Top 12 fighter aircraft of 1949
If you were unlucky enough to still be flying a piston-engined fighter in 1949 you’d better hope your enemy didn’t have jets. The piston age was over. Though the ultimate piston-engined fighters were still serving they were now well out of their depth. The jet generation was just too fast to catch… but they were also very thirsty, short-ranged and extremely dangerous to fly.
1949 is an intriguing transitory period, many of the fighters you may have expected to be included hadn’t actually entered service yet, so no Tunnan, no F-94, no Venom, no Meteor F8, no CF-100, no Sea Hawk, no Saab 21R and, notably, nothing French. While the Arab–Israeli War (1948–1949) was little different to World War II in terms of the fighters types, with Spitfires and Bf 109 derivatives, a new age of aerial warfare was about to explode. The best of 1949 would not have to wait long for a baptism of fire in the unforgiving skies of Korea.
12. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9 ‘Unwell Fargo‘
The I-300 had been the first Soviet pure jet to fly, a winning coin toss deciding its place in history in favour of the Yak-15 (which flew later on that same day in 1945). It was a horrible beast to fly, during a flight in 1946 it uncontrollably pitched down, crashed into the ground and killed its test pilot, A.N. Grinchik. He was replaced by the master test pilot Mark Gallai (a kind of Soviet Winkle Brown), who encountered the same pitch-down issue, which snapped one of the tailplanes off and ruptured the main fuel tank. Instead of bailing out, he made a remarkable, and successful, deadstick unpowered landing. Despite its many flaws, the I-300 was commissioned as a fighter, and assigned the designation MiG-9. The MiG-9 was predictably awful. One of its major issues was the engine flame-outs that occurred when the guns were fired at high altitudes. This was a major problem for a fighter. Its top speed of 537mph (slower than the I-300) was not great for a jet fighter, inferior to even the Me 262 clone Avia S-92. Still, it would have been fast enough able to run away from a Sea Fury. Its armament consisted of the hugely destructive Nudelman N-37 37-mm cannon and two Nudelman-Suranov NS-23 23-mm cannon. Though several advanced versions were tested, including one fitted with an afterburner capable of 600mph, they were not pursued. As soon as the superior MiG-15 was on the scene, it soaked up almost all resources available to develop fighter aircraft, starving lesser aircraft like the MiG-9.
11. Avia S-92 Turbína ‘Czech your privilege’
On liberation, Soviet forces seized all the German tools, jigs and components for Me 262 production they found in Czechoslovakia. These extremely useful scavenged parts were gifted to the new Czechoslovakian government. Avia had enough parts to build 19 aircraft. There is some debate as to whether this small force was active in 1949 (some sources say 1950). But it is interesting to note that four years after the War, what was essentially a Me 262A was still an effective fighter. With a top speed of 560mph it could decide when to fight, even against the most potent piston-engined fighters in service such as the Sea Fury, Twin Mustang, Bearcat and Sea Hornet. The inclusion of the S-92 above the finest piston-engined is debatable, it could be said to depend on whether you want greater speed performance with shitty BMW 003s which nobody would trust to keep running for very long or better range and utterly reliable engines. In general, it is probably fair to say a pilot would have been safer in peacetime in the final piston aircraft, and safer in a dogfight in one of the early jets, with his superior speed enabling him to dictate whether to engage. It is on these grounds that the questionable S-92 and lamentable MiG-9 are chosen over the wonderful final aircraft of a dying generation.
The S-92 had the advantage of a swept wing, still a relatively novel feature for fighter aircraft of 1949. Yugoslavia expressed an interest, but with the arrival on the scene of new Soviet designs, this did not happen.
10. Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star ‘Dove from above’
While the Bell P-59 was technically the US Army Air Force’s first jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was the first to enter series production and see operational service. The prototype XP-80 first flew on 8 January 1944 and within eighteen months, the type was series production. The P-80A reached Squadron service by the end of 1945 and continued to fly alongside the newer P-80B for the next few years. The P-80As and Bs were both developed during wartime and funded through wartime contracts, but the next evolution, the P-80C (soon to be F-80C after June 1948) was the first Air Force type to reach production that was funded postwar.
Top fighters of 1945 here
By 1949, the F-80 had racked up an impressive history. With the blockade of Berlin in 1948, the 61st Fighter Squadron’s F-80Bs under 56th Fighter Group commander Col. Dave Schilling departed Selfridge Air Force Base on 12 July 1948 and headed across the Atlantic in order to protect the Allied aircraft of the Berlin Airlift. The mobilization, known as Fox Able One proved a fighter squadron could self-deploy overseas on short notice. When the squadron’s deployment ended in early summer 1949, Schilling led Fox Able Two, taking another squadron from the 56th across the Atlantic to replace them.
