The North American Aviation F-86 Sabre (sometimes called the Sabrejet) was a transonic jet fighter aircraft. The Sabre is best known for its Korean War role where it was pitted against the Soviet MiG-15 and obtained UN air superiority. Although developed in the late 1940s and outdated by the end of the 1950s, the Sabre proved adaptable and continued as a front line fighter in air forces until the last active front line examples were retired by the Bolivian Air Force in 1994.
Its success led to an extended production run of over 7,800 aircraft between 1949 and 1956, in the United States, Japan and Italy. It was by far the most-produced Western jet fighter, with total production of all variants at 9,860 units.
Variants were built in Canada and Australia. The Canadair Sabre added another 1,815 airframes, and the significantly re-designed CAC Sabre (sometimes known as the Avon Sabre or CAC CA-27), had a production run of 112.
Design and Development
Initial proposals to meet a USAAF requirement for a single-seat high-altitude day fighter aircraft/escort fighter/fighter bomber were made in late 1944, and were originally to be derived from the design of the straight wing FJ-1 Fury being developed for the U.S. Navy.
The North American P-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. Performance requirements were met by incorporating a 35 degree swept-back wing with automatic slats into the design, using the Me 262 wing profile, Messerschmitt wing A layout and adjustable stabilizer. Manufacturing was not begun until after World War II as a result. The XP-86 prototype, which would become the F-86 Sabre, first flew on 1 October 1947 from Muroc Dry Lake, California.
The USAF 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 produced as both a fighter-interceptor and fighter-bomber. Several variants were introduced over its production life, with improvements and different armament implemented.
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 fighter-bomber version (F-86H) could carry up to 2,000 pounds (900 kg) of bombs, including an external fuel-type tank that could carry napalm.
Both the interceptor and fighter-bomber versions carried six .50-inch (12.7 mm) AN/M3 Browning machine guns with electrically-boosted feed in the nose (later versions of the F-86H carried four 20 mm cannons instead of machine guns). Firing at a rate of 1,200 rounds per minute each, the .50-caliber guns were harmonized to converge at 1,000 ft (300 m) in front of the aircraft, using armor-piercing (AP) and armor-piercing incendiary (API) rounds, with one armor-piercing incendiary tracer (APIT) for every five AP or API rounds.
Initially fitted with the Mark 18 manual-ranging computing gun sight, later models used A-1CM radar ranging gunsight which used radar to compute the range of a target. This would later to prove a significant advantage against MiG opponents over Korea, and fitted to later supersonic fighters such as the F-100 and F-105.
Unguided 2.75 inch (70 mm) rockets were used on some of the fighters in target practice, but 5 inch (127 mm) rockets were later used in combat operations. The F-86 could also be fitted with a pair of external jettisonable fuel tanks (four on the F-86F beginning in 1953) that extended the range of the aircraft.
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 in the Korean War. With the introduction of the Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 into air combat in November 1950, which out-performed all aircraft then assigned to the United Nations, three squadrons of F-86s were rushed to the Far East in December.
The F-86 could out-turn and out-dive the MiG-15, but the MiG-15 was superior to the F-86 in ceiling, acceleration, rate of climb, and zoom (especially until the introduction of the F-86F in 1953); MiGs flown from bases in Manchuria by Chinese, 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, whatever the actual results may be, it is clear that the F-86 pilots did not have as much success over the better trained Soviet piloted MiG-15s. Although Soviets piloted the majority of MiG-15s that fought in Korea, North Korean and Chinese pilots increased their activity as the war went on. The Soviets 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 has been credited with giving the Sabre an important advantage over the MiG-15. Far greater emphasis has been given to the training, aggressiveness and experience of the F-86 pilots. Despite rules-of-engagement to the contrary, F-86 units frequently initiated combat over MiG bases in the Manchurian "sanctuary."
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 to 1. A private B-29 web site averred: "After the war the USAF admitted to 103 Sabres lost, and the MiG kills at 379." amounting to a ratio of nearly 4 to 1. More recent research by Dorr, Lake and Thompson has claimed the actual ratio is closer to 2 to 1.