In the summer of 1944, Allied bomber crews returned from their missions to Germany asking, "What was that thing? And where is ours?" The "thing" was the German Messerschmitt Me-262, the first jet-powered fighter to see actual combat in World War II.
The Allies did indeed have similar aircraft in the works. The US had flown several jet prototypes, and Britain had built an RAF squadron around its turbine-powered Gloster Meteor, but none of these unconventional fighter aircraft arrived in time to make much of a mark before the war ended in 1945.
Barely five years later, however, the story would be dramatically different. What the North American P-51 Mustang had been to World War II, the same firm’s new jet-powered F-86 Sabre would become to the Korean War. In the battle for air superiority, it would be decisive.
It is remarkable that the F-86 appeared when it did, given the fact that it was being developed in a climate of postwar demobilization. In the aftermath of the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945, the Army Air Forces were scrapping aircraft, canceling contracts, and operating on budgets that were, for the most part, inadequate. Getting the F-86 in the force took ingenuity, determination, and more than a little luck, but its time had come.
That the jet era did not arrive sooner was not for lack of technology. As early as the 1930s, Britain’s Frank A. Whittle and Germany’s Hans P. von Ohain both had developed gas aircraft turbine engines, and manufacturers had begun to design airframes around them. Later, Italy, the United States, and the Soviet Union began experimenting with their own turbine-powered airplanes.
For a variety of reasons, however, none of these efforts had produced significant results by the mid-1940s.
In Germany, for example, much of the early work on unconventional aircraft centered on rocket power. Despite their impressive speed, rocket ships could fly for no more than a few minutes and often exploded during takeoff.
Germany’s more promising turbine-powered fighter project took a back seat when Hitler, thinking that airpower would give him a quick victory, ordered a massive buildup of conventional aircraft. When the Me-262 did begin to show promise, the dictator ordered it converted for bombing, a mission for which it had neither the range nor lifting power. The fighter version finally did reach combat but was too late to change Germany’s fate.
Britain was more willing to explore new possibilities, but London could not afford to wait for long development programs to produce results. Early on, its main effort went to replacing the RAF’s massive losses of Spitfires and Hurricanes, and work on jets was little more than a sideline.
Through much of the war in Europe, the US also played catch-up. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on US manufacturers to turn out 50,000 airplanes per year. Most development work concentrated on improving existing aircraft and designing new ones along conventional lines. Like Britain, the United States had little time to exploit exotic technologies. What it needed in a fighter was enough range to escort bombers on missions deep into Germany. Jets were not the answer.
In the wide-ranging Pacific war, the situation was much the same until 1944. Then, the Allies began planning to invade Japan in late 1945, and the Navy invited manufacturers to provide jet-powered, carrier-based fighters for the purpose. North American’s contender was the NA-134. The Navy ordered three prototypes in January 1945 and 100 production models in May. The same month, the AAF ordered three prototypes of a day-fighter/dive-bomber version to be known as the XP-86.
As the European war turned in their favor, the Allies took more interest in such jets, but, by then, their conventional fighters were more than holding their own, even against Me-262s. The German jets were about 100 mph faster but difficult to handle, and few German pilots had the experience needed to fly them. British and American airmen in prop-driven aircraft shot down more than 200 German jets.
The Navy still might have pressed for jets in the Pacific, but, after US B-29 bombers dropped two atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered and plans for an invasion were scrapped.
While the World War II jets were too few and arrived too late to affect the outcome of the war, the next generation of jet fighters would have a lasting impact. However, it would take major aeronautical improvements, particularly in wing design, to make it happen.
The seeds had been planted during the war when not only North American, but Bell, Lockheed, Republic, and McDonnell all had developed jet fighters.
Except for their fuselages, however, all had been designed along the lines of the firm’s conventional fighters. North American’s XP-86, for example, had the wings and squared tail of the company’s famed P-51 Mustang. Though impressive, it could not achieve the 600 mph speed that AAF wanted and was turned down. By then, the AAF already had contracted for Lockheed’s P-80 and Republic’s P-84, both of which could fly as fast as the proposed XP-86.
