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F-86 Sabre: Warrior of MiG Alley

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F-86 Sabre: Warrior of MiG Alley

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

Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Specifications:

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-27 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

Design & Testing:

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. 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.

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.

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, US pilots achieved a high level of success against the MiG. This was largely due to experience as many of the US pilots were World War II veterans whereas their North Korean and Chinese adversaries were relatively raw.

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 US Air Force ace achieved that status flying the Sabre. 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. In the years after the war, the F-86 was retired from frontline squadrons as the Century Series fighters, such as the F-100, F-102, and F-106, started to arrive.

Overseas:

While the F-86 ceased to be a frontline fighter for the US, 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.

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