North American F-86 Sabre

Early in WWII, American aircraft researchers were confronted with the problem of "shock waves" building up at the frontal surfaces of aircraft particularly wing and tail surfaces when the aircraft was flown at high speeds. These shock waves could and did cause complete destruction of some aircraft, notably several Lockheed P-38 "Lightnings". The North American P-86 Sabre was the first American aircraft to take advantage of flight research data seized from the German Luftwaffe at the end of the war.

Utilizing data gleaned from Luftwaffe experiments, the wings and the horizontal and vertical stabilizers of the Sabre were swept back at an angle of 35º in order to delay the onset of shock waves, thus allowing higher speeds.

What would become a spectacular career as a combat aircraft began on May 14, 1945 when the US Army Air Corps ordered 3 copies of the North American model NA-140 experimental aircraft. The XP-86 was first flown at Muroc Dry Lake, California on October 1, 1947. It was equipped with a 4,000 pound thrust J-35-C-3 jet engine built by Chevrolet. The highest speed was attained at 14,000 feet where it clocked 618.33 miles per hour. It had a ceiling of around 41,300 feet and its initial climb rate was 4,000 fpm. This was fantastic performance when compared to any prop-driven plane the US had produced up to the end of the war. Even North American’s own prop-driven P-51 paled by comparison. Test pilots were ecstatic over the Sabre, with comments such as "...rock-steady gun platform." and " easy to fly you can almost control it with your thoughts".

The third production F-86A-1 (by this time the "P" for "Pursuit" had been superseded by "F" for "Fighter") equipped with a new J47-GE-13 engine of 5,200 pounds thrust, set a world’s speed record of 670.98 mph on September 1, 1948. The Sabre was armed with six .50-caliber M-3 machine guns in the nose, just aft of the jet intake. Target acquisition was aided by a new radar assisted gun sight. It required the pilot hold the cross hairs on his target for just one second. From then till the target was obliterated, the pilot was free of the complicated problem of adjusting for the target’s range during the heat of combat.

The F-86B (later redesignated F-86A-5), with its top speed of 679 mph, and initial climb rate of 7,470 fpm it represented a marked improvement over the A-1. A Wing of F-86A-5 aircraft arrived in Korea on December 13, 1950 making it the first Sabre sent to Korea. On December 17 they went into action against the awesome and hitherto invincible MiG-15. Within two weeks, the Sabres had established a "kill ratio" of better than 8:1 over the MIG.

Admittedly, the superior training and tactics of the US pilots brought about a large part of this success, for the A-5 Sabre had inferior performance when compared to the MIG-15. It was slower and unable manoeuvre as well as the MIG above 25,000 feet. Its service ceiling of 48,000 feet was much lower than the MIG. Nevertheless, the appearance of the Sabre was the beginning of the end for the MiG-15 in Korea.

The Sabre was continuously improved throughout its 10-year production run. Each model performed better than the last. There were two major variations of the craft. The F-86C was redesignated "YF-93" and was intended to be a "penetration fighter". However, it eventually came to a dead end.

The second variation was known as the F-95 until July 1950, when it was redesignated the F-86D. It was labelled an "all weather interceptor". Some experts are of the opinion the "D" was so different from the basic model it should have retained it’s F-95 designation. For one thing the J47-GE-17 engine was equipped with an afterburner which delivered a total of 7,500 pounds thrust for take-off, giving the "D" an initial climb rate of 12,150 fpm! The nose was shaped like a shark snout with an open mouth for an air intake. Above the mouth and projecting forward was the shark’s nose, which housed a radar antenna for the Hughes E-4 automatic fire control system. More than anything, the F-86D resembled a shark right down to the fins, and should have been named so. But the Air Force Brass was reluctant to pick a name with such a nautical connotation.

It was the first USAF night fighter to carry only one airman and have only one engine. The fire control system was so automatic, a second airman was considered unnecessary. A pod containing twenty-four 2.75 "Mighty Mouse" air-to-air rockets was located in the belly. The pod was lowered into the air stream in order to fire the rockets, then quickly retracted so as not to affect the speed or handling characteristics any more than necessary. The pilot had to take great care to insure each rocket had cleared its tube when fired. If a rocket was hanging halfway out the tube and the pod were retracted, the rocket would explode. If the pilot wasn’t absolutely sure of the position of the rocket, he landed the Sabre with the pod extended. The author observed just this sort of incident in 1957 at Wheelus Field, Libya. In this case, the instant the Sabre touched down, the rocket fired and blasted a 15-foot hole in a rock security fence nearly a mile and a half away!

The "E" was very similar to the "A" with the same J47-GE-13 engine. It was designed to carry a bit heavier combat load. The "F" was furnished with the J47-GE-27 engine with about 700 additional pounds of thrust (no afterburner), which increased its top speed about 15 mph to 695 mph. Combat range was increased from 660 miles to 923miles. The F was the first Sabre to haul a 1,200 lb. nuclear bomb, which was carried under the port wing. In order to safely deliver this weapon, the aircraft was also furnished with a LABS (Low Altitude Bombing System) which allowed the craft to escape the blast.

The "G" designation was temporarily given to the F-86D with J47-GE-33 engines. The plane was produced as the F-86D.

The F-86H was the final model and was specifically designed as a fighter-bomber. It had the much more powerful J73-GE-30 Engine of 8,920 lbs thrust with afterburner. Its combat range was extended to 1,038 miles. Later editions of the "H" had the wing slats removed and the leading edges extended. The wing tips were also extended to provide better manoeuvrability at high altitude. The H-5 and H-10 had the six .50 calibre machine guns removed and replaced with four 20 mm M-39’s for greater hitting power.

Altogether there were about 6,200 F-86 Sabres built in the US before production ceased in December 1956. A couple thousand more were built in 25 other countries around the world. Even our old enemies the Germans flew them, and Mitsubishi (builders of the famous World War Two "Zero") assembled 300 for the Japanese.

Span: 37 ft. 1 in.
Length: 40 ft. 4 in.
Height: 15 ft. 0 in.
Weight: 19,975 lbs. loaded
Armament: Twenty-four 2.75 in. Mighty Mouse folding fin aircraft rockets
Engine: General Electric J47 of 7,650 lbs. thrust with afterburner
Crew: One
Cost: $344,000

Maximum speed: 715 mph
Cruising speed: 550 mph.
Range: 800 miles
Service Ceiling: 50,000 ft.