History of the F-86 Sabre
The North American F-86 Sabre
(sometimes called the Sabrejet) was a transonic jet fighter aircraft. Produced by North American Aviation, the Sabre is best known as America's first swept wing fighter which could counter the similarly-winged Soviet MiG-15 in high speed dogfights over the skies of the Korean War. Considered one of the best and most important fighter aircraft in the Korean War, the F-86 is also rated highly in comparison with fighters of other eras. Although it was developed in the late 1940s and was outdated by the end of the 1950s, the Sabre proved versatile and adaptable, and continued as a front-line fighter in numerous air forces until the last active operational examples were retired by the Bolivian Air Force in 1994.
Its success led to an extended production run of more than 7,800 aircraft between 1949 and 1956, in the United States, Japan and Italy. Variants were built in Canada and Australia. The Canadair Sabre added another 1,815 airframes, and the significantly redesigned CAC Sabre (sometimes known as the Avon Sabre or CAC CA-27), had a production run of 112. It was by far the most-produced Western jet fighter, with total production of all variants at 9,860 units.
North American had produced the highly successful propeller-powered P-51 Mustang in WWII which saw combat against some of the first operational jet fighters. By late 1944, North American proposed its first jet fighter to the US Navy which became the FJ-1 Fury. It was an unexceptional transitional jet fighter which had a straight wing derived from the P-51. Initial proposals to meet a United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) requirement for a medium-range, single-seat, high-altitude jet-powered day escort fighter/fighter bomber were drafted in mid-1944. In early 1945, North American Aviation submitted four designs. The USAAF selected one design over the others, and granted North American a contract to build three examples of the XP-86 (eXperimental Pursuit), By deleting specific requirements from the FJ-1 Fury, coupled with other modifications, this allowed the XP-86 to be lighter and considerably faster than the Fury, with an estimated top speed of 582 mph (937 km/h), versus the Fury's 547 mph (880 km/h). Despite the gain in speed, early studies revealed the XP-86 would have the same performance as its rivals, the XP-80 and XP-84. It was also feared that, because these designs were more advanced in their development stages, the XP-86 would be canceled.
Crucially, the XP-86 would not be able to meet the required top-speed of 600 mph (970 km/h); North American had to quickly come up with a radical change that could leapfrog over its rivals. The North American F-86 Sabre was the first American aircraft to take advantage of flight research data seized from the German aerodynamicists at the end of the war. This data showed that a thin swept wing could greatly reduce drag and delay compressibility problems which had bedeviled even prop-powered fighters such as the Lockheed P-38 Lightning as fighter speeds approached the speed of sound. By 1944, German engineers and designers had established the benefits of swept wings based on experimental designs dating back to 1940. Study of the data showed that a swept wing would solve their speed problem, while a slat on the wing's leading edge which extended at low speeds would enhance low-speed stability.
Because development of the XP-86 had reached an advanced stage, the idea of changing the sweep of the wing was met with resistance from some senior North American staff. Despite stiff opposition, after good test results were obtained in wind tunnel tests, the swept-wing concept was eventually adopted. Performance requirements were met by incorporating a 35° swept-back wing, using NACA 4-digit modified airfoils, using NACA 0009.5-64 at the root and NACA 0008.5-64 at the tip. with an automatic slat design based on that of the Messerschmitt Me 262 and an adjustable stabilizer. It should be noted that many Sabres had the "6-3 wing" (a fixed-leading edge with 6 inches extended chord at the root and 3 inches extended chord at the tip) retrofitted after combat experience was gained in Korea. This modification changed the wing airfoils to the NACA 0009-64 mod at the root and the NACA 0008.1-64 mod at the tip.
Delays caused by the major redesign meant that manufacturing did not begin until after World War II. The XP-86 prototype, which would lead to the F-86 Sabre, was rolled out on 8 August 1947. At the controls of George Welch, the maiden flight occurred on 1 October 1947 from Muroc Dry Lake (now Edwards AFB), California.
The United States Air Force's Strategic Air Command had F-86 Sabres in service from 1949 through 1950. The F-86s were assigned to the 22nd Bomb Wing, the 1st Fighter Wing and the 1st Fighter Interceptor Wing. The F-86 was the primary U.S. air combat fighter during the Korean War, with significant numbers of the first three production models seeing combat.
