All posts by Joe Baugher

About Joe Baugher

Joseph F. Baugher is a retired physicist, software engineer, and author, who has also written articles on aviation. He graduated from Gettysburg College in 1963 and studied physics under Philip J. Bray at Brown University, receiving a Ph.D. in 1968. Baugher's American Military Aircraft website provides detail from the initial design phases to the final fate of the built aircraft, covering practically all the US fighter and bomber models, and several foreign types as well.

North American F-86A Sabre

USA flag old United States of America (1947)
Jet Fighter – 554 Built

F-86A-1-NA Sabre 47-630 in flight (North American Aviation)

The iconic F-86A got its first official production underway with the A series in 1947, with the initial examples fulfilling many testing duties, followed by a larger second production batch for active service. The development of these first Sabres would address many teething problems with the aircraft’s engines, speed brakes, and weaponry.  The A models, alongside many other first generation American jet aircraft would go on to see a few short years of service in the Korean theatre as well as defense of the United States before being eclipsed by the relatively rapid development of more advanced jet designs.


The P-86A was the first production version of the Sabre. North American had received an order for 33 production P-86As on November 20, 1946, even before the first XF-86 prototype had flown. The P-86A was outwardly quite similar to the XP-86, with external changes being very slight. About the only noticeable external difference was that the pitot tube was moved from the upper vertical fin to a position inside the air intact duct.

Major Richard L. Johnson, USAF with F-86A-1-NA Sabre 47-611 and others at Muroc AFB, 15 September 1948. (F-86 Sabre, by Maurice Allward)

The first production block consisted of 33 P-86A-1-NAs, ordered on October 16, 1947. These were known as NA-151 on North American company records. Serials were 47-605 through 47-637. Since there were officially no YP-86 service test aircraft, this initial production block effectively served as such.

The first production P-86A-1-NA (serial number 47-605) flew for the first time on May 20, 1948. The first and second production machines were accepted by the USAF on May 28, 1948, although they both remained at Inglewood on bailment to North American for production development work. Aircraft no. 47-605 was not actually sent to an Air Force base until April 29, 1950. It remained at WPAFB until May of 1952, when it was retired to storage at the Griffiss Air Depot.

In June of 1948, the P-86 was redesignated F-86 when the P-for-pursuit category was replaced by F-for-fighter

By March of 1949 the last F-86A-1-NA (47-637) had been delivered. Most of the 33 F-86A-1-NAs built were used for various tests and evaluations, and none actually entered squadron service.

The first production block to enter squadron service was actually the second production batch, 188 of which were ordered on February 23, 1949. They were assigned the designation of F-86A-5-NA by the USAF, but continued to be carried as NA-151 on company records. Serials were 48-129 to 48-316. These were powered by the J47-GE-7 jet engine. Deliveries began in March of 1949 and were completed in September of 1949.

A contract for 333 additional F-86As was received on May 29, 1948, and the final contract was approved on February 23, 1949. These aircraft were assigned a new designation of NA-161 on North American company records, but continued to be designated F-86A-5-NA in USAF records. Their serials were 49-1007 to 49-1229. These were powered by the General Electric J47-GE-13 engine which offered 5200 pounds of static thrust. The cockpit wiring was simplified. New 120-gallon drop tanks, developed specifically for the F-86, were introduced during this production run. Deliveries commenced in October of 1949 and were completed by December of 1950. The 282nd F-86A aircraft had a redesigned wing trailing edge with shorter chord aileron and greater elevator boost. Deliveries commenced October 1949 and ended in December 1950.