The 36th Fighter Group followed the 61st FS to Europe by 13 August 1948 and by the 20th were established at Furstenfeldbruck, Germany. The 36th spent the next eight months protecting Berlin Airlift aircraft from potential air threats from aggressive Russian pilots. But that was not the 36th’s only mission while at Furstenfeldbruck. During a training flight returning from Malta in 1949, members of the Group’s 22nd Fighter Squadron began practicing precision formation flying. Upon returning to Germany, those 22nd FS pilots began practicing standard formation aerobatics in the F-80B and the Skyblazers were born. The Skyblazers were actually the second USAF demonstration team, preceded by the stateside Acrojets a year prior. The Acrojets began flying F-80As but transitioned to the F-80C in 1949.
Top fighters of 1939 here
On the other side of the globe, Japan had become the Asian bulwark against Communist aggression, just as Germany had in Europe. The 8th, 49th and 51st Fighter Groups were all flying F-80B and C models from bases on Okinawa and the Japanese home islands. During the relatively calm days of 1949, the majority of Japan-based F-80s were arrayed against threats from newly Communist China, flying from Naha (51st) on Okinawa and Itazuke (8th) on the Japanese home islands. On the northern end of Honshu, the 49th flying from Misawa AB focused its attention northward, as the closest fighter unit to the Soviet Pacific Fleet homeport of Vladivostok.
The F-80 lineage diverged in 1949 with the first flight of the YF-94 Starfire on 16 April. The new all-weather interceptor was the first Air Force type fitted with an afterburner, giving the aircraft up to 6000lbs thrust. It also included a sophisticated fire control suite linked to a new air intercept radar controlled by the backseater. The weapons officer in the back seat would run the radar and direct the pilot to his target at night or in bad weather.
The F-80 of 1949 served in another distinct role as well. Fitted with a pair of K24 cameras in place of the machine gun armament, the FP-80 and after June 1948, the RF-80, provided critical tactical reconnaissance duties with the 363rd stateside and Japan with the 8th Reconnaissance Squadron. But due to peacetime budget constraints, the Air Force determined that reconnaissance squadrons were not critical infrastructure, and the 363rd Recon Group was deactivated in August 1949 after only two years of operation. One of the 363rd’s squadrons, the 161st was reassigned to the 20th Fighter Group at Shaw AFB, where it continued on as one of the only two reconnaissance squadrons in the air force.
In 1949, the Shooting Star still had somewhat of a technological edge, although that was rapidly fading as the F-84 and F-86 entered service. Improvements in the engine, weapons, and avionics allowed it to stay competitive as an air superiority fighter, despite the relative maturity of the design. The F-80 was not the fastest, nor the highest climbing, but it was good at what it did, both as an early interceptor and later as a fighter bomber. Later designs like the F-84 and F-86 built on the lessons learned by the F-80 programme even as they fought alongside the Shooting Star just a year later.
A 1948 fly-off assessment against the supposedly superior F-84C revealed that the older P-80 was more manoeuvrable, had a better low altitude climb rate and a shorter take-off run. It also was tough enough for rough field operation. The C model had greater firepower and more thrust than the B. With a top speed of 594mph, six fifty cal machine-guns and up to sixteen 127-mm unguided rockets it was not a fighter to be trifled with. But technology was moving so fast it would soon be easy meat for the MiG-15. Around half of the F-80C’s built would be lost to operational causes, 133 of the 277 lost would be destroyed by groundfire.
9. Yakovlev Yak-23 ‘Flora’
Highly manoeuvrable, with brisk acceleration and a good climb rate, the Yak-23 was a decent design doomed to obscurity by the appearance of far superior designs. It enjoyed a good thrust-to-weight ratio at normal operating weights of 0.46, superior even to that of the F-86 (0.42) thanks to its Soviet-built Rolls-Royce Derwent V engine. Its small size and great manoeuvrability were hallmarks of designer Alexander Sergeyevich Yakovlev. He had pushed for a lightweight and small design against official recommendations (the Yakovlev bureau’s larger Yak-25 fighter had been cancelled, proving markedly inferior to the rival La-15 and MiG-15, and dangerously prone to buffeting). The Yak-23 was fast, a top speed of 575mph at sea level was good for 1949, and the ‘Flora’ – with its twin 23-mm cannon – would have proved a handful for almost any opponent.
