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North American F-86 Sabre turbojet fighter

Written by Sakhal

Origins of the F-86

In 1944, before having acquired any data from the advanced aeronautical investigations made by the Germans, the USAAF issued specifications regarding four different fighters; the first one referred to a medium-range diurnal fighter that could be used for bomber escort and ground attack. This first requirement awakened the interest of the North American Aviation, whose projects team was then working in the NA-134, a carrier-based fighter for the US Navy. This one, as the XP-59A and the XP-80, was a design with conventional straight wing, already in a very advanced stage of work, so the North American offered to the USAAF a land-based version, called NA-140 by the company. The 18th May 1945, North American obtained a contract for building three prototypes NA-140, which the USAAF designated as XP-86. At the same time, the US Navy ordered 100 aircraft NA-141, designated as FJ-1 (series developments of the turbojet naval fighter NA-134), albeit this order was later reduced to 30 aircraft. Known as Fury, the FJ-1 flew for the first time the 27th November 1946, remaining in service with the VF-51 Fighter Squadron of the US Navy until 1949. While the construction of the XFJ-1 prototypes started, it ran parallely the development of the project XP-86. A model of the XP-86 was built, being approved by the USAAF in June 1945. There was however a worrying factor. According to the estimations of the North American, the XP-86 could have a maximum speed of 924 kilometers/hour at sea level, which was less than required by the USAAF.

Fortunately, in that moment were already available the data and materials captured from the Germans, regarding their investigations in the field of high speed flight, being particularly interesting the designs for angled wings. North American obtained a complete ensemble of a Me-262 wing and, after carrying more than a thousand tests with this wing in an aerodynamical tunnel, they were convinced that the angled wing was the solution for the speed limitations of the XP-86. The USAAF accepted the 1st November 1945 the new fuselage for the XP-86, characterized by integrally angled wings and tails, being definitely approved the 28th February 1946. In December 1946 the USAAF offered a contract for an initial series lot of 33 aircraft P-86A, being completed the first protoype XF-86A the 8th August 1947, flying for the first time with the turbojet engine General Electric J35. The second prototype flew for the first time the 18th May 1948, fitted with a more powerful engine, the General Electric UJ-47-GE-1; ten days after started to be delivered the series aircraft F-86A. These were used for several test flights, which were accelerated when the tension East- West raised with the blockade of Berlin by the Russians; the first aircraft F-86A were delivered to the 1st Fighter Wing in February 1949. When the F-86A was still an unnamed aircraft, one of the first acts carried by the 1st Fighter Wing was to sponsor a contest to give an adequate name to the aircraft. From the 68 names that were presented, the one that prevailed was "Sabre", receiving the North American F-86 this name officially the 4th March 1949.

Typology of the F-86 Sabre

The series aircraft F-86 were powered by the axial-flow turbojet engine General Electric J47-GE-27 capable of a thrust of 2700 kilograms. This propulsion plant had similar power than the one installed in the MiG-15, but the higher weight of the Sabre caused this aircraft to have a lesser thrust; this was one of the complaints of the pilots at the initial stage of the Korean War, who had to see how the MiG-15 was gifted with a greater rate of climb. As in most other turbojet aircraft of its time, including the MiG-15, the air intake was located in the nose. Unlike the MiG-15, the F-86 were built with low wings; these had a pronounced angle - about 35 degrees - and the same was true for every other flight surface. The canopy, of sliding type, allowed for a great visibility. The 12.7-millimeter machine guns that so effective had been during the Second World War, were criticized during the Korean War due to their limited effectiveness - namely lack of penetration - against the robust fuselage of the MiG-15. The Sabre however ranked high in electronics; with the exception of the earliest exemplars produced, the F-86 were equipped with an electronic gunsight assisted by a telemetric radar installed in the nose tip above the air intake, which automatically computed the range of a target to increase accuracy, a factor that would later prove to be a significant advantage against the more austere MiG-15.

North American F-86 Sabre turbojet fighter

Diagram showing the main components installed in the diurnal versions of the F-86 Sabre.

North American F-86 Sabre turbojet fighter

North American F-86F-30-NA Sabre "Dottie" (number 52-4701) piloted by Captain D.R. Hall during the Korean War. This aircraft holds the distinctive of the 336th Squadron from the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, based in the K-14 airbase at Kimpo, about 40 kilometers north-west of Seoul. The yellow bands were reglamentary identification marks in every aircraft F-86 operated by the Far East Air Force. The F-86F were much better than the F-86A that had been fighting in the "MiG Alley" during the Korean War: the latter model had more powerful engine, increased range and larger wing without leading edge slats.

