Perhaps the best F-86: Canadair’s Sabre Mk. 6 turning 60


CAAM F-86 leaves for Chino, CA. Photo: CAAM
CAAM’s Mk. 6 departing for new home in Chino, CA.
Photo: CAAM.

12th September 2014 (updated 15thSeptember 2014) – Anyone who served in NATO air forces in the 1950s through the middle 1960s, viewed the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) ‘Golden Hawks‘ and ‘Sky Lancers‘ aerial demonstration teams, or thrilled as famed pilot Robert Anderson “Bob” Hoover performed incredible manoeuvres with a North American F-86 most probably admired and fondly remember the Sabre Jet.

RCAF Sabre Mk V 23285 served with No. 1 (F) OTU at Chatham, New Brunswick before becoming civil CF-BKG and N8686D.
RCAF Sabre Mk V 23285 served with No. 1 (F) OTU at Chatham, New Brunswick before becoming civil CF-BKG and N8686D.


Of the many versions of this very successful and famous airplane, many former pilots and historians are of the opinion that the Canadair Sabre CL-13B (Sabre Mk. 6/Sabre 6) was the best of the lineage, although some Royal Australian Air Force personnel, having flown the superb Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Sabre (also known as the Avon Sabre or CA-27), might perhaps justifiably disagree. The first production Sabre 6 was completed on 2 November 1954 — 60 years ago.

The Golden Hawks in 1959. Canadian Department of National Defence photo PCN 183
The Golden Hawks in 1959.
Canadian Department of National Defence photo PCN 183.

More than 45 years earlier, and after the introduction of the F-86F, the sleek, seemingly proud, swept-wing turbojet fighters, with their characteristic all-moving tailplane and distinctive tricycle undercarriages, were considered the best in the world. A Valiant Air Command Web page states, “The North American F-86 Sabre was arguably the most successful and elegant American fighter of the 1950s.” Furthermore, Korean War U.S. Air Force (USAF) ace Robinson Risner referred (Discovery Channel: MiG Alley) to the F-86 as, “My little sports car.” Gerhard Joos states (page 5), “In fact, it [the Mk. 6] was the best version in overall performance of all . . . versions built, including the FJ-4 Fury.”

The Sky Lancers. Photo: RCAF.

In 1948 the RCAF selected the F-86A with the intent of fitting the Avro Canada Orenda powerplant. On 30 July 1953 a pre-production Canadair Sabre, designated CL-13A Sabre 5, took wing under the power of the long-delayed turbojet. The Canadian engine was larger in diameter than the F-86’s General Electric J47, and this necessitated some structural modifications beginning with the Mk. 5.

North American F-86F Sabre formation during the Korean War 1953. Photo: USAF
North American F-86F Sabre formation in 1953.
Photo: USAF.


The ongoing Korean Conflict was stimulating demand for Sabres, which were the only Western fighters capable of countering Communist pilots flying MiG-15s. As a result some Canadair Sabres were taken into USAF inventory and shipped to the Korean theatre of operations.

In combat Sabres were credited (USAF) with a 10:1 kill to loss ratio. Notably, several RCAF exchange pilots scored MiG kills while at the controls of Sabres.

A Canadair Sabre Mk. 6.
A Canadair Sabre Mk. 6.

The Mk. 6 featured the Orenda 14 of 7,275 pounds of static thrust, and, a few early production aircraft aside, the CL-13B Mk. 6 incorporated the famous ‘6-3’ wing. “This, in combination with the weight saving and increased thrust of the Orenda 14, made the Mk. 6 the best of all Canadair-built Sabres,” wrote Gerhard Joos (page 5).

The CL-13B Sabre 6s’ wing leading edge slats and the more powerful (7,275 lbs of thrust) two-stage Orenda 14 gave the Sabres a top speed of 710 mph. Internal armament consisted of 6 M2 Browning 0.50 calibre machine guns (with 1,602 rounds in total). Externally, a variety of rockets and bombs could be carried depending upon the mission. These included 2 Matra rocket pods with 18 SNEB 68 mm rockets each, 2 AIM-9 Sidewinders, 5,300 pounds of bombs on four external hard points, napalm bomb canisters, or a tactical nuclear weapon. The CL-13C Sabre 6 featured an afterburner. The result was an aeroplane that possessed excellent low-speed characteristics, manoeuvrability and transonic speed. The first production model left the assembly line on 2 November 1954. A total of 655 were built. The production run ended on 9 October 1958.

