Flying & fighting in the North American F-86F Sabre: Pakistan Air Force pilot interview

 

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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.

What were you first impressions of the aircraft? Which units did were you in and when?  “Before I answer the question, it is important to know how yet to be trained fighter pilots of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) got to the stage of flying the F-86F, also known as the ‘Sabre’. Basic training was done on two types of trainers. The majority of the Flight Cadets were trained on the American T-6G (a single-engined piston aircraft) and a few on the American T-37 (a twin-engine jet). The next step was to do full jet conversion on the American T-33 and before being sent to the OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) to be trained for fighter flying on the F-86F. Typically a pilot would have around 220 hours before getting into the cockpit of the F-86F.

My first impression of the aircraft was that it was sleek to the extent of sexy. The plane had already built its reputation in combat in the 1965 Indo-Pak war and I was thrilled to have reached a stage where I too would experience flying it.

I must talk about the reputation of the Sabre. It fared extremely well against the adversary in the 1965 Indo-Pak war. The pilot who forged this reputation was Flt Lt M. M. Alam who shot down five Hawker Hunters in one sortie in under two minutes of combat. The plane which gave birth to the first Pakistani ace was the Sabre. It is fair to say that Alam, the pilot, and Sabre, the fighter – put the Pakistan Air Force on the map of the leading air forces of the world.

It was this awe of the machine which made me really eager to get into its cockpit and feel the thrill of it personally. Having done my conversion on the Sabre, I did not get the opportunity to fly it as an operational pilot, instead I went on to do my MiG conversion (read about Irfan’s MiG-19 adventures here).

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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, 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 that had automatic ‘speed controlled’ slats. 

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The PAF’s fighter pilot training program was based on pragmatic ‘building block’ approach. Basic training on American T-37s and advanced training on American T-33s would set the stage for learning fighter flying on the American Sabre. This progression and the commonality of the ‘American’ aircraft, made it easy to fly the Sabre and allowed the budding fighter pilots to make mistakes, mishandle the aircraft and have no fear of touching limits of it’s flight envelope. This wasn’t case with MiGs and Mirages, and herein lies the major difference between them.

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.

Attributes and Disadvantages:

“The Sabre had really good attributes, starting with ease of flying on one end of its flight spectrum to being a stable platform for strafing, dive and level bombing on the other. 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. The Sabre had almost no disadvantages but for the sake of making an argument, one could say that being sub-sonic was its only disadvantage. Also, it was very easy to over-stress it by pulling more than its max limit of five Gs.”

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Employment Role:

The Sabre was a versatile fighter and was thus employed in various roles. It was good in air defence interceptor and combat roles, with its agility, accurate guns and Sidewinder missiles. It is in this role that PAF’s MM Alam made history by shooting down five Hunters in one sortie in some two minutes in the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Its ability to carry rockets and bombs allowed it to be employed in strike and ground support roles. It also specialised in carrying napalm Bombs delivered in low level delivery mode. PAF had both versions of the Sabre, the F-86F and F-86E.

Air Combat Training:

“‘Similar’ (1V1) air combat training was the backbone of the initial air combat training escalating to 2 Vs 2 Similar, 4 Vs 2 Similar. ‘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.

This brief training narration would be incomplete without the mention of my Instructor, then 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 referred to  ‘air combat’ as a ‘dog-fight’, and it is exactly that.  According to him, the aim of the 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) howsoever necessary, to turn around and bite him. The essence of his theory stayed with me all my flying years.

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Another tip that he gave me – demonstrated practically in the air many a time – would also form the backbone of my combat tactics. His mantra was ‘achieve height advantage on the adversary’ right at 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 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 upperhand. Never lose the height advantage throughout the 1V1 combat.

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There is another episode that is worth narrating regarding the training and teaching methods of my instructor:  Flt Lt Zaman took his fearlessness to a limit during my first night mission on the Sabre. We had not briefed for what he was going to make me do in the air at night.

We are about 15,000 feet merrily going on our night navigation mission. I am the lead aircraft, navigating and he is about 300 feet behind me on my left wing. He makes me call on the radio (we were both on instructor’s manual frequency) saying, “Look at me” – which I did. It was a beautiful sight. Dark night, strobe and navigation lights of his Sabre lighting up parts of his silver aircraft. Just as I was appreciating the sight, he said, “I am pitching out to the left with 60 degrees of bank, you continue straight for ten seconds –then pitch out behind me and join up close formation on my left wing” and, “better join up before I finish a 360 circle”.

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The beautiful sight suddenly turned ghostly as he disappeared. Confused, I forgot to count ten seconds.

His next call jolted me— “Ten second – pitch out now!

I pitched out in a hurry and disparately started looking for him. I had to pick up visual with him first, if I was to get anywhere close to joining up with him. Fortunately, the clear night helped me pick up his blinking navigation and strobe lights. I called ‘visual’ and stated closing in on him. My mind started asking me too many questions, all at once, – and answering them too – like what speed is he holding? Perhaps he is holding our level flight speed of 360 knots. Fine, I will go 390 knots and have an overtake speed of 30 knots on him.  After all, I can’t afford to go charging at him, misjudge and overshoot. Misjudge I will, most definitely as I hadn’t done a join-up at night. The darkness would make it difficult to sense the rate of closure. So, what will I do if have to overshoot? Irfan, says my mind, make sure you stay below his level so that you can overshoot from below rather than above him where you will lose visual

What bank is he holding? Yes, yes, I remember, he said 60 degree bank. Okay, if I hold 70 degrees of bank I will slowly cut into his turn and get closer. With all these scenarios going through my mind, I hear him call, “180 turn to go”. What? I am nowhere close to joining up and just 180 degrees is all that is left.

My mind speaks again – “Don’t panic, take it slow and easy. Better late than never”

So I kept inching closer, focusing on the green navigation light on his left wing as my reference point and trying really hard to sense my rate of closure.

Phew!

I have closed in to about 500 feet of him – I still can not sense the closure rate. I bring the throttle a bit back to control my overtake speed. Just as I thought I had achieved 90% of the joining.

He is back on the radio, “Are you going to stay there for ever or join up in close formation?” With an almost dry throat, I squeaked, “Coming up close” – a vow that sounded like someone else, not me.  I crept forward rather slowly and got close enough to satisfy him. Just as I had breathed a sigh of relief, he pulled up barrelling around me and said, ‘You have the lead, continue the navigation.’

What navigation ? I do not have my bearings aligned after the join up…”

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