Arguably one of the most famed combat aircraft of its day, and possibly even the early Cold War era, the North American F-86 Sabre was the first swept-wing jet fighter to see service in the U.S. military. While it became legendary in the Korea War, the development of the first jet fighter began with awards from the Army and Navy in 1944.
North American had developed the successful P-51 Mustang, but as with many other aircraft manufacturers, it saw the future was to be jet-powered. In 1944, it started the development of an in-house jet aircraft, but it was little more than a Mustang with a jet engine. The design featured a stout cockpit, straight-wing, nose-mounted intake, bubble canopy and single turbojet engine. Yet, the design impressed the U.S. Navy, which designated it the FJ-1 “Fury.”
The FJ-1 lacked in innovation, but that was soon made up for as the U.S. military obtained vital aircraft research captured from the Germans at the end of the Second World War. The Nazi’s aerodynamic data highlighted how swept wings delayed air compressibility effects encountered at high subsonic airspeeds, and as a result swept-wing aircraft could therefore be controlled at much higher speeds than similar straight-wing aircraft.
That information helped lead to the development of the first U.S. Air Force swept-wing jet fighter – the F-86 Sabre.
It made its initial flight in October 1947, and the first production model flew the following May. In September 1947, an F-86A set a new world speed record of 670.9 mph. Designed as a high-altitude day fighter, the Sabre was subsequently employed as an all-weather interceptor and even fighter/bomber. It was armed with six .50 caliber machine guns, which could be used in visual combat with the enemy – making it the last true “dogfighter” to be developed for the United States Air Force.
During the Korean War, the F-86 often engaged the Russian-built MiG-15, and the Sabre has been credited with being largely responsible for turning the tide of the air war in favor of the United States over northwest Korea, an area that became known as “MiG Alley.” On December 17, 1950, Lt. Col. Bruce Hinton of the U.S. Air Force 4th Fighter Group became the first F-86 pilot to shoot down a MiG. He certainly wasn’t the last. In fact, it was really no contest, and by the end of the conflict, F-86 Sabre pilots had shot down 792 MiGs, while just 76 F-86 Sabres were lost – a kill ratio of more than 10 to one!
Between 1947 and 1957, more than 9,800 F-86s were manufactured, making it the most prolific jet fighter ever produced. More than 5,500 Sabre day fighters were built in the U. S. and Canada, while the F-86 was also employed in the air forces of twenty other nations, including West Germany, Japan, Spain, Britain, and Australia.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is a Contributing Writer for Forbes Magazine.