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22/03/1956 North American F-86F Sabre 52-5373 &52-5355

Type Serial No Unit Station Duty Crew Passengers
North American F-86F Sabre 52-5373 45th Fighter Day Squadron Sidi Slimane, French Morocco Ferry Flight 1 0
North American F-86F Sabre 52-5355 45th Fighter Day Squadron Sidi Slimane, French Morocco Ferry Flight 1 0

On the 22nd March 1956 at approximately 13:35 hours a flight of three North American F-86F Sabre jet fighters of the 45th Fighter Day Squadron, 17th Air Force, left Bordeaux, France on the last leg of their ferry flight from Sidi Slimane, French Morocco to Scottish Aviation at Prestwick, Scotland to deliver the last three aircraft of the squadron.  They were led by Captain James M. Hambrick in aircraft number 52-5355, 2nd Lieutenant Norman L. Wells in 52-5425 (No. 2 aircraft) and 1st Lieutenant Wendell B. Stockdale in 52-5373 (No. 3 aircraft). The flight would have taken them over Cherbourg, Southampton, Burtonwood and on to Prestwick and should have taken about 1 hour 40 minutes.  The aircraft were carrying fuel for 2 hours plus 30 minutes.  The diversion airfield was RAF Scunthorpe, 15 minutes away from Burtonwood where the decision to divert, if they were to divert, would be made. There had initially been a problem with the No. 2 aircraft as they taxied out.  Its dive brakes were out and, as the pilot had trouble in bringing them in, the flight started to taxi back to the ramp. However, the dive brakes on the No. 2 aircraft became operative and the flight turned around and took off at five-second intervals, climbing to 38,000 feet.

1st Lieutenant Wendell B. Stockdale with a F-86

1st Lieutenant Wendell B. Stockdale with a F-86

The flight arrived over the Cherbourg area several minutes early and continued on course for Southampton.  The flight was still ahead of time over Southampton and continued on course to Burtonwood.  Whilst over-flying the Burtonwood area, the flight leader experienced trouble with his radio compass and subsequently handed over the lead to the number three aircraft flown by 1st Lieutenant Stockdale to lead the flight to Prestwick.  The flight was still ahead of time.  When they thought they were over Prestwick, as indicated by the swing of Lt. Stockdale's and Lt. Wells' radio compasses, Captain Hambrick attempted to contact the tower and after numerous failed attempts by all three pilots, they finally made contact on the guard channel. The tower asked the flight leader if the flight could penetrate VFR, to which Captain Hambrick replied "negative", whereupon the tower cleared them to penetrate on the Prestwick range.  During the descent, at around 15,000 feet, the tower contacted the flight and notified them that the range had been turned off.  (Lt. Stockdale believed the range had actually been turned off when the radio compasses indicated station passage.)

Electing to continue letdown without benefit of navigational aids, they descended to around 2,000 - 3,000 feet.  When they broke out of the clouds, they found they were out over the Irish Sea.  They did see an airfield on an island but the runway was too short so they contacted the tower for a DF steer.  The tower told them to tune into a marker located a half-mile from the end of the runway.  Unable to get a positive identification on the radio compass, the DF homed in on what was later determined to be a radio station in the Netherlands.  Now unsure of the actual location of the beacon, they again called for a steer.  Burtonwood heard the call and asked them if they were in trouble or needed a steer.  Still attempting to locate itself, the flight spent some time in the area maintaining VFR before accepting a steer to Burtonwood. (According to Lt. Stockdale, it was at about this point in the flight that they collectively agreed that they were lost, so the flight leader declared an emergency).

On the heading to Burtonwood, they then climbed up to around 17,000 feet, maintaining this altitude for a time, following the steers given by Burtonwood and estimating there was now a good chance of exhausting their fuel before arriving at Burtonwood, Captain Hambrick decided to let down, maintaining VFR below the clouds.  The flight continued at approximately 1,500 - 2,000 feet, in the hope that they would spot a suitable landing strip en-route to Burtonwood.  