Sabres of 421 Squadron at RCAF Station Grostenquin France in June 1957. Canadian Department of National Defence photo PCN 109
Sabres of 421 Squadron at RCAF Station Grostenquin, France, in June 1957. Canadian Department of National Defence photo PCN 109.

The Mk. 6 was a sweet flying machine. Joos stated (page 12) that the Canadair Sabres “have earned an unrivalled reputation for excellence in performance and dependability; their flying characteristics are superb, and no pilot who ever took a Sabre up into the air has judged it other than enthusiastically.”

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.” Mr. Costain flatly stated the following: “I have flown 8 different kinds of fighters over the years, and the Mk. 6 was my favourite.”

J.R. Alley, President of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association, remarked, “After I retired from the Air Force I joined up with Flight Systems Inc., later Tracor/BAE Systems, and flew contract support missions with Canadiar T-133s and Canadair Sabre 5s/6s. I flew Sabre 5s/6s for nearly 20 more years and over 1500 hours.” Mr. Alley continued, “Of all the jet fighter type aircraft I have flown, T-37, T-33, F-86, F-89D,H,J, F-94B,C, T-38, F-100C,D,F, F-106A and the F-4C,D,E, RF, the Sabre 6 was my favourite.”

“As for a special event I had with the Sabre 6 that made it so special,” remarked Mr. Alley, “I had one in particular.  It would have been the same with any of the day fighter versions.  Just after takeoff on a particular mission, the engine flamed out as I was raising the flaps.  I had such confidence in the Sabre that I broke the ‘Golden Rule’ of ejecting or crash landing straight ahead and zoomed with the little airspeed I had. I ‘hammerheaded’ back around, lowered the landing gear at the last second and landed on the runway from which I had just taken off.” He noted, “I was flying our company F-100s at that time as well and I would never have attempted doing that in a Super Sabre.”

By the middle 1950s, with fighting in Korea abated, the Cold War was nonetheless still in effect. The Sabre was already a legend, and a number of nations actively sought the fighters for their air forces. Canadair, as mentioned above, was producing the best of the lot. Thus, potential customers made enquiries.

Even fledgling Israel expressed interest in the Sabre and subsequently evaluated the fighter. Larry Milberry wrote (page 323) in The Canadair Sabre that during 1955 Israel and Canadair concluded a purchase agreement. “Israel,” stated Milberry, “was quickly sold on the Sabre 6 as the airplane for its needs.” A few were painted (page 324) in Israel Air Force markings, but the deal fell through due to Canadian government intervention. Gerhard Joos recorded (page 5) that the “24 Mk. 6s intended for Israel were cancelled for political reasons.” “The Israelis,” Milberry summarized (p. 324), “could hardly put up with delays and quickly re-equipped with French Mystère 4s, functional if less glamorous airplanes than the Sabre 6.” Milberry’s latter statement was supported by Brig. Gen. (Res.) Yalo Shavit of the Israel Air Force. The brigadier explained, in the video Clear Skies: The Story of the Israeli Air Force (I.A.F.), that if a pilot makes a mistake “American aircraft do forgive you.” Unlike Sabres, the contemporary Dassault MD.454 Mystère IV Shavit stated, “There was no forgiveness. You have to fly it one hundred percent.”

No aircraft is without its deficiencies, and Mr. Costain commented about Sabre 6s. “The Orenda 14,” he said, “in the Mk. 6 gave us problems. We had a number of failures over the years, including one when I was flying 60 miles out at sea. The Martin-Baker ejection seat (subjecting ejecting pilots to 22 Gs) broke my back. “As it usually does,” replied the Martin-Baker technical representative when R.Y. informed him about the incident.

During the 1950s and early 1960s NATO fighters were facing Soviet and Communist Bloc MiG-15s and MiG-17s. With highly trained RCAF and Luftwaffe aviators at their controls, the nimble Sabre Mk. 6 was able to effectively challenge these adversaries and, although slower, could cope with MiG-19s and MiG-21s in turning fights. R.Y. Costain provided his experience-based insight: “The Sabre 6 manoeuvred well against other fighters including the Mk. 5.”

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) took Mk. 6s into combat primarily against Hawker Hunters, Sukhoi Su-7 Fitters and Folland Gnats in the midst of the Indo-Pakistan War on 1971. PAF Group Captain Sultan M. Hali is quoted in Defence Notes: F-86 F&E Sabres in Pakistan Air Force (Defence Journal) as indicating that the PAF “purchased 90 ex-Luftwaffe Orenda-engined Sabre Mk-6s known in PAF as F-86Es. The Sabres were phased out after exhausting their airframe life in 1980.” Furthermore, he adds, “During its twenty four years stay with Pakistan Air Force, the Sabres and their pilots saw meritorious service.” As in the U.S., Canada and Germany, Sabres are revered in Pakistan.

