North American F-86 Sabre

The F-86 Sabre was the most important jet fighter aircraft in non-Soviet-bloc countries in the 1950s and continued to be numerically prominent through the early 1960s.  A total of 8,745 Sabres were built, of which 6,297 were built by North American, 1,815 were built under license in Canada, 300 in Japan, 221 in Italy and 112 in Australia.  They were used by the air forces of over 20 countries, with the largest users being the U.S., Canada, West Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Pakistan, the Phillippines, Portugal, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain and Yugoslavia.

First flown October 1, 1947, the F-86 achieved a technological leap over other first-generation American jet fighters by making extensive use of wartime German research on swept wings and by borrowing key features from the Messerschmitt Me 262, especially its swept wing and automatic leading-edge slats.  F-86s were the primary USAF air superiority fighter of the Korean War and were an even match for the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 employed by the North Koreans and Chinese in that conflict.  They participated in many smaller wars with various operators afterwards.  A popular and maneuverable aircraft, Sabres were also a favorite mount for aerobatic display teams of many nations.

A “sabre” is a type of sword with a curved, single-edged blade, commonly used during the 19th century and still used as military ceremonial equipment today.  In the U.S., it is often spelled “saber” although North American from the outset used the British spelling.  Occasionally F-86 pilots would call their airplanes “swords” in reference to the meaning of its name.

Though simple in design, the Sabre has handsome proportions and classic good looks.  For a generation of boys and men in Western countries its clean lines defined the ideal image of a jet fighter.  Its swept surfaces were part of the inspiration for Cessna, in 1966, to restyle its 150-series light aircraft with a swept tail, just to look more modern than its competitors; a move quickly copied by Piper, Beech and others, even though there was no aerodynamic benefit for such slow aircraft.

Numerous Sabres are preserved in the national museums of the countries where they were operated.  There is also a significant flying population in the United States, with most of the privately owned survivors being Canadian-built machines.  These aircraft were acquired by a company in Mojave, California, in the 1970s from surplus Canadian sales and were modified into radio-controlled drones to be shot down by the USAF in missile testing.  Fortunately, the Sabres became more valued as historic aircraft than for target practice before these stocks were quite used up, and several found their way to the civil market where most of them now wear USAF markings.

U.S.-Built Sabres

F-86A 47-605

The very first production F-86A, following two prototypes, is preserved at the Airman Heritage Museum in Texas.   

F-86A 47-614

The Chanute Air Museum formerly displayed this F-86A which, I have read, saw combat service in Korea.  It is now at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington. 

F-86A 48-178

Maintained airworthy in England and registered G-SABR, this F-86A claims the distinction of being the oldest jet airplane still flying in the world.  As the only active, privately owned Sabre in Europe it is a popular airshow attraction.  You’ll notice that, like some of the other preserved F-86As in these galleries, it is painted with a black-white-black-white-black stripe around the fuselage.  This was the marking of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing in Korea early in the conflict.  The nose color denotes one of the three squadrons within the 4th Wing; in this case, white for the 334th Squadron.  This particular aircraft, however, did not really serve with the 4th or in Korea.  

F-86A 48-260

The Smithsonian displays this early Sabre at the Udvar-Hazy facility of its National Air and Space Museum, posed next to a Chinese-marked MiG-15.  This aircraft served in Korea with the 335th Squadron of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, and accordingly carries the 4th Wing’s black-and-white fuselage bands and a yellow nose designating the 335th Squadron.

F-86A 49-1067

Also displayed next to a MiG-15 is the National Museum of the USAF‘s F-86A 49-1067, marked as a different aircraft 49-1236.  The real 49-1236 served with the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Wing, and  was shot down by a MiG-15 over Korea on October 24, 1951, the pilot Bradley Irish being taken prisoner until 1953. 

F-86A 49-1217

This F-86A is a Korean combat veteran with the 334th Fighter Squadron where it was flown by James Leatherbee.  Now with Planes of Fame, it is displayed at the museum’s Grand Canyon branch.  The white nose and black-and-white fuselage band correctly denote the plane’s former units, but it did not score the five kills indicated by red stars on the nose.

