The North American F86F Sabre

The North American F86F Sabre

North American Aviation LogoThe F-86, the USAF's first swept-wing jet fighter, made its initial flight on 1st October 1947. German born Edgar Schmued, chief designer at North American Aviation who was instrumental in the design of the famed P-51 Mustang was also instrumental in the design of the F-86 Sabre.The first production model flew on 20th May 1948, and on 15th September 1948, an F-86A set a new world speed record of 670.9 mph (1079.5 km/h). Originally designed as a high-altitude day-fighter, it was subsequently redesigned into an all-weather interceptor (F-86D) and a fighter-bomber (F-86H). The North American F86 Sabre & its main adversary the MiG-15 both benefited from German swept wing technology stolen at the end of the second world war by the Allies resulting in two of the best aircraft of the Korean conflict.

F-86 Sabre Kill Ratio against the MiG-15

As a day fighter, the aeroplane saw service in Korea in three successive series (F-86A, E and F, the first production model of the F-86F flew on 11th Nov 1952) where it engaged the Russia-built MiG-15. By the end of hostilities, it had shot down 792 MiGs at a loss of only 76 Sabres, a victory ratio of 10 to 1. This applied to the MiGs flown by Chinese or North Korean pilots who were poorly trained but Russian pilots who flew the plane claimed a 2:1 kill ratio in favour of the MiG-15.
The American pilots had a significant amount of training, and many had a great deal of WWII combat experience with some of them being prior aces. The same applied to the Soviets who also had good training and most of the Soviets flying also had WWII records with some of them being aces. Most of the regimental and squadron commanders in 1951 were WWII aces, e.g. Georgii Lobov (19 victories), Aleksandr Vasko (15 kills), Aleksandr Kumanichkin (30), Grigorii Ohay (6). So, the Russian pilots were as experienced as the best American WWII Aces of the 4th and 51st Wings, like Francis Gabreski, Glenn Eagleston, Walker Mahurin, Robert Thyng, George Davis and many others.

When you have evenly matched aircraft, with evenly matched pilots, using only guns, it makes sense that the kill ratios would be very close to 1:1. The Soviets also had an advantage because they could use China as a shield. If they were in trouble, they just had to fly a few minutes north over the Yalu River and land. The US fighters on the other hand had to fly hundreds of miles south to get back to their bases with the MiGs being able to follow them the whole way.

The Soviet fighters were guided to the air battlefield by good ground control, which directed them to the most advantageous position.

The Russian flown MiG-15s always operated in pairs, as part of a team called “the sword and the shield,” with an attacking leader (”the sword”) covered by a wingman (”the shield”).

The squadrons operated in 6-plane groups, divided in 3 pairs, each composed of a leader and a wingman:

  1. The first pair (”the sword pair”) of MiG-15s attacked the enemy Sabres.
  2. The second pair (”the shield pair”) protected the first pair.
  3. The third pair remained above, with a panoramic view of how the battle evolved, supporting the “sword pair” or the “shield pair” depending on the situation. This pair had more freedom than the others, because it could also attack targets of opportunity, such as lone Sabres that had lost their wingmen.

Unlike their American & Soviet counterparts the Chinese & North Korean pilots had no previous combat experience & next to no training. They were taught navigation, landing & take-off & not much else, then sent against a far more experienced & better trained enemy. If Chinese & North Korean pilots flew the F-86 Sabre & American pilots flew MiG-15’s the result would have been the same. True there were Chinese & North Korean Aces but these few were naturally talented as fighter pilots.

Did differences in equipment explain the disparity? Probably not. Esentially the technological contest between the Soviet MiG-15 and the American F-86 Sabre was an even match. The MiG-15, NATO code word Fagot, was better than the F-86 in many aspects (superior climb rate, faster acceleration, more powerful weaponry) but the F-86 Sabre compensated that with more stable diving, a better gunsight, and a g-suit for their pilots, allowing them to resist the tremendous g-forces involved in dogfights. So, the edge were the men in the cockpits, and in the “Honcho Period” (Honchos: the nickname given by the Sabre pilots to excellent MiG pilots) the Soviets had such a slight edge. Quoting Chuck Yeager: “It’s the man, not the machine”.

History would repeat itself a decade later in the Viet Nam War. The Russian made MiG-21 used by the North Vietnamese Air Force was arguably a better fighter than the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom but Phantom pilots with superior training had a higher kill ratio against the MiG-21s. Many F-4 Phantom pilots say if they were flying Mig-21s & the North Vietnamese pilots were in the F-4 Phantoms, F4’s would have littered the countryside.