Already lagging the competition, North American had the options of scrapping the project or risking the further delay of a long redesign project that might lead to something better. The firm had faced a similar decision in the early 1940s, when it was invited to produce Curtiss P-40s for the British. At that time, company president James H. "Dutch" Kindelberger and vice president/engineer John Leland Atwood opted instead to design a better fighter. The result was the P-51, one of the all-time classic fighters.
Now, North American decided to take a similar risk. To improve the design of the XP-86, North American technicians pored over German studies that led to development of the unconventional Me-262. They were especially interested in identifying what had given the little German jet its remarkable speed, and they eventually fastened onto a single factor: its sweptback wings.
The war already was over when North American’s aerodynamicist L.P. Green proposed to chief engineer Raymond Rice that a swept wing be incorporated in the XP-86 design. Atwood, who headed the design team, and Kindelberger bought the idea. NAA quickly built and tested, in September 1945, a 35-degree swept wing and submitted the concept to the services.
The Navy was not interested. However, Lt. Gen. Laurence C. "Bill" Craigie, the head of Air Force research and development at Wright Field, Ohio, said yes, deciding that the new aircraft would have a 35-degree swept wing, even though it would slow down the project by several months. His approval was made official on Nov. 1, 1945. Some aviation historians note this as the critical decision, one that transformed what had been a mediocre fighter into a truly dominating combat aircraft. By the following January, NAA had more than 500 engineers laboring at the F-86 project.
In one sense, it was an improbable time to launch an ambitious new aircraft project. The AAF was scrapping not only obsolete airplanes but many still in production. It was cutting forces and canceling weapons orders. The government now used its money to help defense plants convert to consumer products and veterans rebuild lives and careers. After more than four years of war, there was little support for large peacetime military programs.
In another sense, however, the climate was favorable for bold new ideas, particularly in the field of aviation. By their sheer numbers, conventional aircraft had given the Allies air superiority in World War II, but even in its primitive state the Me-262 had convinced air leaders that prop-driven airplanes soon would be obsolete.
Moreover, much of the groundwork for a jet-powered force already had been laid during the war years, when funding was no problem. Interest was not confined to fighters. In the fall of 1943, Boeing had begun to design a jet bomber similar to its B-29 and, late in the war, had drawn on the German studies and adopted the swept wing. By then, North American also was working on a tactical jet bomber design that would lead to the B-45.
As the war ended, AAF Chief of Staff Gen. H.H. "Hap" Arnold and his successors, Gens. Carl A. "Tooey" Spaatz and Hoyt S. Vandenberg, pressed for modernization of the inventory. Barely three months after the war’s end, Arnold created the office of Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development and made Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay its head. If the Air Force could have only a few airplanes, argued the airmen, they should be state-of-the-art machines, not wartime leftovers.
W. Stuart Symington, assistant secretary of war for air (later the first Air Force Secretary), asking Congress to fund the new weapons quickly, reminded the lawmakers that "not one airplane whose development started after Pearl Harbor was ever used in combat."
The leaders also cited another problem. The aircraft industry that had mushroomed during the war had not yet found a peacetime market to serve. The expected boom in commercial travel and private flying did not materialize, and, without military orders, this production base could wither away.
President Harry S. Truman also was concerned about the aircraft manufacturers for another reason. With some 12 million discharged servicemen looking for work, he was not eager to see thousands of aircraft workers suddenly unemployed as well.
Truman appointed a commission headed by Thomas K. Finletter (later the second Air Force Secretary) to study the matter. Its report, titled "Survival in the Air Age," recommended a 70-group Air Force with 8,000 modern airplanes. At about the same time, a Joint Congressional Aviation Policy Board advised a similar course, and Congress eventually approved funding for the 70-group force. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was not only pursuing an aggressive course in Europe but developing new weapons, including jet aircraft. Western intelligence learned that, less than a year after V–E Day, Stalin had called for production of a high-speed, lightweight fighter. Russian designers, like North American’s officials, had drawn on the German swept wing design (and British engine technology) to sketch out what would become the MiG-15. Several American champions of a strong air arm were quick to sense the threat.
