Dawn of the Jet Age

Col Bunny gives us a steer to something truly great, for anybody who is as fervent a pursuit/fighter/intercepter aircraft junkie as I am.

A Fighter Pilot’s Airplane

Ooooh, I like where this is going.

On December 18, 1950, an F-86 Sabrejet in its first combat over Korea shot clown a Russian-built MiG-15. The North American jet which, at the time, held the official world speed record of 670.951 miles an hour, was the best air-superiority fighter possessed by the free world during that period.

We can certainly be thankful that we had this machine in our inventory, for we would have fared rather badly trying to fight MiG-15s with F-51s, F-80s, and F-84s.

However, by way of contrast, today’s F-104 Starfighter (this piece is from 1960; more on the Starfighter anon—M) is the only airplane in history that has simultaneously held all three official world’s records—speed, altitude, and rate of climb. We have, in other words, come some distance since the day of the Sabre. I will here attempt to analyze the aircraft concerned from a fighter pilot’s viewpoint.

Much has been written and said in comparing the performance capabilities of the F-86 and the MiG-15. Certainly most fighter pilots felt that the MiG was a higher-performance airplane above 30,000 feet. Only in the latter stages of the Korean War, when we received the F-86F, could we raise this altitude factor to 35,000 feet.

However, this increase in ceiling was offset by the fact that when we did receive the F model, most of our initial contacts with the MiG were above 40,000 feet. To say the least, it was both highly impressive and yet extremely depressing to see a MiG pilot loop his aircraft at 51,000 when we could barely stay in the air at that altitude. I am certainly not trying to downgrade the fighting qualities of the F-86; it had many advantages over the MiG—in fire control, range, diving ability, and ruggedness—all of them vitally important in the business of shooting down airplanes.

It must have; by the admittedly disputed numbers, Saber pilots shot down 200 of them, possibly quite a lot more.

The Sabre was certainly a credit to its designers and manufacturers, but the fact remains, the MiG could outperform the F-86 at any altitude, except in a dive, and was a better fighting machine at the higher altitudes. The answer, of course, to our huge success over the MiG lay in the aggressiveness, discipline, training, and leadership of the USAF fighter pilot. We’ve all heard the phrase “guts will take the place of skill” in fighter combat. This is true. Nevertheless, superior aircraft performance can take the place of both. If you can fly higher and faster than your opponent and want to get the job done badly enough, then you’re going to win.

The original fire-control system of the F-86 was one of our greatest deficiencies. We had a World War II gunsight and World War II guns. Hitting a MiG at angles off of more than fifteen degrees and range of 1,300 feet was nearly impossible with the short firing time available in high-speed jet combat. Our primary advantage was the high rate of fire of the .50-caliber gun, even though the destructive power of our ammunition could not compare, projectile for projectile, with the 37-mm and 23-mm cannon shell of the enemy.

The later acquisition of the radar gunsight in the F-86 was probably the greatest single improvement of the airplane during the Korean War. Expert gunners such as Lt. Col. Vermont Garrison and Maj. Manuel J. Fernandez could hit a MiG at 3,000 feet and high angles off with the radar gunsight, and the shooting problem was also considerably lessened for the more inexperienced pilot.

If I remember correctly, and I may not, the F86-D variant was the first with the big, honking radome in the nose that said gunsight worked in concert with. More on that anon, too.

As in the ease of Spitfires during the Battle of Britain, F86s were fighting against heavy odds in Korea. Approximately 800 MiGs were based in Manchuria and China. The Soviet Union had supplied China with more sweptwing fighters than the United States had even produced. It was common to encounter 150 or more MiG-15s twice a day against no more than thirty-two Sabres. The 4th Fighter Wing, with a World War II record of 1,016½ enemy aircraft destroyed, had fought steadily rising odds, eventually reaching as high as ten to one. When the 51st Fighter Wing converted to the F-86, these odds dropped to seven to one.

I’ve always considered the Saber to be one of the most gorgeous fighters ever made…right up to the D variant, which was butt-ugly because of that radome. No surprise, since both were designed and built by the same company responsible for my eternal favorite, the P51 Mustang: North American. And since this is where the purty pitchers come in and I don’t want to drag down page-load times for those of you who, incomprehensibly and inexcusably, have no interest in these matters, I’ll do y’all the courtesy of tucking the rest below the fold.