More than 5,500 Sabre day-fighters were built in the U.S. and Canada. The aeroplane was also used by the air forces of 20 other nations, including West Germany, Japan, Spain, Britain, and Australia.

Number built/Converted
Prototype day-fighter
1st prod. Model
188 cancelled; to F-86A-5
YF-93A; Imp. F-86A
Imp. F-86A
Imp. F-86E
Two-place trainer

Birth of the F-86 Sabre

The F-86 Sabre joined the ranks of the great fighter aircraft during combat operations high above the Yalu River area of Korea. Although the enemy MiG-15s could not be pursued across the Chinese border, the American Sabre pilots established a victory ratio of more than ten to one.

In the autumn of 1944 the Army Air Forces ordered three prototypes of a modified North American FJ-1 Fury, a jet fighter being developed for the Navy. It was designated the XP-86. The design progressed through the mock-up stage, but by the summer of 1945 it was apparent that the fighter's top speed would be well below the 600 mph (965.4 km/h) called for in the specification. Fortunately, a great deal of captured German aerodynamic data became available to the North American designers with the surrender of Germany in May 1945. These data indicated that a swept wing delayed the compressibility effects encountered at high subsonic speeds. Swept winged aircraft could be controlled at a considerably higher Mach number (percentage of the speed of sound) than a straight winged aircraft of the same general configuration. The swept wing, however, introduced low-speed stability problems. After scale model wind tunnel tests, the designers selected a wing that was swept back at an angle of 35 degrees, and added automatic leading edge slats to solve the stability problem.

The first XP-86 flew on 1 st October 1947, powered by an Allison J35-C-3, a 1,701 kg (3,750 lb) thrust engine. In April 1948, the XP-86 exceeded Mach 1 (the speed of sound) in a shallow dive. On 28th December 1947, the Air Force ordered 221 P86A's to be powered by the 2199.96 kg (4,850 lb.) thrust General Electric J47-GE-1 engine. In June 1948, a month after the first P-86A flight, its designation was changed to F-86A.

On 15th September 1948, an F-86A set a world speed record of 671 mph (1,080 km/h). In addition to its high performance, the F-86A had excellent handling characteristics and was well liked by its pilots. The Sabre was armed with six .50-caliber M3 machine guns mounted in the nose. The Mark 18 manual-ranging computing gun sight was replaced in later models with the A-1CM, which used radar ranging.

In December 1950, the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, one of the first of the Air Force's Sabre units, arrived in Seoul to fight the Russian-built swept wing MiG-15s, which had appeared in Korea in November. On 17th December, in the first known combat between swept wing fighters, Lt. Col. Bruce H. Hinton shot down a MiG-15. By the end of the Korean War, the Sabres had destroyed almost 800 MiG-15s with the loss of fewer than eighty F-86s. Nonetheless the MiG was a formidable opponent, it had a better climb & turn rate than an F-86 Sabre even above 25 thousand feet (7,620 meters).

The F-86 progressed through several improved versions-the F-86E, F, H, D. and K models. The changes, in most cases, included improved armament, more powerful engines, and control-system modifications. The F-86D, however, was an all-weather interceptor with a radar nose, and was armed with rockets instead of machine guns. The F-86K was a D-model with 20-mm machine guns replacing the rockets. In addition to those produced in California and Ohio, F-86s were built under license in Canada, Japan, and Italy. Of the 8,443 Sabres produced, 554 were F-86As.

Replacing the earlier -A and -E models, the -F featured a new '6-3' wing without the slats found on the leading edge of the earlier models. The increased chord of the wing 6 inches (152.40 mm) at the root and 3 inches (76.20 mm) at the tip and small boundary layer fences gave better manoeuvring performance at high speeds. The -F was used both as an air superiority fighter and fighter-bomber during the latter stages of the war; replacing the F-80 and F-51 aircraft still being used in the Korean combat in 1952.

During the entire Korean War conflict there were never more than 150 F-86 Sabres in Korea.

F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15
Which aircraft was better? Well lets examine their strengths and weaknesses

The MiG-15 had a higher thrust to weight ratio therefore accelerated and climbed a little better than the F-86. It also had a slightly higher service ceiling. Many battles over Korea began with MiGs diving on F-86's which could not reach the altitude at which the MiG-15 flew. The MiG-15 arguably had sufficient power to dive at supersonic speeds, but could not do so because it did not feature a tailplane (horizontal stabilizer in American). As a result, the pilot's ability to control the aircraft deteriorated significantly as Mach 1 was approached. Later MiGs would incorporate a tailplane. The canopy also tended to mist up in dives & rapid climbs though this problem was rectified.

