Be forewarned: This is the stuff of dreams.
The story begins in early 1970. when one of Ben Hall's Seattle neighbors, Jim Larsen, learned of an F-86 languishing in a surplus dealer's storage yard near Fresno, California. The dealer was asking $700 for the Sabre's remains, and a restoration project would likely require lots of work (and money). Jim knew that ben Hall had owned T-6 and P-51 aircraft, and he asked him to join in on acquiring and restoring the Sabre. Ben joined Jim and flew to Fresno, where they determined that rebuilding the Sabre, F-86A-5 #48-178, was probably worth a try. It would be four long years and about 10,000 man-hours later before they knew for certain if they had been correct.
As purchased in 1970, F-86A #178, had many shortcomings. Most notably, it lacked an engine, had no wing leading edges, and the cockpit was a mess. Fortunately, another F-86 was located in a junkyard and bought for $500. It provided most of the missing parts needed to make '178 flyable, including much of the cockpit but no usable leading edges.
Several J47 engines were located and purchased for prices ranging from $50 to $1500. (Can you believe those prices?) Surprisingly, one of the $50 engines was ultimately the best performer and became the engine of choice. Additional major restoration sub-projects involved hydraulics, a complete electrical re-wiring job, and locating and installing a new fuel control.
Eventually, F-86 wings with leading edges were found at another surplus dealer. Removal of the leading edges and installation on `178 was a giant undertaking. In the process, it was discovered that the slats were incompatible with the configuration of '178s wing. The restoration team (Ben Hall and four dedicated associates) decided that the leading edges should be installed with the slats permanently secured in the "Closed" position. They fashioned a procedure to do this, and for good measure, a mid-wing airflow `fence' was added. This resulted in an F-86A with a wing that resembled the F-86F '6-3 hard wing'.
Along the way, there were many, many other problems to he solved. The team benefited at times from outside help such as famed North American Chief Test Pilot Bob Hoover, who helped locate North American engineers and documents to answer questions.
Finally, on 24 February 1974, the old Sabre was once again ready to fly. An experienced and current Sabre pilot, Paul Bennett, would take `178 into the air for its second `first flight'. He was a Boeing test pilot then flying a Sabre Mk. 5 chase plane for the company. Sabre #48-178 flew with virtually no write-ups that day. Subsequent flights proved that the project was a resounding success. According to ben, the secured slats had little effect on the Sabre's performance. Arguably, this F-86 was the first American-made and flyable jet fighter in civilian hands. Ben Hall first flew the Sabre on 3 May 1974, and several months later. Bob Hoover flew it at an air show in Western Canada.
Although he sold the Sabre in 1988. F-86 Sabre Pilots Association member Ben Hall's love affair with this F-86A continues to this day. From his present home in Salt Lake City, he provided SabreJet Classics with the photos and material needed to tell this brief account of the restoration of 48-178. Most helpful was an article telling the full story, published in Air Classics Quarterly Review, Fall 1976, and written by Jim Larsen, who had discovered `178 in 1970.
Today, F-86A #48-178 still flies - at air shows in the United Kingdom, and remains the only airworthy F-86A Sabre in the world.
No portion of this article may be used or reprinted without permission from the President of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association or the editor of Sabre Jet Classics magazine.
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