North American F-86 Sabre-Korean Conflict Legend

By Willie Bodenstein

North American will forever be remembered for two iconic fighters; the P-51 Mustang and F-86 Sabre. The F-86 entered service with the United States Air Force in 1949 and was almost immediately bloodied in war.

In the late 1940s when German forces were on the retreat and it was clear that the WWII would soon be over North American submitted a design to the United States Navy for a jet powered fighter. The FJ-1 Fury with its wing based on that of the P-51 was one of the companies less successful products. In the meantime the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) had drafted a proposal for a medium range, single seat, high altitude jet powered escort fighter/bomber.

North American Aviation submitted four designs of which one, loosely based on the Fury, was accepted together with two designs from competitors by the USAAF. It soon became clear though that the XP-86 would not meet the 600 mph (970 km/h] top speed and North American realised that in order to stand a chance against its competitors it would have to come up with a complete redesign of the XP-86. The XP-86 would eventually turn into the F-86.

Like its adversity, the MiG 15, the F-86 profited from German research and aerodynamicists captured towards the end of WWII. German data showed that a swept thin wing would delay compressibility problems which had bedevilled even prop-powered fighters such as the Lockheed P-38 Lightning when approaching the speed of sound. North American executives where however not convinced but when wind tunnel test proved that a wing swept at 35 degree and fitted with slats and electrically adjustable stabiliser based on those used in the Messerschmitt 262 gave the best performance they gave permission for construction to commence.

Major unexpected design changes however delayed the entry of the F-86 into service and it was only on 1 October 1947 with George Welsh at the controls that she had her maiden flight. In September 1948 the F-86A set its first official world speed record of 670 miles per hour (1,080 km/h). Five years later, on 18 May 1953, Jacqueline Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier, flying a "one-off" Canadian-built F-86 Sabre Mk 3, alongside Chuck Yeager. In 1949 it entered USAAF service where it served with distinction until replaced by newer types when it was transferred to Air National Guard (ANG) where it served until 1970. Almost 10,000 Sabres were produced serving with the Air Forces of numerous countries, Bolivia only withdrawing their F-86s in 1994.

The world was supposed to be a peaceful place, WWII was over but trouble was brewing in China and Korea. Barely a year later the first Sabres of the 1st Fighter Wing were despatched to Korea where MiG15's, ostensibly of the North Korean Forces but flown and operated by Russians where wreaking havoc causing heavy losses in the United Nations Forces (UN).

The 1st Fighter Wing's 94th Fighter Squadron operating under a United Nations (UN) mandate flying the F-86 became the primary air-to-air jet fighter used by United Nations Forces during the Korean War. Forming part of this wing was a South African contingent of 2 Squadron. The F-86s pilots soon realised that they could not outrun the MiG that had a higher service ceiling, rate of climb and acceleration but that that the MiG was no match in the dive. In 1953 with the introduction of the F-86F the two types were more evenly matched. 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 10:1. Of the 41 American pilots who earned the designation of ace during the Korean War, all but one flew the F-86 Sabre, the exception being a Navy Vought F4U Corsair night fighter pilot.

When it became clear that a full scale war was starting in Korea the UN passed a resolution to dispatch forces to assist South Korea and the then Union Government of South Africa offered the services of the SAAF's 2 Squadron, the Flying Cheetahs, which was accepted. On 26 September 1950 forty nine officers and 157 other ranks, all volunteers, left for Japan from where they were too be deployed to Korea. On the 19 November, attached to the USAF 18th Fighter Bomber Wing, they flew there first operational sorties in P-51 Mustangs. The squadron was re-equipped with Sabres in February 1953 and on 11 March 1953 flew its first operational sortie in the jet powered Sabre. The Flying Cheetahs of 2 Squadron was so well regarded that they amongst other numerous other awards and decorations received the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation as well as United States Presidential Unit Citation.

The South Africans operated mostly in the ground attack role, the most dangerous of all missions. By the end of the war they had flown 12,067 sorties losing 74 Mustangs and four Sabres and 34 Pilots. The Sabres used where on loan from the USA and it was so well regarded that the SAAF ordered 34 of the Mark VI version of which a total of 655 were built. Deliveries started in 1956 and the Sabre served until replaced by the Mirages supplied by the French.

The Sabre was one of the most successful fighter jets ever developed. It served with the air forces of numerous nations, was built under license all over the world, was constantly updated and was available in types to suits most applications. It truly is one of the icons of the jet age.

Specifications (F-86F-40-NA)

General characteristics
Crew: 1
Length: 37 ft 1 in (11.4 m)
Wingspan: 37 ft 0 in (11.3 m)
Height: 14 ft 1 in (4.5 m)
Wing area: 313.4 sq ft (29.11 m≤)
Empty weight: 11,125 lb (5,046 kg)
Loaded weight: 15,198 lb (6,894 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 18,152 lb (8,234 kg)
Powerplant: 1 ◊ General Electric J47-GE-27 turbojet, 5,910 lbf (maximum thrust at 7,950 lbf for five min)with water injection (26.3 kN)
Fuel provisions Internal fuel load: 437 US gallons (1,650 L)), Drop tanks: 2x200 US gallons (760 L) JP-4 fuel


Maximum speed: 687 mph (1,106 km/h) at sea level at 14,212 lb (6,447 kg) combat weight
Stall speed: 124 mph (power off) (108 knots (200 km/h))
Range: 1,525 mi, (2,454 km)
Service ceiling: 49,600 ft at combat weight (15,100 m)
Rate of climb: 9,000 ft/min at sea level (45.72 m/s)


Guns: 6 X 0.50 in (12.7 mm) M3 Browning machine guns (1,800 rounds in total)
Rockets: variety of rocket launchers; e.g: 2 Matra rocket pods with 18 SNEB 68 mm rockets per pod
Bombs: 5,300 lb (2,400 kg) of payload on four external hardpoints, bombs were usually mounted on outer two pylons as the inner pairs were plumbed for 2 200 US gallons (760 L) drop tanks which gave the Sabre a more useful range. A wide variety of bombs could be carried (max standard loadout being 2 1,000 lb bombs plus two drop tanks), napalm canisters and could have included a tactical nuclear weapon.

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