The F-86 Sabre faces the MiG-15 in the Korean War

In December 1950 the first F-86A arrived to Korea, where the Sabre would be the main adversary of the MiG-15. The unit involved was the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, which stablished a first foothold in Japan, sending an advanced detachment of Sabre to Kimbo, the only airfield in Korea suitable for operating the F-86. At the same time, the F-84 Thunderjet from the 27th Fighter Escort Wing, also just arrived, were transferred from Japan to Taegu, from where armed reconnaissance and close support missions were soon started. The 15th December 1950, the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing performed its first flight with the Sabre from Kimpo and the 17th day it effectuated its first war patrol; four Sabre from the 336th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, carrying each of them 450-liter droppable fuel tanks to increase their operational range up to 907 kilometers, headed to the north towards the river Yalu, border between China and Korea. The American pilots had them all great experience; some had reached the condition of aces by downing five or more aircraft during the Second World War. They had been meditating a lot about the tactics that would be employed, eventually choosing the basic and well proved formation "finger-four", which divided the four aircraft in two groups of two aircraft. The idea was to enter the patrol zone at altitudes between 8200 and 10000 meters, which would allow to sight the enemy aircraft flying over them due to the visible contrails formed at such high altitudes.

In this first combat mission the pilots of the Sabre made a mistake that could have costed them dearly, because they were facing very skilled enemies. Since the distance between Kimpo and the Yalu was 690 kilometers and the pilots wanted to increase their patrol time, they entered the combat zone at the comfortable speed of 0.62 Mach to save fuel. At this speed were they flying when they sighted a formation of four MiG-15, which were below them and climbing; the pilots surely believed that the American aircraft were P-80, because otherwise, most surely they would have climbed to high altitude over the other bank of the Yalu. They were not aware of their mistake until the Sabre started to nosedive against them, gaining speed quickly, causing the MiG-15 to break contact and head towards Manchuria. Still, the Sabre piloted by Colonel Hinton approached the tail of one of the MiG-15 and fired three four-second bursts with the six 12.7-millimeter machine guns against the MiG-15 piloted by Commander Yefromeyenko, who ejected himself from the aircraft while it fell ablaze in a slow spin. This was the first downing of a MiG-15 of the allegedly 792 that the Sabre would register in the following two years and half, with the alleged loss of 78 Sabre. These first official numbers were later known to be largely falsified by the Americans; in the other hand, Russian official numbers pointed to 335 MiG-15 lost and 181 F-86 downed.

In the following days, there were several engagements between the Sabre and the MiG-15, but without losses in either side. At that time, both sides were studying the tactics of the adversary, taking measures to counter them. The main defect of the Sabre was the short operational range; patrolling at speeds of 0.85 Mach or greater, the pilots of the Sabre could not spend more than 20 minutes in the vicinity of the Yalu before being forced to return to their bases with a safe margin of fuel. The pilots of the MiG-15 noticed this limitation and exploited it, climbing to high altitude north of the Yalu and descending then in a high speed dive to attack the Sabre when they were withdrawing from their patrol. In turn, the Americans started to mount patrols with 16 aircraft, operating in four squadrons of four aircraft, that arrived to the combat zone flying at diverse altitudes at intervals of five minutes. Thus, the withdrawn of every aircraft was properly covered, with the exception of the last squadron.

The 22nd December, eight aircraft Sabre commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John C. Meyer, were in a patrol at 10000 meters of altitude south of the Yalu when they were attacked by more than 15 aircraft MiG-15. In a combat that lasted for 20 minutes and developed between high altitudes and the treetops, the pilots of the Sabre claimed the downing of six MiG-15 against the loss of one of their aircraft, manned by Captain L.V. Bach, shot down by Captain Yurkevich from the 29th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment. After this whipping, the MiG-15 were absent from the skies for a week and when they returned, the 30th December, their pilots were very cautious to engage in combat. In this occassion, 36 aircraft MiG-15 crossed the Yalu to engage 16 aircraft Sabre, but the Russians soon broke contact, returning to their bases. The pilots of the Sabre claimed two enemy aircraft hit. Both sides started to calibrate the prestations of the enemy aircraft; the Russians considered that the cannons mounted on the MiG-15 were more effective than the machine guns installed in the Sabre, and while they admitted that the Sabre was a superior aircraft in aerobatic combat, in climbthey would not be half as good as the MiG-15B. Despite these optimistic views, in the combats happened in May 1951 would emerge the first ace of the Sabre, Captain James Jabara from the 334th Fighter Interceptor Wing.