First Deployment

The first USAF combat organization to receive the F-86A was the First Fighter Group based at March AFB in California, with the famous “Hat in the Ring” 94th Squadron being the first to take delivery when they traded in their F-80s for the F-86A-5-NA during February of 1949. The 27th and 71st Squadrons were equipped with F-86A-5-NAs next, and by the end of May of 1949 the group had 83 F-86As on strength. This group was charged with the aerial defense of the Los Angeles area, which, coincidentally, is where the North American Aviation factory was located. Next to get the F-86 the the 4th Fighter Group based at Langley AFB, charged with the defense of Washington, D.C, and then the 81st Fighter Group, based at Kirtland AFT and charged with the defense of the nuclear bomb facilities at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Next came the 33rd Fighter Group based at Otis AFB in Massachusetts, charged with defending the northeastern approaches into the USA. In January of 1950, all air defense units were redesignated as Fighter Interceptor Groups (FIGs) or Fighter Interceptor Wings (FIWs) as a part of the Air Defense Command.

Origin of the “Sabre” Name

In February of 1949, there was a contest held by the First Fighter Group to choose a name for their new fighter. The name *Sabre* was selected, and was made official on March 4, 1949.


The first Sabres that went to Reserve units were assigned to the 116th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the Air National Guard, which received its first F-86As on December 22, 1950.

The following Wings were issued with the F-86A:

  • 1st Fighter Interceptor Wing (27th, 75st and 94th Squadrons)
  • 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing (334th, 335th, 336th Squadrons)
  • 33rd Fighter Interceptor Wing (58th, 59th and 60th Squadrons)
  • 56th Fighter Interceptor Wing (61st, 62nd, 63rd Squadrons)
  • 81st Fighter Interceptor Wing (78th, 89st, 92nd Squadron)

The F-86A was replaced in active USAF service by the F-86E beginning in the autumn of 1951. As F-86As left active USAF service, they were refurbished, reconditioned and transferred to Air National Guard units in the United States. The first ANG units to get the F-86A were the 198th Squadron in Puerto Rico, the 115th and 195th Squadrons at Van Nuys, California, the 196th at Ontario, and the 197th at Phoenix, Arizona.

Record Breaker

In the summer of 1948, the world’s air speed record was 650.796 mph, set by the Navy’s Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak research aircraft on August 25, 1947. Like the record-setting Lockheed P-80R before it, the Skystreak was a “one-off” souped-up aircraft specialized for high speed flight. The USAF thought that now would be a good time to show off its new fighter by using a stock, fully-equipped production model of the F-86A to break the world’s air speed record.

Major Richard L. Johnson on the day of his record-breaking flight, September 15th, 1948 (

To get the maximum impact, the Air Force decided to make the attempt on the speed record in the full glare of publicity, before a crowd of 80,000 spectators at the 1948 National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. The fourth production F-86A-1-NA (serial number 47-608, the cold weather test aircraft) was selected to make the record attempt, and Major Robert L. Johnson was to be the pilot. According to Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) rules, a 3km (1.86 mile) course had to be covered twice in each direction (to compensate for wind) in one continuous flight. At that time, the record runs had to be made at extremely low altitudes (below 165 feet) to enable precise timing with cameras to be made.

On September 5, 1948, Major Johnson was ready to go and flew his F-86A-1-NA serial number 47-708 on six low-level passes over the course in front of the crowd at Cleveland. Unfortunately, timing difficulties prevented three of these runs from being clocked accurately. In addition, interference caused by other aircraft wandering into the F-86A’s flight pattern at the wrong time prevented some of the other runs from being made at maximum speed. Even though the average of the three runs that were timed was 669.480 mph, the record was not recognized as being official by the FAI.

Further attempts to set an official record at Cleveland were frustrated by bad weather and by excessively turbulent air. Major Johnson then decided to move his record-setting effort out to Muroc Dry Lake (later renamed Edwards AFB), where the weather was more predictable and the air less turbulent. On September 15, 1948, Major Johnson finally succeeded in setting an official record of 670.981 mph by flying a different F-86A-1-NA (serial number 47-611, the armaments test aircraft) four times over a 1.86-mile course at altitudes between 75 and 125 feet.


