Development of a purely fighter-bomber version of the Sabre was initiated by North American Aviation on March 16, 1951 as the NA-187.
The new design proposed to handle the additional payload by using the larger General Electric J73 engine, which offered 8920 pounds of thrust. In order to accommodate the additional power of the engine, the air intake had to be increased in area, which was accomplished by splitting the fuselage longitudinally and then splicing in an additional six inches of depth. In addition, the fuselage was lengthened by over two feet and widened by a few inches. The additional space inside the fuselage made it possible to increase the internal fuel capacity from 435 to 562 gallons, and four underwing stations were added for bombs or drop tanks. The horizontal tail surfaces were increased in area. As in the case of the F-86D, the horizontal tail lacked dihedral. An F-86D-like clamshell cockpit canopy was to be fitted in place of the rearward-sliding canopy of the F-86F. The cockpit was more spacious than that of any previous Sabre variant, and had a new ejector seat originally developed for the F-86D.
The vertical tail assembly was 3 inches taller and wider through the chord, but had a smaller rudder. The horizontal tail surfaces were changed from the "all-flying" design with a split stabilizer and elevator to a single all-flying tail design. Initially, the design was to have the old-style slatted wing without the "6-3" extension.
The Air Force initially ordered 150 of these fighter-bombers under the designation F-86H, the first two to be built in California and the remainder in Columbus. A contract finalized on November 3, 1952 increased this order to 175. It was decided that the 15th F-86H should receive the "6-3" wing of the later F-86F. The first F-86Hs were to have six 0.50-inch machine guns with the type A-4 GBR gunsight using the AN/APG_30 radar rangefinder, but later production aircraft were to be armed with four 20-mm T-160 cannon. Since the F-86H was to have a nuclear capability, an M-1 LABS toss-bombing computer was to be installed.
The first two F-86Hs were built in California. The first F-86H made its maiden flight on April 30, 1953, piloted by Joseph Lynch. It carried no armament, and was fitted with the standard Sabre slatted wing. By the time it was sent to Edwards AFB for tests in October, it had the "6-3" wing of the later F-86F. In December, it returned to Edwards with slatted wings. However, with slatted wings, the top speed was three percent lower than the predicted value of 707 mph. = The maximum speed was over 617 mph at 35,0000 feet. Service ceiling was up to 51,500 feet, and the rate of climb was 12,160 feet per minute. Even though the F-86H was 10,000 pounds heavier than the F, the combat radius was about the same (532 miles) because of the additional fuel suply.
The first of 112 Columbus-built F-86H-1-NH fighter bombers made its maiden flight on September 4, 1953. It had extended leading edges and carried an armament of six 0.50-inch machine guns. Deliveries did not get underway in quantity until Columbus had delivered the last of its F-86F-25-NHs, which was in May of 1954.
The first 60 aircraft on the order had the J73-GE-3, but all the rest had the J73-GE-3A.
Ten F-86Hs had been delivered by the end of June 1954, but operational testing was delayed by accidents. There were problems with both the airframe engine, with the J73 not being able to meet its 150-hour qualification tests. The most notable of these accidents was the crash on August 25, 1954 in which Capt Joseph McConnell, the leading Korean War ace (16 kills) was killed. This crash, plus some other accidents, caused a delay in the operational testing of the F-86H. It was not until October of 1954 that operational testing of the F-86H was resumed.
The first production F-86H was delivered to the 312th Fighter Bomber Wing at Clovis AFB in New Mexico in the fall of 1954, later than expected because of the delays in operational flight testing
The F-86F set a world speed record of 649 mph for a 500-kilometer closed circuit, flown by Major John L. Armstrong. Another F-86H flown by Captain Eugene P. Sonnenberg set a 100-kilometer closed course record of 692.8 mph.
As compared to the F-86F, the F-86H had a shorter takeoff run, a better rate of climb, a higher ceiling, a larger combat radius, and better air to ground gunnery characteristics. All of these features made the F-86H a better fighter bomber than the F-86F. The increased power of the J73 engine did provide better acceleration and higher cruising speed, but aerodynamic limitations kept the improvement in maximum speed from being anything other than marginal, except at altitudes above 35,000 feet. However, the F-86H's higher wing loading made it less maneuverable than the F-86F, especially at high altitudes.
The 15th F-86H-1-NH was fitted with the "6-3" wing of the later F-86F, with extended wing tips and wing fences. Wing span was increased from 37.12 feet to 39.1 feet and wing area rose to 313.4 square feet.
