North American F-86A Sabre

Last revised January 30, 2010

The P-86A was the first production version of the Sabre. North American had received an order for 33 production P-86As on November 20, 1946, even before the first XF-86 prototype had flown.

The P-86A was outwardly quite similar to the XP-86, with external changes being very slight. About the only noticeable external difference was that the pitot tube was moved from the upper vertical fin to a position inside the air intact duct.

The P-86A incorporated as standard some of the changes first tested on the third XP-86 prototype. The front-opening speed brakes on the sides of the rear fuselage were replaced by rear-opening brakes, and the underside speed brake was deleted.

The P-86A was equipped with the armament first tested on the third XP-86--six 0.50-inch machine guns in the nose, three on each side of the pilot's cockpit. The guns had a rate of fire of 1100 rounds per minute. Each gun was fed by an ammunition canister in the lower fuselage holding up to 300 rounds of ammunition. The ammunition bay door could be opened up to double as the first step for pilot entry into the cockpit. The P-86A had two underwing hardpoints for weapons carriage. They could carry either a pair of 206.5 US-gallon drop tanks or a pair of 1000-lb bombs. Four zero-length stub rocket launchers could be installed underneath each wing to fire the 5-inch HVAR rocket, which could be carried in pairs on each launcher.

However, the most important difference between the P-68A and the three XP-86 prototypes was the introduction of the 4850 lb.s.t. General Electric J47-GE-1 (TG-190) in place of the 4000 lb.s.t. J35. The two engines had a similar size, the J47 differing from the J35 primarily in having a twelfth compressor stage.

The first production block consisted of 33 P-86A-1-NAs, ordered on October 16, 1947. These were known as NA-151 on North American company records. Serials were 47-605 through 47-637. Since there were officially no YP-86 service test aircraft, this initial production block effectively served as such.

The first production P-86A-1-NA (serial number 47-605) flew for the first time on May 20, 1948. The first and second production machines were accepted by the USAF on May 28, 1948, although they both remained at Inglewood on bailment to North American for production development work. Aircraft no. 47-605 was not actually sent to an Air Force base until April 29, 1950. It remained at WPAFB until May of 1952, when it was retired to storage at the Griffiss Air Depot.

In June of 1948, the P-86 was redesignated F-86 when the P-for-pursuit category was replaced by F-for-fighter

The F-86A-1-NA fighters could be recognized by their curved windshields and the flush-fitting electrically-operated gun muzzle doors that maintained the smooth surface of the nose. These muzzle doors opened automatically when the trigger was pressed to fire the guns, and closed automatically after each burst.

The cockpit of the F-86A remained almost the same as that of the XP-86, although certain military equipment was provided, such as an AN/ARC-3 VHF radio, an AN/ARN-6 radio compass, and an AN/APX-6 IFF radar identification set. The IFF set was equipped with a destructor which was automatically activated by impact during a crash or which could be manually activated by the pilot in an emergency. This was intended to prevent the codes stored in the device from being compromised by capture by the enemy.

The F-86A was provided with a type T-4E-1 ejection seat, with a manually-jettisoned canopy.

The F-86A-1-NA's empty weight was up to 10,077 pounds as compared to the prototype's 9730 pounds, but the higher thrust of the J-47 engine increased the speed to 673 mph at sea level, which made the F-86A-1-NA almost 75 mph faster than the XP-86. Service ceiling rose from 41,200 feet to 46,000 feet. The initial climb rate was almost TWICE that of the XP-86. The F-86A was one hot ship!

In the summer of 1948, the world's air speed record was 650.796 mph, set by the Navy's Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak research aircraft on August 25, 1947. Like the record-setting Lockheed P-80R before it, the Skystreak was a "one-off" souped-up aircraft specialized for high speed flight. The USAF thought that now would be a good time to show off its new fighter by using a stock, fully-equipped production model of the F-86A to break the world's air speed record.

To get the maximum impact, the Air Force decided to make the attempt on the speed record in the full glare of publicity, before a crowd of 80,000 spectators at the 1948 National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. The fourth production F-86A-1-NA (serial number 47-608, the cold weather test aircraft) was selected to make the record attempt, and Major Robert L. Johnson was to be the pilot. According to Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) rules, a 3km (1.86 mile) course had to be covered twice in each direction (to compensate for wind) in one continuous flight. At that time, the record runs had to be made at extremely low altitudes (below 165 feet) to enable precise timing with cameras to be made.

On September 5, 1948, Major Johnson was ready to go and flew his F-86A-1-NA serial number 47-708 on six low-level passes over the course in front of the crowd at Cleveland. Unfortunately, timing difficulties prevented three of these runs from being clocked accurately. In addition, interference caused by other aircraft wandering into the F-86A's flight pattern at the wrong time prevented some of the other runs from being made at maximum speed. Even though the average of the three runs that were timed was 669.480 mph, the record was not recognized as being official by the FAI.