This is what the pre-D Saber looked like:

And here’s the far fuglier D version:

DAYTON, Ohio — North American F-86D Sabre at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Remarkable what a difference a nose can make to one’s overall attractiveness, innit? An interesting tidbit about the F86:

The old but nimble MiG-17 had become such a serious threat against the Republic F-105 Thunderchief over North Vietnam that the USAF created project “Feather Duster” to test which tactics supersonic American fighters could use against fighters such as the MiG-17. ANG F-86H units proved to be an ideal stand-in for the Soviet jets. One pilot remarked, “In any envelope except nose down and full throttle”, either the F-100 or F-105 was inferior to the F-86H in a dogfight.

Well said, sir. It highlights a sad but true fact: in every modern war it fought until the late 70w/early 80s, the US entered the fray with complete air-combat inferiority, from the P39 Airacobra, to the F80 Shooting Star, to the F105 Thuds. It’s not any of those weren’t capable aircraft, mind; it’s just that they had a tough time against their technologically more advanced foes, and the outgunned, outmaneuvered, and out-climbed men who had to fly them suffered for it.

Now to circle back (ahem) to yet another of my picks for prettiest-ever fighters: the F104 Starfighter.

While its time with the USAF was brief, the Starfighter found much more lasting success with other NATO and allied nations. In October 1958, West Germany selected the F-104 as its primary fighter aircraft. Canada soon followed, along with the Netherlands, Belgium, Japan, and Italy. The European nations formed a construction consortium that was the largest international manufacturing program in history to that point, though the Starfighter’s export success was marred in 1975 by the discovery of bribe payments made by Lockheed to many foreign military and political figures for securing purchase contracts. The Starfighter eventually flew with fifteen air forces but its poor safety record, especially in Luftwaffe service, brought it substantial criticism. The Germans lost 292 of 916 aircraft and 116 pilots from 1961 to 1989, its high accident rate earning it the nickname “the Widowmaker” from the German public. The final production version, the F-104S, was an all-weather interceptor built by Aeritalia for the Italian Air Force. It was retired from active service in 1994, though several F-104s remain in civilian operation with Florida-based Starfighters Inc.

The Starfighter featured a radical design, with thin, stubby wings attached farther back on the fuselage than most contemporary aircraft. The wing provided excellent supersonic and high-speed, low-altitude performance, but also poor turning capability and high landing speeds. It was the first production aircraft to achieve Mach 2, and the first aircraft to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet after taking off under its own power. The Starfighter established world records for airspeed, altitude, and time-to-climb in 1958, becoming the first aircraft to hold all three simultaneously. It was also the first aircraft to be equipped with the M61 Vulcan autocannon and the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile.

The Starfighter was a lean, sleek, consummately graceful-looking speed-demon of an aircraft, and as I said, another of my all-timers. As the excerpt notes, although in its day it was unbeatable on straight-line performace, but it was a real dog at the twisty-turny stuff. Here’s another odd little Starfighter tidbit:

Early Starfighters used a downward-firing ejection seat (the Stanley C-1), out of concern over the ability of an upward-firing seat to clear the “T-tail” empennage. This presented obvious problems in low-altitude escapes, and 21 USAF pilots, including test pilot Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe Jr., failed to escape from their stricken aircraft in low-level emergencies because of it. The downward-firing seat was replaced by the Lockheed C-2 upward-firing seat, which was capable of clearing the tail, but still had a minimum speed limitation of 90 kn (104 mph; 167 km/h). Many export Starfighters were later retrofitted with Martin-Baker Mk.7 “zero-zero” (zero altitude and zero airspeed) ejection seats.

Some who flew the Starfighter loved it; plenty hated it, and all too many died in (or under, or near) it due to its various design flaws and in-flight quirkiness. All that said, the F104 did what we needed it to do at the time we needed it to be done, and though it had a quite brief run in the USAF, updates of the type were still in service with other nations all the way up until 1994. Have a look and tell me this unique ol’ gal ain’t as pretty as they come:

And that concludes this installment of Fighter Geek 101. Hope y’all enjoyed it.

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Barry

Nice. Airplanes are always beautiful if they can get off the ground 🙂

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