The Sharpest of the Sabres
The North American F-86 Sabre, which first flew in 1947, is among the most legendary of post Second World War fighter aircraft. Heir to the equally storied P-51 Mustang fighter, the Sabre’s success in the Korean War easily put it in league with its forbear.
In 1948, the Royal Canadian Air Force selected the Sabre as its new fighter. Part of the deal was a license to produce the aircraft in Canada; production of the Canadian Sabres would be carried out by the Canadair company of Montreal and would total 1,815 airframes.
Initially, the plan was simply for Canadair to assemble Sabres to the American standard using components shipped from North American Aviation in California. By the time Sabre production at Canadair concluded in 1958; it was a unique machine with several differences to set it apart from American versions. Indeed, the final Mk.6 version of the Canadair Sabre is widely considered to be the best and most capable of any day fighter Sabre variant built anywhere.
The Canadian chapter of the Sabre legend is a story in itself and worth looking at on its own to highlight its significance in the larger history of the type not only in RCAF service but also in relation to the role it played in the air defense of NATO nations in Europe during the early days of the Cold War.
Early Marks – Following the Plan
Canadair would produce six variations on the Sabre; the first of them, the Mk.1 and Mk.2 differed little from their American counterparts. The sole Mk.1 was built to the F-86A standard with parts provided by North American.
Canadair’s first major production version was the Mk.2. In keeping with the conditions of the license contract, this variant was built to an F-86E standard. A total of 350 Mk.2 aircraft were built between 1951 and 1952.
The RCAF squadrons equipped with the new Sabres were mostly deployed to support NATO forces in Europe and initially operated from bases in France, Germany and the UK. Significantly, the Canadair Sabres became the only swept wing fighter available to European NATO air forces through the early 1950s; a combination of the aircraft’s stunning performance and the proficiency of the RCAF pilots was a critical factor in the choice of several NATO air forces to select the type as their primary fighter during that time period.
Sixty Mk.2 Sabres were purchased by the U.S. Air Force due to a shortage of the type in the Korean War. These aircraft were delivered to California in early 1952 and deployed to Korea after some American specific modifications had been made to them.
The Middle Children – Mk.3 and Mk.4
As with the Mk.1, only a single example of the Sabre Mk.3 was constructed. The primary intent of the Mk.3 was to explore how the Sabre would function with the Canadian designed and built Orenda 3 engine. The intent to power the Sabre with a Canadian made engine had existed from the moment the license was granted to produce the type in Canada. The Mk.3 really was a proof of concept machine.
The Sabre required some internal modifications to accommodate the Orenda engine as it was slightly larger in diameter to the original General Electric unit; however, it was a successful marriage of aircraft to engine and laid the groundwork for the later Mk.5 and Mk.6.
Beyond proving the Orenda engine could work in the Sabre, it was also used to set some new speed records. Between May and June of 1953, with Jacqueline Cochrane at the controls, the Mk.3 Sabre was used to set a new speed record for women. While the Mk.3 was on loan to her, Cochrane also used it to become the first woman to break the sound barrier.
The hope of the Mk.3 was that the Orenda engine would be ready for the Mk.4 which entered production in 1952. However, the engine was not ready for service and the Mk.4 became very much and intermediary variant which retained the General Electric engine and, with the exception of some internal upgrades, was identical to the Mk.2.
The RCAF used some Mk.4 aircraft to fill the gap between the Mk.2 and Mk.5 while the Royal Air Force took the bulk of the Mk.4 production to replace the aging DeHavilland Vampire and Gloster Meteor fighters while waiting for the new Hawker Hunter and Supermarine Swift to enter service.
When their brief time in the RAF was finished, many of their Mk.4 Sabres were refurbished and found their way to other air forces, primarily Italy and Yugoslavia.
A Cut Above – Mk.5 and Mk.6
The Canadian Sabre truly came of age with the Mk.5 which debuted in 1953. powered by an Orenda 10 engine, the Mk.5 could reach 40,000 feet in half the time a Mk.2 could. Structurally, the Mk.5 required a strengthened rear fuselage to accommodate the larger engine; also, as it was optimized for high speed and high altitude missions, the Mk.5 was initially fitted with what was known as a “hard wing”. This meant that the wing lacked a movable slat on the wing leading edge that allowed for better low speed handling. Later, some Mk.5 aircraft were fitted with slats on the wings.
The Mk.5 quickly replaced remaining Mk.2 and Mk.4 Sabres in RCAF squadrons; as it did so, many of the older RCAF machines were refurbished and sold on to Greece and Turkey.
Late 1954 saw the first Mk.6 roll off the assembly line. This mark came to be seen by many as the ultimate dog fighter variation of the Sabre; with an Orenda 14 engine powering it, the Mk.6 had a significantly higher service ceiling than an American standard F-86F.
Most Mk.6 aircraft were built with slats on their wings; in conjunction with the power output of the Orenda 14, the combination of power and aerodynamics the Mk.6 possessed resulted in a machine of speed and maneuverability that was in a class by itself as far as day fighters of its era were concerned.
In 1956, West Germany reformed the Luftwaffe. By that time, the Sabre Mk.5 was well known and respected in the hands of Canadian pilots over the skies of West Germany and it was an easy decision for the Luftwaffe to choose the Mk.6 as the new fighter to equip its day fighter squadrons. An order was placed in December of 1956 for 225 factory fresh Mk.6 aircraft for the Luftwaffe.
In the meantime, the Luftwaffe was supplied with 75 ex RCAF Mk.5 Sabres so they could be trained on the Sabre while waiting for the Mk.6. The responsibility for training the Luftwaffe Sabre pilots would be carried out by the RCAF.
Back in Canada, the Mk.5 and later Mk.6 served as the mounts for the RCAF air demonstration team, the Golden Hawks, which existed from 1959 to 1964.
Canadian Sabres were popular and in demand beyond NATO users in both factory fresh and second hand forms. Other users of the Canadair Sabres included: Bangladesh, Colombia, Honduras, Pakistan and South Africa.
Argentina and Israel both ordered batches of Canadair Sabres, though both orders were cancelled before any aircraft were delivered.
Beyond the use of the Mk.2 Sabres which the U.S. Air Force purchased for use in Korea, the Canadian Sabre did see some combat in other areas of the world in its years of service.
In the late 1950s, a Yugoslavian air force Sabre shot down a Hungarian MiG-15 near the border between the two countries.
In 1963, five Sabres from the Italian air force were deployed to the Belgian Congo as part of UN peace keeping operations there.
Sabres of the Honduran air force, obtained from Yugoslavia in 1967, were used in the 1969 Soccer War between Honduras and El Salvador.
The Canadair Sabre also saw action with Pakistani pilots during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. Many of these aircraft came from ex-Luftwaffe stocks purchased in 1966, after the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965.
Survivors and Learning More
Legendary machine that it is, the Sabre has done very well in retirement with many preserved in museums worldwide and many of those being Canadair built examples.
Of the several airworthy Sabres known, my research pointed to possibly 15 of them being Canadair Mk.5 or Mk.6 machines on Canadian, South African and U.S. registries. How many of those are regular flyers and how many are in storage is another matter.
The following links will take you to further reading about the Canadian Sabre story:
This is a quite informative article about the training of Luftwaffe Sabre pilots:
For print based reference on the Canadair chapter of the Sabre story, though it is out of print and expensive when you find one, you’ll do no better than Larry Milberry’s exhaustive volume on the subject: