1st Lt. Bob Akers of Burnt Store nearly shot down in F-86 fighter over Grand Canyon in ’56

Bob Akers of Burnt Store Marine was learning to be a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force in 1956, between the Korean and the Vietnam War, when two airliners collided in midair over the Grand Canyon on June 30, 1956. All 128 passenger aboard both planes perished.

“I was sitting in the officers’ club having a cool one with a couple buddies when a helicopter pilot involved in the airline rescue came in to the club the same afternoon. He walked up to our table and said, ‘I got to tell you guys what just happened. When we got over the crash site all we could see were mountain lions eating the dead passengers and crew.'”

Akers stands in front of the F-86 “Sabre

The next day Akers and three other F-86 “Sabre jet” pilots were shooting at an airborne target towed over the same area of the canyon where the two airlines collided, He was almost shot down by friendly fire from one of the other pilots target practicing with him.

“The aerial target we were shooting at was 100-feet long and 10-feet wide. It was being towed by another plane. The tow ship was flying at 20,000 feet. Four of us would be up along side the tow ship some distance away flying in formation. We would attack the target one at a time,” Akers explained.

“As we were rotating over the target shooting at it we had to climb up to 24,000 feet, turn around and attack once more,” he said. “One of the other pilots in my formation flew too far forward and attacked the target from a higher altitude. When he fired at the target I flew into his bullets.

“One of his bullets flew into my engine and broke off a couple of turbine blades. The vibration was horrible. Fortunately I put the engine in idle and it provided hydraulic power for the flight controls, so I had some control over the plane.

This is Robert W. Akers who graduated from the United Sates Air Force’s Aviation Cadet Program in 1956 at Del Rio, Texas when he was 20-years-old. Photo provided

This is Robert W. Akers who graduated from the United Sates Air Force’s Aviation Cadet Program in 1956 at Del Rio, Texas when he was 20-years-old. Photo provided

“When I could no longer fly the plane anymore and I was losing altitude and descending over the very area where the airlines crashed the day before and was about to eject, I looked over the side and saw what I think was a bunch of mountain lions on the ground waiting for me.

“It was late in the afternoon so I would have spent the night on the ground with those hungry animals. Then it occurred to me I was close to a touch-n-go air strip used during World War II. It had been deserted for 20 years or more and was nothing but a field near Prairie, Ariz. I made it and landed without incident.

“I radioed back to base and told them where I was and what happened to me. They sent a rescue helicopter out to get me. They also sent out a bigger helicopter to pick up my F-86.” Aker was a first lieutenant when all that happened.

“They had so many pilots in the Air Force between Korea and Vietnam they didn’t need they gave us the option of getting out and joining the Reserve or the Air National Guard for an additional six years. It was at this point I got out of active duty. I joined the Reserve and as a civilian I flew for the airlines.

Marilyn Akers perches on the wing of Bob’s F-86 when he was still in the Air Force Reserves. Photo Provided

Marilyn Akers perches on the wing of Bob’s F-86 when he was still in the Air Force Reserves. Photo Provided

“I got hired by North Central Airlines headquartered in Minneapolis on May 27, 1957 and started flying DC-3s. I was based in Chicago for 27 years. The last eight years I flew for North Central I flew out of Detroit to points all over the country.

In June 1957 I met a stewardess name Marilyn who had been ‘Miss Wisconsin’ in 1954. We got married in 1958 and have been married 61 years.

They first came to Florida in 1986. Later they purchased their condo in Burnt Store Isles. They have two grown sons, Tim and Todd.

Bob and Marilyn on the porch of their Burnt Store Marina condominium with a spectacular view of Charlotte Harbor. Sun photo by Mary Auenson

Bob and Marilyn on the porch of their Burnt Store Marina condominium with a spectacular view of Charlotte Harbor. Sun photo by Mary Auenson

Name: Robert Walter Alkers
D.O.B:  Feb. 28, 1936
Hometown: Evergreen Park, Ill.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 1955
Discharged: Nov. 17, 1966
Rank: Captain

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, and is republished with permission.

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Comments

  1. Bob –

    I am a friend of Randy Sohn. He flew with you at North Central airlines; plus, you and he were in the Air Guard, you flying KC-97’s and Randy C-97’s and B-25’s. Randy health is still pretty good, lives in Minneapolis.

    Send me your email and phone contact number and I will pass it on to Randy.

    Truman Hall
    7615 Cavalier Court
    Colorado Springs, CO 80920
    EM: truman.hall@yahoo.com
    Phone: (C) 719-290-6438

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