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HERITAGE SERIES: The Flight of Fox Able One

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of an ongoing series about historic figures who served at Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)

Some 500 miles from the ocean, Selfridge Air National Guard Base hardly seems the ideal location from which to begin a trans-Atlantic aircraft flight. It was at the Michigan base, however, that the plan was developed to allow jet fighter aircraft to do just that. It was also the base from which the first such flight was launched, using the first Air Force fighter capable of speeds greater than 500 miles per hour.

Even today, crossing the Atlantic Ocean in military fighter aircraft requires an elaborate plan of in-flight refueling and, often-times, carefully choreographed stops along the way. Which makes the July 20, 1948, trans-Atlantic deployment of 16 F-80 Shooting Stars from Selfridge to Furstenfeldbruck in what was then known as West Germany all the more impressive. That flight, which included several brief fueling stops along the way, was dubbed Operation: Fox Able One (phonetic for "F" for Fighter and "A" for Atlantic). The mission was conceived of and led by Col. David C. Schilling, a World War II ace who was then in command of the 56th Fighter Group at Selfridge.

Schilling was a brilliant fighter pilot, who had been a charter member of the 56th Fighter Group in the summer of 1942, flying P-47 Thunderbolts out of England during World War II. Skilled as both a pilot and as a leader, Schilling was one of the top 10 aces of the European Theater during World War II and became perhaps the youngest colonel in Air Force history, being promoted to that rank when he was only 24 years old. During the war, he scored 22.5 aerial victories, including 5 victories in one day on Dec. 23, 1944.

Schilling commanded the 56th in the closing days of the war in Europe. Following the war, the 56th was briefly disbanded and Schilling was reduced one rank as a result of the rapid drawdown of the U.S. military. In May 1946, the 56th was reactivated and based at Selfridge Air Force Base, with Schilling, returned to the rank of colonel, in command.

The late 1940s was a generally dark time for fighter aircraft, as most of the Air Force focus at the time was on bombers, due to rising Cold War tensions. At the time, the only way to get U.S. fighter aircraft to Europe was to ferry them across the Atlantic Ocean on ships. This limitation sat poorly with fighter pilots like Schilling.

Working with Lt. Col. Bill Ritchie and other pilots at Selfridge, Schilling cooked up the plan for Fox Able One. By invitation, he bypassed several layers of command and slipped the plan directly to Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, a former Selfridge pilot, who was then the Air Force chief of staff.

In the end, the plan was simple: the flight from Selfridge to Germany was broken up into 900 mile segments that the F-80 could handle. Stops were made at Dow Air Force Base, Maine, Newfoundland, Canada; Greenland; Iceland; Scotland; England; and Germany. The Selfridge-to-Scotland portion of the trip was completed in 9 hours, 20 minutes.

Various historical sources offer varying accounts of the reasons behind the flight, with suggestions that the F-80s were sent to Germany as a show of force in support of the Berlin Airlift, which had begun in June 1948. Another source suggests the flight was more a matter of simply proving that it could be done. Either way, the over-arching strategic impetus behind the development was the desire to be able to provide long-range fighter support to Air Force bombers, if needed.

The U.S. Air Force shared the Fox Able One plan with its allies in the British Royal Air Force. At the same time as the Fox Able One F-80s left Selfridge, a similar flight of British aircraft began making the same trip in reverse. The two groups crossed paths in Iceland and held a brief ceremony on the tarmac to mark the occasion.

A year later, in 1949, Fox Able Two, a similar operation, made the trip from Selfridge to Europe, again with Schilling flying one of the U.S. aircraft. In 1950, utilizing in-flight refueling, he made a non-stop flight across the Atlantic from England to Maine in 10 hours and one minute. Trans-Atlantic force projection now officially took hours rather than days, weeks or even months.

Schilling went on to work on a number of projects designed to expand the range of American tactical air power. He was actively involved in a number of research and development projects that expanded the use of aerial refueling in the Air Force.

Ever the innovator, a January 1957 article in Air Force magazine about Schilling stated that Schilling once developed a novel way to clear snow from the runways at Selfridge in the winter. Propeller-driven aircraft use the propeller to help with braking upon landing, something particularly helpful when any snow or ice is on the runway. In the late 1940s, pilots of the new jet aircraft were having difficult stopping at times on the runway, without the aid of the propeller. Schilling came up with a scheme to mount a jet engine on the back of a truck, guiding the aim of the engine with a hydraulic lift, and used the heat of the jet wash to blow off snow and melt ice from the runway.

Schilling was on active duty as a colonel in 1956 while on a temporary duty assignment to England when he was killed in an automobile crash. In his career, he had earned two distinguished service crosses, the distinguished service medal, three silver stars, 11 distinguished flying crosses and 20 air medals, among other awards.

Schilling is remembered at Selfridge with a Schilling Street on the west side of the base. An Air Force base in his home state of Kansas, which closed in 1965, was named in his honor. A major aviation award presented by the Air Force Association bears his name, as does a number of facilities on various air bases.

The F-80 Shooting Star entered Air Force service as the P-80 in 1945, just missing the last days of World War II combat. In 1948, the designation of the aircraft was changed from "P" for "Pursuit" to "F" for "Fighter." The F-80 was the first Air Force aircraft to be able to fly at speeds in excess of 500 mph. Used extensively during the Korean war, an F-80 flown by Lt. Russell J. Brown was involved in the first jet vs. jet combat on Nov. 8, 1950, with a MiG-15 show down as a result.

The 56th Fighter Group was de-activated and re-activated several times and was dormant from 1961 to 1991. In 1994, the 56th was re-activated as the 56th Operations Group of the 56th Fighter Wing, the training wing for F-16 Fighting Falcons. The unit is based at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.

One of the oldest military air fields in continuous service, the military first took possession of Selfridge Air National Guard Base on July 1, 1917. The first flight took place on July 8 and formal flight operations began on July 16, 1917. Today the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard is the host unit at the base, which also houses units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.