F-86A-1 47-611 Conducting a Static 5-inch HVAR Rocket Firing Test (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The P-86A incorporated as standard some of the changes first tested on the third XP-86 prototype. The front-opening speed brakes on the sides of the rear fuselage were replaced by rear-opening brakes, and the underside speed brake was deleted. However, the most important difference between the P-68A and the three XP-86 prototypes was the introduction of the 4850 lb.s.t. General Electric J47-GE-1 (TG-190) in place of the 4000 lb.s.t. J35. The two engines had a similar size, the J47 differing from the J35 primarily in having a twelfth compressor stage.

The F-86A-1-NA fighters could be recognized by their curved windshields and the flush-fitting electrically-operated gun muzzle doors that maintained the smooth surface of the nose. These muzzle doors opened automatically when the trigger was pressed to fire the guns, and closed automatically after each burst.

The cockpit of the F-86A remained almost the same as that of the XP-86, although certain military equipment was provided, such as an AN/ARC-3 VHF radio, an AN/ARN-6 radio compass, and an AN/APX-6 IFF radar identification set. The IFF set was equipped with a destructor which was automatically activated by impact during a crash or which could be manually activated by the pilot in an emergency. This was intended to prevent the codes stored in the device from being compromised by capture by the enemy. The F-86A was provided with a type T-4E-1 ejection seat, with a manually-jettisoned canopy.

The F-86A-1-NA’s empty weight was up to 10,077 pounds as compared to the prototype’s 9730 pounds, but the higher thrust of the J-47 engine increased the speed to 673 mph at sea level, which made the F-86A-1-NA almost 75 mph faster than the XP-86. Service ceiling rose from 41,200 feet to 46,000 feet. The initial climb rate was almost twice that of the XP-86.

In the autumn of 1948, problems with the J-47-GE-1 engine of the early F-86As forced a momentary halt to F-86 production. It was followed by a few J47-GE-3s, and in December the J47-GE-7 became available, which offered 5340 lb.s.t. and full production resumed.

A close up of the early A models’ retractable gunport covers. (Julien of Britmodeller)

The F-86A-5-NA had a V-shaped armored windscreen which replaced the curved windscreen of the F-86A-1-NA. The A-5 would dispense with the gun doors at some point in its production in the interest of maintenance simplicity, although many A-5 examples can be seen with gun doors, many of them with the doors permanently open. A jettisonable cockpit canopy was introduced. The A-5 introduced underwing pylons capable of carrying a variety of bombs (500 and 1000-pounders) or underwing fuel tanks of up to 206 gallons in capacity. A heating system was provided for the gun compartments, and stainless steel oil tanks and lines were provided for better fire resistance.

In May of 1949, beginning with the 100th F-86A aircraft, an improved canopy defrosting system was installed and a special coating was applied to the nose intake duct to prevent rain erosion. Earlier airframes were retrofitted to include these changes. The 116th F-86A was provided with a new wing slat mechanism which eliminated the lock and provided a fully automatic operation.

Gun Sight & Radar

The P-86A was equipped with the armament first tested on the third XP-86 six 0.50-inch machine guns in the nose, three on each side of the pilot’s cockpit. The guns had a rate of fire of 1100 rounds per minute. Each gun was fed by an ammunition canister in the lower fuselage holding up to 300 rounds of ammunition. The ammunition bay door could be opened up to double as the first step for pilot entry into the cockpit. The P-86A had two underwing hardpoints for weapons carriage. They could carry either a pair of 206.5 US-gallon drop tanks or a pair of 1000-lb bombs. Four zero-length stub rocket launchers could be installed underneath each wing to fire the 5-inch HVAR rocket, which could be carried in pairs on each launcher.

An innovation introduced with the NA-161 production batch was a new type of gun aiming system. All earlier F-86As had been equipped at the factory with Sperry Mark 18 optical lead computing gunsight, which was quite similar to the type of gunsight used on American fighter aircraft in the latter parts of World War 2. When the pilot identified his target, he set the span scale selector lever to correspond to the wingspan of the enemy aircraft he was chasing. He then aimed his fighter so that the target appeared within a circle of six diamond images on the reflector. Next, he rotated the range control unit until the diameter of the circle was the same as the size of the target. When the target was properly framed, the sight automatically computed the required lead and the guns could be fired.

