North American RF-86A Sabre

Last revised October 25, 1999

Photographic reconnaissance had proven to be a special problem during the Korean War. Both the Lockheed RF-80A and the North American RB-45C Tornado reconnaissance aircraft had proven that they could not operate unescorted in airspaces where MiGs were active. A faster reconnaissance aircraft was needed, and it was decided that a reconnaissance version of the F-86A might fit the bill.

However, at the time no reconnaissance version of the F-86 was being planned by either North American Aviation or the USAF. Out in the field, several pilots of the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Kimpo AB, Korea requested permission to convert some F-86s to the reconnaissance role. Approval was readily given, and the project came to be known as *Project Honeybucket*.

A pair of tired F-86As (48-187 and 48-217) were ferried to Tachikawa AB, Japan for the first conversion. One problem was that there was very little room inside an F-86 fuselage for the long-range cameras needed for the reconnaissance mission. However, it was found that if the lower pair of 0.50-inch guns on the right-hand side of the fuselage were removed, there was enough room for a small focal length K-25 camera scrounged from an RB-26C. The camera was mounted horizontally, but a series of mirrors allowed the camera to shoot vertically out of a small opening cut under the right side of the nose. All three guns in the left side of the fuselage plus the remaining top gun in the right side of the fuselage were retained.

The first *Honeybucket* F-86As were returned to Kimpo in October of 1951 and the first operational missions were flown. These missions were uually flown with the Honeybucket aircraft as the lead ship of a four-ship flight of F-86s.

In late 1951, the conversion of six more F-86As to reconnaissance configuration was authorized under the name *Project Ashtray*. In these, the compartment below the cockpit was enlarged and fitted with constant temperature air conditioning for a forward oblique 24-inch K-11 camera and two 20-inch K-24 cameras mounted lengthwise with a mirror arrangement to provide vertical coverage. The Ashtray aircraft were all officially designated RF-86A. The RF-86A could be distinguished from the fighter version by the presence of a pair of camera bay fairing bulges underneath the forward fuselage just ahead of the wings. Some had a K-14 "dicing" camera installed in the upper forward part of the nose in place of the APG-30 radar. Some had open apertures for the cameras, but others had sliding doors that opened only when the cameras were in use. Most RF-86As were unarmed, although some retained the upper pair of 0.50-in machine guns with limited ammunition capacity. Aircraft converted to RF-86A included 48-183/187, 48-196, 48-217, 48-246, and 48-257. In addition, both *Honeybucket*F-86As were brought up to Ashtray configuration

Five RF-86A aircraft went to the 67th Wing's 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. On combat missions, the RF-86A was usually able to evade interception and was able to perform missions that were more hazardous than the typical reconnaissance flights. However, the photos taken were often fuzzy or blurred due to vibrations or the high speeds at which the aircraft operated. A modified mirror installation helped to solve the vibration problem, but the slow speed cameras continued to cause problems until they were replaced by the higher-speed K-14.

Surviving RF-86As were replaced by RF-86Fs in Korea and passed on to the 115th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the California Air National Guard. They were still flying as late as June of 1959.


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

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