Muche's Warbirds
Articles, Interviews & Stories

The F-86 Sabre
by Jim Muche
Photographs by Lani Muche

 

Probably the best known aircraft of the Korean War are the F-86 Sabre and the MiG-15. Upon seeing the two aircraft side-by-side many people believe that their similarities are a result of Russian engineers copying a U. S. design. In reality what occurred was a true case of parallel development, with both planes' first flights occurring within a couple of months of each other in 1947. Both designs relied heavily on German research into swept-wing planes which led to similar concepts but with each in reality having several differences in both design and mission. Upon closer inspection differences in size, wing location and tail surfaces become quickly apparent. Mission roles were also different - the MiG was designed primarily as an interceptor and was smaller, lighter and had much heavier armament, 23 and 37 mm cannon, to attack bombers. The F-86 was designed for escort and fighter-to-fighter actions so it is bigger, carries more fuel and is armed with 0.50 in guns which are faster and more suitable to dogfighting with another fighter. The Sabre achieved a 14:1 kill ratio during Korea and was the mount of all 39 allied jet aces during that conflict.
The F-86 served with both the Air Force and the Air National Guard. This -F was owned by actor Michael Dorn. (Photo by Lani Muche)

 

DESIGN HISTORY

Near the end of World War II North American already had a jet fighter, the XFJ-1 Fury, in the project stage for the U.S. Navy. A variation of this design was offered to the Army Air Force which placed an order in late 1944 for one static test and two flying prototype aircraft to be designated as XP-86. Like the Fury, the XP-86 was to have straight wings and "straight through" jet flow for an Allison TG-180 (J35) turbojet engine. Estimated performance was a top speed of 582 mph, a range of 750 mi and a service ceiling of 46,500 ft.

As has been stated, once the data from German research into swept-wing designs became available, North American engineers drew heavily on this material to alter both the shape and ultimate performance of the aircraft. A 35 degree sweep angle was adopted and the fuselage was lengthened. The pressurized cockpit was located well forward of the wing and placed above the engine air duct. Also included were power-boost ailerons and automatic leading-edge slots.

The first XP-86 prototype flew for the first time on October 1, 1947. Both prototypes were powered by the 3500 lb s. t. Allison J35-C-3 turbojet engine and in 1948 aircraft number one, AF s/n 45-59597, exceeded Mach 1, being the first U. S. fighter to officially do so. On December 28, 1947, the USAF placed an order for 221 P-86As. These aircraft were to be powered by the 4,850 lb s.t. J-47-GE-1. The first P-86A flew on May 18, 1948, the designation being changed to F-86A a month later.

Armament consisted of six 0.50 in guns placed around the nose, with hardpoints for two drop tanks or 16 5-inch rockets under the wings. On September 15, 1948, an F-86A set a World Air Speed Record of 670.981 mph. Five hundred fifty four F-86As were built by North American with later models being outfitted with the 5,200 lb s.t. J-47-GE-3, -7, -9 or -13 engine. The Air Force also took delivery of 188 F-86A-5s which had a 7 in wider fuselage.

In December 1950 production began on the F-86E. This version featured a revised control system which incorporated an all-flying tail with linked elevators, power boosting for the tail controls and artificial "feel" for all control surfaces. The USAF accepted 333 -E models, all powered by the same J47-GE-13 engine as the -A model.

Pressures exerted by and lessons learned during the Korean War led to the opening of a second Sabre construction line in Columbus, OH, to produce the F-86F. This version incorporated a new wing leading edge. It was extended 6 in at the root and 3 in at the tip, the slats were eliminated and the wings were fitted with small boundary fences. An engine change was also done with the 5,970 lb s.t. J47-GE-27 being fitted. These changes led to a subsequent increase in performance with top speed being increased by 15 mph to 690. Rate of climb was increased from 7,630 ft/min to 10,000 ft/min with range being increased from 785 mi to 1,270 mi. Armament remained unchanged. Two thousand five hundred forty F-86Fs were built with the last being delivered in December 1956.