Beginning with the first NA-161 aircraft (49-1007), the A-1B GBR sight and AN/APG-5C ranging radar were provided as factory-installed equipment. This new equipment was designed to automatically measure the range and automatically calculate the appropriate lead before the guns were fired, relieving the pilot of the cumbersome task of having to manually adjust an optical sight in order to determine the range to the target. When activated, the system automatically locked onto and tracked the target. The sight image determined by the A-1B was projected onto the armored glass of the windscreen, and the illumination of a radar target indicator light on the sight indicated time to track target continuously for one second before firing. This system could be used for rocket or bomb aiming as well as for guns.

In the last 24 F-86A-5-NAs that were built, the A-1B GPR sight and AN/APG-5C ranging radar were replaced by the A-1CM sight that was coupled with an AN/APG-30 radar scanner installed in the upper lip of the nose intake underneath a dark-colored dielectric covering. The APG-30 radar was a better unit than the AN/APG-5C, with a sweep range from 150 to 3000 yards. The A-1CM sight and the APG-30 ranging radar were both retrofitted to earlier A-5s during in-field modifications. These planes were redesignated F-86A-7-NA. However, some F-86A-5-NAs had the new A-1CM GBR sight combined with the older AN/APG-5C radar. These were redesignated F-86A-6-NA.


Some consideration given to replacing the J47 engine with the improved J35-A-17 that was used in the F-84E. This engine was tested in the first XP-86. Flight tests between November 28, 1949 and March 1951 indicated that the performance remained much the same as that of the F-86A-1-NA but with a slightly better range. However, the improvement was not considered significant enough to warrant changing production models.

Some F-86As were re-engined with the J47-GE-13 engine, rated at 5450 lb.s.t., but their designation did not change.

All F-86As were initially delivered with the pitot head located inside the air intake duct. It was found in practice that false airspeed readings could be obtained due to the increased airflow within the intake duct, so North American decided to move the pitot head to the tip of a short boom that extended from the leading edge of the starboard wingtip. All F-86As were later retrofitted with the wingtip boom when went through IRAN (Inspect and Repair as Necessary). However, the pitot tube in the intake was never designed to provide airspeed input to the pilot, and the pitot tube in the intake was still there and was used to provide input for the engine.


Internal fuel capacity of the F-86A was 435 gallons, carried in four self-sealing tanks. Two of the tanks were in the lower part of the fuselage, one of them being wrapped around the intake duct just ahead of the engine and the other being wrapped around the engine itself. The other two fuel tanks were in the wing roots. Usually the F-86A carried two 120-gallon drop tanks, although 206.5 gallon tanks could be fitted for ferry purposes.


Ground attack weapons could be installed in place of the jettisonable underwing fuel tanks. Choices include a pair of 100, 500 or 1000-pound bombs, 750-pound napalm tanks, or 500 pound fragmentation clusters. Alternatively, eight removable zero-rail rocket launchers could be installed. These mounted sixteen 5-inch rockets. When external armament was fitted in place of the drop tanks, combat radius was reduced from 330 to 50 miles, which was not a very useful distance.

F-86A in Korea

Even though the initial skirmishes with MiGs in Korea had demonstrated that their pilots lacked experience and an aggressive approach, the MiG threat was very real and threw the USAF into a near panic. The USAF had nothing in Korea that could provide an effective counter if the MiG-15s were to intervene in large numbers.

In order to counter the MiG threat, on November 8 the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, which consisted of the 334th 335th, and 336th Squadrons, based at Wilmington, Delaware and equipped with the F-86A Sabre was ordered to Korea. Most of their pilots were seasoned veterans of World War 2 and they had shot down over 1000 Germans during that conflict. Prior to flying to the West Coast, the 4th FIG exchanged their older ’48 model F-86As for some of the best “low-time” F-86As taken from other Sabre units. The 334th and 335th FIS flew to San Diego and their planes were loaded aboard a Navy escort carrier. The 336th FIS went to San Francisco and was loaded aboard a tanker. Their F-86A aircraft arrived in Japan in mid-December. The aircraft were then unloaded and flown to Kimpo airfield in Korea.

