned the F-100’s quirky ways. At 1627 hours Pacific time he rounded the final turn and saw that his descent rate would put him on Edwards’ runway prior to reaching the area the fire trucks had covered with foam. He raised his nose to stretch his approach toward the foam, but he was late adding more power.
His airspeed fell. His wingtips began to stall. The wings rocked. Adverse yaw coupled in, and the nose swayed left and right as Brooks applied aileron pressure to stop the rolling motion. As his airspeed dropped, the oscillations worsened and the nose pitched higher because the center of lift was moving forward. Realizing he was seriously behind the power curve—the “region of reverse command,” where more power is required to sustain flight at lower airspeeds—Brooks lit his afterburner.
Footage from the base’s cameras clearly shows a blue plume blasting dirt from the runway and adjacent desert. The raw power of the F-100C’s afterburner blast, coupled with the pitch-up of the creeping stall, raised the Hun’s nose even higher, until it was nearly vertical.
Brooks, however, was by that time too low and slow to be able to safely eject. Unlike modern “zero-zero” ejection seats, the seats of his era had to be used at a minimum airspeed and altitude in order for an ejection to be survivable.
The film shows that Brooks twice lowered the nose to lessen his angle of attack and try to fly out of the impending stall. But each time the nose pitched up again, and each time the burner blasted a fresh spray of dirt from the ground. Moving in a slow, eerie fashion, the Hun waltzed down the runway, then over its perimeter, snout jutting skyward, swaying almost gracefully from side to side. The nearby rescue vehicles gunned their engines to get out of the jet’s path.
As Brooks struggled with the pitch oscillations, the Hun rolled right, then hesitated and rolled steeper to the right. His heading swerved 90 degrees from the runway. The bank angle steepened to close to 90 degrees, and the fighter fell into the ground on its right wingtip. An enormous explosion erupted, spewing out a ball of upward-boiling, pitch-black smoke laced with ribbons of flame. Debris rose, fell and tumbled in all directions. The fire and rescue teams arrived within mere seconds, quickly reducing the inferno to a few isolated fires. They reached Brooks in less than two minutes, but found him dead, still strapped in his seat, which had torn loose from its mounts and rolled free of the wreckage.
Stories have long circulated that Brooks survived the crash only to die of asphyxiation, having suffocated from his own vomit. Not true. His helmet and oxygen mask were not on his head when rescuers found him. Both were found in the wreckage.
The investigating officer concluded that Brooks had been at fault: He had failed to adhere to the landing techniques outlined in the pilot’s flight handbook. Contributing factors were the loose pivot pin and the fact that Brooks had been distracted by “too much emphasis on trying to hit the foam.”
Brooks’ friends and others close to the accident agreed that if he had continued his rate of descent and landed short of the foam, instead of trying to stretch his approach, the outcome would have been far different. In later discussions, several pilots who talked with North American engineers indicated that Brooks’ nose wheel would likely have aligned itself on touchdown.
The film of the accident was soon circulated among Air Force and Navy units for safety training purposes. Bart’s fatal ride was quickly tagged the “Sabre dance.”
There were many other accounts of similar incidents. Pilot Sam McIntyre, for example, wrote: “In 1961 at Nellis AFB I saw an F-100D do the Sabre Dance. On the take off [his] nose pitched straight up and that’s when the dance began….the right wing dropped and touched the ground, the nose dropped just enough for the pilot to gain some control. He flew it out of the stall, just a few feet above our heads and over the tails of other F-100s….” The pilot who survived that episode flew on to the gunnery range, apparently undaunted, but the incident so unnerved McIntyre’s flight that the men aborted their mission.
Curtis Burns, a classmate of Bart’s at A&M, had a hard time watching the film, but he realized that there were valuable lessons to be learned from it. “Our squadron was shown film clips of his crash and it was obvious…what mistakes he made,” Burns said. “I have seen several pilots die in fiery crashes when they made mistakes in handling the F-100.”
