by Air Chief Marshal Jamal A. Khan, PAF (Ret)

The Republic of Pakistan turned fifty in August 1997, and so did the Pakistan Air Force. Pakistan is located in an area of crises and disputes, and its airmen play a major role in deterring neighborhood hegemons. During the fifty years, the PAF has had in its inventory over eighteen combat airplanes, from the British WW2 Tempest to the F-16 which the PAF flies today. Between these models there have been several British, American, French, and Chinese-built multi-role airplanes.

Of all the fighters that the PAF has operated, the most popular, by far, has been the F-86. This superb airplane remained in the inventory of the PAF for twenty three years, from 1956 to 1979. During that period, all told, the PAF inducted some 240 F-86s. Despite eighteen years having passed since the last Sabres were taken off flying status, Pakistani senior pilots still speak fondly of the F-86, its agility, handling qualities and exploits in peace and war.

Pakistan, long a Cold War ally (Gary Power's last U-2 flight over the Soviet Union was launched from a PAF base), received its first lot of thirty F-86Fs in mid-1956. By then a group of PAF pilots had already done its combat crew training on the Sabre in Texas and Arizona. This nucleus rapidly trained other pilots in all air and surface attack missions that the F-86F was designed for, and within three years quite a few high time pilots had crossed well over a thousand hours. By the time they went to war many of them had over two thousand hours and this, together with the F-86 itself, proved to be the key to their remarkable success.

The first thirty F-86Fs had "hard' wings that were later modified with slats and wingtip extensions. Their fire control system was based on the older A-4 gunsight and rather temperamental ranging radar. Then arrived the "Sports Models", ninety brand new F86F-40s, all delivered in 1957. These came with the full upgrades - extended wingtips, additional wing stores capabilities, Sidewinder missile wiring, the latest AA gunsight with radar, and separate rocketry and bombing control panels. The 147 engine was fully developed by then, and the pilots experienced only occasionally the troubles they had heard about in America regarding compressor stalls, thrown turbine blades and bearing seizures.

The latest series of slats worked flawlessly, giving the Sabre its superb maneuvering qualities to handle the toughest dynamics of air combat. Within a few years these outstanding attributes were tested in the wars of 1965 and 1971 with India, both of which confirmed the already high reputation of the F-86. During these conflicts, the PAF F-86s were frequently pitched against rival jets that enjoyed far better thrust-weight ratios. The Sabre nearly always outfought them and proved its ruggedness as well. After one of the air-to-air encounters, an F-86 returned with several holes in its aft fuselage and minus half an elevator, but the pilot barely noticed a minor vibration. The cumulative exchange ratio for both wars worked out to 1:5.6 in the Sabre's favor.

The PAF F-86s also lived up to this fighter's high reliability and in-commission rates that, for many years, remained above 80%. It regularly came out best in many gunnery meets and Allied CENTO/SEATO joint exercises. During the mid-1960s, the PAF managed to bolster its dwindling Sabre force by purchasing ninety ex-Luftwaffe F-86Es. These used machines had the more powerful Canadian Orenda 14 engines that could take the plane to well over 50,000 feet. The F-86E too became a favorite, one of them even shooting down a MiG-21 that tried to turn with it.

The F-86 played a leading role in projecting the air force image among the Pakistani youth, with regular air shows and open days at the air bases. The longest lasting formation acrobatic team of the PAF - the "Falcons" - performed with Sabres for over a decade. The team progressed through four, six, nine, and finally reached sixteen F-86Fs. The 16-ship loop, reported by the international aviation press as a first, was performed during one of the public displays in 1958. The F-86 appears as centerpiece of many war paintings of the PAF and carefully burnished Sabres can be seen mounted at the gates of the largest Pakistani air bases today. The Official History of the PAF pays this tribute to the Sabre: It was perhaps the finest of the generation of jet fighters which still permitted classic dog fights between adversaries, where the skill and determination of the fighter pilot remained the sole deciding factor."

note: The contributor of this piece checked out in the F-86F at Williams AFB, AZ, and flew the F-86 for the next eighteen years, including the three years that he was an F-104 Squadron Commander. Such weekend bargains were usually struck by offering his F-86 counterparts Mach 2 rides in his F-104B! The air marshal was the Chief of Staff of the PAF before he retired in 1988.

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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