However, before any of these Sabres could reach the front, on November 26, 1950, Chinese armies intervened with devastating force in Korea, breaking through the UN lines and throwing them back in utter confusion. The MiGs did not provide any effective support for this invasion, being unable to establish any effective intervention below a narrow strip up near the Yalu. The MiG pilots were relatively inexperienced and were poor marksmen. They would seldom risk more than one pass at their targets before they would dart back across the Yalu. Had the MiGs been able to establish and hold air superiority over the battle area, the UN forces may well have been thrown entirely out of Korea.

The first advanced detachment of 336th FIS F-86As arrived at Kimpo airfield south of Seoul on December 15. The first Sabre mission took place on December 17. It was an armed reconnaissance of the region just south of the Yalu. Lt. Col. Bruce H. Hinton, commander of the 336th Squadron, succeeding in shooting down one MiG-15 out of a flight of four, to score first blood for the Sabre. The rest of the MiGs fled back across the Yalu. On December 19, Col. Hinton led another four-plane flight up to the Yalu, where his flight met six MiGs who flew through his formation without firing a shot before dashing back across the Yalu. On December 22, the MiGs managed to shoot down a single Sabre out of a flight of eight without loss to themselves, but later that day the Sabres got their revenge by destroying six MiGs out a flight of 15. This loss spooked the MiG pilots, and they avoided combat for the rest of the month.

During December, the 4th Wing had flown 234 sorties, clashed with the enemy 76 times, scored eight victories, and lost one aircraft.

By the end of 1950, Chinese armies had driven UN forces out of North Korea and had begun to invade the South. The Sabres were forced to leave Kimpo and return to Japan which put them out of range of the action up at the Yalu.

Even though the Yalu was now out of range, on January 14, an F-86A detachment appeared at Taegu to participate as fighter bombers to try to halt the Chinese advance. The F-86A was not very successful in the fighter-bomber role, being judged much less effective than slower types such as the F-80 and the F-84. When carrying underwing ordinance, the F-86A’s range and endurance were much too low, and it could not carry a sufficiently large offensive load to make it a really effective fighter bomber. In these attacks, the underwing armament was usually limited to only a pair of 5-inch rockets.

Eventually, the Chinese advance ground to a halt due to extended supply lines and the relentless UN air attacks. The Chinese advance was halted by the end of January, and the UN forces began pushing them back. Kimpo airfield was recovered on February 10. The halting of the Chinese advance can be blamed largely on the inability of the MiGs to provide any effective support for the Chinese attack. Not only had no Chinese bombers appeared to attack UN troops, but no MiGs had flown south of the Yalu region to provide any air support.

The Chinese apparently did have plans for a major spring offensive to complete the task of driving the UN out of Korea. This plan was to be based on the construction of a series of North Korean air bases and for Chinese MiGs to use these bases as forward landing strips to provide air superiority over the North, preventing UN aircraft from interfering with the advance.

In early March, the MiGs began to become more active in support of this offensive, On March 1, MiGs jumped a formation of nine B-29s and severely damaged three of them. Fortunately, by this time the UN base at Suwon was now ready, and the Sabres were now able to return to Korea and reenter the fray over the Yalu. The Sabres of the 334th Squadron began their first Yalu patrols on March 6th, and the rest of the squadron moved in four days later. At the same time, the 336th Squadron moved to Taegu from Japan, so that they could stage Sabres through Suwon. The 4th Wing’s other squadron, the 335th, stayed in Japan until May 1.

