Of course the Sabre was the most important Cold War aircraft, here’s why

The Cold War took a brief rest between the early 1990s and the 2010s, but serious tension between the largest former Soviet nation and the West has now returned. At the forefront of the original Cold War was air power, and this fearful age sired a multitude of incredible and often long-lived warplanes. In the second of a series of articles written by pilots and subject experts, we consider the question of which Cold War military aircraft was the most important. Let us turn start to Peter E Davies case for the F-86 Sabre.

In 1954 the massive Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, later to host Red Flag and other spectacular USAF training activities and projects, was already an exciting place for new pilots. It hosted the F-86 Sabre, the world’s premier fighter at the time and one which became a seminal influence on most subsequent fighter designs. Sabre pilots had roundly defeated communist MiG-15s over North Korea, and many of those wartime pilots (including seventeen aces) were now instructors at Nellis. For new trainees the chance to join that exclusive fraternity was compelling. The Sabre’s reputation as the West’s first true jet dogfighter was well established. Before technology took over the combat cockpit it was also the last fighter in the tradition of the Spitfire and Mustang in which the pilot had full manual control. During the Cold War the Sabre and its pilots kept alive the dogfighting tradition at a time when caution and cost-cutting in training programs actually prevented many trainee pilots from indulging in realistic air combat manoeuvres. That continuity paved the route for a later generation of versatile air-fighters including the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. Conventional late-1950s wisdom advocated aerial combat with large aircraft firing missiles from long distances.

The Sabre’s outstanding combat record was founded in its design’s many technical advances at a time when most designers were still simply adding jet engines to WW II-style airframes. In 1943 North American Aviation (NAA), decided to avoid direct competition with Lockheed’s straight-winged F-80 Shooting Star, the USAF’s first successful jet fighter. The company initiated a new German-inspired wing in 1945, swept at 35 degrees. It was a bold step as the few previous swept-wing designs had exhibited instability problems.  Large, automatic wing slats and hydraulically boosted ailerons were the innovative NAA solution, giving superb transonic handling. A unique blown plastic cockpit canopy gave all-round vision unequalled in fighters until the advent of the F-15 Eagle. NAA developed manufacturing techniques for a thin wing with machined-plate, double layer skins. The F-86E version introduced the now-universal powered, ‘all-flying’ tailplane.

Sabres retained gun armament, either the standard six .50 calibre machine gun fit or (in later Sabres) 20mm cannon. Guns disappeared from many other Cold War fighters in favour of missiles, but the Vietnam war showed that to be a mistake. However, the Sabre also pioneered the use of air-to-air missiles in the radar-equipped, all weather, rocket firing F-86D version (added in 1949). It included an early afterburner and a complex Hughes E-4 fire-control system. It became the most prolific Sabre variant with over 2,500 manufactured, pioneering radar-based interception in many air forces of the Cold War era.

Early jet engines of the time were often unreliable, but NAA designers chose the best available option, the Allison J35 in the F-86 prototype which first flew on October 1, 1947 and achieved supersonic flight in a shallow dive the following year as the first service-capable fighter to achieve that speed safely. The engine was replaced by the General Electric J47, also selected for the B-47 Stratojet bomber. It became an outstanding powerplant in Korean combat and effectively proved that jet fighters could be as effective and reliable as their prop-driven predecessors – and a lot faster. Cold War fighter designers throughout the world benefited from that bonus.

When the Korean War began in June, 1950 the small Allied air forces in South Korea relied on WW II propeller-driven aircraft and early, straight-winged F-80 and F-84 jets. None matched the Soviet MiG-15, a broadly similar swept-wing jet to the Sabre. F-86As were urgently deployed to counter this unanticipated threat. Despite the MiG-15’s altitude advantage and its pilots’ proximity to their home bases the outnumbered, but better-trained Sabre pilots soon regained air superiority. It was a scenario to be repeated in many respects in Vietnam over a decade later.

The Sabre’s success and influence are demonstrated by its unusually widespread use. Overall production ran to almost 9,000 aircraft, with licence production in Canada, Japan, Italy and Australia. No fewer than 35 air forces used Sabres, making it the most numerous Western Cold War jet fighter and giving many of those users entry to the jet age. It equipped many NATO nations, including Great Britain, to face the growing Soviet threat following the Berlin crisis in 1949. Some continued in service, and occasional combat until the mid-1980s.The US Navy’s used F-86 derivatives, culminating in the very capable, long-range FJ-4B fighter-bomber. They equipped 22 USN and USMC squadrons up to 1962. In US Navy training sessions a well-flown F-86 regularly beat F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader pilots in dogfighting practices.

An F-86 pilot allegedly achieved supersonic flight shortly before Chuck Yeager’s official sound barrier-smashing flight in 1947, but it was the success rate of twelve-to-one against MiG-15s (later to be scaled down to a still creditable 4:1) that lent the Sabre an almost legendary status and reminded future fighter designers that manoeuvrability, ease of operation and gunfighting capability were still relevant in the supersonic era. While some might champion aircraft like the Hawker Hunter, F-4 Phantom or MiG-21 as the most influential Cold War fighters there is no doubt that the F-86’s wide range of ground-breaking achievements in design and worldwide service easily give it that accolade.

Peter E Davies. September 2022, Peter Davies is based in Bristol and has written or co-written 16 books on modern American combat aircraft, including four previous Osprey titles and the standard reference work on US Navy and Marine Corps Phantom II operations, Gray Ghosts.

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