Today, fighter jets headlines are dominated by the F-35, F-22, and China’s J-20 stealth fighter. However, older fighter jets served as big stepping stones to the modern aircraft we know and love today. The F-86 is one of those aircraft: With nearly 10,000 units built, the North American F-86 Sabre is, by far, the most-produced Western fighter ever built. Built by North American, shortly after they created the famed P-51 Mustang, the F-86 was one of the first – and one of the most important – jet-powered fighter aircraft ever. At the time of the F-86’s debut, in 1947, jet technology was nascent and early jet fighters earned mixed performance reviews.
The transition from propellers to jet engines was difficult for both designers and pilots – and the F-86 is no exception.
An Early Jet-Powered Aircraft
The Sabre featured distinct design features that pilots took some time getting used to. Notably, the F-86 featured swept wings, and an all-flying tail – and did not feature leading-edge slats. The F-86 had a high accident rate, much of which was owed to a tendency to over-rotate on take-off. In fact, in 1972, a privately-owned F-86 over-rotated on take-off at the Golden West Sport Aviation Air Show in Sacramento, California. The jet barrelled through a fence, across a busy street, and into a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor. Twenty-two people were killed and 27 more were injured. The pilot survived with a broken arm and a broken leg.
A Fatal Flaw? A New Design Was Difficult for Pilots at First
Military pilots struggled with the F-86, too. New F-86 pilots were trained at Nellis Air Force Base. Training casualties were so common that cadets were told that if they ever saw the flag at full staff, take a picture. Accident rate aside, the F-86 is best remembered as the U.S. Air Force’s primary fighter during the Korean War.
When the Soviet-made, swept-wing MiG-15 was introduced to the Korean theater, existing American straight-winged airframes like the P-80 Shooting Star and the F-84 Thunderjet were suddenly rendered obsolete. Rushing to match the new Soviet fighter, Americans rushed F-86s to Korea (while pushing existing straight-winged fighters into ground-attack duties. The F-86s arrival in theater set up one of history’s fiercest aerial rivalries between the F-86 and the MiG-15.
The earliest variants of the F-86, which were rushed from the production line, could not out-turn the nimble MiG-15. However, the F-86 could outdive the MiG. Nevertheless, the MiG remained superior with respect to service ceiling, acceleration, and rate of climb. Not until the F-86F was introduced, in 1953, were the Americans able to reciprocate the abilities of the MiG-15. Some pilots even claimed that the F-variant was marginally superior to the MiG. The new F-86 could be operated safely at speeds in excess of Mach 1, whereas the MiG needed to be kept around Mach 0.92 – giving American pilots a speed advantage.
Additional advantages F-86 pilots enjoyed: experience and training. American F-86 pilots, many of which were World War II veterans, had the benefit of combat experience over their North Korean counterparts. Plus, America had a robust pilot training program, which adequately trained new recruits for aerial combat. However, the Soviet Union did send its own pilots to Korea – pilots who also had World War II combat experience – and who helped mitigate the American experience and training advantages.
After Korea, F-86 pilots were initially credited with shooting down 792 MiGs while losing only 78 Sabres – a 10:1 kill ratio. However, these numbers were reexamined after the war. In reality, F-86 pilots likely only shot down about 200 MiGs, or 25 percent of the initial estimate.
Still, the F-86 was a lynchpin of the U.S. Korean War effort – and a huge step forward in the development of jet fighter technology.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.