Korean War: North American F-86 Sabre

North American F-86 Sabre
Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, leads a three-ship F-86F Sabre formation during the Korean War. US Air Force

The North American F-86 Sabre was the iconic American fighter aircraft of the Korean War (1950-1953). Though initially developed for the US Navy through the FJ Fury program, the F-86 design was adapted to meet the US Air Force's need for a high-altitude, day fighter and interceptor. Introduced in 1949, Sabres were sent to Korea in late 1950 to answer the threat presented by the arrival of Soviet-built MiG-15.

In the skies over North fKorea, the F-86 proved a highly effective fighter and ultimately claimed a positive kill ratio against the MiG. Frequently clashing in an area known as "MiG Alley," the two fighters effectively pioneered jet-to-jet aerial combat. With the end of the conflict, the F-86 began moving into a reserve role as newer, more-advanced aircraft were developed. Exported widely, the Sabre saw combat in a variety of conflicts around the world during the middle decades of the 20th century. The last F-86s were retired from operational status in the mid-1990s.

Background

Designed by Edgar Schmued at North American Aviation, the F-86 Sabre was an evolution of the company's FJ Fury design. Conceived for the US Navy, the Fury possessed a straight wing and first flew in 1946. Incorporating a swept wing and other changes, Schmued's XP-86 prototype first took to the skies the following year with George Welch at the controls. The F-86 was designed in answer to the US Air Force's need for a high altitude, day fighter/escort/interceptor. While design began during World War II, the aircraft did enter production until after the conflict.

For armament, the F-86 mounted six .50 caliber machine guns in its nose. These had an electrically-boosted feed system and were capable of firing 1,200 rounds per minute. The fighter-bomber variant of the Sabre carried the machine guns as well as up to 2,000 pounds of bombs.

Flight Testing

During flight testing, it is believed that the F-86 became the first plane to break the sound barrier while in a dive. This occurred two weeks before Chuck Yeager's historic flight in the X-1. As it was in a dive and the speed was not accurately measured, the record was not officially recognized. The aircraft first officially broke the sound barrier on April 26, 1948. On May 18, 1953, Jackie Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier while flying an F-86E. Built in the US by North American, the Sabre was also built under license by Canadair, with a total production run of 5,500.

North American F-86 Sabre

General

  • Length: 37 ft., .54 in.
  • Wingspan: 37 ft., 11 in.
  • Height: 14 ft., .74 in.
  • Wing Area: 313.37 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 11,125 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 15,198 lbs.
  • Crew: 1

Performance

  • Power Plant: 1× General Electric J47-GE-turbojet
  • Range: 1,525 miles
  • Maximum Speed: 687 mph
  • Ceiling: 49,600 ft.

Armament

  • 6 x .50 cal. machine guns
  • Bombs (2 x 1,000 lbs.), air-to-ground rockets, napalm canisters

Korean War

The F-86 entered service in 1949, with the Strategic Air Command's 22nd Bomb Wing, 1st Fighter Wing, and 1st Fighter Interceptor Wing. In November 1950, the Soviet-built MiG-15 first appeared over the skies of Korea. Vastly superior to every United Nations aircraft then in use in the Korean War, the MiG forced the US Air Force to rush three squadrons of F-86s to Korea. Upon arriving, American pilots achieved a high level of success against the MiG. This was largely due to experience as many of them were World War II veterans whereas their North Korean and Chinese adversaries were relatively raw.

F-86 Sabres lined up on a runway near a wall of sandbags.
US Air Force North American F-86 Sabre fighters from the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing Checkertails are readied for combat during the Korean War at Suwon Air Base, South Korea. US Air Force

American success was less pronounced when F-86s encountered MiGs flown by Soviet pilots. In comparison, the F-86 could out dive and out turn the MiG, but was inferior in rate of climb, ceiling, and acceleration. Nevertheless, the F-86 soon became the iconic American aircraft of the conflict and all but one American ace achieved that status flying the Sabre. The sole non-Sabre ace was Lieutenant Guy Bordelon, a US Navy night fighter pilot, who flew a Vought F4U Corsair.

With the arrival of the F-86F in 1953, the Sabre and MiG became even more evenly matched and some experienced pilots gave an edge to the American fighter. The F-variant included a more powerful engine and larger wings which increased the aircraft's high-speed agility. Experiments were also conducted replacing the Sabre's "six-pack" of .50 caliber machine guns with .20 mm M39 cannons. These aircraft were deployed in the war's final months and the results proved promising.

The most famous engagements involving the F-86 occurred over northwestern North Korea in an area known a "MiG Alley." In this area, Sabres and MiGs frequently dueled, making it the birthplace of jet vs. jet aerial combat. After the war, the US Air Force claimed a kill ratio of around 10 to 1 for MiG-Sabre battles. Recent research has challenged this and suggested that the ratio was much lower and likely was around 2 to 1.

Later Use

In the years after the war, the F-86 was retired from frontline squadrons as the Century Series fighters, such as the F-100 Super Sabre, F-102 Delta Dagger, and F-106 Delta Dart, started to arrive. This saw F-86s transferred to Air National Guard units for use by reservists. The aircraft remained in service with reserve units until 1970.

Armorers alongside a F-86 Sabre with a side panel removed.
Armorers work on a F-86 Sabre during the Korean War. US Air Force

Overseas

While the F-86 ceased to be a frontline fighter for the US Air Force, it was exported heavily and saw service with over thirty foreign air forces. The first foreign combat use of the aircraft came during the 1958 Taiwan Straight Crisis. Flying combat air patrol over the disputed islands of Quemoy and Matsu, Republic of China Air Force (Taiwan) pilots compiled an impressive record against their MiG-equipped Communist Chinese foes. The F-86 also saw service with the Pakistani Air Force during both the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistani Wars. After thirty-one years of service, the final F-86s were retired by Portugal in 1980.