Posts Tagged ‘North American F-86 Sabre’

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.

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Well, the calendar calls, even though no one will be paying attention to Today’s History Lesson…except maybe me.  The Super Bowl tends to drown out all other distractions.  My favorite commercial was probably that first Doritos commercial with the dog, followed by the VW/Star Wars commercial.  The game was fantastic to watch, and I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did, even if your Patriots lost.  I was neutral tonight, and that makes the game way more entertaining.

Anyways, I won’t take a lot of your time.

On February 5, 1958, the U.S. Air Force got its B-47 Stratojet in its F-86 Sabre.  Or maybe the U.S. Air Force got its F-86 Sabre in its B-47 Stratojet.  And while the idea has worked incredibly well for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, it doesn’t have the same happy result when high-speed aircraft are the two ingredients.  And it’s particularly bad when the center of the result is not delicious – no, scrumptious – creamy peanut butter, but a thermonuclear bomb.

The B-47 had taken off from Florida on a simulated combat mission and in the wee morning hours, collided with the Sabre.  The fighter pilot was able to safely eject from his stricken plane, but the bomber guys had a bit of a problem.  Their aircraft was also badly damaged and barely flyable, and the plane needed to be lightened to keep her in the air.  But the plane’s lone occupant (besides the crew) was a Mk-15 thermonuclear device.

The Mk-15 was a tactical weapon, which meant it was fairly small as nuclear bombs went, weighing 7,500 pounds.  And like other instances we’ve discussed, just dropping a nuclear bomb doesn’t guarantee a nuclear detonation, because of all the safety devices that are in place.  And nearly all of these weapons were “two-stage”, with a small warhead that triggered the nuclear cataclysm.  So the bomb reaches it “trigger height”, the small warhead explodes, and (if all the safeties are turned off) the “big one” goes off.  As it turns out, this particular bomb didn’t have the “small exploder” in it (it was a training mission after all).  But still, hitting the surface (whether land or water) might be enough to break the bomb apart, causing radiation from the uranium core to leach into the surroundings.

Got all that?

All that stuff ran through the minds of the pilots way faster than I could type it, and after contacting their superiors, the decision was made to ditch the bomb.  So they dropped it off the coast of Georgia, presumably off Tybee Island, which sits just a handful of miles from Savannah.

There was no visible explosion, so that was good news.  The bad news?  When search crews tried to find the bomb, they couldn’t.  And now we’re what?…54 years later?  That bomb still hasn’t been found.

Anyway, I’m not an expert, but if I’m going to go on an off-shore fishing trip, it’ll be down in Florida, or maybe Alaska, or anywhere not named Tybee Island.

Recommended Reading:  SAC Chart of Nuclear Bombs – A nice comparison of the various nukes.

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