JF-86D 50-462

In 1955, the USAF allocated 25 Sabres for testing various modifications and equipment.  One is shown here in the late 1950s with an instrumentation probe installed on its nose.  The aircraft was not preserved.

F-86D 50-477

A limitation of the original F-86 was that it had no radar and was suitable only for fighting in good visual conditions, like most of the fighters of World War II.  In the 1950s the need for all-weather fighters for strategic bomber interception arose.  To fill this need the sabre was adapted into the F-86D model with a redesigned nose having a radome mounted at the front and the intake moved to a “chin” position under and just behind the radome.  The gun armament was replaced by a tray of small unguided rockets to be sprayed at enemy bombers.  There were so many other changes that the plane had only 25% parts commonality with other Sabre variants and originally was even given a new designation, F-95.  The National Museum of the USAF displays this early F-86D painted as a later model, serial 52-3863, with the 97th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, in the 1950s.

F-86D 51-2993

F-86D 51-2993 is shown after an encounter with especially nasty weather in the form of Hurricane Katrina while displayed at Battleship Park in Alabama.  The aircraft has not yet been fully repaired.

F-86L 51-3064

Some F-86Ds were upgraded to F-86Ls.  These were given a more power engine, better radar, and an extended wing.  This F-86L is displayed at Air Power Park in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

F-86L 51-6055

This F-86L served with Air National Guard units in Wisconsin during the 1950s.  It is preserved at the Hill Aerospace Museum in Utah.

F-86E 51-13028

The F-86E was an upgraded day-fighter development of the F-86A which became the main Sabre variant used in the Korean War.  Shown in 1969 at the Ontario Air Museum, predecessor of Planes of Fame, in California, this Sabre is now displayed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.  The paint scheme and name “Beauteous Butch II” are those of Joseph McConnell, regarded as the top U.S. fighter pilot of the Korean war with 16 credited MiG-15 kills, indicated as red stars on the nose of the aircraft.  “Butch” was the nickname of McConnell’s wife.  McConnell was killed in 1954 when test-flying an F-86H.  

F-86E 51-13371

The New England Air Museum‘s F-86E was formerly part of the Champlin Fighter Museum in Arizona.

F-86H 52-1993

Currently mounted on a pole as a gate guard for the Experimental Aircraft Association‘s complex at Oshkosh is this F-86H.  The H was a heavier and more powerful version of the Sabre intended for fighter-bomber duties.  F-86H models never saw combat, and several of the survivors are incorrectly painted as E or F models to represent combat-flown machines.  This is an early H model that retains the 6-machine-gun argument of earlier Sabre versions, shown by the three gun ports on each side of the nose.  Later model F-86Hs as shown below replaced this armament with four 20mm cannon. 

RF-86F 52-4492

Modified with camera equipment for photo reconnaissance work, including distinctive fuselage side bulges to accommodate film magazines, Sabres were used as stopgap surveillance aircraft until dedicated planes became available.  The National Museum of the USAF example conducted recon flights over North Korea, China and the USSR while with the 15th Tactical Recon Squadron at Komaki Air Base in Japan.  The aircraft was then passed to the South Korean Air Force, which used it until the 1980s.  After retrieval, it was restored and placed on display in 2005, in its original 15th TRS markings.

F-86F 52-4666

Part of the Friedkin collection, this Sabre served the air forces of Venezuela and Bolivia before being returned to the U.S. in the 1990s.  It is painted in generic Korean War markings with its actual serial number, but under the cockpit, wears the name and kill scoreboard of George A. Davis, the only American fighter ace to be killed in combat in the Korean War.  Davis was credited with 21 air combat victories, of which 7 were in World War II in the Pacific theatre and the other 14 in Sabres in Korea.  He was shot down and killed over North Korea on February 10, 1952, flying F-86E 51-2752 with the 334th Fighter Squadron and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his exceptional career. 