52-5373 Crash site

52-5373 Crash site

At approximately 10 -12 miles from Burtonwood at 15:55 hours, and at approximately 1,000 feet, 1st Lieutenant Stockdale's aircraft flamed out.  Then, according to eyewitness and newspaper accounts, he tried to make a forced landing on what had been a reclaimed open cast site.  The aircraft with its undercarriage down, came down low over New House Farm on Winstanly Road at about a height of about 60 feet, the aircraft touching down on a fence near to where Chair Wood now stands.  After overshooting the pasture he was aiming for, Lt. Stockdale touched down in a recently ploughed field.  The undercarriage, external fuel tanks and wings were torn off, the fuselage rolling and careering across the field at an angle of 30 degrees.

After rolling over a number of times, the fuselage went through a wooden fence on the other side of the field and ended up on its side in a drainage ditch 100 yards from Moss Vale Farm on Up Holland Road, the tenants of which, Mr. and Mrs. Danny Ball, who were not at home at the time.  The aircraft was a complete wreck after traveling about 100 yards across the field.  Pieces of it were strewn over a 200-yard area, the nose was at one end of the field, with the undercarriage and wing 20 yards from the fuselage. The whole area was littered with shattered Perspex and ballast bags.  The pilot's helmet, cracked down the middle, was lying on the ground near the fuselage.  

Close up of cockpit

Close up of cockpit

First Lieutenant Stockdale crawled from the wreck with facial injuries, two fractured vertebrae and bad cuts.  He stumbled across to some people who were coming to help and passed out.  He was removed to Wigan Infirmary in an ambulance that had to be towed out of the field by a tractor after it got stuck in the muddy field.  He was transferred to the Air Force Hospital at Burtonwood at 18:23 hours and then later to the Air Force Hospital at Wimpole Park near Cambridge.  At the time of the accident, 1st Lieutenant Stockdale had a total of 531:30 hours flying time with 167:50 hours in the F-86.

When the alarm was given, it was treated as a general emergency, and six fire engines and a couple of ambulances from surrounding districts were at the scene with commendable speed.  

Close up of nose section

Close up of nose section

The subsequent investigation by the US Air Force revealed approximately one gallon of fuel remaining in the tanks of 1st Lieutenant Stockdale's aircraft. The damage to the farmer's property, at 1952 prices, amounted to $125.80, to make good the land  $56.00, 27 yards of fencing $53.00 and replacing 24 yards of fencing removed by recovery crew $16.80.

Captain Hambrick's aircraft ran out of fuel and landed, with minor damage, short of the runway at Burtonwood.  Lt Wells in the third aircraft made it down safely, landing on a taxiway that was closed because of the construction equipment on it. 

Captain Hambrick's aircraft 52-5355 at Prestwick

Captain Hambrick's aircraft 52-5355 at Prestwick

Twenty-five year-old 1st Lieutenant Wendell Stockdale from Columbia, Pennsylvania was hospitalised from March to May of 1956, after which he returned to ground duties in French Morocco, serving as Assistant to the Commander of the 45th FDS until his tour was up in September 1956.  He then returned to the United States, assigned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, as a Flight Test Engineer in the Division of Flight and All Weather Testing.  Due to his head injuries and a period of amnesia, he was not immediately allowed to return to flying status.  It was approximately a year before the flight surgeons determined that his amnesia was psychological and was not due to physical brain damage.  (Evidently, oftentimes when something terrible or frightening happens to a person, the brain will do the victim a favour and cause him to permanently forget most or all of what happened.)

In September 1960, the Air Force selected now Captain Stockdale to attend the University of Chicago where he earned a Master of Business Administration degree in 1961.  Upon graduation, he was assigned to the Cost Analysis Division, Air Research and Development Command, at Andrews AFB near Washington D. C.  While on this assignment, he performed a cost analysis of the Skybolt missile for which he was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal.  During his Air Force career, he also completed the USAF Squadron Officers School in 1957 and the USAF Command and Staff College in 1966.