Such events, though they did not guarantee production of large numbers of aircraft in the postwar era, did help keep alive the development of the F-86. On Aug. 8, 1947, barely two years after North American had won the prototype contract, the company completed the first XP-86 at the company’s Inglewood, Calif., plant. From there, contractor personnel trucked the aircraft to a remote desert test facility, Muroc AFB, Calif.
The first flight of the XP-86 came on Oct. 1, 1947, at Muroc, with the aircraft piloted by George S. "Wheaties" Welch, a North American test pilot and World War II ace. Government officials were impressed with its flying capabilities and rushed to order it. By the end of the year, contracts had been signed and work had begun on the first batch of 33 production models, which were called F-86As.
A series of flight tests of the prototype continued into 1948, with a high degree of success. That spring the XP-86 prototype became the first US fighter to break the sound barrier when, on April 26, 1948, it exceeded Mach 1 in a shallow dive.
Less than a month later, on May 20, the first production model F-86A was test flown. The first two production models were accepted on May 28. On Sept. 15, 1948, Maj. Richard L. Johnson recaptured the world speed record for the US, flying an F-86 over a three-kilometer course at Muroc AFB, at 670.981 mph.
By 1949, after more months of testing, the new fighter began to enter the operational force. The 1st Fighter Group, located at March Field, Calif., was the first unit in USAF to receive the new aircraft, with the 94th Fighter Squadron taking delivery of its first model in February 1949. The Group’s 71st Fighter Squadron soon followed, and in March 1949, the airplane officially got its name, "Sabre."
Fortunately, the swept wing F-86 was now catching up with the other jets and starting to mature. The Air Force initiated full-scale production and, by the end of the decade, had enough of the new fighters to equip three stateside fighter groups, the 1st, 4th, and 81st. The F-86As were purchased in three big batches during 1947, 1948, and 1949. All told, USAF procured 554 production models, with delivery of the last coming in December 1950. By that time, however, the Sabre was fully engaged in combat.
In June 1950, the forces of North Korea attacked south of the 38th Parallel, and the US joined other United Nations members in a "police action" that soon escalated into a full-blown war. USAF’s Far East Air Forces supplied F-80s, P-51s (officially designated F-51 in 1948), and F-82s mainly as fighter bombers.
Enter the Sabre
In November, P-51s attacking an airfield just south of the Yalu River were jumped by Chinese pilots flying new jet-powered MiG-15s. Even the USAF F-80 jet fighter was 100 mph slower than the MiG and inferior to the Russian fighter in direct combat. To counter the new threat in Korea, the Air Force moved the F-86s of the 4th Fighter Group from the US to Kimpo AB near Seoul. Within days, the Sabre pilots had downed their first MiGs. Other Sabre units followed, and before long, USAF was claiming a 14-to-1 kill ratio and crediting the F-86 for most of the victories.
That estimate may have been overstated, but there’s no question that the Sabre’s work in Korea was extraordinary. USAF pilots flying the F-86 claimed a total of 792 MiGs, while only 78 Sabres were reported lost throughout the war. This victory ratio established the Sabre as one of history’s best fighters, ranking with the Sopwith Camel, the Spitfire, and North American’s own P-51 Mustang.
To this day, aviation buffs debate whether it was the airplane that made the difference in Korea or the superior skill of its pilots. It’s true that many Sabre pilots came to Korea with World War II victories to their credit and that, at least early in the war, most of the MiGs destroyed were flown by inexperienced North Koreans. It is also true, however, that many US pilots fresh out of flight school faced veteran airmen from China and the Soviet Union. The relative merits of the two aircraft are equally debatable, but, for whatever reason, the Sabre emerged as the undisputed champion of that war.
Through the 1950s, the installation of bigger engines boosted the Sabre’s speed, and air refueling gear extended its range. It served as a workhorse for Tactical Air Command and Air Defense Command, flew with the Reserve and the Air National Guard, and entered the inventories of numerous foreign air forces. In all, North American produced 6,231 Sabres for the Air Force.
It was the Sabre’s record in Korea, however, that established it as the premier fighter of its generation and its pilots as a match for any pilots flying in first-line Soviet aircraft. The Cold War would continue, but the Korean experience caused the Soviets to think twice before again testing the Air Force.
Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to
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