It would later snatch a world climb record.
8. Republic F-84D Thunderjet ‘Thunderjets are gauche’
By 1949, it was clear that Republic’s F-84 Thunderjet had failed to meet initial expectations. There had been hopes that the new Thunderjet would be a worthy successor to the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt – such that a contract for 25 YP-84As for evaluation and a further 75 production P-84Bs was placed even before the first prototype made its maiden flight on February 28th, 1946. But the type’s rehabilitation as a tough, fast fighter-bomber, combat proven in Korea, lay some way in the future, and in 1949 the Thunderjet was still in the process of working through a succession of teething troubles! The F-84B became operational with 14th Fighter Group at Dow Field, Bangor, Maine in December 1947, but within weeks was subject to a range of restrictions and limitations due to control reversal, and wrinkling of the fuselage skin. The F-84B was grounded on May 24th, 1948 after further serious structural problems were uncovered. The F-84C was powered by the much improved J35-A-13 engine, and featured fuel, electrical and hydraulic systems refinements, but both of these early models were judged unsuitable for their assigned role – neither being considered operational nor capable of executing any aspect of their intended mission. The J35 engines of the F-84B and F-84C had a 40 hour time between overhauls, preventing their use in Korea. The Thunderjet’s reputation was saved from ignominy by the service entry of the structurally improved F-84D in 1949. The F-84D’s wings had thicker aluminium skin, and the wingtip fuel tanks gained small triangular fins to relieve their tendency to cause excessive wing twisting (leading to structural failure) during high g manoeuvres. The further improved F-84E also entered service in 1949, with further reinforcement of the wings, a 12 in extension to the fuselage in front of the wings and a 3 in plug aft of the wings. The new variant had a roomier cockpit and enlarged avionics bay, and could carry an additional pair of 230 gallon fuel tanks underwing, extending the combat radius from 850 to 1,000 miles. Serviceability remained obstinately poor, however, and it would be another two years before the definitive plank-winged ’84, the F-84G, entered service. The Thunderjet did form the basis of the much better swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak and RF-84F Thunderflash, but that is another story altogether
– Jon Lake, author of dozens of books about military aircraft
Top fighters of 1946 here
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The F-84B and Cs had been a huge disappointment and it was only the promised improvements of the D variant that saved the type from the axe. The D entered service in 1949 with the improved J35-A-13 engine, and with a wealth of enhancements including greatly improved fuel, hydraulic and electrical systems. The Thunderjet was now pretty hot stuff. It could carry a greater bombload than the P-80, and was faster, with better high altitude performance and a greater range. With a top speed of 587 mph at 4,000 ft it was no slouch.
7. Gloster Meteor F. Mk 4 ‘Mr Mature’
With the definitive F.Mk 8 yet to enter service, the F.Mk 4 was the hottest Meteor in 1949. It was massively more powerful thanks to its two Nene V engines each pumping out an additional 50% greater thrust than the earlier Derwent IV engines of the later F.Mk 3s. In fact, it was so powerful it needed its wings strengthened to keep up with the extra speed. A new stronger clipped wing was introduced, which increased possible roll rates by 80 degrees a second and made the carriage of 2,000Ib of munitions on the wings possible. The F.Mk 4 was a full 80mph faster than the 3. A slightly modified* version of the F.Mk IV** snatched the world speed record in 1945 at over 606mph, a huge jump from the previous official record of 1939 469mph figure by the Messerschmitt Me 209 V1 (though several aircraft had gone faster since notably the Me 163 and 262, none had been officially recorded). With a top speed of 590mph, four 20-mm cannon in the nose and a ceiling of over 44,000 feet the Meteor F.Mk 4 was a machine to be respected, only let down by a thick unswept wing that limited its top speed. Despite first flying in 1945, the F.Mk 4 was not rushed into service. Britain had lost her lead.