The F-86H-5-NH, which appeared in January of 1955, introduced an armament of four 20-mm M-39 cannon. The M-39 was formerly known as the T-160, which was first tested in Korea. These guns weighed 286 pounds more than previous Sabre gun installations, but packed a lot more punch. Ammunition supply was limited to only 600 rounds, which was only about six seconds of firing time. The last of 60 F-86H-5-NH was delivered in February of 1955.
In the meantime, on June 11, 1953 the USAF approved an additional contract (NA-203) for 300 F-86H-10-NHs. These differed from earlier F-86Hs primarily in having different electronic equipment and in having the J73-GE-3E engine. The first aircraft was delivered in January of 1955, and the last aircraft on the order was delivered in April of 1956. The last ten H-10s used the so-called "F-40" wing, with extended wingtips and slats on the extended leading edge, which improved low-speed handling. Eventually, all of the remaining Hs in the USAF and ANG inventories were retrofitted with the "F-40" wing.
Since the airframe of the F-86H limited it to subsonic speed in level flight no matter how great the power, the production run of the F-86H was relatively short. 473 were built, all but the first two at North American's Columbus, Ohio factory. The first production F-86H was delivered to the 312th Fighter Bomber Wing at Clovis AFB in New Mexico in the fall of 1954
The F-86H was equipped with the Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS) and could carry a 1200 pound "special store" (a euphemistic term for an atomic bomb) under the inboard port wing. Provisions were also made for arming and disarming the "special store" in flight.
The F-86H served with five wings: the 50th FBW in Europe, and with the 83rd, 312th, 413rd, and 474th Wings of the TAC. The operational life of the F-86H was quite brief, as its performance was rapidly eclipsed by such types as the F-100 Super Sabre. By 1957, the F-86H was already being phased out of active service with the USAF, and by June of 1958 all F-86H aircraft in active USAF use had been passed on to the Air National Guard (ANG).
At one time or another, the F-86H served with the following Air National Guard outfits: 102 Air National Guard Wing (101st, 131st, and 138th Squadrons) plus 104, 118, 121, 136, 137, 139, 142, 167, and 168 Squadrons. During the 1961 Berlin crisis, the 101st and 131st Tactical Fighter Squadrons of the Massachusetts ANG were activated and deployed with their F-86Hs to France, where they stayed until August of 1962.
The F-86H remained in service with the ANG until well after the United States had committed itself to the Vietnam war. However, no F-86Hs ever went overseas to participate in that conflict. The last F-86H Sabre was phased out of ANG service on January 8, 1972, when the 138th TFS of the New York ANG officially retired its last H.
After withdrawal from ANG service, F-86H aircraft with the lowest air time were turned over to the Navy. The Navy used them both as target drones and as MiG simulators for TOP GUN aggressor training. The F-86H had a similar size, shape, and performance as the MiG-17 fighter then being encountered over North Vietnam, and many a Navy F-4 pilot was "killed" by a F-86H Sabre during these mock battles.
Many F-86Hs ended their lives as target drones for the testing of advanced air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles such as the Phoenix, the AMRAAM, and the Standard. When used in the unmanned target role, the aircraft were redesignated QF-86H.
52-1975/1976 North American YF-86H-1-NA Sabre c/n 187-1/2 52-1977/2089 North American F-86H-1-NA Sabre c/n 187-3/115 52-2090/2124 North American YF-86H-5-NA Sabre c/n 187-116/150 52-5729/5753 North American F-86H-5-NH Sabre c/n 187-151/175. 53-1229/1528 North American F-86H-10-NH Sabre 203-1/300
Engine: One General Electric J73-GE-3D or -3E, 8920 pounds static thrust. Performance: Maximum speed (clean) was 692 mph at sea level and 617 mph at 30,000 feet. Initial climb rate was 12,900 feet per minute, and an altitude of 30,000 feet could be reached in 5.7 minutes. Service ceiling was 50,800 feet, and combat radius was 519 miles (403 miles with bombs) at 552 mph. Maximum ferry range was 1810 miles. Weights were 13,836 pounds empty, 24,296 pounds gross (with two 1000 pounds and two 200-gallon drop tanks). Dimensions: wingspan 39.12 feet, length 38.84 feet, height 14.99 feet, wing area 313.4 square feet. Armament: Four 20-mm M39 cannon, 200 rounds per gun.