by Larry Davis
Throughout the history of manned flight on this wonderful little planet of ours, there have always been attempts to set a new record and put the pilots name in the record books. The most often heard about records were World Speed and/or Altitude records. But there were many others of lesser fame involving cross-country flights, distance records, round the world records, etc..
The F-86 Sabre in all its many models, and the pilots that flew them, were involved in setting or resetting many such records. The first one was of course, the breaking of the speed of sound by George Welch while test flying the XP-86 Sabre. Was it done before Chuck Yeager's famous flight in the Bell X-1 rocket plane? Some people say yes, Welch broke the speed of sound on the very first test flight in the XP-86 on 1 October 1947. Others say no, Welch did not break the sound barrier until later that month AFTER Yeager did it in the X-1. Whatever the date, it was the first time that a jet aircraft had done it during a normal flight.
However, on 5 September 1948, an F-86A Sabre would break the World Speed Record, albeit unofficially. On that date, Major Robert L. Johnson flew F-86A-1 #47-608, a production F-86A, over a closed course set up at the 1948 National Air Races that were held in Cleveland, Ohio. The previous record was 650.796 mph held by the Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak, a Navy experimental aircraft, set on 25 August 1947.
The rules specified that the record attempt would be flown over a closed course, 3 km. in length, at an altitude no greater than 165 feet. The pilot had to cover the course twice in each direction during one continuous flight. But problems prevented Major Johnson from officially setting a new record. Only three of the runs were timed, as other aircraft kept breaking into the closed course. But the average speed was 669.480 mph, easily breaking the record. It just wasn't official.
The Air Force knew they had the record in hand so they immediately set up another attempt. This time it would be over the desert test base at Muroc Dry Lake, later known as Edwards AFB. On 15 September 1948, Major Johnson took off in another production F-86A-1, #47-611. Flying at an altitude ranging from 75 to 125 feet, Major Johnson made the required number of timed runs. The slowest run was 669.830 mph, while the fastest was 672.762 mph. Major Robert Johnson and the F-86A Sabre held the new World Speed Record at an average of 670.97 mph - with a production aircraft.
Next in the line of Sabre record breakers would be Colonel Fred Ascani and the F-86E, specifically F-86E-10 #51-2721. Col. Ascani was assigned to the 6510th Air Base Wing at Edwards AFB, California in 1951, the same year that the F-86E was introduced into the Air Force inventory. The F-86E-10 used the -13 engine rated at 5200 lbs of thrust and had the "all-flying tail" that kept the Sabre under control at transonic speeds.
In the Summer of 1951 Air Force wanted to show off the newest in the Sabre linage. Col. Ascani was ordered to take two F-86E-10s, #51-2721 and -2724, to the National Air Races, held on 17 August 1951 in Detroit, Michigan, and attempt to set a new closed course record. The 100 km. closed course was set up and the timers installed.
Col. Ascani used -2721 for the record attempt. At the end of the day, Col. Ascani and -2721 owned the new record with a speed of 635.686 mph. Again the record was set in a production F-86E Sabre. And just to prove it, Air Force included #51-2721 in the next shipment of Sabres that were sent to Korea, where it was assigned to the veteran 51st Fighter Intereceptor Group at Suwon AB.
The F-86D all-weather interceptor Sabre was the first to have an afterburner installed, giving this version of the Sabre much more thrust than any previous variant. The F-86D used the J47-33 with afterburner, which produced 7650 lbs of thrust in AB. The F-86D would become the primary air defense interceptor for well over a decade. In the Fall of 1952 Air Force put on a public demonstration (read that `for the benefit of the Soviet's) of the much greater speed their new interceptor possessed.
On 19 November Captain J. Slade Nash, flying F-86D-20 #51-2945 that was assigned to Edwards AFB, took off from El Centro NAS and headed for the Salton Sea, another dry lake bed, where a 3 km course had been set up. Capt. Nash took the F-86D up to 1000 feet, then nosed down and crossed the entry point of the 3 km. course at 100 feet! 9.6 seconds later Capt. Nash exited the course and made a tight 3G turn and headed back for the second run.
The Federation Aeronautique Internationale rules called for four consecutive passes on the record attempt. After the four passes were made and verified, Capt. Nash and the F-86D held a new World Absolute Speed Record with an average speed of 698.505 mph, breaking the old record held by Maj. Richard Johnson and the F-86A back in 1948.. When the day was finished, Capt. Nash and the Sabre Dog went back to Edwards AFB and continued their daily routine of testing the new interceptor.
Capt. Nash's record didn't stand long. On 16 July 1953, Lt. Colonel William Barnes, Air Material Command pilot representative at the North American Aviation Los Angeles plant, would make a record attempt. Again using the 3 km closed course set up over the Salton Sea dry lake bed, Lt. Col. Barnes made the FAI required four passes in F-86D-35 #51-6145, breaking the sonic barrier on each pass. His four passes were timed at 720.574, 710.515, 721.351, and 710.350 - an average of 715.697 mph - over 17 mph faster than Capt. Nash's record flights. Not only was Lt. Col. Barnes' F-86D a production airplane, he flew the record course with full combat loading including twenty-four 2.75" rockets in the tray!
Over the life span of the Sabre, from 1947 thru 1972, Sabres' held a number of other records. In January 1954. Colonel Willard Millikan, Commander of the DC Air National Guard, set a coast to coast speed mark in a standard F-86F. The story of Col. Millikan's flight can be found in SabreJet Classics, vol. 6, no. 3. Another coast to coast record was set by a California Air National Guard
F-86A under the code name "Boomerang". The story of that flight will be forthcoming in SabreJet Classics.
Records are made to be broken and within a few years all Sabre records had been broken. Technology had put other airplanes into the supersonic speed range and it wasn't long before the World Record was well over 1000 mph. However, for a least eight years, the F86 Sabre was the world's fastest production airplane.
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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