The 7th May, when Jabara was ascribed to the 335th Fighter Interceptor Wing based at Suwon, he had already four victories in his record. The 20th May a large number of MiG-15 crossed the Yalu to engage 12 aircraft Sabre from the 12th Fighter Wing. Quickly other two Sabre squadrons joined them, being Jabara in one of them. He managed to approach the rear of one of the MiG-15 and hit with his projectiles both its wings and fuselage. He continued descending to 3000 meters and saw the pilot ejecting from the aircraft. Then he climbed again to 7600 meters and after a couple of minutes he was fighting another MiG-15, which he set ablaze, seeing it falling in a spin. In that moment Jabara noticed a third MiG-15 positioned in his rear, and he broke contact abruptly in a long dive, leaving behind the enemy fighters and returning to base. These two victories were more meritory by the fact that Jabara could not drop one of the external fuel tanks hanging under the wings, circumstance that would convince the average pilot to abandon the engagement immediately. Other pilots of Sabre claimed the downing of one MiG-15, with another one probable and five damaged. Jabara would not achieve more victories during this stage of the war, but later he would return to the Korean War, increasing his record up to 15 victories.

North American F-86 Sabre turbojet fighter

Upper aircraft: North American F-86F Sabre (number 55-006) from the Republic of Korea Air Force. Lower aircraft: North American F-86F Sabre FU-096 (number 49-1096) from the 116th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the United States Air Force.

The night fighter variant: F-86D Sabre Dog

The Air Defense Command ordered a modified version of the standard F-86 Sabre, the YF-95A, equipped with search radar and armed with 24 Mighty Mouse 70-millimeter rockets installed under the fuselage in a retractable tray. The innovative weapons system installed in the YF-95A posed some initial problems and delayed the production program of the definitive version F-86D. Once the problems were eliminated, in a typical air defense mission started with a cold engine, the F-86D could heat the engine and take off in about four minutes; after another 11 minutes with the engine at full power, it could climb to an altitude of 13700 meters. Then the pilot could start the search phase: the antenna of the radar AN/APG-36 - or AN/APG-37 in later exemplars - would sweep a zone of 68.5 degrees left and right from the centerline in a cycle of 3.5 seconds; also, if required, 33.5 degrees upwards and 13.5 degrees downwards. When a target was acquired at a range greater than 48 kilometers, the radar would lock it and the computer AN/APA-84 would find a collision course, which the pilot would follow by keeping the signal or pip in the radar screen, inside a circle that was about one inch in size. When the automatic tracking system indicated that 20 seconds remained, the system instructed the pilot to turn 90 degrees from the collision course, in whose moment he would choose to fire a salvo of 6, 12 or 24 rockets. The computer directed the launching, deploying the stack of rockets in half a second, starting the firing sequence when the target was about 450 meters far. It would take only the fifth part of a second to launch the entire rocket salvo, being scattered the rockets like pellets fired by a shotgun, to ensure greater hit chance. The rocket launcher would retract in a matter of three seconds while a symbol in the radar screen would warn the pilot to break contact at a distance of 230 meters from the target.

North American F-86 Sabre turbojet fighter

North American F-86D Sabre FU-035 (number 210-035) from the United States Air Force. The design of the nose changed to allocate a radome housing the search radar antenna, and the rear fuselage was modified to accommodate a more powerful engine, resulting this in a longer and heavier aircraft. Note the absence of artillery in this variant, armed exclusively with rockets.

Specifications for F-86F

Type: Fighter-bomber

Propulsion plant: One General Electric J47-GE-27 with a thrust of 2682 kilograms

Maximum speed (at high altitude): 1118 kilometers/hour

Rate of climb (without external loads): 2835 meters/minute

Service ceiling: 14630 meters

Maximum range (with external tanks): 2044 kilometers

Weight (empty): 4940 kilograms

Weight (full load): 9234 kilograms

Wingspan: 11.30 meters

Length: 11.40 meters

Height: 4.40 meters

Wing area: 26.70 square meters

Armament: Six Browning M3 12.7-millimeter machine guns; capability for two 454 kilograms bombs or many other weapons of equivalent weight, plus two 755 liters droppable fuel tanks

Categories: Aviation - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-11-25

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