Vietnam War: North American F-100 Super Sabre

North American F-100 Super Sabre
F-100D Super Sabre. US Air Force

The North American F-100 Super Sabre was an American fighter aircraft that was introduced in 1954. Capable of supersonic speeds, the F-100 was North American's successor to the earlier F-86 Sabre which had seen great success during the Korean War. Though plagued by early performance and handling issues, the definitive version of the aircraft, the F-100D, saw extensive use during the Vietnam War both as a fighter and in a ground-support role. The type was phased out of Southeast Asia by 1971 as newer aircraft became available. The F-100 Super Sabre was also utilized by several NATO air forces.

Design & Development

With the success of the F-86 Sabre during the Korean War, North American Aviation sought to refine and improve the aircraft. In January 1951, the company approached the U.S. Air Force with an unsolicited proposal for a supersonic day fighter that it had dubbed "Sabre 45." This name derived from the fact that the new aircraft's wings possessed a 45-degree sweep. 

Mocked up that July, the design was heavily modified before the USAF ordered two prototypes on January 3, 1952. Hopeful about the design, this was followed by a request for 250 airframes once development was complete. Designated the YF-100A, the first prototype flew on May 25, 1953. Using a Pratt & Whitney XJ57-P-7 engine, this aircraft achieved a speed of Mach 1.05. 

The first production aircraft, a F-100A, flew that October and though the USAF was pleased with its performance, it suffered from several crippling handling issues. Among these was poor directional stability which could lead to a sudden and unrecoverable yaw and roll. Explored during the Project Hot Rod testing, this issue led to the death of North American's chief test pilot, George Welsh, on October 12, 1954. 

YF-100A Super Sabre
YF-100A Super Sabre prototype in flight. US Air Force 

Another problem, nicknamed the "Sabre Dance," emerged as the swept wings had a tendency lose lift in certain circumstances and pitch up the aircraft's nose. As North American sought remedies for these problems, difficulties with the development of the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak compelled the USAF to move the F-100A Super Sabre into active service. Receiving the new aircraft, the Tactical Air Command requested that future variants be developed as fighter-bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

North American F-100D Super Sabre


  • Length: 50 ft.
  • Wingspan: 38 ft., 9 in.
  • Height: 16 ft., 2.75 in.
  • Wing Area: 400 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 21,000 lbs.
  • Max Takeoff Weight: 34,832 lbs.
  • Crew: 1


  • Maximum Speed: 864 mph (Mach 1.3)
  • Range: 1,995 miles
  • Service Ceiling: 50,000 ft.
  • Power Plant:  1 × Pratt & Whitney J57-P-21/21A turbojet


  • Guns: 4× 20 mm Pontiac M39A1 cannon
  • Missiles: 4 × AIM-9 Sidewinder or 2× AGM-12 Bullpup or 2 × or 4 × LAU-3/A 2.75" unguided rocket dispenser
  • Bombs: 7,040 lb. of weapons


The F-100A Super Sabre entered service on September 17, 1954, and continued to be plagued by the issues that arose during development. After suffering six major accidents in its first two months of operation, the type was grounded until February 1955. Problems with the F-100A persisted and the USAF phased out the variant in 1958. 

In response to TAC's desire for a fighter-bomber version of the Super Sabre, North American developed the F-100C which incorporated an improved J57-P-21 engine, mid-air refueling capability, as well as a variety of hardpoints on the wings. Though early models suffered from many of the F-100A's performance issues, these were later reduced through the addition of yaw and pitch dampers. 

Continuing to evolve the type, North American brought forward the definitive F-100D in 1956. A ground attack aircraft with fighter capability, the F-100D saw the inclusion of improved avionics, an autopilot, and the ability to utilize the majority of the USAF's non-nuclear weapons. To further improve the aircraft's flight characteristics, the wings were lengthened by 26 inches and the tail area enlarged. 

While an improvement over the preceding variants, the F-100D suffered from a variety of niggling problems which were often resolved with non-standardized, post-production fixes. As a result, programs such as 1965's High Wire modifications were required to standardize capabilities across the F-100D fleet. 

RF-100 Super Sabre
RF-100 Super Sabre in flight.  US Air Force

Parallel to the development of combat variants of the F-100 was the alteration of six Super Sabres into RF-100 photo reconnaissance aircraft. Dubbed "Project Slick Chick," these aircraft had their armaments removed and replaced with photographic equipment. Deployed to Europe, they conducted overflights of Eastern Bloc countries between 1955 and 1956. The RF-100A was soon replaced in this role by the new Lockheed U-2 which could more safely conduct deep penetration reconnaissance missions. Additionally, a two-seat F-100F variant was developed to serve as a trainer.

Operational History   

Debuting with the 479th Fighter Wing at George Air Force Base in 1954, variants of the F-100 were employed in a variety of peacetime roles. Over the next seventeen years, it suffered from a high accident rate due to the issues with its flight characteristics. The type moved closer to combat in April 1961 when six Super Sabres were shifted from the Philippines to Don Muang Airfield in Thailand to provide air defense. 

With the expansion of the U.S. role in the Vietnam War, F-100s flew escort for Republic F-105 Thunderchiefs during a raid against the Thanh Hoa Bridge on April 4, 1965. Attacked by North Vietnamese MiG-17s, the Super Sabres engaged in the USAF's first jet-to-jet combat of the conflict. A short time later, the F-100 was replaced in the escort and MiG combat air patrol role by the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

Later that year, four F-100Fs were equipped with APR-25 vector radars for service in suppression of enemy air defense (Wild Weasel) missions. This fleet was expanded in early 1966 and ultimately employed the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile to destroy North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile sites. Other F-100Fs were adapted to act as fast forward air controllers under the name "Misty." While some F-100s were employed in these specialty missions, the bulk saw service providing accurate and timely air support to American forces on the ground. 

F-100 Super Sabre
A USAF F-100F of the 352d TFS at Phu Cat Air Base, South Vietnam, 1971. United States Air Force Historical Research Agency

As the conflict progressed, the USAF's F-100 force was augmented by squadrons from the Air National Guard (ANG). These proved highly effective and were among the best F-100 squadrons in Vietnam. During the later years of the war, the F-100 was slowly replaced by the F-105, F-4, and LTV A-7 Corsair II. 

The last Super Sabre left Vietnam in July 1971 with the type having logged 360,283 combat sorties. In the course of the conflict, 242 F-100s were lost with 186 falling to North Vietnamese anti-aircraft defenses. Known to its pilots as "The Hun," no F-100s were lost to enemy aircraft. In 1972, the last F-100s were transferred to ANG squadrons which used the aircraft until retiring it in 1980.

Other Users

The F-100 Super Sabre also saw service in the air forces of Taiwan, Denmark, France, and Turkey. Taiwan was the only foreign air force to fly the F-100A. These were later updated to close to the F-100D standard. The French Armee de l'Air received 100 aircraft in 1958 and used them for combat missions over Algeria. Turkish F-100s, received from both the U.S. and Denmark, flew sorties in support of the 1974 invasion of Cyprus.        

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Vietnam War: North American F-100 Super Sabre." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 29). Vietnam War: North American F-100 Super Sabre. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Vietnam War: North American F-100 Super Sabre." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).