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100 years of powered flight in canada

The F-86 Sabre jet fighter was undoubtedly one of the most popular aircraft ever flown by RCAF pilots and for years it formed the backbone of our Air Force both in Canada and in our NATO squadrons in France and Germany.


May 20, 2009
By Raymond Canon

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The F-86 Sabre jet fighter was undoubtedly one of the most popular aircraft ever flown by RCAF pilots and for years it formed the backbone of our Air Force both in Canada and in our NATO squadrons in France and Germany. What is not quite so well known is that these aircraft were produced under licence in Canada by Canadair (now Bombardier) in Montreal. There were whispers at the time that the version built there with the Orenda engine was one of the finest of the breed.

The Sabre was the first major fighter produced after the end of the Second World War. The earlier F-84 had turned out to be better suited as a fighter-bomber than a pure fighter and the development of the F-86 was awaited with increasing urgency in order to counter the Mig-15 that had entered service in the Communist countries in 1947. It was in 1948 that Ottawa chose it as the fighter to replace the RCAF’s de Havilland Vampires.

The outbreak of the Korean War added to the demand for the aircraft and Ottawa increased its initial order from 10 to 100. Before the last airframe rolled off the Canadair production line, close to 2,000 had been produced by the Canadian company. With the Norseman Mark VI powered by the Canadian-built Orenda engine, the Sabre had, in the eyes of many pilots, reached the epitome of success. This version gained widespread fame when it served with the RCAF’s contribution to NATO in Europe where as many as 12 squadrons were made available at four bases, two in France and two in Germany.

Perhaps the most interesting story about Canadair’s F-86s is what happened to the ones that didn’t go directly to the RCAF. They literally went in all directions, some actually to the United States but others to NATO allies.

When NATO started phasing out the Sabre in favour of the F-104 Starfighter, a second wave of these F-86s went off in even more directions, some to other NATO allies who were happy to add to their stock of aircraft but many beyond that to such countries as Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Colombia and Yugoslavia.

The Sabre may have been designed as a day fighter but other versions soon appeared. There were all-weather, reconnaissance and training versions, and almost 10,000 were rolled out before production was terminated.

The Sabre’s main claim to fame was as a Mig-15 menace in Korea where it ran up a remarkable kill ratio. Although the Mig had a heavier armament and a higher ceiling, the superior training of the Sabre pilots plus the inspired design of the aircraft itself did the job. A total of 22 RCAF pilots flew with these jets in Korea and scored nine victories. Only one, Andy Mackenzie, was shot down (ironically by the Americans) and a total of 1,036 missions were flown. In addition, Canadair-built aircraft were sent to the U.S. Air Force, who then sent them on to Korea where they performed admirably.

Canadian-built Sabres also performed in another war – that of 1971 between Pakistan and India. They had long before left Canada for the German Luftwaffe, later being sold to Iran; from there they were transferred to Pakistan in time for the above mentioned conflict.

From the public’s point of view, the most memorable performances of the F-86 were those of RCAF display teams. In 1959, to commemorate the 50th anniver-sary of flight in Canada, the Golden Hawks were formed. Before they were disbanded in 1964 they flew a total of 317 demonstrations across North America to the delight of many spectators for whom air shows were still something of a novelty.

The Sabre was a winner; small wonder that aviation enthusiasts all over Canada are delighted that a group called Hawk One, led by former Snowbird commander Lt.-Col. Steve Will, has rebuilt an F-86 in the colours of the Golden Hawks and will be flying it on a number of occasions in this year’s commemorative celebrations.

For more information on Hawk One, visit www.hawkone.ca .


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