David C. Wensley joined Lyon Air Museum as a docent in December, 2016. His experiences as an Air Force F-86 fighter pilot and as an engineer and aerospace executive have added a new and valuable asset to our team of volunteers.
He was born and raised in Miami, Florida. He obtained a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Miami, participated in the University’s ROTC program and, in 1955, graduated with a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Air Force. Soon after, he married his high school sweetheart, Livia Ponce.
While awaiting assignment to a flight school, he was employed as an engineer at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica. He was initially assigned to make design changes to DC-3 and DC-4 aircraft before transferring to their Missiles Division to work on a new project, the MB-1 Genie, an air-to-air rocket equipped with an atomic warhead.
In 1956 he obtained pre-flight training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and then moved to McAllen, Texas, for Primary Flight training in the T-34 Mentor and T-28 Trojan. He recalls that the training program there was rigorous, with many students “washing out.” His civilian instructor was especially harsh and demanded perfection. Of the original four students assigned to his instructor, two were quickly eliminated. Five more replacements departed in rapid succession, leaving only him and another student, Lt. Richard Kesson. Both moved on to jet training. Unfortunately, Dick Kesson was killed two years later while flying an F-100.
At Bryan Air Force Base he learned to fly the venerable Lockheed T-33, the two-place version of the F-80 fighter used in the early phase of the Korean War. Again he was fortunate to have an excellent instructor, Lt. Karl Grosh, who demanded a high level of performance for every lesson, every day. Grosh had entered the German Luftwaffe at age 14, and in 1945 was piloting their revolutionary new interceptor, the rocket powered Me-163 Comet. Grosh surrendered to American forces shortly before the end of WWII and managed to parlay his flying experience into becoming an instructor in the US Air Force.
Completing his jet training course in 1957, near the top of his class, Wensley chose advanced training in the F-86D at Moody AFB, Valdosta, Georgia. Unlike the famous F-86E and F-86F Sabrejet day fighters that ruled the skies over Korea, the F-86D was equipped with an afterburner and radar, and fired rockets instead of machine guns. It was America’s first single-seat all-weather interceptor.
In 1957, the tensions of the Cold War were near their peak and US strategic bomber and fighter squadrons had been deployed to bases throughout the world. His initial assignment was to be an air defense pilot with the 324th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Westover AFB, near Springfield, Massachusetts. Arriving in December of an especially severe winter, Dave and his wife struggled to settle into their new environment; neither one of them had ever seen snow. The complexities of an extremely active air defense squadron, conducting day and night practice intercept missions regardless of weather conditions, was also somewhat of a shock; it was nothing like the relaxed routine of advanced training at the F-86D school in warm and comfortable Georgia.
The 324th was equipped with a more advanced version of the F-86D, the F-86L model, a variation he had not flown before. After a couple of days reading the F-86L Operating Manual and studying local procedures, he was ordered to make an exploratory flight around western Massachusetts. A few minutes after takeoff the weather began to deteriorate, the sky darkened and visibility quickly reduced. He reported the changing weather then called for landing permission, but was delayed while four of his Squadron’s fighters took off on a practice intercept mission. After they were airborne and had disappeared into the mist, he was cleared to land. It was only then that he discovered it was snowing heavily and blizzard conditions were developing. The four other fighters were then ordered to land. Three made it safely but then visibility reduced to nearly zero and the forth pilot, Lt. Stewart, was unable to find the runway. After three attempts, Stewart’s aircraft ran of fuel. He chose to eject at a dangerously low altitude, but landed safely while his aircraft crashed into the city dump. It was Lt. Wensley’s first day on the job and a dramatic awakening to the life of a Cold War pilot.
He quickly adjusted to the routine in the fighter squadron: at least two day practice intercept missions, followed by two night missions, followed by 24 hours on Alert (ready to be airborne in less than five minutes), and then a well-deserved rest of 24 hours before starting the cycle over again.
