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Imran H. Khan

F-86_dayton_FrontSome stories take a lifetime to develop. Sometimes an incredibly capable concoction of aluminium, rubber and electronics ends up reminding you of its significance from time to time all during ones life. One such very exquisite piece of technology is the F-86 Sabre. Most recently I came across it standing in the National Museum of USAF in Dayton Ohio. It belonged to Bruce Hinton who became the first US pilot to shoot down a Mig-15 in the Korean war. My earliest childhood memory in Mauripur PAF base, Karachi are filled with the sights and sounds of this new aircraft that would shake the windows of our house, as the pilots were flying them low like the propeller driven planes that they had been used to. One of my fondest memory is of my father taking me to the F-86 that he had just ferried from the US. He had hidden an inordinate number of toys in all possible compartments that he opened one after the other to my unending joy. It was quite a heady times for a newly formed nation with such state of the art planes. I can only imagine what a high it would have been for my father from being a refugee ,with the only belonging being the clothes on his body a few years earlier after partition, to being able to fly these shiny airborne chariots. Pakistan Air Force (PAF) ended up acquiring 240 Sabres that stayed in service from 1956 to 1979.

The picture below shows a line up of F-86s in late 1950s.

My father, then Sqn Ldr. Inam H. Khan,  raised the 16th. Squadron in Mauripur. It was later moved to Peshawar. The squadron now flies JF-17s, which is suitable indirect honor to my father  for his efforts in building the bonds of friendship between the air forces of China and Pakistan.

Then he commanded a single squadron of Canadair F-86s in East Pakistan. The heroic performance of that one squadron against over 20 Indian squadron of much superior aircraft in the 1971 Indian attack of East Pakistan is legendary. Had that squadron been an American one, multiple holly-wood movies would have immortalized it. He wrote an informal account of it titled “Saga if PAF in East Pakistan-1971“.

The sight of a flight of four F-86s pealing into the landing pattern and then swooping down with air brakes deployed was a constant sight on the many air bases growing up.  The sounds of F-86 jet engine test in the evening would fill the air.

F-86_HanscomMore recently while walking around on Hanscom Air Force base I was surprised to see an F-86H on an intersection. One of the only two planes honored on a base known to be the center of technology in USAF. A great way to honor the designer Mr. Edgar Shmued. He was a self taught engineer who worked for both Messerschmitt and Fokker before moving to the US. His initial work was with the engines that earned him multiple patents. The work in Germany led to the design of P-51 Mustang that similarities with Me-109. He shares his traits of knowing the nuts and bolts at an early age with another great aircraft designer Kelly Johnson. I had covered the payoffs of developing core competency no mater how long it takes here.

Edgar_SchmuedWhile looking at the accomplishments of Dr. Charles Stark Draper on the walls in the cafeteria in Draper Laboratory I noticed that Dr. Draper was responsible for the computing gun sight used in the Sabre. This gun sight proved invaluable in its accuracy in pointing the guns in a highly dynamic environment of the jet age dog fight. The A-1 gun sight has some initial calibration issues and pilots were reluctant to use it. But once those issues had been sorted out, the gun sight turned out to be an important innovation towards dramatically improving the air superiority performance of the aircraft. The case study of the lessons learnt from the development, adaptation of the gun sight and eventual acceptance within the user community is listed here.

The F-86A was the USAF’s first swept-wing fighter, entering service in 1949. Research of German jet technology uncovered during the liberation of occupied Europe demonstrated that swept wings delayed the effects of air compressibility at high-subsonic airspeeds, and as such, North American designed a new low-wing cantilever monoplane for the Sabre, swept back at 35 degrees in contrast with the traditional straight-wing designs of the era (indeed, the Sabre itself evolved from a straight-wing concept). This made it one of the forerunners of the modern fighter jet, something of a revolutionary design which, in combination with the 5,200lbs of thrust afforded by the General Electric J-47 engine – the first axial flow engine to enter service – gave the F-86A a maximum speed of 679mph at sea level, thus making it the world’s first transonic jet fighter.

The slow speed characteristics were enhanced by the automatic leading edge slats that were another innovation in the aircraft design. The low speed handing improvements in the plane are amply showcased in the video below. It is an exquisite flight by a famous test pilot named Bob Hoover. The ballet towards the end on the airfield is classic flying.

A more in depth evaluation of the F-86 is done in Part II of this post. In it I had the opportunity to talk in depth with one of the Pakistan Air Force’s decorated pilot who had flown it in combat. His understanding of F-86 in comparison with other leading fighters of that age, which he had also flown, makes his insights that more credible.


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