4th September 2014 — She sits on the tarmac, gleaming and immaculate. The golden bird with red and white trim and adorned with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) roundel is pausing before flight for an instrument check. Having completed the checklist, the helmeted pilot advances throttle and the turbine engine responds, increasing in volume and pitch. Brakes are released and the Sabre begins its takeoff roll. Speed builds steadily until the nose lifts and the swept wings take hold of air. Quickly Hawk One rotates and climbs skyward, a thin trail of exhaust trailing from the powerplant. The magnificent flying machine climbs away to the joy and thrill of assembled spectators.
The stunning bird, a Canadair Sabre Mk. 5, is maintained and flown by Vintage Wings of Canada/Les ailes d’époque du Canada, the organization being a partnership between Vintage Wings of Canada, the Canadian Department of National Defence, Westjet Airlines (the official carrier of Hawk One team members) and additional private sector entities.
Canadair Limited produced 6 ‘marks’ or variants of the vaunted airplane at its Cartierville, Quebec (near Montreal) facility. The Sabre CL-13A/Mk. 5, a version of the famous North American F-86E fighter, incorporated the domestically-built Orenda 10 turbojet powerplant, the ‘6-3’ extended leading edge and wing fences. The first of the production run took to the sky on 30 July 1953. A total of 350 Mk. 5s were manufactured.
The best of the Sabre lineage was the CL 13B or Sabre 6. Powered by the Orenda 14 engine, the Mk. 6 had a top speed of 710 mph and a service ceiling of 55,000 feet. Like the Mk. 5 they were internally armed with six .50 calibre machine guns and could carry missiles and bombs on external pylons.
Some 60 Canadair Sabres went to the U.S. Air Force (a number of these were eventually distributed to Air National Guard squadrons) and into combat over South and North Korea. RCAF exchange pilots flight lieutenants J.A. Omer Levesque, E.A. Ernie Glover, Claude LaFrance, and squadron leaders J.D. Lindsay and John MacKay downed MiG-15s whilst at the controls of Sabres. Notably, Glover, in his Canadair, downed 3 and was credited with an additional trio of ‘probably destroyed’ enemies.
R.Y. Costain, a member of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association and an aviator with experience in both the Sabre 5 and 6, piloted Mk. 5 drones “both as a safety pilot and remotely” at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. He commented that the Canadair planes “were marvellous fighters. I fell in love with them right away.”
At one point more than 300 RCAF Sabres were based in England, France and West Germany. The aeroplanes were part of Canada’s contribution to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s deterrent to the communist Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. The sleek and nimble jets served as interceptors/day fighters.
Beginning in 1962 Sabres were gradually replaced by supersonic Canadair CF-104 Starfighters.
After the Sabres were phased out of service in Europe in 1963, the planes continued to be employed as fighter trainers for future CF-104 pilots. The unit they comprised was known as the Sabre Transition Unit, and the last training flight occurred at Canadian Forces Base Chatham in New Brunswick during December 1968.
Hawk One is a Canadair Sabre 5 which was constructed in 1954 and assigned the RCAF serial number 23314. The turbojet entered air force inventory on 14 September of that year and was removed or ‘struck off’ on 9 September 1970.
“Resurrect, Celebrate and Motivate” served as the refurbishment theme applied to Hawk One. Her livery replicates the colours of the legendary Golden Hawks aerobatic team, the RCAF performers who thrilled Canadians over the course of five air show seasons starting in 1959.
Hawk One has been retrofitted with wings possessing leading edge slats and an Orenda 14 engine. Therefore, the aircraft resembles and performs much like a Sabre 6. The jet was obtained by Vintage Wings of Canada/Les ailes d’époque du Canada in October 2007 and flew as a participant in the 2009 Centennial Heritage Flight.
On 14 January 2009 Hawk One began sporting the new ‘Golden Hawk/100th anniversary’ paint scheme. One noted aviator who flew, on 22 February 2009, the stunning airplane is Canadian Space Agency astronaut Colonel (Ret.) Chris Hadfield.
Pierre Clément, Hawk One Team Lead/Chef d’Équipe Hawk One indicates that the marvelous “Hawk One will return to the skies in 2015 with a full season from the Pacific to the Atlantic.” Monsieur Clément added, “International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield is rumoured to be back to fly Hawk One in 2015, and astronaut Jeremy Hansen is on the team.”
Anyone who has seen a Sabre flying will readily attest to the gracefulness of the type, and a Hawk One performance should not be missed. All aviation aficionados residing above and below the U.S.-Canada border should endeavour to see one of the venerable Canadian avis’ aerial displays.
The author (John T. Stemple) thanks Pierre Clément, Wings of Canada, R.Y. Costain, the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association, and photographers Peter Handley and Gustavo Corujo.
Sources and Suggested Readings
Aircraft Registry – Sabre
Canadian Forces Snowbirds
Could You Fly a Sabre? The challenge of handling a 1950s MiG killer
Davis, Larry, F-86 Sabre in Action – Aircraft No. 33, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1978.
Dogfights: Season One: MiG Alley, History Channel (2006) ISBN 0-7670-9518-9.
F-86 Sabre Pilots Association
Green, William and Gordon Swanborough, The Complete Book of Fighters, New York: Smithmark, 1994, p. 106.
Joos, Gerhard, The Canadair Sabre (Profile Publications No. 186), Leatherhead, England: Profile Publications, Ltd., 1967.
Milberry, Larry, The Canadair Sabre, Toronto: CANAV Books, 1986.
The Golden Hawks
Wing and a Prayer – Sabre F-86 – A Fighter Pilot’s Fighter