F-86F 52-4913

After serving for some years with the USAF as a standard F-86F fighter, this Sabre was acquired by the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force and converted to an RF-86F reconnaissance variant.  This is the source of the bulges in the forward fuselage shown in the close-up image below.  With the JASDF it wore the new serial 62-7428.  At some point it was returned to the USA and is displayed today by the Pacific Coast Air Museum wearing Korean theatre fighter colors and its original American serial number.

F-86F 52-4959

A Florida owner maintains N56FR, which served in Argentina and was imported back to the U.S. in 1989, initially registered N105BH. 

F-86F 52-4986

Registered N188RL to the Warbird Heritage Foundation of Illinois, this Sabre was operated for a number of years in the markings of John Glenn, later an astronaut and U.S. senator, during the period when he was a fighter pilot in Korea.  His plane’s name “Mig Mad Marine” references the fact that Glenn was a Marine Corps pilot flying with the Air Force as an exchange pilot.  Painted in front of that was “Lyn Annie Dave” referencing Glenn’s wife Lyn and children Annie and Dave.  The actual serial of Glenn’s “Mig Mad Marine” was 52-4584.  More recently, Glenn’s personal markings have been removed and the plane is flown with generic Korean War markings and its correct serial number.   

F-86F 52-5012

Registered N188AM and owed by Planes of Fame, Sabre 52-5012 is flown in standard Korean War markings with the 4th Fighter Wing “boxing eagle” insignia.  This aircraft is actively flown, often in “heritage flights” with more modern military aircraft and in Korean War set-pieces at its Chino base and other places.  Several photos below were taken during a noisy afternoon of taxi-testing around Chino airport with Planes of Fame president Steve Hinton doing the driving. 

F-86F 52-5060

Several Sabres are preserved and displayed in Thailand, to which they were supplied by the U.S.  The Royal Thai Air Force Museum in Bangkok displays this F-86F.

F-86F 52-5139

Owned by Tom Wood of Indiana, this F-86F is registered N86F and was used by Peru’s Air Force after its U.S. service.  The Batman insignia is not authentic, and the style of it is anachronistic for the early 1950s.

F-86L 53-681

This F-86L is displayed at the Royal Thai Air Force Museum in Bangkok.

F-86L 53-965

This is the Pima Air Museum F-86L.

F-86L 53-1060

This Sabre is displayed at the Yankee Air Museum.  Since this photo was taken in the 1980s, it has received a full restoration and looks much nicer.

F-86H 53-1230

The Chanute Air Museum F-86H is one of the late models with the four 20mm cannon argument, indicated by the two gun ports on each side of the nose.  This machine is inaccurately painted as a Korean-theatre F-86E or F.

F-86H 53-1300

This F-86H is under restoration by the Combat Air Museum.

F-86H 53-1308

The Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum displays this F-86H in attractive air superiority gray and 52nd Fighter Wing markings.  The 52nd was an air defense fighter wing based, during the 1960s, at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

QF-86H 53-1351

The F-86H was the last model to remain in USAF service, and some of them survived past the era of silver USAF paint schemes to acquired the tactical camouflage of the Vietnam War era.  One of these is Planes of Fame‘s F-86H which was converted to a remotely piloted drone to serve as a missile testing target (hence the orange and white markings).  The missile symbols painted on the nose of this plane appear to denote occasions on which it succesfully dodged missiles fired at it.  The aircraft is shown here both before and after a repainting and general sprucing-up by the museum. 

F-86H 53-1352

The National Museum of the USAF made a fascinating display out of this F-86H by removing the skin from one side to reveal its internal structure and systems.

F-86H 53-1358

This Sabre guards the gate of the Wisconsin Air National Guard Museum at Volk Air Force Base on Interstate Highway 90 near Tomah in central Wisconsin.

F-86H 53-1375

Another F-86H preserved in tactical camouflage is displayed at the Strategic Air and Space Museum

F-86H 53-1378

The second Sabre displayed at the Pacific Coast Air Museum is an F-86H wearing a somewhat generic paint scheme.