Further attempts to set an official record at Cleveland were frustrated by bad weather and by excessively turbulent air. Major Johnson then decided to move his record-setting effort out to Muroc Dry Lake (later renamed Edwards AFB), where the weather was more predictable and the air less turbulent. On September 15, 1948, Major Johnson finally succeeded in setting an official record of 670.981 mph by flying a different F-86A-1-NA (serial number 47-611, the armaments test aircraft) four times over a 1.86-mile course at altitudes between 75 and 125 feet.

In the autumn of 1948, problems with the J-47-GE-1 engine of the early F-86As forced a momentary halt to F-86 production. It was followed by a few J47-GE-3s, and in December the J47-GE-7 became available, which offered 5340 lb.s.t. and full production resumed.

By March of 1949 the last F-86A-1-NA (47-637) had been delivered. Most of the 33 F-86A-1-NAs built were used for various tests and evaluations, and none actually entered squadron service.

The first production block to enter squadron service was actually the second production batch, 188 of which were ordered on February 23, 1949. They were assigned the designation of F-86A-5-NA by the USAF, but continued to be carried as NA-151 on company records. Serials were 48-129 to 48-316. These were powered by the J47-GE-7 jet engine. Deliveries began in March of 1949 and were completed in September of 1949.

The F-86A-5-NA had a V-shaped armored windscreen which replaced the curved windscreen of the F-86A-1-NA. The A-5 dispensed with the gun doors of the A-1 in the interest of maintenance simplicity. A jettisonable cockpit canopy was introduced. The A-5 introduced underwing pylons capable of carrying a variety of bombs (500 and 1000-pounders) or underwing fuel tanks of up to 206 gallons in capacity. A heating system was provided for the gun compartments, and stainless steel oil tanks and lines were provided for better fire resistance.

In May of 1949, beginning with the 100th F-86A aircraft, an improved canopy defrosting system was installed and a special coating was applied to the nose intake duct to prevent rain erosion. Earlier airframes were retrofitted to include these changes.

The 116th F-86A was provided with a new wing slat mechanism which eliminated the lock and provided a fully automatic operation.

A contract for 333 additional F-86As was received on May 29, 1948, and the final contract was approved on February 23, 1949. These aircraft were assigned a new designation of NA-161 on North American company records, but continued to be designated F-86A-5-NA in USAF records. Their serials were 49-1007 to 49-1229. These were powered by the General Electric J47-GE-13 engine which offered 5200 pounds of static thrust. The cockpit wiring was simplified. New 120-gallon drop tanks, developed specifically for the F-86, were introduced during this production run. Deliveries commenced in October of 1949 and were completed by December of 1950. The 282nd F-86A aircraft had a redesigned wing trailing edge with shorter chord aileron and greater elevator boost. Deliveries commenced October 1949 and ended in December 1950.

Another innovation introduced with the NA-161 production batch was a new type of gun aiming system. All earlier F-86As had been equipped at the factory with Sperry Mark 18 optical lead computing gunsight, which was quite similar to the type of gunsight used on American fighter aircraft in the latter parts of World War 2. When the pilot identified his target, he set the span scale selector lever to correspond to the wingspan of the enemy aircraft he was chasing. He then aimed his fighter so that the target appeared within a circle of six diamond images on the reflector. Next, he rotated the range control unit until the diameter of the circle was the same as the size of the target. When the target was properly framed, the sight automatically computed the required lead and the guns could be fired.

Beginning with the first NA-161 aircraft (49-1007), the A-1B GBR sight and AN/APG-5C ranging radar were provided as factory-installed equipment. This new equipment was designed to automatically measure the range and automatically calculate the appropriate lead before the guns were fired, relieving the pilot of the cumbersome task of having to manually adjust an optical sight in order to determine the range to the target. When activated, the system automatically locked onto and tracked the target. The sight image determined by the A-1B was projected onto the armored glass of the windscreen, and the illumination of a radar target indicator light on the sight indicated time to track target continuously for one second before firing. This system could be used for rocket or bomb aiming as well as for guns.

In the last 24 F-86A-5-NAs that were built, the A-1B GPR sight and AN/APG-5C ranging radar were replaced by the A-1CM sight that was coupled with an AN/APG-30 radar scanner installed in the upper lip of the nose intake underneath a dark-colored dielectric covering. The APG-30 radar was a better unit than the AN/APG-5C, with a sweep range from 150 to 3000 yards. The A-1CM sight and the APG-30 ranging radar were both retrofitted to earlier A-5s during in-field modifications. These planes were redesignated F-86A-7-NA. However, some F-86A-5-NAs had the new A-1CM GBR sight combined with the older AN/APG-5C radar. These were redesignated F-86A-6-NA.

Some consideration given to replacing the J47 engine with the improved J35-A-17 that was used in the F-84E. This engine was tested in the first XP-86. Flight tests between November 28, 1949 and March 1951 indicated that the performance remained much the same as that of the F-86A-1-NA but with a slightly better range. However, the improvement was not considered significant enough to warrant changing production models.