In May of 1963, Captain Stockdale resigned from active duty, transferred to the U. S. Air Force Reserves and accepted a position with the Columbia Telephone Co., Columbia, Pennsylvania, as Assistant to the President.  Subsequent advancements placed him in the position of General Manager of an operating telephone company and as President of a telephone supply company.  He retired from the USAF Reserve with the rank of Lt. Colonel in June 1975.  He currently owns and manages a brokerage company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, specializing in commercial and industrial real estate.

Wendell Berg Stockdale was born in Aplington, Iowa, on the 29th August 1930. Aplington is a small town in northeast Iowa, with a population of 500.  He graduated from high school in 1948 and went directly to the U.S. Naval Academy from which he graduated in 1952, taking his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, S. N. 23537A.  At that time, the Air Force was accepting up to 25% of the graduates from the Naval Academy and West Point as the U.S. Air Force Academy had not yet been in existence long enough to graduate a class.  The Navy flight surgeons had determined that Stockdale was not qualified for flying duty with the Navy because of a deviated septum, so he transferred to the Air Force.  His first duty assignment was as a Supply Officer at Middletown Air Force Base, Middletown, Pennsylvania where he served until January 1954.  In June 1954, he married Jane Hinkle of Columbia, Pa.  They have one daughter (born just two months before the accident), two sons and five grandchildren.

In January 1954, Lt. Stockdale passed the Air Force flight physical and entered flight training at Bartow, Florida (Pa-18 and T-6); then to Bryan, Texas (T-28 and T-33); then to Del Rio, Texas (T-33 gunnery), and finally to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada where he transitioned into the F-86F, Class of 55 F.  His assignment from Nellis was to the 45th Fighter Day Squadron (FDS) in French Morocco to which he reported in September 1955.

Col. Stockdale recalled in February 2001 the events of his crash as follows:

"After flaming out, I loosened my seat belt and harness in preparation for a low altitude ejection.  As I lowered my head in preparation for blowing the canopy, I noticed what I thought was a school below and ahead of me.  (I found out 36 years later, it was a hospital at Billinge,  Mr Hornby worked there later as head of maintenance, and his daughter worked there as a nurse, Mr Hornby was a local farmer who was first on the scene.)  By the time I glided my aircraft safely beyond the hospital, l estimated that I was well below 800 feet -- too low to safely eject.  I turned left and then right after spotting a pasture in which to set down.  I decided to land diagonally across the pasture, which was adjacent to a ploughed field.  From my farming experience in Iowa where I was reared, I knew that pasture ground was usually much harder than a ploughed field and that the plane might not sink into the pasture turf.  Unfortunately, I overshot the pasture.  Had I not overshot, I would have had more than the 300 feet in which I stopped in the ploughed field, and I am sure the crash would not have been as violent. In deciding where to put the aircraft down, I also knew I ran the risk of running into a building at the far end of the pasture.  I remember it as a barn but it could have been a house.  Had the plane ran into it, at least it would have been at a relatively slow speed, so I was prepared to take that risk".

"The undercarriage sank unevenly, imparting a rotating motion to the aircraft.  The mud piled up in front of the wheels ,causing first the external fuel tanks and then the wings and undercarriage to be torn from the fuselage.  The wingless fuselage then started to spin like a football, in the process of which the headrest and canopy were sheared off as the fuselage spiraled two or three times across the field.  Had I still had my shoulder harness and seat belt fastened, I probably would have been decapitated.  Fortunately, in the days before the automatic opening seat belt, shoulder harness and parachute opening mechanisms, the procedure was to unbuckle the seat belt and shoulder harness before bailing out at low altitude.  By doing so, as the seat and pilot tumbled through the air after ejection, the pilot did not have to worry about finding and unbuckling the shoulder harness and seatbelt in the very short time available".

"Another lucky break for me was that the ejection seat did not fire upon impact or when I evacuated the plane.  The standard procedure was to reinsert the safety pin in the ejection seat before a crash landing to prevent the seat from accidentally firing upon impact.  After flaming-out, I had very little time and was very busy.  I do not remember whether I forgot or whether I was too occupied flying the plane and looking for a place to land, but in any event, I did not put the safety pins in.  When the plane ended up on its side, had the seat blown, I would have been ejected into the wooden fence and the hard ground along the fence line.  Also most fortunately, there was no fire.  I was later told there remained only about a gallon of fuel left in the tank."

