The North American F-86 Sabre, sometimes called the Sabre-jet, was a transonic jet fighter aircraft produced by North American Aviation and best known as the United States' first swept wing fighter that could counter the similarly-winged Soviet MiG-15 in high-speed dogfights over the skies of the Korean War. Considered one of the best and most important fighter aircraft in that war, the F-86 is also rated highly in comparison with fighters of other eras. Although it was developed in the late 1940s and was outdated by the end of the '50s, the Sabre proved versatile and adaptable and continued as a front-line fighter in numerous air forces until the last active operational examples were retired by the Bolivian Air Force in 1994.
Its success led to an extended production run of more than 7,800 aircraft between 1949 and 1956, in the United States, Japan, and Italy. Variants were built in Canada and Australia. The Canadair Sabre added another 1,815 airframes, and the significantly redesigned Australian CAC Sabre (sometimes known as the Avon Sabre or CAC CA-27), had a production run of 112. The Sabre was by far the most-produced Western jet fighter, with total production of all variants at 9,860 units.
The United States Air Force's Strategic Air Command had F-86 Sabres in service from 1949 through 1950. The F-86s were assigned to the 22nd Bomb Wing, the 1st Fighter Wing and the 1st Fighter Interceptor Wing.The F-86 was the primary U.S. air combat fighter during the Korean War, with significant numbers of the first three production models seeing combat.
The F-86A set its first official world speed record of 671 miles per hour on September 15, 1948 at Muroc Dry Lake flown by Major Richard L. Johnson, USAF.
Produced as both a fighter-interceptor and fighter-bomber, there were several variants introduced over its production life, with improvements and different armament implemented. The XP-86 was fitted with a General Electric J35-C-3 jet engine that produced 4,000 lb of thrust.
The fighter-bomber version (F-86H) could carry up to 2,000 lb of bombs, including an external fuel-type tank that could carry napalm. Unguided 2.75 in rockets were used on some fighters on training missions, but 5 inch rockets were later carried on combat operations. The F-86 could also be fitted with a pair of external jettison-able jet fuel tanks (four on the F-86F beginning in 1953) that extended the range of the aircraft. Both the interceptor and fighter-bomber versions carried six 0.50 in M3 Browning machine guns with electrically boosted feed in the nose cannons instead of machine guns. Firing at a rate of 1,200 rounds per minute, the .50 in guns were harmonised to converge at 1,000 ft in front of the aircraft, using amor-piercing and amor-piercing incendiary (API) rounds, with one amor-piercing incendiary tracer (APIT) for every five AP or API rounds. The API rounds used during the Korean War contained magnesium, which were designed to ignite upon impact but burned poorly above 35,000 ft as oxygen levels were insufficient to sustain combustion at that height.
Initial planes were fitted with the Mark 18 manual-ranging computing gun sight which featured a heavy duty rotating switch enabling the pilot to toggle between Guns, Bombs and Rockets.. The last 24 F-86A-5-Nas and F-86E were equipped with the A-1CM gunsight-AN/APG-30 radar, which used radar to automatically compute a target's range, which later proved to be advantageous against MiG opponents over Korea.
The Sabre's swept wings and jet engine produced a flying experience that was very different from the pinnacle generation of propeller-driven fighters that were operational in the early days of jet fighter development in the 1940s and early 1950s. The transition from props to jets was not without accidents and incidents even for experienced fighter pilots.
As well, the ongoing technical development and long production history of the F-86 resulted in some significant differences in the handling and flying characteristics between the various F-86 models. Some of the important changes to the design included the switch from an elevator/stabiliser to an all-flying tail, the discontinuation of leading edge slats for a solid leading edge with increased internal fuel capacity, increased engine power and internal missile bay (F-86D).
The F-86 entered service with the United States Air Force in 1949, joining the 1st Fighter Wing's 94th Fighter Squadron and became the primary air-to-air jet fighter used by the Americans in the Korean War. While earlier straight-winged jets such as the F-80 and F-84 initially achieved air victories, when the swept wing Soviet MiG-15 was introduced in November 1950, it outperformed all UN-based aircraft. In response, three squadrons of F-86s were rushed to the Far East in December. Early variants of the F-86 could not outturn, but they could out dive the MiG-15, although the MiG-15 was superior to the early F-86 models in ceiling, acceleration, rate of climb and zoom. With the introduction of the F-86F in 1953, the two aircraft were more closely matched, with many combat-experienced pilots claiming a marginal superiority for the F-86F. The heavier firepower of the MiG (and many other contemporary fighters) was addressed by fielding eight cannon armed Fs in the waning months of the war. Despite being able to fire only two of the four 20 mm cannon at a time, the experiment was considered a success. The MiGs flown from bases in Manchuria by Chinese, North Korean, and Soviet VVS pilots were pitted against two squadrons of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing forward-based at K-14, Kimpo, Korea.
Many of the American pilots were experienced World War II veterans, while the North Koreans and the Chinese lacked combat experience, thus accounting for much of the F-86's success. However, United Nations pilots suspected many of the MiG-15s were being flown by experienced Soviet pilots who also had combat experience in World War II. Former Communist sources now acknowledge Soviet pilots initially flew the majority of MiG-15s that fought in Korea, and dispute that more MiG-15s than F-86s were shot down in air combat. Later in the war, North Korean and Chinese pilots increased their participation as combat flyers. The North Koreans and their allies periodically contested air superiority in MiG Alley, an area near the mouth of the Yalu River (the boundary between Korea and China) over which the most intense air-to-air combat took place. Although the F-86A could be safely flown through Mach 1, the F-86E's all-moving tailplane greatly improved manoeuvrability at high speeds. By the end of hostilities, F-86 pilots were credited with shooting down 792 MiGs for a loss of only 78 Sabres, a victory ratio of 10:1
In addition to its distinguished service in Korea, USAF F-86s also served in various stateside and overseas roles throughout the early part of the Cold War. As newer Century Series fighters came on line, F-86s were transferred to Air National Guard (ANG) units or the air forces of allied nations. The last ANG F-86s continued in U.S. service until 1970.
Sabres and MiGs were shortly to battle each other in the skies of Asia once again in the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. In August 1958, the Chinese Communists of the People's Republic of China attempted to force the Nationalists off of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu by shelling and blockade. Nationalist F-86Fs flying CAP over the islands found themselves confronted by Communist MiG-15s and MiG-17s, and there were numerous dogfights.
During these battles, the Nationalist Sabres introduced a new element into aerial warfare. Under a secret effort designated Operation Black Magic, the U.S. Navy had provided the ROC with the AIM-9 Sidewinder, its first infrared-homing air-to-air missile, which was just entering service with the United States. A small team from VMF-323, a Marine FJ-4 Fury squadron with later assistance from China Lake and North American Aviation, initially modified 20 of the F-86 Sabres to carry a pair of Sidewinders on underwing launch rails and instructed the ROC pilots in their use flying profiles with USAF F-100s simulating the MiG-17. The MiGs enjoyed an altitude advantage over the Sabres, as they had in Korea, and Communist Chinese MiGs routinely cruised over the Nationalist Sabres, only engaging when they had a favourable position. The Sidewinder took away that advantage and proved to be devastatingly effective against the MiGs.
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