Wing man: Kincheloe’s famous flight 50 years ago

Published 6:25 am Wednesday, August 23, 2006

By By DAN SMITH / Kincheloe Elementary Principal
Percy Saunders, retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel, flew with Captain Iven C. Kincheloe, Jr.
In fact, he served as Kincheloe's wing man on many missions over Korea's MiG Alley in 1952. "If it hadn't been for him, I probably wouldn't be alive today," Saunders SAID.
The two pilots first met in Chicago when both were stationed at O'Hare Field in 1951. Before O'Hare International Airport existed, the base was a radar facility and played a critical role in our national defense. Whenever an unidentified aircraft entered nearby U.S. airspace, jets were scrambled to intercept and identify the "bogey."
Kincheloe and Saunders were among the pilots who flew the most advanced fighters of the day, F-86 Sabers, and bogeys were typically met and identified as friendly aircraft fairly rapidly. As a safety precaution, the pilots were instructed to use up their fuel before returning to land at the base. Saunders said, "We would use this flying time left to practice combat tactics, formation aerobatics, etc. If we were within 10 minutes of his parents' farm in Cassopolis, they would get a show."
Saunders also reported that while stationed at O'Hare, Kincheloe flew many research flights to study the jet stream and its effect on aviation. Throughout his life Kincheloe had a keen interest in aviation, and in fact earned an aeronautical engineering degree at Purdue University in 1949, so his participation in this research isn't too surprising. "Some of his findings made considerable improvements in weather forecasting and aviation safety," Saunders added.
The following year both men were stationed at K-13, Suwon, Korea. The war for air superiority was in full swing as Sabers and other aircraft fought Russian made MiGs in the world's first jet dogfights. Kincheloe served with distinction and became one of America's top fighter pilots. "I flew his wing on many missions in MiG Alley, and saw him get his fourth and fifth MiG to make Ace," Saunders recalled.
After the Korean War, both men continued to serve as officers in the Air Force. Kincheloe went to Test Pilot school, and later went on to even greater success when he became involved in the Bell X-2 project. He flew that rocket powered experimental aircraft to a record altitude of 126,200 feet, nearly 24 miles high, on Sept. 7, 1956.
"I ran into Kinch a few weeks after he made his record flight to the edge of space. I remember he remarked that the sky was black up there and he was high enough to see the curvature of the earth – and I said Wow! – and all the latter day astronauts confirmed that fact," Saunders remarked.
That remarkable accomplishment happened nearly 50 years ago, before NASA was formed, before the Mercury program existed, and before Yuri Gagarin rode a missile into space. Kincheloe later lost his life in the line of duty, July, 1958, when a supersonic jet aircraft he piloted lost power and crashed.
Before his death, Kincheloe had been named the lead test pilot for the X-15 program, so his loss was a blow felt by the entire nation.
Saunders was contacted as part of the effort to mark the anniversary of Kincheloe's record setting flight. Restoration of the Kincheloe Monument east of Cassopolis is now nearly completed. A public ceremony is being planned by the Kincheloe Memorial Restoration Committee for Sept. 23, 2006, to celebrate the renewed monument and to honor Kincheloe. Planning to attend the ceremony are some of Kincheloe's Dowagiac Union High School classmates, Purdue University Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity brothers, Air Force representatives, and Kincheloe family members. Unfortunately Saunders will not be able to be among the distinguished visitors, but as Kincheloe's wing man so aptly put it, "I certainly appreciate you for including me in the group of people that understand what Iven C. Kincheloe did for this nation. May we all have the vision and love of country that he had."