"With no shoulder harness or seat belt to restrain me, the tremendous deceleration caused my head to slam into the gun sight.  The helmet, although it split down the middle, did limit the damage to my face.  I incurred a fracture of the right zygoma arch and maxilla, and my right sinus was crushed.  I also fractured two vertebrae and had many cuts and bruises of varying severity.  I was very lucky that the fuselage did not come to rest upside down.  As I was bleeding profusely, had it taken a long time to right the plane and get me out, who knows what might have happened?  I think I used a couple of my nine lives that day!"

" I managed to get out of the aircraft by myself and sat on a rock.  A farmer working in an adjacent field had called the emergency services.  The ambulance was there very quickly and I passed out shortly after the ambulance arrived.  As I recall, I came to a couple of days later in the base hospital at Burtonwood.  I credit  Mr Hornby, Mr Alker and Mr Boardman for saving my life.  I was told that one of them called the ambulance while I was still in the air.  When the ambulance got stuck in the mud, they pulled it out with their tractor.  They were responsible for my prompt medical attention and quick departure for the hospital.  Years later, I was told by Mrs Hornby that it was Mr Boardman who found my watch in the ploughed field the day after the accident."

“Again, another fortunate break for me was that Dr. Lett was on duty at Wimpole Park Air Force Hospital near Cambridge where I was eventually sent.  He was one of the foremost ear, nose and throat doctors in the Air Force and a specialist in treating head and facial injuries similar to mine.  He did a wonderful job on me."

"My personal recollections of the accident stopped after I made a turn onto final approach and started again a couple days later in hospital.  Details, especially covering the period of my amnesia, were supplied from what I was later told by others -- some of it not until 36 years later when I visited with Mrs. Hornby."   

Shot showing wing with fuselage in distance

Shot showing wing with fuselage in distance

A number of local eyewitnesses recalled the events to the press as follows,

John Boardman:- “I was working in the farm yard, All at once I heard a "Swishing" noise, looking around I saw a jet aircraft approaching from the North, North East.  At this time, the aircraft appeared to be about seventy feet in the air.  It just barely cleared a clump of trees South East of the farm.  I realised the occupant was experiencing difficulties and I started running in the same direction the aircraft was traveling.  A slight rise in the ground prevented my seeing the aircraft actually touch down.  At this time, I heard the impact, followed by a "whooshing, woof", a sound similar to an explosion and saw clumps of dirt flying through the air.  Next, I ran to the farmhouse and notified Mr Alker, to phone for assistance, which was done immediately.  Then I got the tractor going and drove it half a mile to the scene of the accident.  As I arrived, the ambulance was at the scene and the pilot was being assisted into it.  When the ambulance started to leave it became bogged in the mud and I used the tractor to pull it out, and it then departed for the hospital ".

Alfred Hornby, “I was working in the farm yard of "Greenslate Farm", Billinge, when I heard the sound of jet planes traveling in a Southerly direction.  I saw two planes, then I saw one of the aircraft bank to the left.  Then on the aircraft that had gone to the left, the aircraft then banked to the right, at this time he was out of sight for a few seconds.  The aircraft now headed towards RAF Burtonwood, but loosing height.  The aircraft seemed to be gradually loosing height.  Right then it seemed definite that it was going to crash.  Just then, when it was almost one hundred feet above the ground, the aircraft struck the ground, and I saw dust and dirt flying into the air.  I was standing approximately half a mile from the scene of impact.  Then I drove immediately to the phone box and notified the Police stating that they should send an ambulance.  I drove to the scene of the accident, with the ambulance following.  When I arrived, the pilot was in a crouched position and seemed very dazed.  The pilot mumbled something to the effect, "Where am I"  I attempted to comfort him and assisted in putting him into the ambulance.  I remained at the scene of the accident and prevented people from moving anything until the arrival of the Police".