*VHF mast and armament removed, high-speed finish applied to both aircraft. Painted yellow for the benefit of speed cameras **the RAF abandoned its rather pretentious and inconvenient use of Roman numbers for aircraft marks in June 1948)
6. McDonnell F2H Banshee ‘The Screaming Reborn Phantom’
During its first test flight, the nascent Banshee famously demonstrated a climb rate twice that of the F8F Bearcat, then the US Navy’s hottest interceptor. In August 1949 it set a US Navy jet fighter altitude record of 52,000 ft (16,000 m). Carrier jets were in their infancy; the first US example FH-1 Phantom had only made its first carrier landing three years earlier. The Banshee was a vastly improved and far larger fighter based on the Phantom. The Phantom had been the first jet aircraft concieved from the outset for shipboard operation, and was a case of an over zealous embrace of an immature technology – or to be kinder, a vital stepping stone. For a minute advantage in top speed over the best piston-engined rivals (it was a piffling 4mp faster than the British Hornet) it offered far greater peril and worse handling. Though it would mature into capable machine, in 1949 the Banshee was still suffering teething problems. In Wings of the Navy, the greatest British test pilot Eric Brown rated the Banshee F2H-2 as inferior to the Meteor IV. The large Banshee rectified most of the Phantom’s shortcomings and at 580mph had decent top speed, but in 1949 it was not the capable machine it would later become.
5. de Havilland Vampire FB.5 ‘Bantamweight bloodsucker’
Image: BAE Systems. DH100 Vampire FB.5 (VV217) air-to-air on 8th March 1949
Shortly after World War 2, the RAF decided to embrace the Meteor as its standard day fighter. This left de Havilland at something of a loose end until they decided to promote the Vampire’s potential as a ground attack aircraft. Having convinced the authorities this would be a good idea a few changes had to be made to accommodate the change in operating altitude. The wings were strengthened with extra stringers and thicker skins. They also had wiring for rocket rails and bomb racks fitted to augment the four 20-mm cannon. Perhaps more drastically a foot was cut from each tip which improved low-altitude manoeuvrability and made the ride smoother. This arguably also made probably the world’s cutest jet fighter even cuter. As a nod to the ground attack role some armour was added around the engine, which was hopefully some comfort to the pilots given it was found to be impossible to fit an ejector seat in the snug cockpit. At least not if he wanted to keep his arms. In 1947 the new model was designated the Vampire FB5, which gives an average of a Mark every 9 months since the Vampire’s first flight. Which is less time than it can take to get a warning label moved these days. By December of the following year No. 16 Squadron started to receive aircraft to become the first operational squadron. The FB5 of 1949 was a punchy ground attack aircraft that was still able to take on enemy fighters after delivering its payload. That could be up to two 500lb or 1000lb bombs and eight rockets, which compares well with what the Harrier was delivering during the Falklands Conflict. Although in the latter case the rockets were probably more accurate than the WW2 era 60lb models the Vampire used which, if the pilot was lucky, went in the general direction they were pointed without damaging the aircraft. With an endurance of around two hours or 1,000 nautical miles it didn’t suffer the small bladder issue of other early jets even if the pilots might. Its relative simplicity and ruggedness also made it capable of rapidly redeploying to a new base if required. Indeed, by late ’49 No. 6 Squadron were based at Deversoir in the Canal Zone while deploying to remote airfields around the Middle East. Although not quite as fast or exciting as some of the jets in service in 1949, and still featuring a wooden fuselage, the Vampire benefited from several years of development making it a more complete aircraft than any of its competitors.
Plus, did I mention how cute they were? Though tasked as fighter-bomber, the Vampire could eat the Meteor in a dogfight. Vampire pilots enjoyed excellent visibility out from the bubble canopy (except in rain), and were enamoured of the tiny fighter’s benign handling characteristics. With lighter ailerons than the Vampire F.3, the FB.5 had a sparkling roll rate at higher altitudes, probably better than any other aircraft on this list. Its rate of turn was also superb, as was its turn radius: the FB5 could turn in three-eighths of a mile (the Meteor needed a whole mile) at 5,000 feet altitude, which increased to one mile at 35,000 feet (again smashing the Meteor, which required 1.7 miles). In 1948 a Vampire reached the astonishing altitude of 59,430 ft, setting a world record. Not bad for a fighter type first flown in 1943. The FB.5 Vampire had a top speed of 548mph, outrageous agility and powerful armament in the form of four 20-mm short barrel Hispano cannon.
– Bing Chandler/Joe Coles
4. Grumman F9F-2 Panther ‘Panther Burns’
Like the Army Air Force, the Navy’s experience with jet aircraft started during World War II. Due to Naval Aviation’s unique requirements, the Navy experimented with a few different types including composite airplanes like the Ryan FR-1 Fireball, which used both jet and piston engines. The McDonnell FH-1 Phantom became the Navy’s first pure jet powered airplane, first taking to the air in June 1945. But just two years later, it was deemed obsolete and relegated to a training role. That same year, the Grumman XF9F-1 took to the air for the first time. Grumman had provided the bulk of the Navy’s fighters during World War II and was eager to continue the tradition.