F-86H 53-1525

The Pima Air Museum displays this F-86H wearing typical colors as would be seen on an Air National Guard aircraft in the late 1950s.

F-86L 53-4074

Photographed at the Ontario Air Museum in California in 1969, this Sabre was largely intact, but it does not seem to have survived.

F-86L 55-4812

This Sabre was exported to Italy and is preserved today at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Milan.

F-86L 55-4841

F-86F 55-5014

F-86L “2773”

This F-86L was photographed in Texas in the 1970s.  I have not been able to identify it or figure out where it has gone.  Lists of surviving Sabres do not include any with the sequence “2773” in their serial numbers.

Canadair Sabres

Canadair produced a total of 1,815 Sabres under license at its plant near Montreal.  These aircraft were used by the Royal Canadian Air Force and also exported to several NATO allies.  The Sabre underwent progressive development in Canadian hands, somewhat independent of its development in the United States, but some Canadian innovations were adopted by North American for late F-86 versions and vice versa.  Most of the Canadair Sabres were Mk.5 and Mk.6 variants, which used a Canadian-designed Orenda engine of greater power and less weight than the American engine they replaced, and were considered by some to be the finest dogfighting Sabres with the possible exception of the similarly souped-up Australian-produced version.

Canada and NATO countries used Sabres well into the 1960s and in the 1970s and 1980s many of them found their way into the United States, where private owners wanting to fly this classic fighter were waiting with their checkbooks open.  Many of these machines were, and continue to be, painted in USAF markings.

Canada is especially proud of its Golden Hawks display team of the 1960s and so it is unsurprising that at least six Sabres preserved in Canada are in Golden Hawks colors, some of them shown below.  A couple of these machines actually served with the Golden Hawks.

Sabre 5 23147

The Pima Air Museum displays this Sabre Mk.5.  If you’re counting, this is the third Sabre displayed there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had one or two more up their sleeve.  23147 is displayed in Canadian tactical camouflage as used in NATO, which really was glossy, although maybe not quite as glossy as shown here.  This machine was transferred to the U.S. after Canadian service in the 1970s, where it was used as a missile target and was damaged, but not destroyed. 

Sabre 5 23257

This Sabre is displayed at the National Air Force Museum at Trenton in Golden Hawks paint, which unfortunately has not weathered well.  It is not an actual Golden Hawks aircraft.

Sabre 6 23293

This Sabre 6, registered N4689H, is with the Cavanaugh Flight Museum and is painted to represent F-86E 51-2821, piloted by Frederick Blesse of the 334th Squadron, 4th Fighter Wing. By the time the F-86E had entered service, the 4th Fighter Wing in Korea had dropped its black-and-white fuselage bands in favor of a black-edged yellow band. Some aircraft, as shown on Blesse’s scheme, adopted a “boxing eagle” motif derived from an insignia first used by the Wing’s ancestor, the 4th Fighter Group of the Army Air Forces in Britain during World War II. Blesse was credited with 10 kills in Korea. He bailed-out of the real 51-2821 on October 3, 1952, after being shot down by a MiG-15, and was rescued from the Yellow Sea.

Sabre 5/6 23314

This Sabre was built as a Mk.5 but at some point received a new wing and engine to convert it to a Mk.6.  Formerly operated by the Combat Jets Flying Museum as N8687D and later donated to the Experimental Aircraft Association, the aircraft was painted as F-86F 51-2897 “The Huff” as flown by James Thompson in Korea. 

23314 was later acquired by Vintage Wings of Canada and registered C-GSBR, becoming the focus of VWoC’s “Hawk One” program.  Assisted by the Canadian Ministry of Defense and a team that included astronaut Chris Hadfield, later to achieve fame for his social media posts while commanding the International Space Station in early 2013, to recreate a Golden Hawk for the 100th anniversary of Canadian military aviation.  C-GSBR has flown frequently in heritage-type flights with active Canadian military aircraft, often themselves specially painted, as seen in some of these photos. 

