The North American F-86 Sabre has become a historic landmark among combat planes. The first American jet fighter with swept wings, it was the most effective weapon to win the air war in Korea.
Shortly after Hitler’s defeat, captured German scientific data indicating the advantages of sweptback wings arrived in the United States. At that time, aircraft speeds were becoming limited less by power than by compressibility effects; as sonic speeds were approached, shock waves built up over airframe projections caused buffeting and other phenomena. Sweeping wing and tail surfaces back toward their tips delays the onset of compressibility troubles, and permits higher speeds.
American aerodynamicists were aware of these effects, and NACA investigators had alerted the North American company, who’s NA-140 had been ordered as the XP-86 on May 18, 1945. That single-seater’s mockup had been approved on June 20 with conventional straight wings and an estimated top speed of 582 mph at 10,000 feet. Larry P. Greene, the project aerodynamicist, proposed sweeping the wings and tail back 35 degrees , and a new design study was ordered August 14. On November 1, the Air Force accepted the idea.
The first of three low-wing XP-86s was flown on October 1, 1947, by George S. Welch at Muroc (now Edwards Air Force Base). First powered by a Chevrolet-built J35-C-3 behind the pilot, it changed to a 4,000-pound thrust Allison J35-A-5 and reached 618 mph at 14,000 feet. Features included a nose air inlet, pressurized cockpit, twin fuselage dive-brakes, and leading edge slats to reduce the swept wing’s stalling point. After the third prototype was fitted with a J47 engine, Welch reached Mach 1 on April 26, 1948.
Thirty-three production aircraft had been ordered December 20, 1946, designated P-86A (F-86A-l Sabre after June 1948), and 188 P-86B (F-86A-5) were added by December 1947. After the first F-86A-1 flew on May 20, 1948, 333 more Sabres were purchased on May 29. Power plants were the General Electric J47-GE-3 and GE-7, until sufficient GE-13s were available. The 5,200-pound thrust offered enabled the third F-86A-1 to set a world’s speed record of 670.98 mph on September 15, 1948.
Six .50-caliber M-3s with 267 rpg at the sides of the nose intake were aimed using range-finding APG-30 radar in the intake’s upper lip. External racks handled two 120-gallon drop tanks, 1,000-pound bombs, or up to 16 5-inch rockets.
The first swept wing fighters were extensively tested before replacing the F-80s of the First Fighter Group at March AFB, which received 83 F-86As from February to May 1949. Next came the 4th Fighter Group at Langley AFB, and the 81st at Kirtland AFB. Air Force Groups became Wings in January 1950, and Sabres were then supplied to the 33rd and 56th Fighter-Interceptor Wings. Production of 554 F-86As ended in December 1950.
A new threat calls Sabres to war
In October, the Soviet pilots were about to leave China after turning over their 39 MiGs to the PLAAF’s 10th Combat Regiment. But Mao Zedong had decided to send his army into Korea, and asked Stalin for air cover. The 29th GvIAP was sent new MiGs and relocated to Antung, on the Chinese side of the Yalu river. They were joined by the 72nd GvIAP, which first engaged F-51Ds on November 1, 1950, while pilots from the 29th fought the first skirmish with 51st FIS F-80Cs on November 8.
Six Soviet fighter regiments in Manchuria that winter were paired in the three divisions of the 64th IAK (Fighter Air Corps). Their mission was to intercept United Nations aircraft between the Yalu River and a line from Pyongyang to Wonsan. MiG pilots were forbidden to fly south of that line, which meant there was no air cover for Chinese troops at the front.
Russian pilots were ordered to pretend to be Chinese, and their MiGs wore PLAAF markings. Chinese pilots of the Joint Air Army were unready to fly MiGs in combat before June 1951, and North Korean pilots flew only a few propeller-driven Yak-9 and small Po-2 biplane sorties.
When the MiG-15 appeared over Korea, the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing was ordered on November 8 to move from Wilmington, Delaware, to Korea. They flew their F-86A-5s to San Diego and an escort carrier took them to Japan. A detachment of veteran pilots went to the Korean Kimpo base and on December 17, four Sabres flew their first combat mission and won their first victory.
In March 1951, the first Soviet air regiments were rotated out of Manchuria and replaced by new air divisions with newcomer pilots. Operations begun by the 51st Fighter Wing with new F-86Es in December 1951 increased American strength to 127 Sabres in Korea, but they remained outnumbered by enemy jets. During 1952, the VVS in Korea expanded to 17 MiG regiments, supported by some 12 MiG regiments of the Chinese-North Korean Joint Air Army.
When MiGs operated against straight-wing Americans, they were fairly successful during the war, downing 42 F-51s, -80s, and -84s for a loss of 15 MiGs, as well as 23 B-26 and B-29 bombers against 16 MiGs claimed by bomber gunners. But, although the F-86A was inferior to the lighter Soviet type in climb and ceiling, American pilots proved superior in air-to-air combat, especially against less experienced Chinese. Under orders to concentrate on bomb carriers, MiG pilots tended to avoid F-86s except when they had tactical advantages.
“Operation Ashtray” modifications began with two RF-86As with two guns on the right side replaced by a K-25 camera. Another six with guns replaced by various multi-camera arrangements were designated RF-86A-7, and began flying with the 15th TRS in Korea in 1952.
Work proceeded on improved Sabre versions. The
F-86C became the YF-93 penetration fighter described later, while the F-86D designation was given the night fighter project known until July 24, 1950, as the F-95. That aircraft, with its radar, air-to-air rockets, and afterburner, is so different in operation from day-fighting Sabres that this night-fighter Sabre is considered in the next section on all-weather fighters.