The radar-aided practice intercepts were usually run against squadron pilots flying in T-33s, acting the role of an incoming Russian bomber. On one occasion he was assigned to fly a T-33 to simulate an incoming enemy aircraft in a major exercise covering the New England air defense zone. Taxing out to take off, his radio failed and he was forced to abort the mission. Another T-33 was scrambled from Stewart AFB in New York to take his place. As the T-33 from Stewart neared Boston, an F-94 Starfire interceptor, flying out of Otis AFB on Cape Cod, collided with it. Two pilots were killed and two severely injured. Wensley’s wife heard about the midair disaster and spent several anxious hours unaware that he was not involved in the collision.
In the summer of 1958, Colonel James Jabara, America’s first jet ace in the air battles over Korea, arrived at Westover in one of the new Lockheed F-104 Starfighters. The 324th’s sister squadron, the 337th, was being outfitted with F-104s, but the 324th wasn’t. To make the disappointment worse, the 324th received orders to transfer to Sidi Slimane, Morocco, to defend one of our B-47 strategic bomber bases.
A couple of months later, the cycle of day and night practice intercepts, and all-night alert sessions, were again standard procedure; only this time over the rugged mountains and remote deserts of North Africa. Unknown aircraft often entered the protected airspace and he would be tasked to intercept and determine an intruder’s identity. On one occasion he pursued an unidentified aircraft high over the Mediterranean and was forced to climb well above 40,000 feet to the altitude limit of the F-86D before he could obtain its markings and numbers. Then his F-86, its nose pointed skyward, stalled and tumbled downward before he regaining sufficient airspeed for control. The mystery airplane was a friendly British Canberra, capable of extreme altitudes for reconnaissance purposes, apparently heading into Gibraltar.
On a few occasions his assignments would take him to air bases in Spain or France and he became fascinated with these new cultures and developed a strong desire to explore more of the world. One unusual mission required him to take an F-86D to Torino, Italy, for extensive repairs. Flying as wingman to a senior pilot, Lt. Jay Edwards, they approached Torino at high altitude with cloud cover extending down to nearly ground level. Wensley’s airplane was low on fuel (one fuel tank had refused to function) and a key flight instrument, the artificial horizon indicator, was inoperative. He had no choice but to stay in tight formation close to Lt. Edwards while they made a rapid descent under radar control into Torino. In conditions reminiscent of Massachusetts, it was snowing when they landed. As he pulled off of the runway and onto the parking ramp, his engine flamed out. He was out of fuel.
A few months later, his Air Force mandatory commitment ended. He had the choice of extending for another two years or opting out of active duty. He chose to return to engineering at Douglas Aircraft (which later became McDonnell-Douglas) while remaining in the Air Force Reserves until 1970 when he was discharged with the rank of Captain.
He had a productive and rewarding career in the space side of the aerospace industry and spent many years engaged in new product developments ranging from flight control systems, to lunar and Mars rovers, to manned spacecraft design. He assisted a European consortium, ERNO, in developing the Spacelab manned module that was launched on the US Space Shuttle. He retired in 1996 as Vice President and General Manager of Reusable Launch Vehicles after having served at McDonnell-Douglas as V.P. of Strategic Planning, V.P. for Subcontracts and Integration on the US Space Station, V.P.G.M. of Advanced Programs & Technology, and several other management responsibilities.
Dave got a P-51 Mustang ride in May 2017 when the Collings Foundation's tour vistied Lyon Air Museum
Following his employment at McDonnell-Douglas, he had an aerospace consulting business with clients including Daimler-Benz and M.A.N. in Germany, Sedgwick Space Insurance in Russia, and Rockwell International in Frankfurt, Germany. During his career he achieved his desire to travel, visiting over 50 countries. While active in aerospace, he was a member of several international organizations including AIAA, IAF, IAA, and Russia’s Institute of Cosmonautics. His wife of over 60 years passed away in 2015. He has a son in Laguna Niguel and a daughter in Celina, Texas, and is a proud grandfather of two girls and four boys. He now resides in Newport Beach.
Article by David C. Wensley