When a Scorpion saved a Swift

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
It was the 23rd birthday of the Oregon Air National Guard, and the crew of a 142nd Fighter Group fighter-interceptor was on duty, taking their Northrop F-89J Scorpion two-seat jet fighter-interceptor on a cross-country flight from Portland Air Base down to McClellan AFB, California. It was not to be a routine flight.

On April 18, 1964, then Maj. Charles A. Sams, pilot, and Capt. Clifford W. Landis, radar intercept officer, both assigned to the 123rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron (Air Defense), were in the penetration phase of their flight, descending to 7,000 feet when Sacramento approach control asked if they could divert from landing and search for a lost aircraft in their area. With 8,000 pounds of fuel remaining, Maj. Sams agreed to make the effort.

Sacramento vectored the F-89 into a trail position near the lost aircraft, a single engine Swift about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento. The Oregon aircrew had no communications with the pilot of the Swift. The lost Swift was thought to be at about 12,000 feet, and the 123d crew made an initial approach at 11,500 after entering the clouds at 8,000 feet.

At two miles range, Capt. Landis picked up the small target, at a higher altitude. Maj. Sams slowed to 130 knots, lowered the landing gear and flaps and lit both afterburners to begin a climb to 18,000 feet to intercept the Swift. He leveled off in the weather and closed in on the civilian aircraft. Finally, at 200 yards he made visual contact on the lost aircraft, on a 270 heading at 90 knots. As the Scorpion overtook the Swift, Major Sams waggled his wings to try and catch the lost pilot's attention, but apparently failed and the Scorpion disappeared into the weather.

Sacramento approach control vectored the F-89 again into a stern position and the men again flew in the weather to seek the Swift. Maj. Sams slowed to 125 knots, minimum control speed some 10-15 knots above stall speed in level flight, and passed closer to the Swift. This time the pilot evidently observed the F-89 pass by his vantage point. He radioed on a special emergency frequency over which he apparently could transmit but not receive, and said "This jet looks as if he knows where he is going. I'll try to follow him." The Scorpion made a turn in a direction toward a VFR flight conditions, but the slow Swift could not follow as the Scorpion again quickly disappeared into the clouds.

But Maj. Sams and Capt. Landis persisted, and made six successive passes at minimum control speed to safely guide the Swift pilot into an area they knew to be the clear. They led the Swift through a hole in the clouds and on down to 8,000 feet, where a U.S. Navy U-3 guided the aircraft to a safe landing at the Sacramento Municipal Airport.

The humanitarian assistance mission they accomplished gave witness to the all-weather intercept capability of the Oregon Air National Guard, which began with the Lockheed F-94B in the 1950's just ten years before. The persistence and professionalism of Maj. Sams, a Senior Pilot with 2,760 flying hours at the time, and Capt. Landis, an ADC "Expert" with 1,638 hours then, saved the civilian light aircraft from destruction and thus averted the loss of human life.

Mr. H.H. Mark of the Federal Aviation Agency radar control center at Mather AFB commended the Oregon aircrew.

In August, 1964, Lieutenant Gen. Herbert B. Thatcher, Commander, Air Defense Command, was pleased to announce that Maj. Sams and Capt. Landis won the ADC "We Point with Pride" Award, for their part in the successful recovery of the Swift. In September of 1964, the OreANG aircrew each received the award plaque in a ceremony held during the HQ Portland Air Defense Sector's Commander's Conference. The two were further honored in the November, 1964 issue of INTERCEPTOR, the command's magazine.

On this 73rd birthday of the Oregon Air National Guard, the Citizen Airmen of the 142nd Fighter Wing maintain readiness to conduct the spectrum of tasks for the aerospace control mission, including air sovereignty in peacetime, contingency and/or deterrence in times of tension, and active air defense against manned and unmanned air-breathing airborne threats in times of crisis or war.