Sabre 5 23355

This Sabre is preserved at the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum, having previously been a gate guard on a pole at Chatham, Ontario.  This is an actual Golden Hawks aircraft. 

Sabre 23363

Initially built as a Mk.5, then converted to a Mk.6 as part of a planned sale to Pakistan, this Sabre was acquired by Boeing for use as a chase plane, registered N8686F.  It is now displayed at the Museum of Flight.

Sabre 6 23455

The Canada Aviation & Space Museum preserves this representative Sabre 6 in NATO camouflage.  The cobra emblem on the tail denotes 444 Squadron, with which this machine served at Baden-Soellingen, West Germany, in the late 1950s.

Sabre 6 23504 “Crapshooter”

Painted in USAF markings, fictitious serial 52-3711, by owner and airshow pilot Jim Rossi, this Sabre was registered N30CJ.  Rossi and the aircraft were lost in a 2002 crash after an engine failure on takeoff from an air base in the Dominican Republic, where Rossi was visiting from an airshow performance.

Sabre 6 23651

A former Golden Hawks display team aircraft, this Sabre is owned by Canada’s Aviation & Space Museum and was displayed there for many years.  For the past several years it has been loaned to the Canadian Warplane Heritage and displayed in their hangar alongside their flying warbirds.

Sabre 6 23671

This Sabre served in the South African Air Force as serial 352.  Today it is registered N1F (formerly N186FS and N38301) and part of the Friedkin collection.  In its current (2014) markings, it wears the colors of F-86E 51-2756 of 16th Fighter Squadron commander Edwin Heller, who had flown P-51 Mustangs wearing the same name during World War II.  Heller was shot down and captured over North Korea on January 22, 1952.

Sabre 6 23682

A relatively recent restoration by the Yanks Air Museum, this Sabre 6, registered N3842H although it does not fly, is painted to represent an F-86 in Korea.  Besides being incorrectly applied to a Canadair Sabre, the paint scheme exhibits a number of accuracy errors not typical of this museum’s usually fastidious work, including imcorrectly rendered U.S. insignia, wrong fonts for the fuselage numbering, and an implied serial 51-472 which is not an F-86 serial.

Sabre 6 23700

After its RCAF service this Sabre 6 went to the South African Air Force where it served with the number 381.  Registered N50CJ and in an attractive civilian paint scheme in the early photos below, it later went to the Tennessee Aviation Museum where it was put into USAF Korean War markings.  In 2017 it was acquired by Paul Keppeler, who put it into the markings of James Jabara, the first U.S. pilot credited with five aerial victories in jets, with the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Wing, in Korea; eventually he claimed the destruction of 15 MiG-15s.  Keppeler flies the Sabre in an enjoyable airshow routine.

Commonwealth Aircraft Corp. Sabres

Designated the CA-27, 112 Sabres were built by Commonwealth Aircraft Corp. in Australia.  These Sabres were redesigned to accept a license-built Rolls-Royce Avon engine that made them, arguably, the best performing of all Sabres.  They equipped several squadrons of the RAAF and were supplied to Indonesia and Malaysia.

CA-27 Sabre A94-909

CA-27 Sabre, unknown

Photographed at Chino in 1991, this unidentified Commonwealth Sabre could be one, or a composite, of several that were under restoration at Chino during this period. Possible serial numbers are A94-354, -909 or -914.

Unidentified Sabres

Any help identifying these machines is welcomed.

Unknown Sabre No. 1

This Sabre appeared at Oskhosh in an anonymous USAF paint scheme and Dick did not record the registration number.

Unknown Sabre No. 2

Dick photographed this unmodified, short-winged F-86D in Tucson in the 1990s.  I have not been able to identify it. 

Unknown Sabre No. 3

Unmarked Sabre undergoing restoration at Chino, California, in the late 1980s.

Unknown Sabre No. 4

Photographed at the Yankee Air Museum in the late 1980s.

Unknown Sabre No. 5

A local civic display, photographed by Dick at an unknown location in the late 1950s or 1960s.


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