The Air Museum Planes of Fames F-86F. Two thousand five hundred forty F-86Fs were built with the last being delivered in December 1956. (Photo by Lani Muche)


The F-86H was the last production version of the Sabre to be accepted by the USAF and incorporated many new changes. It had a 2 in increase in wingspan, the fuselage was lengthened by 14 in, a larger tailplane without dihedral was added, and heavier landing gear was installed. An armament change was also made with 4 20-mm cannon replacing the 6 0.50s in the nose. It was powered by the J73-GE-3E engine which produced 8,920 lb s.t. Performance again improved with a top speed of 692 mph and a rate of climb of 12,900 ft/min. Range decreased, however, to 1,040 mi, a difference of 230 mi from the -F. North American produced 473 -H models before production ceased in August 1955.

The final large-scale production model of the Sabre was the F-86D or "Sabre Dog." Designed as an all-weather interceptor, production of this version, which began in March 1951, finally totaled 2,504 aircraft. Originally designated as the YF-95A, the Sabre Dog incorporated a number of design changes which altered both its performance and its appearance. The nose was re-contoured to carry radar above the intake, the fuselage was wider and length increased by almost 3 in. Armament changes were also made. The guns were deleted in favor of a retractable tray housing 24 2.75 in rockets. Power was provided by a J47-GE-17 engine with afterburner which produced 5,700 and 7,630 lb s.t. respectively. With the afterburner rate of climb increased to 17,800 ft/min and a slight increase in top speed to 707 mph was achieved. Range dropped dramatically, however, to only 836 mi, only slightly more than the original -A model.

 

STORIES

The F-86 and the MiG-15 were also flown and fought differently. Because of the MiG's lighter weight and lighter wing loading it could climb faster than the Sabre, but it was not as fast as the F-86. While the Sabre was supersonic the MiG was not. According to Gil Hassler, who flew 101 F-86 missions during the Korean War, "When we would encounter them (MiGs) it was a stalking game for the most part. We'd see them, use our speed, come up underneath them and stepladder up to get into the middle of them where we'd be in a firing position. They never flew in any predictable pattern. Sometimes there would be two, sometimes there would be four, there might be six or eight of them, and they flew in what we called 'gaggles,' not the precise type of combat formation that we flew which was basically four aircraft." Sabre pilots would use their superior speed not only to attack the MiGs but would also use it to break off an engagement without fear of reprisals. Tight formation discipline was also responsible for the F-86's success. In relating one mission, Hassler states, "You wouldn't separate down into less than two elements of two aircraft. This was for both offensive and defensive purposes. On one occasion I was flying with my squadron ..., there were four of us and there was a group of either six or eight MiGs, I've forgotten now, and they were at 46,000 ft. We picked them up at 42,000 ft, chased them for a long time and finally caught up. The Colonel said 'I'm going to pull up and fire on them.' All of us pulled up right into the middle of their gaggle and he let off a couple of rounds and got the lead aircraft that he was after. But what was interesting about that was that I had a MiG sitting formation on my right wingtip and there wasn't a thing in the world he could do because there was no way he could turn to pull lead and fire on me, as with the rest of the group of four of us that pulled up into the middle of that outfit."

The Sabre was also utilized throughout its career by the National Guard. Roscoe Diehl checked out in the F-86 at Nellis, AFB in 1956. He flew all models of the aircraft in the Air National Guard until his unit transitioned to the KC-97 in the 1960s. He has had the chance to fly an F-86 since then and shared his feelings about flying them both in and out of the military.
A flight of three of North American's most famous aircraft: The F-86 Sabre, P-51 Mustang and the B-25 Mitchell. (Photo by Lani Muche)


Diehl stated, "How does it fly? It fits like a glove, a velvet glove. What are the controls like? The controls are great. You look back and think, ah come on, you were 21-22 years old. They couldn't have been that great. You could not fly this thing as precisely as we remember. It could not have that fine a touch. My God, it does fly as beautifully as we remember! This plane does not have flight feedback from the surfaces to the pilot. It's done artificially. Whoever designed this thing was Divinely inspired to create the most magnificent flight control system God ever created. In fact the whole airplane is that way. It does fly like we remembered it. It does give the exact, precise control. Now, like anything, it does have to have some kind of a flaw, some touch of negative. It does. The damn nose wheel steering is crummy. You could always tell a brand new 86 pilot because he goes down the taxiway and he's all over the place."

The Sabre was not America's first jet fighter but to many pilots it was the first to win both their respect and their hearts. Compared to today's fighters it is underpowered and primitive but few aircraft have done so well at the job they were designed to do. With their classic good looks the F-86 Sabre was the right aircraft at the right time and earned itself a prominent place in aviation history.


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