Could You Fly a Sabre?
The challenge of handling a 1950s MiG killer.
- By Paul Hoversten
- Air & Space magazine, November 2011
Dominant in dogfights more than a half-century ago, the North American F-86 Sabre reigned long before fighters were designed to be so twitchy that pilots needed computers to fly them. U.S. and Royal Air Force pilots have called the F-86 the best-handling fighter of its time, and today pilots fly it at airshows. So if you want to fly a Sabre, how hard can it be?
You’d certainly need experience flying a high-performance jet, says Steve Kirik, who flew F-15s in the Gulf War and is now one of two Federal Aviation Administration examiners for Sabre pilots. After that, he says, “it’s actually a fairly easy airplane to fly. There’s no huge amount of skill required, but you’d want to step your way up to it. You’d want to fly the T-33 [two-seat trainer] first. If you can fly that, it’s a natural stepping stone to the F-86.”
Kirik is a first officer with United Airlines and a demonstration pilot with the Warbird Heritage Foundation, a group formed to preserve military aircraft in flying condition. “If you’re a civilian and you wanted to get checked out, you’d go to someone who trains on the two-seat MiG-15, then get ground training and prepare for a practical test,” he says. “Then someone like me would mentor you through. The examiner would do either a ground observation or a chase flight.”
The Soviet-built MiG-15 is a good precursor for aspiring F-86 pilots because both aircraft share a “systems philosophy,” says air racer John Penney of Evergreen, Colorado, the other FAA examiner (and the one who checked out Kirik). “They’re both first-generation swept-wing fighters, although the F-86 has no wicked stall characteristics like the MiG-15. It’s one of the reasons why the airplane enjoyed such a success rate in the Korean War.” (According to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Sabre pilots shot down 792 MiGs in Korea, and only 76 Sabres were lost.)
Of the dozen or so F-86 pilots in the Classic Jet Aircraft Association, “I would say maybe two-thirds of those who are qualified didn’t have a former military fighter jet background,” says Penney. “They are civilians, but they have experience in the T-33 or the L-39 [trainer, built by Czech manufacturer Aero Vodochody].”
“Any airplane, if you abuse it, can get you into a stall-spin situation,” Penney continues. “But the F-86 has excellent control harmony, very good visibility, and good handling during landing approaches. It’s a lovely machine.”
Flying the F-86 is challenging in another sense though. You first have to find one. Rich Sugden, a former Navy flight surgeon in Jackson, Wyoming, found one of the rarest: He owns the only airworthy FJ-4B Fury in the world. The Fury was North American’s Navy attack jet based on the F-86. He also owns a Canadian-built Sabre. “Every time I go to an airshow, Fury pilots come up to talk to me about [the airplane],” says Sugden. “Some of them had flown my airplane.”
Only 21 Sabres are registered with the FAA (including some in museums), but Sabre pilots in the Classic Jet Aircraft Association estimate only about a dozen are airworthy in the United States—with about an equal number of active pilots who fly them. Almost all of the Sabres removed from U.S. service have been destroyed; Department of Defense policy is to de-militarize retired combat aircraft, a process that ensures they will never fly again. The only F-86A flying today went directly from the U.S. military to civilian hands, but it was salvaged in 1970, before the de-militarization policy was as carefully observed as it is today. Owned by a company in the United Kingdom today, it appeared at 20 British airshows this year (and is on this issue’s cover). Sugden’s FJ-4B also escaped destruction and flies at U.S. airshows with the team MiG Fury Fighters.