Turning circles for each aircraft were very similar, with the F-86 gaining advantage at low speed because of it's leading edge slats. The MiG's higher thrust to weight ratio allowed it to power through turns a little better than the Sabre. Rate of roll/pitch was a problem for the MiG as they did not have boosted controls. At high speeds (400kts+) stick forces would become so high that the aircraft was very difficult to roll or pull into turns/climbs etc. The F-86 on the contrary, was very easy to fly and control and was responsive throughout the flight envelope. With the introduction of the "6-3" slat-less wing in Sept. 1952, on the F-86F-25 (and later refitted to older aircraft.), the Sabre was able to turn inside the MiG all the way up to its combat ceiling of 50,000 ft (15,250 m) and increased it's max speed to 695 mph (1118 km/h), giving the "F" a 30 mph (48.3 km) top speed advantage over the MiG (Albeit at the loss of low speed handling and a higher landing speed.)

The MiG-15 was originally intended to intercept American bombers like the B-29, and was even evaluated in mock air-to-air combat trials with interned ex-US B-29 bombers as well as the later Soviet B-29 copy, the Tupolev Tu-4. To ensure the destruction of such large bombers, the MiG-15
carried heavy cannon armament: two 23 mm cannon with 80 rounds per gun and a single massive 37 mm cannon with 40 rounds. These weapons provided tremendous punch in the interceptor role, but their limited rate of fire and relatively low velocity made it more difficult to score hits against small and maneuverable enemy jet fighter aircraft in air-to-air combat. The 23 mm and 37 mm cannon also had radically different ballistic characteristics, and some United Nations pilots during the Korean War had the unnerving experience of having 23 mm shells pass over them while the 37 mm shells flew under them. The cannon were fitted into a neat pack that could be winched down out of the bottom of the nose for servicing and reloading, in principle allowing a preprepared pack to be switched in for rapid turnaround. (Some sources claim the pack was added in later MiG-15 production but it was fitted from the outset.)

The MiG-15 was also a poor gun platform because at speeds above 450kts, the aircraft was beset by buffet which made aiming very difficult. This, combined with a primitive gunsite, made getting hits incredibly difficult. Only the most lucky pilots or the very best shots hit fighter sized targets. The 6 x .50 cal M3 machine guns on the F-86, while not having the stopping power of cannons, had high muzzle velocities and very high rates of fire. Combined with the M-18 optical gunsite and A-1CM radar ranging device, even average pilots could get hits.

So, each aircraft had it's advantages and disadvantages. In my opinion, the F-86 was marginally better. In the hands of the large cadre of extremely experienced pilots fielded by the U.S.A.F., the 10-1 kill ratio racked up by the Sabre over the MiG is not surprising.

Contrary to what some think the F-86H models did not see service in the Korean War. The first ten F-86H operational aircraft were delivered at the end of June 1954. None saw service in the Korean War which ended in July 1953.

The Communists can thank their good friend Prime Minister Clement Atlee of Great Britain for the six Rolls-Royce 'Nenes' that he sent them soon after the end of the Second World War.Copies of that fine engine powered the Mig 15 in Korea.

An improved variant, the MiG-15 bis ("bis" being Latin for "encore"), entered service in early 1950 with a Klimov VK-1 engine, an improved version of the RD-45/Nene, plus minor improvements and upgrades. Visible differencies are: a headlight in air intake separator and horizontal upper edge of air brakes in MiG-15.

MiG Alley

Sinuiju and Antung, located along the Yalu River in north eastern North Korea, were the main operating bases for Communist MiG-15 fighter units. While Sinuiju was located in North Korea, and therefore could be bombed, Antung was located just across the river in Manchuria and could not be attacked.

Large formations of MiGs would lie in wait on the Manchurian side of the border. When UN aircraft entered the airspace that became known as "MiG Alley," they would swoop down from high altitude to attack. If the MiGs ran into trouble, they would try to escape back to the safety of the border. Even with the advantage of a sanctuary across the Yalu, Communist pilots still could not compete against the better-trained Sabre pilots.

Korean Conflict Ends
(The Forgotten War)

On 27th July 1953, after three years, one month, and two days of fighting, the Korean War officially ended. The United States suffered 33,327 deaths and 102,000 wounded. The cost of the war was over $18 billion (that's over $18 billion in 1953!).

Under the terms of the cease-fire, Korea would be divided at the 38th parallel, as it was the day the Communists attacked. The first truce talks had begun on 10th July 1951. A cease-fire agreement was nearly reached very quickly in almost all areas, with the exception of a prisoner-exchange. The United Nations forces refused to return prisoners who did not want to be repatriated. Two more years of fighting ensued and only a threat by President Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons finally brought about an armistice.

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