Finishing Up at Foster: Operation Mobile Zebra

Arnold had many adventures at Foster flying the F-100, but you’re just going to have to wait for the book for those. I don’t want to give up all my secrets! I’ll talk about one of them that occurred before he moved on to Texas A&M to finish his engineering degree.

By 1957, Arnold had paid back his three-year commitment to the Air Force for pilot training (ah, the good old days — I think the commitment is up to ten years now). Although he could return to his job at General Mills, he and Colleen were enjoying the year-round warm weather in Texas and were in no hurry to head back north. The balloon job gave him freedom to be creative and he enjoyed flying the balloons, but he really couldn’t see himself being a balloon pilot for the rest of his life. In addition, he wanted to design and fly airplanes, not balloons. Flying for the airlines was a long shot – the airlines were still feasting on the glut of pilots produced by World War II and Korea.

If he wanted to fly and make decent money doing it, the Air Force seemed like the best option. Given that, what to do next? The obvious unfinished business hanging over his head was his incomplete engineering degree. If he could finish that degree, maybe he could become an experimental test pilot, or design airplanes in the Air Force. After talking with his superiors, he decided to apply for an Air Force program that would send him back to school.

While Arnold awaited the results of his application, he took part in his last Foster adventure during an operation dubbed Mobile Zebra in the fall of 1957. Zebra was the Air Force’s first attempt at rapidly deploying a gaggle of 47 aircraft across the expansive Pacific Ocean. KB-50 tankers were to refuel the aircraft along the way. Arnold’s role in the exercise was only as a spare, which must have been a relief to Colleen, now stuck at home most of the day with two children under two-years of age (one of them was me).

mobilezebra

A Souvenir from Mobile Zebra Showing the Route
(Arnold Ebneter Personal Collection)

The first part of the exercise called for Arnold to fly to George AFB with 19 other F-100s – 16 of them primary aircraft and four spares. After spending the night at George, the pilots planned to take off and refuel 500 miles later over the Pacific, with only the 16 primary airplanes continuing to Hawaii. If one of the primary airplanes or pilots had a problem, one of the spares would replace him. Arnold was the fourth spare, so four of the primary aircraft would have to drop out before he had to continue to Hawaii. Given that, Arnold expected to turn around and head back to George for another overnight stay and then head back to Foster. He told Colleen he should be home for dinner two days after he left. However, the ambitious deployment had pushed the limits of the exercise planners, and it showed not long after the exercise began.

The flight to George was routine, and by noon the next day, the pilots had taken off again. After flying for about an hour, the 20 airplanes spotted the KB-50 tankers. As they headed towards the tankers, pandemonium broke out. The lead pilot’s radio wasn’t working and the gaggle hadn’t rehearsed what to do if that happened. Everyone started trying to talk on the radio and when more than one person talks on the radio at once, all it does is squeal, and no one can talk. This is called “stepping on each other,” and step on each other, they did. In the ensuing chaos, four of the primaries didn’t refuel, and they turned back with barely enough fuel to land at George. Arnold and the other three spares, who had all refueled, continued toward their unexpected Hawaiian vacation.

The next day, Colleen’s concern over Arnold’s dinner no-show turned to alarm as the night dragged on. When she called the operations desk at his squadron the next morning, the duty officer answering the phone said, “Why, ma’am, your husband had to deploy.” That no one had bothered to call Colleen to let her know didn’t seem to strike him as a problem – wives and children were not an Air Force priority during the Cold War. In the meantime, Arnold was sitting in a briefing room in Hawaii, preparing for the next leg of the trip to Guam.

Colleen settled in to wait for a postcard or letter from Hawaii, or perhaps Guam or Japan, but nothing came during the two-month deployment. Arnold claimed there was no time to write a letter and a letter would take too long to reach Victoria anyway. He must have realized he was in trouble though, as he bought her a string of pearls in Japan.

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