I can’t believe it’s already October! This year has rocketed by. The fall colors, which we suspected would be pretty dismal due to our super-dry summer, have exploded in an array of colors I never would have imagined. The reds and yellows and oranges are spectacular, offset by skies as blue as azure and temperatures that have been perfect. We still aren’t getting any precipitation, but this weather has been awesome.
So it’s a bit of a shame that I’m still laid up. The herniated disk (disc?) continues to frustrate me some, but at this time tomorrow morning (~7:30am), I’ll be heading into surgery. The surgeon predicts a “LensCrafters” performance (success…in about an hour). It’s my first time under the knife (not counting wisdom teeth), so I’m a bit nervous, but if they can get things squared away, that would be great.
October 1, 1947.
It was on this day that test pilot George Welch took to the skies in a revolutionary new aircraft. Well, it was revolutionary for the United States. The XP-86 was North American Aviation’s first serious jet fighter, and it was the first American jet to be produced with swept wings. But we got a little help on this one.
North American’s P-51 Mustang was, quite probably, the pinnacle of piston-engine aircraft. Range, speed, climb, maneuverability, the Mustang had it all. As the Second World War wound down, it dominated the skies, regardless of theater. But by 1944, even it’s most ardent fans knew the proverbial writing was on the wall. Jet power was the wave of the future, as it promised far better performance. And what’s more, Germany’s Luftwaffe was already putting jet power to use. The Me-262 and the even faster (though much less practical and less safe) Me-163 entered production before the end of the War, putting the world’s air forces on notice as to what was possible.
So it’s somewhat understandable that the Allied race to Berlin (Russia from the east, the U.S. and Britain from the west) was about more than securing territory and ending the fighting. Each side, while warring against Germany, was in a battle to capture these German scientists before the other in order to gain a competitive advantage in what was shaping up to be a post-war “falling out of the Allies.”
Back to our story.
North American’s first attempts at jet aircraft involved basically hooking jets up to Mustang wings and airframes. But even with piston engines, the P-51 had reached the limits of its potential. The straight wings simply created too much resistance as it was. There was no way jets could be used. But the German scientists had figured out several years prior that swept wings allowed for higher performance by greatly reducing drag, and any loss of low-speed stability could be countered by the simple addition of leading-edge slats.
The engineers took these ideas, headed back to the drawing boards, and revamped their design. The aircraft that took to the skies on this day was the beginning of yet another remarkable product from North American. Though initially under-powered, the XP-86 would evolve into one of the finest fighters of its generation. It flew with great distinction in the Korean War as well as dozens of conflicts around the world in the service of other air forces. There were numerous variants produced, both here and in other countries under license, and they served for years, with the last Sabres being retired from the Bolivian air force in 1994.
The United States Air Force dropped the “P” (for “Pursuit”) designation, replacing it with “F” (for “Fighter”). So our XP-86 became, in production, the North American F-86 Sabre, and more Sabres were produced (upwards of 10,000) than any other jet-powered U.S. fighter.
And one other thing…
There are unsubstantiated claims that Welch’s first flight also included the first trip beyond the sound barrier…achieved in a shallow dive.