Imran H. Khan


In order to get a much deeper understanding of the capabilities of F-86, I had a unique opportunity to have a candid discussion about its performance in actual air combat with a  Pakistan Air Force officer, then Flt. Lt Yousaf Ali Khan. He shared his experience in the F-86 in the video below. His praise of F-86 is specially noteworthy as he can objectively compare it with other contemporary fighters like the Hunter and Mig-21 which he also flew.  Besides his insights into the noteworthy aspects of the F-86, his story is a compelling one from a number of different aspects. While the video was made in very informal circumstances, I thought that it worthwhile sharing it as it was a unique opportunity to capture some very important historical events that shaped the 1965 war of the Indian sub continent.


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At one point he was in single handed combat with six other Indian Air Force planes and his tail was badly damaged. It is the resilience of the F-86 that enabled him to bring it back in one piece.

One of his combat stories has been amply described by Kaiser Tufail on his post titled “Run.. its a 104“.  There are many lessons that one gets in listening to him in the video. In real battle there are many other factors beyond the capability of the plane that also come into play and determine the result of the battle. The courage to face the enemy irrespective of numbers or conditions is as important as the capabilities of the plane.  Training and tactics get translated to instinctive decision making that determines the outcome of the fight. In one of his fights with a gnat who jumped him over Amritsar, he talks about the Indian pilot not exploiting the vertical fight advantage of his gnat aircraft’s capabilities. Instead he decided to engage in the horizontal turning combat. It took F/L Khan just a couple of turns to have the Indian pilot in his gun sights.

The other lesson that is evident from his description of actual raw combat is that at the end it is between to humans. Twice he had the opportunity to finish the aircraft, instead he let the two pilots go after their planes were damaged to an extent that they could not fight. He appeared genuinely sad when he learnt that they had both died of wounds after landing their planes. The history as narrated by the actual participants is quite different from that told in the news and history books.

The design and its ability to remain competitive is a lesson for all air forces including the US. It was an aircraft for high altitude air superiority fighter that was later adapted for ground attack operations. Its abilities changed the course of Korean and Pakistan India’s 1965 war. In 1965 it did so in conjunction with F-104 Starfighter.  The current US trend to design a single fighter F-35 has led to huge cost over runs and it is a fighter that has so many basic compromises built into it that is ending up with being exceptional in none of its missions.

F-86 remained in the service of PAF for nearly quarter a century. In which it was able to take on planes that were on paper much more capable.  I remember a pilot narrating a story in 1978 of F-86 intercepting an F-111 in Midlink exercise where, in his zeal in getting the plane in his gun sights, he went supersonic and had it not been the trim left in his tail ailerons he would have hit the drink over the Arabian Sea. F-86 took on Mig-21, Hunter and SU-27 in 1971 whose story can be read here.

For a developing country like Pakistan the lesson that Sabre provides is that in order to both have an effective defensive capability as well as earn foreign exchange to support her needs, her people need to develop high tech defense industry that is led by the civil sector. This not only enables a more efficient eco system in terms of generating a more competitive product free of conflicts of interest, but also has the opportunity of creating an industrial base which can have substantial benefits to the quality of its citizens in general.

I had written previously about the need to accelerate the high tech and high margin industry “Accelerating High Tech/High margin Industries in Pakistan” and “Technology and Science in Pakistan“. The existing setup of operational forces running the defense industries runs contrary to all the lessons that Sabre provides.

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