MiG Alley

The strip of airspace in western Korea just south of the Yalu soon became known as “MiG Alley” to the Sabre pilots. The Sabres would arrive for their 25-minute patrols in five minute intervals. The MiGs would usually cruise back and forth at high altitude on the other side of the Yalu, looking for an opportune time to intervene. Very often they would remain on the north side of the river, tantalizingly out of reach. When the MiGs did choose to enter battle, the Sabres would usually have only a fleeting chance to fire at the enemy before the MiGs broke off and escaped back across the Yalu. The MiGs had the advantage of being able to choose the time and place of the battle. The MiG-15 had a better high-altitude performance than the F-86A. The MiG had a higher combat ceiling, a higher climb rate, and was faster at higher altitudes than the F-86A. Its superior high-altitude performance enabled the MiG to break off combat at will. Despite these handicaps, the F-86A pilots were far more experienced than their Chinese opponents and they were better marksmen. The Sabre was a more stable gun platform and had fewer high-speed instabilities than did the MiG-15. In addition, the F-86A was faster than the MiG-15 at lower altitudes, and an effective strategy was for the Sabre to force the battle down to lower altitudes where it had the advantage.

In April of 1951, the MiGs got a little bolder, and they would often make attempts to intercept B-29 formations that were attacking targets in the Sinuiju area up near the Yalu. The biggest air battle of that spring took place on April 12, when a formation of 39 B-29s escorted by F-84Es and F-86As were attacked by over 70 MiGs. Three B-29s were lost, whereas 14 MiGs were claimed destroyed, four by the escorting Sabres and ten by B-29 gunners.

On May 20, 1951, F-86A pilot Captain James Jabara became the world’s first jet ace when he shot down a pair of MiGs to bring his total to six.

No F-86As were lost in action during the first five months of 1951, and they flew 3550 sorties and scored 22 victories. Most of the attrition was caused by accidents rather than by losses in actual combat.

In June of 1951, the MiGs began to show more aggressive behavior, and their pilots began to get somewhat better. In air battles on June 17th, 18th, and 19th, six MiGs were destroyed but two Sabres were lost. Another Sabre was lost on June 11 when the 4th Wing covering an F-80 attack on the Sinuiju airfield shot down two more MiGs.

As the first year of the Korean War came to an end, it was apparent that the Sabre had been instrumental in frustrating the MiG-15’s bid for air superiority. Without control of the air, the Red Chinese were unable to establish their series of air bases and they were not able to carry out effective air support of their spring offensive, and the Korean War settled down to a stalemate on the ground.

The more-advanced F-86E began to enter action in Korea with the 4th Wing in July of 1951, replacing that unit’s F-86As on a one-by-one basis. The conversion to the F-86E was rather slow, and the last F-86A was not replaced until July of 1952.


  • U.S. Air Force – The U.S. utilized the F-86A extensively for the air defense of the Continental United States, while also seeing action in Korea in MiG Alley.

North American F-86A-5-NA Specifications

Wingspan 37 ft 1.5 in / 11.32 m
Length 37 ft 6.5 in / 11.44 m
Height 14 ft 9 in / 4.5 m
Wing Area 287.9 ft² / 26.8 m²
Engine 1x General Electric J47-GE-13 Turbojet Engine

5200 lbst

Empty 10,093 lb / 4,578 kg
Maximum Take Off 14,108 lb / 6,399 kg
Combat 13,791 lb / 6,255 kg
Climb Rate
Rate of Climb at Sea Level 7,470 ft / 2,277 m per minute
Time to 40,000 ft / 12,192 m 10.4 minutes
Maximum Speed
Sea Level 679 mph / 1,092 kmh
35,000 ft / 10,668 m 601 mph / 967 kmh
Takeoff Run 2,430 ft / 741 m
Range (with Drop Tanks) 660 mi / 1,062 km
Maximum Service Ceiling 48,000 ft / 14,630 m
Crew 1 pilot
  • 6x Browning M3 machine guns, 300 rounds per gun
  • A-1B GBR Gun Sight
  • AN/APG-5C Ranging Radar
  • 8x 5-inch HVAR Rockets
  • 2x 1000 lb bombs
  • 2x Drop Tanks – 206.5 U.S. Gal / 781.7 Liters


