The F-86 Sabre was the first American-produced swept-wing fighter. It was developed after WWII from needs identified during the war. The U.S. needed escort jets for its bombers, which had evolved from propeller- to jet-engine-driven. The major bombers of WWII, the B-17, and the B-24 had the P-38, the P-47, and P-51 to act as escorts. These “P” (for pursuit fighters) could keep up with the bombers and well-answered the German Messerschmidt.
The U.S. had developed few jet fighters during WWII. One of them was the F-80 Shooting Star, which saw limited service in Italy in the waning days of the war. The Shooting Star was used extensively during the Korean War but was woefully underpowered compared to the Soviet MiG-15.
Enter the F-86 Sabre
The Sabre came along during a transition period in America’s defense history. WWII was over and the threat of spreading Communism was palpable. Not only was a high-speed fighter needed, but a penetration bomber as well. The F-86 was developed in many variants to meet those needs.
North American Aviation (NAA) had built the P-51 for WWII. The Navy co-opted that design adding jet engines to it thus creating the Navy’s first jet-powered fighter/bomber/interceptor, the FJ-1. This aircraft shared wings, tail and its cockpit design with the P-51 Mustang. The straight-wings of the FJ-1 could not reach the speeds required by the Air Force, so NAA had to go back to the drawing board.
In order to meet the USAAF’s requirements, NAA used data seized from German engineers to develop the swept-wing design that is now ubiquitous in aircraft design. Although met with resistance, NAA persevered in bringing the swept-wing design to reality.
A few wind-tunnel tests later, the swept-wing design was shown superior to straight-wing, and NAA rolled out the XP-86 (XP standing for experimental pursuit) in 1947. The plane had its first flight on 1 October of that year.
In September of 1948, an F-86A at Muroc Dry Lake set a world speed record of 671 mph. After being duly impressed, the Air Force ordered the F-86 in bulk. The fighter could not reach supersonic speeds in level flight but could keep up with the MiG-15.
F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15 in Korea
Initial models of the F-86 could not match the MiG-15 in any flight characteristics but could out-dive it. Originally designed as a daytime fighter, the Sabre morphed into an all-weather interceptor as the F-86D and into the fighter/bomber designated F-86H.
Lessons learned on the fly against the MiG-15 led to the F-86E and -F models. These models more closely matched the flight parameters of the MiG. The pilots that flew them were, for the most part, veteran pilots of WWII. The skill of these pilots made up for any design shortcomings.
Early in the Korean War, the North Korean Air Forces were supplemented by Soviet pilots, who also had considerable combat experience. Yet, as North Korean and Chinese pilots took over the bulk of flying, their skill shortcomings made an F-86 in the right hands all the more effective against the MiG-15. By the time combat ended in Korea, almost 800 MiGs had been downed by the Sabre, against less than 80 Sabres destroyed by the MiG.
Navy and Marine Corps Variants
Nearly 10,000 F-86 were produced between 1947 and 1957, in numerous variants, for many allied countries as well as for the USAF and U.S. Navy. The FJ-2 and FJ-3 Fury were the U.S. Navy variants of the F-86H and saw a long service life.
The FJ-2 was the first F-86 variant produced for the Navy and intended to be carrier-based. This model offered foldable wing panels for storage, more robust nose gear, and tail hooks. Nevertheless, the added weight from armament changes made the FJ-2 too heavy for safe carrier operations.
The aircraft was too fast to safely land on carriers but the Department of the Navy had already ordered 200 FJ-2s before prototype testing was complete. So. as they did in WWII with the F4U Corsair the decision was made to outfit land-based Marine squadrons with the model. The FJ-2 saw service with active-duty Marines through 1956 and with the reserves through 1957.
Development of the FJ-3 began while the FJ-2 was still in development. The FJ-3 capitalized on strides in engine development and was outfitted with the Wright J65 engine for an increase in speed with no increase in weight. The variant had more robust wings that allowed for more maneuverability, better handling at slower speeds, and added fuel capacity for longer flights.
The increased capabilities of the FJ-3 allowed it to be used for carrier operations. The Navy ordered almost 400 of the aircraft in 1952. The first was delivered in late 1954 and began regular operations in 1955. The FJ-3 was the first fighter jet that landed aboard the USS Forrestal, America’s first supercarrier. Later models of the FJ-3 were equipped to carry AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, and some were modified to control the Regulus nuclear cruise missile. The FJ Fury was finally retired in the mid-’60s.
North American Aviation licensed the Australian Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation to build the CA-27 variant for the Royal Australian Air Force. Just over 100 CA-27s were produced. Fuselage changes were made to accommodate a larger engine and different armaments. The RAAF flew the CA-27 from 1956 through 1971.
Canadair was also licensed to produce the CL-13 Sabre to replace the British de Havilland Vampire. Over 1,800 CL-13s were produced by Canadair in six variants labeled Mk 1 through Mk 6. These variants matched the U.S. F-86 fighter variants and were exported to various Air Forces around the world, including the RAF and the German Air Force.
Other International Operators
The F-86 and its variants have been operated by 30 national air forces. Some nations, like Canada and Australia, licensed the aircraft to build it themselves. As the Korean War wound down, and next-generation fighters like the F-100 Super Sabre and F-105 Thunderchief became the fighters of choice, the F-86 was retired and sold off.
Notably, the German Air Force and Japanese Air Defense Forces acquired and operated the F-86 after WWII. In addition, the Republic of China acquired over 300 F-86 variants.
Vietnam Era and the Dusk of an Aircraft
The F-86 and its variants were not used in Vietnam. By the time America became involved in Vietnam, the F-86 had reached the end of its useful life. Supersonic fighters had become the norm, and the F-86 was outclassed by the faster, longer-ranged fighters rolling off the production lines. Though not an active participant in Vietnam, the Sabre did play a role in the war.
Using equipment salvaged from a downed F-86 in Korea, the Soviets had reverse-engineered updated radar and targeting systems to produce the MiG-17. The “updated” MiG-17 proved to be a devastating weapon against U.S. F-105s in Vietnam. In response, Thunderchief pilots trained against Air National Guard F-86H “aggressors”, to simulate the MiG-17. With roughly the same characteristics, radar, and gunsights, the Sabre proved invaluable for training Thunderchief pilots.
Now the F-86 is a museum piece. There are numerous F-86 variants in the hands of private collectors, but many sit in museums, airparks, and on sticks on military bases around the world.
The Sabre has its place in U.S. history. It paved the way for newer-generation fighters to follow. So, it is only fitting it holds a place of honor now.