Some F-86As were re-engined with the J47-GE-13 engine, rated at 5450 lb.s.t., but their designation did not change.

All F-86As were initially delivered with the pitot head located inside the air intake duct. It was found in practice that false airspeed readings could be obtained due to the increased airflow within the intake duct, so North American decided to move the pitot head to the tip of a short boom that extended from the leading edge of the starboard wingtip. All F-86As were later retrofitted with the wingtip boom when went through IRAN (Inspect and Repair as Necessary). However, the pitot tube in the intake was never designed to provide airspeed input to the pilot, and the pitot tube in the intake was still there and was used to provide input for the engine.

Internal fuel capacity of the F-86A was 435 gallons, carried in four self-sealing tanks. Two of the tanks were in the lower part of the fuselage, one of them being wrapped around the intake duct just ahead of the engine and the other being wrapped around the engine itself. The other two fuel tanks were in the wing roots. Usually the F-86A carried two 120-gallon drop tanks, although 206.5 gallon tanks could be fitted for ferry purposes.

Ground attack weapons could be installed in place of the jettisonable underwing fuel tanks. Choices include a pair of 100, 500 or 1000-pound bombs, 750-pound napalm tanks, or 500 pound fragmentation clusters. Alternatively, eight removable zero-rail rocket launchers could be installed. These mounted sixteen 5-inch rockets. When external armament was fitted in place of the drop tanks, combat radius was reduced from 330 to 50 miles, which was not a very useful distance.

The first USAF combat organization to receive the F-86A was the First Fighter Group based at March AFB in California, with the famous "Hat in the Ring" 94th Squadron being the first to take delivery when they traded in their F-80s for the F-86A-5-NA during February of 1949. The 27th and 71st Squadrons were equipped with F-86A-5-NAs next, and by the end of May of 1949 the group had 83 F-86As on strength. This group was charged with the aerial defense of the Los Angeles area, which, coincidentally, is where the North American Aviation factory was located. Next to get the F-86 the the 4th Fighter Group based at Langley AFB, charged with the defense of Washington, D.C, and then the 81st Fighter Group, based at Kirtland AFT and charged with the defense of the nuclear bomb facilities at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Next came the 33rd Fighter Group based at Otis AFB in Massachusetts, charged with defending the northeastern approaches into the USA. In January of 1950, all air defense units were redesignated as Fighter Interceptor Groups (FIGs) or Fighter Interceptor Wings (FIWs) as a part of the Air Defense Command.

In February of 1949, there was a contest held by the First Fighter Group to choose a name for their new fighter. The name *Sabre* was selected, and was made official on March 4, 1949.

The first Sabres that went to Reserve units were assigned to the 116th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the Air National Guard, which received its first F-86As on December 22, 1950.

The following Wings were issued with the F-86A:

The F-86A was replaced in active USAF service by the F-86E beginning in the autumn of 1951. As F-86As left active USAF service, they were refurbished, reconditioned and transferred to Air National Guard units in the United States. The first ANG units to get the F-86A were the 198th Squadron in Puerto Rico, the 115th and 195th Squadrons at Van Nuys, California, the 196th at Ontario, and the 197th at Phoenix, Arizona.

Specification of F-86A-5-NA:

Engine: One General Electric J47-GE-13 turbojet with a maximum sea level static thrust of 5200 pounds. Dimensions: Wingspan 37.12 feet, length 37.54 feet, height 14.74 feet, and wing area 287.9 square feet. Weights: 10,093 pounds empty, 14,108 pounds takeoff, 13,791 pounds combat. Performance: Maximum speed 679 mph at sea level, 601 mph at 35,000 feet. Initial climb rate was 7470 feet per minute at sea level. An altitude of 40,000 feet could be reached in 10.4 minutes. Service ceiling was 48,000 feet. The ground run at sea level was 2430 feet, and a 50-foot obstacle could be cleared in 3660 feet. Armament: Six 0.50-in machine guns with 300 rpg. There were two underwing hardpoints for weapons carriage. They could carry either a pair of 206.5 US-gallon drop tanks or a pair of 1000-lb bombs. Four zero-length stub rocket launchers could be installed underneath each wing to fire the 5-inch HVAR rocket, which could be carried in pairs on each launcher.

Serial Numbers of North American F-86A Sabre

47-605/637 	North American P-86A-1-NA Sabre 
			c/n 151-38432/38464
48-129/316 	North American F-86A-5-NA Sabre 
			c/n 151-43498/43685
49-1007/1339	North American F-86A-5-NA Sabre 
			c/n 161-1/333


  1. F-86 Sabre in Action, Larry Davis, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1992.

  2. The North American Sabre, Ray Wagner, MacDonald, 1963.

  3. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  4. The World Guide to Combat Planes, William Green, MacDonald, 1966.

  5. Flash of the Sabre, Jack Dean, Wings Vol 22, No 5, 1992.

  6. North American F-86 Sabre, Larry Davis, Wings of Fame, Volume 10, 1998