A fighter pilot’s account of the F-86 Sabre – Part 1: Learning to dogfight



The Sabre was the best fighter of its generation. Potently armed, agile and a delight to fly, it proved formidable in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. It was with the Pakistan Air force that Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum (Rtd) flew the ‘Jet Spitfire’. Here he shares his dramatic experiences of flying the F-86F Sabre.

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“My first impression of the aircraft was that it was sleek to the extent of being sexy. It had already built its reputation in combat in the 1965 Indo-Pak war where it fared extremely well against the adversary. So I was thrilled that I was going to fly it. The pilot who forged this reputation was its wartime reputation was Flt Lt M. M. Alam who shot down five Indian Air Force Hawker Hunters in one sortie… in under two minutes of combat. It is fair to say that Alam, the pilot, and Sabre, the fighter – put the Pakistan Air Force on the map as one of the leading Air Forces of the world. The Sabre’s reputation filled me with awe and made me eager to get into its cockpit and feel the thrill of it personally.” (read about Irfan’s MiG-19 adventures here).


How did it differ from the other aircraft you flew?

The F-86F was different to other fighters I flew in many ways. Firstly, it manoeuvred beautifully and was aerodynamically very friendly, making it an ideal aircraft to learn the facets of fighter flying. Secondly, it was a forgiving aircraft to the extent that it would say ‘sorry’ to the pilot for mishandling it…. or almost. Meaning that the trainee pilot could mishandle it and get away with it. The Sabre, almost always, refused to enter a spin. And if you forced it into one and then left the controls, it would recover itself. Thirdly, it was the only aircraft I’d flown that had automatic ‘speed controlled’ slats. 

Its computing gunsight made it lethally accurate in air battles. It was ideal in close combat, and six guns blazing at a very good rate of fire gave it an edge on all contemporary fighters of the era.

‘Dissimilar’ air combat training was a norm and the F-86 was often pitted against the MiG-19 and Mirage. Sabre tactics against the MiG were simple: strictly confine itself to a turning battle. Stay long enough in combat – without ceding advantage- for the MiG to run scarce on fuel and then make it difficult for him to disengage. Take a gun shot on a disengaging MiG, and a missile shot before the MiG accelerated out of reach.

My instructor was Flt Lt Farooq Zaman. He was as fearless an instructor as he was a fighter pilot, never missing the opportunity to take me to my limits often forcing me to fly at the very edges of the flight envelope.

His compared  ‘air combat’ to a literal ‘dogfight’: according to him, the aim of dogs fighting each other is to turn around faster and bite the other dog first. He demanded that I manipulate the flight controls (ailerons, rudders and elevators – in conjunction with the throttles) however necessary, to turn around and bite him. The essence of his theory stayed with me all my flying years.

Another tip that he gave me – demonstrated practically in the air many a times – would also form the backbone of my combat tactics. His mantra was ‘achieve height advantage on the adversary’ right in the beginning of the combat. How? He would explain – after the initial merge (which is usually head-on) show that you are getting into a tight climbing turn towards the foe, forcing him to also get into a tight climbing turn towards you. Then roll wings level and pull up for a loop with no bank on. Once inverted on top of the loop, execute a roll of the top and stay up there looking for the adversary – who will be sighted below the horizon considerably lower than you. The aerodynamics of this manoeuvre were simple – pulling up with wings level allows one to gain more height than the one who is pulling up towards you with a 60-70 degree bank on. Once you achieve the initial height advantage, make it work for you. Exchange height advantage for speed, when needed, but convert the extra speed back to height advantage so as to maintain an upper hand. Never lose the height advantage throughout the 1V1 combat.”

Part two coming soon

paki.jpgHave a look at How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 


    • justmerc

      Agreed. Quite a few Saber pilots bemoaned their planes’ armament of six machine guns compared to the cannons equipped by Soviet fighters.

  1. parsheau

    A large advantage the PAF had against the IAF in in 1965 was due the US Radar system set up for them, FPS20 and FPS-6 which allowed them to vector fighters to advantageous positions – the key to winning a dogfight – India only had spotters with radios! Though by IAFs own admission its losses were much higher than the PAFs, Indian museum-piece Mysteres Hunters and Gnats flew bravely against PAF Sabres and Starfighters some with early sidewinders. In 1971 the situation was much more even since the IAF had by then acquired the Soviet Air Defence Radars and had much better situational awareness – In the Western front India achieved air dominance ( slightly higher losses in air combat & to ground fire notwithstanding since they were flying aggressive into Pak territory) and of course complete air superiority in the Bangladesh sector – they shot down several Sabres and put out the airfield forcing the PAF to destroy half a dozen of their own F86s on the ground before Dacca fell.

  2. Imran

    One of MM Alam victim shot and crashed on our lands its Sqd leader SC Bhagwat plane loaded with arms and ammo. My dad witness that Dog fight and he was first one on crash site. There was nothing left of Bhagwat as human only that part of body which attached with his ejection seat. His wingman shot down over next village Flying officer H barar.irnoy is both fellows didn’t shot a single round neither bother to drop theior Ammo and rockets for dog fight.
    Speed shooting classic by Qiser tufail blog is very accurate account by Dad second his account as witness.

  3. Pingback: Cold War Flashpoints: 20th air combat from Suez to Iraq with former Tornado pilot Michael Napier | Hush-Kit

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