George Birchall:- “I was working in my garage on Up Holland Road and I heard the noise of the jet engine as the plane went over and then it cut and I heard a muffled bang, I didn't think at first that the aircraft had crashed".  

Shot showing fuselage with wing in background

Shot showing fuselage with wing in background

In May of 1992 during a holiday, Col. Stockdale and his wife visited the site and meet the wife, daughter and granddaughter of Mr. Alfred Hornby.  (Mr. Hornby had died just a few months before the Stockdale's visit.)  Mrs. Hornby recalled that Mr. Hornby was working on the Greenslate Farm  when he observed a flight of aircraft flying very low.  He noticed that one of them was apparently in trouble as it was not making any noise and had separated itself from the others.  He was aware that it was losing altitude and when he saw that the wheels were down, he knew it was definitely in trouble and was trying to land.  After the airplane hit the ground, he immediately went to the phone and called the police. He then went to the plane, getting there about the same time as the ambulance He discovered the pilot sitting on a rock, very disoriented and not knowing where he was.  He said something like, "That was surely a rough ride.  Where am I".  

Col. Stockdale visiting the crash site in 1992

Col. Stockdale visiting the crash site in 1992

Mrs. Hornby related that a friend and neighbour of Mr. Hornby, Mr. John Boardman, were also in the area that day.  Mr. Boardman did not see the crash, but from the noise and dust, he knew the aircraft he was watching had crash-landed.  He asked Mr. Alker, who was in a nearby farmhouse, to call for an ambulance while he drove his tractor to the crash site.  By the time he got to the site, the ambulance had arrived and was loading Lt. Stockdale into it.  As the ambulance started to leave for the hospital, it got stuck in the mud.  Mr. Hornby and Mr. Boardman used the tractor to pull the ambulance out. From the time they first saw the aircraft until the ambulance left the area, they estimated it was no more than twenty minutes.  Mrs. Hornby recalled that it did not take long after the accident for the roads for miles around to become impassable due to the mass of vehicles coming to see where the "Yank" had crashed. Col. Stockdale recalled that it was a very emotional afternoon for his wife and him. 

Herb Harper, who was one of the American crash party, recently recalled his involvement in the accident as follows:

"As an Armament Technician, I was called out to the crash site to de-arm any explosives, guns and the pilot's ejector seat, which contained explosive devices.  By the time I had arrived, the injured pilot had already been removed.  I did know he was injured and he was expected to live but I did not know who he was, and since he was from another unit, I did not ask.  When I got to the crash site, the aircraft was lying on its side with the wings missing.  After I checked to make sure the guns were safe, I had to crawl through the fence and brambles to get into the cockpit.  This was a tight squeeze and when I got there and viewed the condition of the seat mechanism, I almost had a heart attack.  To fire the ejection seat the pilot would pull up on the seat handles.  I was already in the cockpit area when I noticed the handles were in the raised position, almost the firing position.  Just a slight touch in the wrong way would fire the seat.  I can still close my eyes and see me and the seat clearing out that fence and brambles, and as I am here to tell this story, it is obvious everything went well".

Following is the extract of a letter sent to the St. Helen's Reporter shortly after the incident by Billinge Council:

The act of selflessness performed by First Lieutenant Wendell Stockdale when, out of fuel, he piloted his Sabre jet into a ploughed field on Moss Vale Farm, Billinge, rather than abandon it over a populated area (the population was around 5,000), prompted Billinge Council to send a letter of appreciation to the Officer Commanding the US Air Force base at Burtonwood. It reads:

"At the meeting of the council last evening (Monday) reference was made to the wonderful handling of the Sabre jet by First Lieut.  Wendell Stockdale, whose plane unfortunately crashed in this district.  I am asked by the council to convey to him, through you, sir, the council's admiration of his gallant act, and also their thanks for averting what might otherwise have been a disastrous calamity had the machine crashed upon the houses. I also express a hope that the officer will soon be fully recovered from his injuries and further his service career, and benefit his service with further distinction." - Yours faithfully, Clerk of the Council.

