Dear readers, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Now that the New Year is upon us, and I look back on the many 19FortyFive articles I’ve written about iconic fighter planes in the previous year, it has dawned on me that I’ve been remiss to write about a particularly iconic jet fighter: the F-86 Sabre! Oh sure, I included the Sabrejet on my list of The 5 Best Fighter Jets Ever, but I had yet to include a standalone article on the warbird. I will now make up for lost time.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures: F-86 Early History and Specifications
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” as the saying goes, and the invention of the F-86 proves the proverb. The first year of the Korean War,1950, ushered in the age of jet vs. jet fighter combat, and whilst the U.S. Air Force’s P-80/F-80 Shooting Star may have won the first such matchup, and the U.S. Navy’s F9F Panther got in her fair share of licks early-on as well, both of these straight-wing fighter planes found themselves heavily outclassed by the Communist forces’ vaunted swept-wing MiG-15 “Fagot” warbird. If the American air campaign to stem the Communist tide on the Korean Peninsula was to remain sustainable, then the U.S. needed to field a jet fighter that was truly a match for the “Fagot.”
The NAA F-86, which was America’s first swept-wing jet, made her maiden flight – in the guise of the XP-86 prototype – on October 1, 1947, and the production model of the plane officially entered into U.S. Air Force operational service in 1949. In the interim, circa September 1948, an F86A set a then-new world speed record of 670.9 miles per hour; the Boeing info page goes on to add this nugget of gee-whiz historical trivia: “This mark was bettered in 1952 by an F-86D that flew at 698 mph (1123 kph). The D became the first model of a fighter to better its own record, in 1953, with a run of 715 mph (1151 kph).”
The Sabrejet sported a fuselage length of 37 feet, a wingspan of 37 feet 6 inches, and a height of 14 feet 8 inches, with an empty weight of 10,600 pounds and a max takeoff weight of 13,971 pounds. Its range was 1,200 nautical miles, service ceiling was 49,000 feet, and armament consisted of six AN/M3 .50 caliber machine guns, which was essentially a faster-firing – as in a 1,200 round per minute rate of fire – version of the classic Browning M2 “Ma Deuce” machine gun.
Duking It Out
Once word came back about the American straight-wing fighter jets consistently being outperformed by the Mig-15s, three squadrons of F-86s were rushed into the eagerly awaiting arms of Far East Air Forces (nowadays known as Pacific Air Forces [PACAF]).
So then, in the head-to-head matchup of the F-86 vs. the MiG-15, how exactly did they stack up?
For the longest time, it was a commonly accepted paradigm that the Sabrejet drivers enjoyed a 10:1 kill ratio against the Fagot driver adversaries. However, more recent analyses have challenged that paradigm; aviation historians Douglas C. Dildy and Warren E. Thompson, in their 2013 book F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15: Korea 1950–53 (Duel), assert via meticulous research that the head-to-head kill ratio was actually more like 5.6:1 – 566 MiG-15s in exchange for 100 Sabrejets – and moreover, when the Sabre pilots were pitted against top-performing Soviet WWII veteran pilots, the kill ratio plunged even more dramatically, to 1.4:1. (The fact that the Soviet pilots fought alongside their North Korean and Red Chinese “fraternal socialist” allies is one of the worst-kept secrets of the war.)
As noted by Harry Kelsall in an October 2021 article for Hotcars, “The Mig-15 could outturn the earliest versions of the Sabre, but the American aircraft could out dive the Mig and could safely fly through Mach 1, whereas the Mig-15 couldn’t go higher than Mach 0.92. This would prove crucial in high-speed chases between the two aircraft … Despite not being as maneuverable, the F-86s were flown by more experienced World War 2 veterans who knew how to dogfight. The Chinese and North Korean pilots of the Mig-15s didn’t have that experience, although some Russian pilots did end up flying some Mig-15s in the early stages of the war.”
As far as the two planes’ gun configurations compared, the National Museum of the United States Air Force’s info page states: “The MiG’s cannons fired heavy, destructive shells at a slow rate while the Sabre’s guns fired lighter shells at a much higher rate of fire. In the high-speed dogfights typical of MiG Alley, communist pilots found it very difficult to hit the F-86s they faced … On the other hand, Sabre pilots frequently inflicted only light damage because their machine guns lacked the punch of cannons. MiG pilots could then escape across the Yalu River into the safety of Manchuria (although F-86 pilots sometimes followed them in ‘hot pursuit’).”
Long story short, even with revised and watered-down statistics, the F-86 did indeed turn the tide of the aerial phase of the Korean War.
Where Are They Now?
A total of 9,860 Sabre jets were built, and in addition to the U.S. Air Force, the plane saw service with the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF), Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), Philippine Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Spanish Air Force, and the Bolivian Air Force, to name but a few. The Bolivians were the last nation to retire their beloved Sabrejets, doing so in 1994, a remarkable 47 years after the plane’s maiden flight.
Surviving F-86s exist in 29 different nations, mostly as static displays. Roughly 24 airworthy specimens remain, spread out amongst Australia, France, South Africa, and the United States; airworthy Stateside example locations include the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania and the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Washington.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).