Ron Green was one of the pilots who learned from Brooks’ mistakes. “Prior to our first solo flight in a ‘C’ model,” he said, “we watched the film of the Sabre Dance….After watching this I said to myself, if [Brooks] had only applied full [power] and full opposite rudder, and slammed the stick forward when the nose rose and it started to roll, he would have survived.” The next day Green mounted up for his initial solo. Approaching to land, he recalled, “Everything was going good….Then at round-out I must [have]…pulled back on the stick [too much].” The Super Sabre’s nose jumped up so high that Green couldn’t see out front. He applied full power, kicked full rudder opposite the roll and pushed the stick forward. The jet rolled upright and the nose went down. He hit the runway in a three-point attitude, bounced back into the air and slowly accelerated. “It [the Brooks film] saved my life!” he said.
Medley Gatewood got a colossal scare when he was a new instructor, flying in the back seat of a tandem cockpit F-100F, with a student in front. While trying to land, the student raised the nose too high, and the right wing dropped. The student countered with left aileron but didn’t apply rudder. The nose yawed violently right. “At that point,” Gatewood said, “time and motion seemed suspended, and…the famous Sabre dance film flickered through my thoughts.”
Gatewood took over, applied left rudder, lowered the nose and went to military power (maximum power without afterburner). Remembering how Brooks’ use of the afterburner seemed to aggravate the nose-high attitude, he stopped short of engaging it. The Hun bounced out of a three-point landing and slowly climbed out. Gatewood was “shaking like a quaking Aspen tree” when a wingman joined up and informed him that the fairings on both his wingtips were bent upward from hitting the ground. As they came back around the pattern, the student asked to resume control before the landing, but Gatewood refused, using a few very choice words.
Incredibly, at least one pilot intentionally waltzed with the Super Sabre—in front of thousands of awed spectators. In an online forum, Bill Turner recalled a memorable airshow he saw in North Carolina in the late 1950s: “Bob Hoover did a ‘Sabre Dance’ with an F-100. I have never seen anything like it. It seemed to stop in space in front of us and twist and turn like a bird catching a bug. Great plane, greater pilot.” Few would argue with him.
As the years passed, the story of Brooks’ last ride was told countless times in bars and hangars. Inevitably it was also mentioned in a verse of the renowned fighter pilot song “Give Me Operations”:
Don’t give me a One-Double-Oh
To fight against friendly or foe
That old Sabre Dance made me
crap in my pants
Don’t give me a One-Double-Oh
The film of Brooks’ accident undoubtedly saved lives after he died. Generations of fledgling Air Force and Navy pilots—the author included—were shown the legendary film footage in ground school, watching aghast as Bart waltzed toward his death.
In a very different context, many more people would also get to see the Sabre dance: tens of thousands of moviegoers and TV watchers. The dramatic crash footage was incorporated into a handful of major films and television series (see sidebar, above).
Separating the Man From the Legend
Looking back now, it might seem insensitive to use footage of a military man’s death in such a manner. Air Force officials never told Brooks’ parents, both now deceased, about the film. In fact his niece, Kaelan Anderson, only recently learned of the film’s existence when I asked her about it. She said: “I do not want to view these movies [and] I object that they used the film to make money. I will always cherish the memories of my Uncle Bart. He was a special man, and he was loved by all his family and friends.”
Former Super Sabre pilot John Wilson agreed, saying, “I have big problems when I have seen it in the commercial movies.” Wilson, who was supposed to be piloting the plane that Brooks flew that day, explained: “I had planned to go back to New York for the Christmas holidays. When Bart heard that my leave had been canceled and that I had been assigned to fly that mission, he stepped up and said, ‘I’ve been home recently. You go on leave and I’ll take the flight for you.’ So as you can see I’m somewhat emotional about the accident….I loved the guy. He did me a big favor, and it killed him.”
Lieutenant Barty R. Brooks lies in Round Grove Cemetery in Lewisville, Texas. But his legendary Sabre dance will live on, as long as there are pilots left who remember the film of his tragic accident. Anytime they watch it, or replay those ghastly images in their memory, they’ll be silently admonishing Bart to lower his nose and push that damned rudder.
The writer, Alan Cockrell is a retired USAF lieutenant colonel currently serving as a Boeing 757/767 captain for United Airlines. Further reading:Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, by Rick Newman and Don Shepperd; and F-100 Super Sabre at War, by Thomas E. Gardner.