Illustrations by Ed Jackson

F-86A-1 Sabre 47-611 – September 1948
F-86A-1 Sabre 47-630 – 1948
F-86A-5 48-0158 – 1949
F-86A-5 48-1257 – Korea 1951 – Flown by Capt. James Jabara
F-86A-5 Sabre 49-1080 February 1952 – Note the 5 inch HVAR Rocket Mounted inboard of the fuel tank


  1. F-86 Sabre in Action, Larry Davis, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1992.
  2. The North American Sabre, Ray Wagner, MacDonald, 1963.
  3. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.
  4. The World Guide to Combat Planes, William Green, MacDonald, 1966.
  5. Flash of the Sabre, Jack Dean, Wings Vol 22, No 5, 1992.
  6. North American F-86 Sabre, Larry Davis, Wings of Fame, Volume 10, 1998


North American XP-86 Sabre

USA flag old United States of America (1945)
Prototype Fighter – 3 Built

The first XP-86 Prototype 45-59598, flown by George Welch

The North American F-86 Sabre is one of the most well-known fighter aircraft of all time, marking the transition from the propeller to the jet turbine. It first entered service with the newly formed U.S. Air Force in 1949, and was instrumental in denying air superiority to Communist forces during the Korean War. After the war ended, many Sabres entered service with dozens of foreign air arms, becoming the primary fighter equipment of many Allied nations. It was built under license in Canada, Japan, Italy, and Australia. Its service was so long-lived that the last operational F-86 was not withdrawn from service until 1993.


The F-86 Sabre began its life as North American Aviation’s company project NA-134, which was originally intended for the US Navy. As the war in the Pacific edged toward its climax, the Navy was making plans to acquire jet-powered carrier-based aircraft, which it was could be pressed into service in time for Operation Olympic-Coronet, the invasion of Japan planned for May 1946. The Navy had planned to acquire four jet fighters, the Vought XF6U-1 Pirate, the McDonnell XFD-1 Phantom, the McDonnell XF2D-1 Banshee, and the North American XFJ-1 Fury.

Work on the NA-134 project began in the late autumn of 1944. The NA-134 had a straight, thin-section wing set low on a round fuselage. It featured a straight through flow of air from the nose intake to the jet exhaust that exited the aircraft under a straight tailplane. The wing was borrowed directly from the P-51D, and had a laminar-flow airfoil. It was to be powered by a single General Electric TG-180 gas turbine which was a license-built version of the de Havilland Goblin. The TG-180 was designated J35 by the military and was an 11-stage axial-flow turbojet which offered 4000 lb.s.t. at sea level. The Navy ordered three prototypes of the NA-134 under the designation XFJ-1 on January 1, 1945. On May 28, 1945, the Navy approved a contract for 100 production FJ-1s (NA-141).

At the same time that North American was beginning to design the Navy’s XFJ-1, the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) issued a requirement for a medium-range day fighter which could also be used as an escort fighter and a dive bomber. Specifications called for a speed of at least 600 mph, since the Republic XP-84 Thunderjet already under construction promised 587 mph. On Nov 22, 1944, the company’s RD-1265 design study proposed a version of the XFJ-1 for the Air Force to meet this requirement. This design was known in company records as NA-140. The USAAF was sufficiently impressed that they issued a letter contract on May 18, 1945 which authorized the acquisition of three NA-140 aircraft under the designation XP-86.

The Navy’s XFJ-1 design had to incorporate some performance compromises in order to support low-speed carrier operations, but the land-based USAAF XP-86 was not so constrained and had a somewhat thinner wing and a slimmer fuselage with a high fineness ratio. However, the XP-86 retained the tail surfaces of the XFJ-1.

The XP-86 incorporated several features not previously used on fighter aircraft, including a fully-pressurized cockpit and hydraulically-boosted ailerons and elevators. Armament was the standard USAAF equipment of the era–six 0.50-inch Browning M3 machine guns that fired at 1100 rounds per minute, with 267 rounds per gun. The aircraft was to use the Sperry type A-1B gun/bomb/rocket sight, working in conjunction with an AN/APG-5 ranging radar. Rocket launchers could be added underneath the wings to carry up to 8 5-inch HVARs. Self-sealing fuel tanks were to be fitted, and the pilot was to be provided with some armor plating around the cockpit area.

