The F-86 Sabre was the first American-produced swept-wing fighter. It was developed after WWII from needs identified during the war. The U.S. needed escort jets for its bombers, which had evolved from propeller- to jet-engine-driven. The major bombers of WWII, the B-17, and the B-24 had the P-38, the P-47, and P-51 to act as escorts. These “P” (for pursuit fighters) could keep up with the bombers and well-answered the German Messerschmidt.

The U.S. had developed few jet fighters during WWII. One of them was the F-80 Shooting Star, which saw limited service in Italy in the waning days of the war. The Shooting Star was used extensively during the Korean War, but was woefully underpowered compared to the Soviet MiG-15.


Enter the F-86 Sabre

The Sabre came along during a transition period in America’s defense history. WWII was over and the threat of spreading Communism was palpable. Not only was a high-speed fighter needed, but a penetration bomber as well. The F-86 was developed in many variants to meet those needs.

Lockheed F-80C-10-LO Shooting Star
Lockheed F-80C-10-LO Shooting Star of the 49th Fighter-Bomber Group, Korea, 1950. (Wikimedia Commons)

North American Aviation (NAA) had built the P-51 for WWII. The Navy co-opted that design adding jet engines to it thus creating the Navy’s first jet-powered fighter/bomber/interceptor, the FJ-1. This aircraft shared wings, tail, and its cockpit design with the P-51 Mustang. The straight-wings of the FJ-1 could not reach the speeds required by the Air Force, so NAA had to go back to the drawing board.

In order to meet the USAAF’s requirements, NAA used data seized from German engineers to develop the swept-wing design that is now ubiquitous in aircraft design. Although met with resistance, NAA persevered in bringing the swept-wing design to reality.

A few wind-tunnel tests later, the swept-wing design was shown superior to straight-wing, and NAA rolled out the XP-86 (XP standing for experimental pursuit) in 1947. The plane had its first flight on 1 October of that year.

In September of 1948, an F-86A at Muroc Dry Lake set a world speed record of 671 mph. After being duly impressed, the Air Force ordered the F-86 in bulk. The fighter could not reach supersonic speeds in level flight, but could keep up with the MiG-15.