Had the ‘outmoded’ Sabres lost their dogfighting prowess to fourth-generation types coming into USAF inventory during the 1970s? J.R. Alley remarked, “The Mk. 6 was awesome and I was able to put it to test on many occasions with F-15 and F-16s.  I could match them very well while in close and fighting. However, I could not disengage to re-attack as they had much more acceleration capability.” Mr. Alley added, “After mission debriefings, however, the 15/16 jocks were very impressed with what the Mk. 6 . . . could do if the Sabres stayed in tight with the Eagles and Fighting Falcons.”

Sabre Mk 6 N86EX at Nelis AFB 1997. Copyright: Gerhard Plomitzer 0232204. Used with permission.
Sabre Mk. 6 N86EX at Nelis AFB in 1997.
Copyright: Gerhard Plomitzer 0232204. Used with permission.

In 1997 a Mk. 6 (Construction Number 1489 FAA Registration N86EX) suffered a fatal mishap in at Broomfield Colorado, when an experienced pilot, according to the accident investigation findings, misjudged the altitude needed to complete a loop and dove into the ground during an aerial exhibition.

A local spectator, an aircraft maintenance technician who had witnessed the routine the previous day, stated the following: “I was just off the runway when the highly polished and gleaming bird roared past and lifted into the bright blue and thin air. What a sight!” “However,” he stated, “I soon became uneasy as the pilot aggressively put the venerable and rare aeroplane through its paces.” The witness stated that, “Aileron and snap rolls were generously featured and toward the conclusion a loop was completed down low. I must admit that it was a relief when the vintage fighter safely landed.” He sadly added, “When it was announced Sunday afternoon during an evening news promo that a classic airplane had crashed during a performance I intuitively knew that the aircraft was the Sabre. My heart sank even before my intuitive conclusion was confirmed,” said the despondent aficionado. The gentlemen concluded his thoughts by stating, “The instantaneous feeling that came over me was a sickening sadness. It was a shame to lose an accomplished pilot and an irreplaceable airplane.  The unfortunate incident was such a tragedy.”

CAAM's former Canadair Sabre 6.
CAAM’s former Canadair Sabre 6.

With the passage of time and accident attrition, very few examples of airworthy Sabres may still be seen today. The Classic Aircraft Aviation Museum (CAAM) recently ferried its Sabre 6, which noted J.R. Alley, was one of Flight Systems’ Dart tow Sabres during his tenure with the firm, to a new home at Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California.

Still performing is an immaculate Mk. 5 (Hawk One) which is maintained and flown by Vintage Wings of Canada/Les ailes d’époque du Canada. “Resurrect, Celebrate and Motivate” was the theme behind the refurbishment of this classic RCAF F-86 Sabre 5 (Canadair Serial Number 23314). She wears the colours of the legendary Golden Hawks aerobatic team, an RCAF unit that thrilled Canadians from coast-to-coast for five airshow seasons commencing in 1959.

Hawk One.
Hawk One.

Vintage Wings of Canada/Les ailes d’époque du Canada is a unique 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.  Originally a Sabre 5, Hawk One has had leading edge slots installed giving the Sabre the appearance of a Mk. 6.

Pierre Clément, Hawk One Team Lead/Chef d’Équipe Hawk One indicates that the marvellous “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.”

Hawk OneA hearty “Happy Birthday!” to the Sabre Mk. 6 is in order, and congratulations are also due to Canada on the Commonwealth country’s 105th anniversary of flight.


The author (John T. Stemple) thanks J.R. Alley & R.Y. Costain of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association, Pierre Clément of Vintage Wings of Canada/Les ailes d’époque du Canada, Douglas Donkel (Executive Director of the Classic Aircraft Aviation Museum), and photographers Peter Handley and Gustavo Corujo for their contributions to this article.

Suggested Viewings

The Golden Hawks

The Sabre

The Ultimate MiG-Killer, the F-86F

Valiant Air Command

Wilson, Stewart, North American F-86 Sabre, Bungendore, New South Wales, Australia: Notebook Publications, 2002.

Wing and a Prayer – Sabre F-86 – A Fighter Pilot’s Fighter