The F-86 Sabre was also produced under license by Canadair, Ltd., in the Province of Quebec as the Canadair Sabre. The final variant of the Canadian Sabre, the Mark 6, is generally rated as having the highest capabilities of any Sabre version made anywhere. The last Sabre to be manufactured by Canadair (Sabre #1815) is now kept in the Western Canada Aviation Museum's (WCAM) permanent collection in Winnipeg, Manitoba, after being donated by the Pakistan Air Force.
The F-86 entered service with the United States Air Force in 1949, joining the 1st Fighter Wing's 94th Fighter Squadron "Hat-in-the-Ring" and became the primary air-to-air jet fighter used by the Americans in the Korean War. While earlier straight-winged jets such as the F-80 and F-84 initially achieved air victories, when the swept wing Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15was introduced in November 1950, it immediately outperformed all UN-based aircraft. In response, three squadrons of F-86s were rushed to the Far East in December. Early variants of the F-86 could not outturn, but they could outdive the MiG-15, and the MiG-15 was superior to the early F-86 models in ceiling, acceleration, rate of climb, and zoom. With the introduction of the F-86F in 1953, the two aircraft were more closely matched, with many combat-experienced pilots claiming a marginal superiority for the F-86F. MiGs flown from bases in Manchuria by Red Chinese, North Korean, and Soviet VVS pilots were pitted against two squadrons of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing forward-based at K-14, Kimpo, Korea.
Many of the American pilots were experienced World War II veterans, while the North Koreans and the Chinese lacked combat experience, thus accounting for much of the F-86's success. However, United Nations pilots suspected many of the MiG-15s were being flown by experienced Soviet pilots who also had combat experience in World War II. Former Communist sources now acknowledge Soviet pilots initially flew the majority of MiG-15s that fought in Korea, and dispute that more MiG-15s than F-86s were shot down in air combat. Later in the war, North Korean and Chinese pilots increased their participation as combat flyers. The North Koreans and their allies periodically contested air superiority in MiG Alley, an area near the mouth of the Yalu River (the boundary between Korea and China) over which the most intense air-to-air combat took place. The F-86E's all-moving tailplane was more effective at speeds near or exceeding the speed of sound, so the plane could safely recover from a sonic dive, where the MiG-15 could not safely exceed Mach 0.92, an important advantage in near-sonic air combat. Far greater emphasis has been given to the training, aggressiveness and experience of the F-86 pilots. American Sabre pilots were trained at Nellis, where the casualty rate of their training was so high they were told, "If you ever see the flag at full staff, take a picture." Despite rules-of-engagement to the contrary, F-86 units frequently initiated combat over MiG bases in the Manchurian "sanctuary." The hunting of MiGs in Manchuria would lead to many reels of gun camera footage being 'lost' if the reel revealed the pilot had violated Chinese airspace.
The needs of combat operation balanced against the need to maintain an adequate force structure in Western Europe led to the conversion of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing from the F-80 to the F-86 in December 1951. Two fighter-bomber wings, the 8th and 18th, converted to the F-86F in the spring of 1953. No. 2 Squadron, South African Air Force also distinguished itself flying F-86s in Korea as part of the 18 FBW.
By the end of hostilities, F-86 pilots were credited with shooting down 792 MiGs for a loss of only 78 Sabres, a victory ratio of 10:1. More recent research by Dorr, Lake and Thompson has claimed the actual ratio is closer to 2:1. The Soviets claimed to have downed over 600 Sabres, together with the Chinese claims, although these are thought by some to be an overcount as they cannot be reconciled with the 78 Sabres recorded as lost by the US. A recent RAND report made reference to "recent scholarship" of F-86 v MiG-15 combat over Korea and concluded that the actual kill: loss ratio for the F-86 was 1.8:1 overall, and likely closer 1.3:1 against MiGs flown by Soviet pilots. Of the 41 American pilots who earned the designation of ace during the Korean war, all but one flew the F-86 Sabre, the exception being a Navy Vought F4U Corsair night fighter pilot.
In addition to its distinguished service in Korea, USAF F-86s also served in various stateside and overseas roles throughout the early part of the Cold War. As newer Century Series fighters came on line, F-86s were transferred toAir National Guard (ANG) units or the air forces of allied nations. The last ANG F-86s continued in US service until 1970.