F-100 Super Sabre-supersonic speed in level flight pioneer

By Willie Bodenstein

Originally designed by North American Aviation as a higher performance successor to the F-86 Sabre air superiority fighter the F-100 was the first USAF fighter capable of supersonic speed in level flight and despite a horrific service record went on to serve for the next 25 years.

F-86 Sabre

When North American Aviation in January 1951 delivered an unsolicited proposal for an air superiority supersonic day fighter to the USAF (United States Air Force) its F-86 Sabre was still in production and remained so until 1956. By the time the production lines were closed more than 7,800 Sabres had left the factory floor while almost 2,000 were manufactured by Canadair and others.

The USAF was impressed, and North American felt confident enough to build a mock-up that it presented to the USAF on 7 July 1951. Their confidence was rewarded. The USAF was suitably impressed and on 3 January 1952 ordered two prototypes followed by 23 F-100As in February and an additional 250 F-100As in August.

Production started almost immediately, the first prototype flying on 25 May 1953 seven months ahead of schedule. Fitted with a de-rated XJ57-P-7 engine it none the less reached Mach 1.05. The second prototype flew a few months later followed by the first production model on 14 October 1953. Although superior to the F-86 various deficiencies became apparent during operational suitability tests.

On 12 October 1954 North American test pilot George Welch was killed while he was flying an F-100A. A subsequent investigation into the crash found that instability in certain regimes of flight caused a sudden yaw and roll that led to the structure failing causing the crash. Early F-100A's also suffered from what became known as the "Sabre dance". This occurred as the aircraft approached stall speeds when loss of lift on the tips of the wings caused a violent pitch-up.

F-100As were never the less ordered into service whilst a requirement was issued that all future F-100 be adapted as fighter bombers with the ability to deliver nuclear weapons. Super Sabres entered service on 27 September 1954. Six major accidents in its first five weeks of service led to the grounding of the whole fleet. In September 1955 the grounding was lifted but by that time 47 F-100's have been lost in major accidents and the type was phased out.

F-100C fighter bomber versions with an uprated J57-P-21 engine entered service in July 1955. The type however still suffered from most of the problems that plagued the F-100A but because of its high speed it was the ideal platform to deliver nuclear devices.

In August 1961 at the height of the Cold War tensions rose when Communist East Germany started the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Vietnam War forced the recall of F-100s to service in 1961. Combat losses in Vietnam accounted for more than fifty aircraft per year.

Despite its horrific service record the Super Sabre soldiered on. Almost 2,300 were built and the type was finally retired from active USAF service in 1972 but continue to serve with Air National Guard units until 1979. Royal Danish Air Force and Turkish Air Force F-100s were only retired in 1982. By that time 889 Super Sabres were lost to major accidents killing 324 pilots.

To its credit though Super Sabres were the longest serving fighter bomber in the Vietnam War, First deployed in 1961 it was recalled in 1971. A F-100 piloted by Captain Donald W. Kilgus is credited for the USAF first kill during air to air combat in Vietnam when he on 4 April 1965 shot down a North Vietnamese Air Force MiG-17. Between May 1968 and April 1969 Air National Guard F-100s flew more than 38,000 combat hours and more than 24,000 sorties, delivering ordnance and munitions with a 99.5% reliability rate. By the time the war ended F-100s had logged more than 360,000 combat sorties whilst 242 aircraft were lost during combat.

A large number of Super Sabres found a new lease in life as remote-controlled target drones whilst some ended up in civilian defence contractors operating in support of the USAF and NASA.

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