The new XF9F Panther had some initial teething problems but entered series production as the F9F-2 in 1948, with the first production models reaching the fleet in the Spring of 1949. VF-51 stood up in May and by summer the squadron was headed to the USS Boxer (CV-21) for carrier qualification. The squadron completed carrier quals by September and was declared operational.
The Panther was powered by a Pratt & Whitney J42 (manufacturer designation JT-6B), a license-built version of the British Rolls Royce Nene, that produced 5000lbs of non-afterburning thrust. The J42 gave the straight-wing Panther a top speed of 575mph, which was significantly slower than the Russian MiG-15 which was powered by roughly the same engine; a reverse engineered Nene designated the VK-1.
Unlike the Air Force’s F-80, which was originally designed as an interceptor and then evolved into an interceptor, the Panther had been built as a fighter bomber. It was armed with four AN/M3 20mm cannon with 190 rounds per gun and was capable of carrying 3,000lbs of bombs and rockets for close support and interdiction work. This capability was critical for the next squadron qualified in the type; the Marines’ VMF-115, who along with VMF-311 would take the type into combat alongside Navy squadrons the following year. F9F-2B BuNo 123526, on exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps would lead the first Marine Corps jet combat mission in Korea on 10 December 1950.
While 1949 was a significant year for the Panther’s introduction to squadron service and the first mass production of a Navy jet fighter, another significant development that would improve the design also occurred that year. The F9F-5 first took to the air in December 1949 and offered significantly better low-speed handling characteristics, which greatly improved landing approaches. The newer model was lengthened by sixteen inches and housed the more powerful J48 engine, producing nearly 2000lbs more thrust than the J42. The F9F-5 would be the ultimate version of the straight-wing Panther, reaching squadron service by the end of 1950 and entering combat just over a year later. The Panther would go on to score the first jet-versus-jet kill.
– Jonathan Bernstein is an aviation author, historian, former attack helicopter pilot and Arms & Armor Curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. You can buy his book on P-47s here
The Panther was developed following the entirely unsatifactory study of a four-engined Grumman two-seat night fighter. The new design was small, tough and agile. Like the MiG-15 and some Vampire variants, the Panther was powered the British-designed Nene turbojet, licence produced in the US as the Pratt & Whitney J42. The F9F-4 model was delivered from late 1949 but did not enter operational service that year, it included the fuselage extension of the -5 without the powerplant upgrade. The -5 also made its first flight in ’49 but was in not service. It featured an Allison powerplant, the J33-A-16, which featured water injection to boost take-off thrust. In this time the Panther was more mature than the Banshee, and offered very similar capabilities (including the same armament) in a smaller airframe. Armed with four-cannon and ‘built like a Grumman’, it was tough sound design featuring the on-trend tip mounted fuel tanks (‘tiptanks’).
3. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15
In 1949 every preening fighter pilot* in the Soviet Union wanted to fly the MiG-15. A wonder in polished aluminium with a bright red star on the tail it could achieve the almost unbelievable speed of 669 mph at Sea Level thanks to secret German research from the mid-40s that led to it having a wing swept to 35 degrees. Compared to the straight-winged MiG-9 or the piston-powered Yak-9 this was clearly the future. While the West were still getting to grips with putting the Nene engine into the comparatively conservative Sea Hawk and the positively pedestrian Attacker the Soviet Union was forging ahead by putting their ‘equivalent’ RD-45 into the MiG. It’s almost as if letting Rolls-Royce sell the Soviet Union 25 Nene for ‘civil use only’ was a mistake. In fact, the Sea Hawk was still four years from entering service while the Soviet honchos were enjoying the benefits of ejection seats, the decadence of air conditioning, and a maximum speed of Mach 0.92 to the Sea Hawk’s 0.84.
All was not totally rosy in the final year of the ‘40s however. At this stage in its career the MiG was only to be flown on fine days, while aerobatics or combat manoeuvring were out of the question. There were also a few teething problems, for instance, if you went too fast the lack of quality control on the production line would lead to uncontrollable rolling which initially had to be fixed with manual trim tabs added to the ailerons. This probably wasn’t helped by the lack of hydraulic assistance on the early MiG-15’s flying controls. Still at least the air brakes were hydraulic. Even if they caused the aircraft to pitch up when they were deployed and didn’t really slow the aircraft down enough.