A spokesman at Burtonwood told the St Helens Reporter:

"We are indeed proud of First Lieut.  Stockdale, and grateful to the council for sending this letter of thanks.  The letter with a covering note from this camp, will be sent to his home unit at Morocco, and entered in his military record.  At the moment, Lieut. Stockdale's condition is very satisfactory, but he will spend some time at Burtonwood convalescing."

North American F-86F-25-NH Sabre 52-5373 was built at North American's Columbus, Ohio plant and was a fighter bomber version of the aircraft built from October 1952 under contract number 193-1/259, with the first aircraft appearing in January 1953.  No F-86F-25-NH aircraft were sent to Korea.  The aircraft had 676:55 hours on the airframe at the time of the incident.  The aircraft carried the squadron emblem on the fuselage behind the cockpit, an American Indian riding an aircraft and wearing a long feathered headdress.  The aircraft also carried the 17th Air force emblem on the vertical stabilizer, a circle of five stars on a yellow background. On one side of the cockpit was the crew chiefs name, Staff Sergeant J E Woolridge.

This aircraft and the other two were dropped from the 45th Fighter Day Squadron at 16:00 hours on the 22nd March 1956.The 45th Fighter Interceptor Squadron activated at Suffolk County Air Force base, New York, on the 1st November 1952 with the F-86F, moving to Sidi Slimane Air Base, French Morocco, in May 1953.  On the 8th October 1954, the unit was re-designated the 45th Fighter Day Squadron.  The squadron's mission, among other things, was to assure that no Russian bombers threatened U.S. interests in French Morocco, such as Sidi Slimane and Ben Guirir Air Bases, several radar stations, and the Naval installations at Rabat.  The 45th FDS converted to F-100C's, the Super Sabre, in early 1956, and was given the mission of being the USAFE Super 1956 Sabre conversion  unit.

The history of the 45th goes back to 22nd November 1940 when the War Department constituted the 45th Pursuit Squadron.  The unit was activated at Wheeler Field, Hawaii on the 1st December 1940 where they served as part of the fighter defence of Hawaii.  When the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941, the 45th suffered heavily from the losses endured on that fateful day.  The squadron fought throughout the Pacific region with honours and was deactivated on 15th October 1946 after returning to Hawaii on 25th November 1945.

Col. Stockdale recently recalled some notable events while flying the F-86 Sabre:

"Upon landing after a low- level formation training flight out of Nellis AFB, the crew chief jokingly complained that he had to clean cactus stains off the underside of my wings.  I estimate I had been no more than 10-20 feet above the desert floor.  My flight leader and instructor was Paul Kauttau who was a veteran of the Korean War with 2 ˝ MIG's to his credit -  a real daredevil and a skilful pilot." .

"One day when flying patrol alone over the Atlas Mountains in eastern French Morocco, the radar site controlling my flight advised me that an aircraft was headed towards Sidi Slimane Air Base.  The radar controller believed it to be Russian and I was to intercept and verify identification.  I was flying around 25-30,000 feet.  Upon verifying that it was a Russian aircraft (I recall that it was a "Bison" but I am not sure), I got into attack position, armed my guns and followed it for a time.  If it did not   reverse course by a certain point, I was to attack.  I did not think about it at the time, but with all the guns on that large Russian bomber, if an attack were ordered, I should have had help.  With only six 50-calibre machine guns, I would have been no match for it.  Our F-86's could carry air-to-ground rockets but I do not recall that they had air-to-air rocket capability.  In any event, I was not carrying any rockets that day.  I suspect the decision makers on the ground were not too worried as the Russians flew these reconnaissance flights quite frequently and usually did the same thing -they came close to the "attack point" but never dangerously so.  That day was, fortunately for all, no exception.  As the Russian bomber approached the attack point, it started to make a lazy turn and headed back to where it came from.  It was a good thing that he turned or the Cold War might have gotten a little hotter!"

Crash site of 52-5373, Winter 2000

Crash site of 52-5373, Winter 2000

Position Rank Name Service No Age Status
Pilot 1st Lieutenant Wendell B Stockdale 23537A 25 Injured
Pilot  Captain  James M Hambrick  - - Ok

Burtonwood Incidents