Civilian Operators and Army/Navy Drone Sabres

by Larry Davis

During the 1970s, the US government acquired large quantities of Sabre air frames, mostly Canadalr and Mitsubishi manufacture. Their use varied from that of target tug to unmanned drone. And more than a few were flown as aggressor aircraft, much to the chagrin of unknowing F-14 and F-4 pilots. Flight Systems Incorporated, based at Mojave, California, was one of the main civil contractors to use the Sabre. They acquired some 55 Canadair CL-13A Sabre Mk. S aircraft, 6 CL-13B Sabre Mk. 6s, and a number of Mitsubishi F-86F and RF-86F aircraft.

The Sabres were used as high altitude remote piloted vehicles, commonly called a Full Scale Aerial Target or FSAT. Most were modified using the Vega Precision Laboratories ground control system, or the IBM Drone Formation Control System (DFCS). Externally, the F-86 drones usually had no gun ports, and had a small antenna either atop or underneath the nose intake. There were large, black antenna panels midway down the fuselage sides, and a Vega System antenna cable on the left side of the aft fuselage. Some had large antenna panels in the fin tip.

The FSI aircraft were used to test new munitions, ECM pods, flares; and to test new air-to-air or surf ace-to-air missile systems. Except for 'live-fire' missile tests, the Sabres were flown with a human pilot aboard. On 'live-fire' missions, the Sabres were flown by a controller in the Vega Systems van on the ground. 'Live-Fire' missions used missiles without warheads. If the 'live-fire' mission resulted in a hit or near-miss that crippled the drone Sabre, the aircraft had a self-destruct panel so that the ground controller could destroy the Sabre.

The US Army utilized a number of these FSAT Sabres during tests of the Stinger shoulder-fired, heat seeking surface-to-air missile at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, and to monitor the 'live-fire' test flights of the new Pershing II missile. The US Navy had a similar operation utilizing FSAT Sabres, both F and H models, at the Naval Weapons Center, China take NAS. The US Air Force operated several FSAT Sabres for weapons tests at Edwards AFB.

Army drone Sabres were all designated QF-86E, as most owed their ancestry to Cariadair Sabres of some type. Air Force and Navy designated their FSAT Sabres based on the original type, i.e. QF-86F-40 and QRF-86F. The Navy had a number of ex-National Guard Hs, that were operated by VX-4 as aggressor aircraft in the TOP GUN program. The QF-86H looked and flew a similar flight envelope to the MiG-17, which US forces were still encountering in the skies over North Vietnam. The drone Sabre 'live-fire' missions are flown NOLO, or No Onboard Live Operator. Since no warheads were fitted to the 'live-fire' missiles attempting to shoot down the FSAT Sabres, the drone aircraft could be flown again and again, unless an unlucky hit resulted in catastrophic damage. It was then that the Vega ground controller would use the self-destruct mechanism. However, the Sabres were a tough breed, and one Army QF-86E survived 17 missile attacks.

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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