Assuming the pilot managed to overcome these issues with a combination of luck and skill there were also slight issues with the armament. Although the choice of two 23-mm and one 37mm-cannon provided plenty of punch, the differing ballistics of the two rounds could make aiming tricky with one set of rounds going above the target and the other below.
The good comrades at MiG were aware of these shortcomings and even as the first aircraft were being delivered to the VVS they were preparing to produce the MiG-15bis which would feature stiffer wings, servos for the controls and effective airbrakes along with a host of other minor modifications. This however wouldn’t enter service until 1950. In 1949 the MiG-15 looked like the future while being a terrifying thrill ride that could appear barely under the pilot’s control.
The MiG-15 could out-turn, out-accelerate and out-climb the early Sabre. It was an utterly formidable machine. Early variants of the F-86 could not outturn, but they could outdive the MiG-15. The early MiG-15 was superior to the early F-86 models in ceiling, acceleration, rate of climb, and zoom. It had better high-altitude performance than the Panther or the P-80, and was faster by a hundred miles per hour.
* Is there any other sort?
2. Lavochkin La-15 ‘The unlucky Fantail’
The Lavochkin La-15 had superior manoeuvrability to the MiG-15, and with a top speed of 626 mph (some sources say 638 mph) was almost as fast. It had excellent handling chracteristics and was superbly reliable. It entered service in the VVS Autumn of 1949. It was smaller and lighter than the MiG-15 and did enjoy the stellar climb rate, though still climbed very well for the time.
It was powered by the RD-500, essentially a Soviet-built British Derwent, and armed with two 23-mm NS-23 cannon. It was rather harder to produce than the MiG-15, relying on many milled parts, and this was a major factor in the Lavochkin’s relative lack of success – only 235 aircraft were produced. It remained in service until 1954. It was the beginning of the end for the Lavochkin design bureau fighter line that had been so vital to the Soviet Union’s war effort. Lavochkin La-200 flew in 1949 but failed to secure orders, as did the later La-250. Lavochkin was reborn as a creator of surface-to-air-missiles and spacecraft. Today, the company is working on the appallingly named Mars-Grunt space robot.
- North American F-86A Sabre ‘Jet spitfire’
An astonishing top speed of 679 mph at Sea Level and excellence in every category a fighter needs, North American Aviation did the almost impossible and built an aircraft even more outstanding for its generation than its P-51 Mustang, which first flew a mere seven years before the F-86.
The Sabre started life as a straight wing jet based on the even more staid FJ-1 Fury of the US Navy. By making it lighter North American Aviation managed to, just about, match the performance of the other aircraft submitted to the USAAF (which would become the USAF three weeks before the sound barrier was broken in 1947). Realising radical steps needed to be taken to come up with a winning design, they took the only logical step and like the Soviets used secret German research from the mid-40s. This led to the incorporation of a thinner wing swept to 35 degrees giving the resultant design the ability to go supersonic in a dive. So successful were these changes that if you’re the kind of person who likes winding people up and invoking the wraith of the Yeager crowd up you can argue the XP-86A and George Welch were first to break the sound barrier.
Interview with Sabre pilot here
The F-86A entered frontline service in February of 1949 with the 94th Fighter Squadron who also seem to have been instrumental in giving it the name ‘Sabre’. Despite barely being out of trials the Sabre was already a delight to fly. Unlike the MiG-15 it had hydraulic boost for the flying controls, was well enough put together to remain controllable as it approached and passed the sound barrier, and air brakes that were effective. Leading-edge slats also made it much safer to fly at low speeds. Together with the all-round visibility provided by the Sabre’s bubble canopy these factors would give it the edge against the MiG in combat even allowing for the latter’s better thrust-to-weight ratio.
The F-86A wasn’t quite perfect, unlike the E model introduced in 1951 it lacked a ‘flying tail’ arrangement where the entire tail surface acts as the elevator. Instead, it had conventional elevators while the tailplane’s incidence could be adjusted via the trim system. As aircraft approach the speed of sound air over the wing surfaces accelerates to above Mach one, this causes shock waves to form at the hinge lines of control surfaces. These shock waves blank the control causing it to be less effective. In the A model Sabre above Mach 0.97 this meant pitch control was almost entirely reliant on the trim. Indeed, if the elevator alone was used to pull out of a supersonic dive there were generally less rivets in it on landing. Still, this was a minor blemish on an otherwise excellent aircraft.
If the MiG-15 was a diamond in the rough in 1949, the Sabre was the finished product noted test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown even going as far as praising the ground handling and nose wheel steering system. – Bing Chandler