In the XP-86, a ten percent ratio of wing thickness to chord was used to extend the critical Mach number to 0.9. Wingspan was to be 38 feet 2.5 inches, length was 35 feet 6 inches, and height was 13 feet 2.5 inches. Four speed brakes were to be attached above and below the wings. At a gross weight of 11,500 pounds, the XP-86 was estimated to be capable of achieving a top speed of 574 mph at sea level and 582 mph at 10,000 feet, still below the USAAF requirement. Initial climb rate was to be 5,850 feet per minute and service ceiling was to be 46,000 feet. Combat radius was 297 miles with 410 gallons of internal fuel, but could be increased to 750 miles by adding a 170 gallon drop tank to each wingtip. As it would turn out, these performance figures were greatly exaggerated.

A mock-up of the XP-86 was built and approved on June 20, 1945. However, early wind tunnel tests indicated that the airframe of the XP-86 would not be able to reach the desired speed of 600 mph. It is highly likely that the XP-86 project would have been cancelled at this time were it not for some unusual developments.

Saved by the Germans

After the surrender of Germany in May of 1945, the USAAF, along with a lot of other air forces, was keenly interested in obtaining information about the latest German jet fighters and in learning as much as they could about secret German wartime research on jet propulsion, rocket power, and ballistic missiles. American teams were selected from industry and research institutions and sent into occupied Germany to investigate captured weapons research data, microfilm it, and ship it back to the US.

The First XP-86 Prototype in Flight Testing [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
By the summer of 1945, a great deal of German data was pouring in, much of it as yet untranslated into English. As it turned out, German aeronautical engineers had wind-tunnel tested just about every aerodynamic shape that the human mind could conceive of, even some ideas even only remotely promising. A particular German paper dated 1940 reported that wind tunnel tests showed that there were some significant advantages offered by swept wings at speeds of about Mach 0.9. A straight-winged aircraft was severely affected by compressibility effects as sonic speed was approached, but the use of a swept wing delayed the effects of shock waves and permitted better control at these higher speeds. Unfortunately, German research also indicated that the use of wing sweep introduced some undesirable wing tip stall and low-speed stability effects. American researchers had also encountered a similar problem with the swept-wing Curtiss XP-55 Ascender, which was so unstable that it flipped over on its back and stalled on one of its test flights.

In 1940, these German studies were of only theoretical interest, since no powerplants were available even remotely capable of reaching such speeds. However, such studies caught the attention of North American engineers trying to develop ways to improve the performance of their XP-86.

Going Supersonic

The first XP-86 prototype in what would be a temporary white paint scheme

The optimal design for an aircraft capable of high speeds produces a design that stalls easily at low speeds. The cure for the low-speed stability problem that was worked out by North American engineers was to attach automatic slats to the wing leading edges. The wing slats were entirely automatic, and opened and closed in response to aerodynamic forces. When the slats opened, the changed airflow over the upper wing surface increased the lift and produced lower stalling speeds. At high speeds, the slats automatically closed to minimize drag.

In August of 1945, project aerodynamicist L. P. Greene proposed to Raymond Rice that a swept-wing configuration for the P-86 be adopted. Wind tunnel tests carried out in September of 1945 confirmed the reduction in drag at high subsonic speeds as well as the beneficial effect of the slats on low speed stability. The limiting Mach number was raised to 0.875.

Based on these wind-tunnel studies, a new design for a swept-wing P-86 was submitted in the fall of 1945. The USAAF was impressed, and on November 1, 1945 it readily approved the proposal. This was one of the most important decisions ever made by the USAAF. Had they not agreed to this change, the history of the next forty years would undoubtedly have been quite different.

North American’s next step was to choose the aspect ratio of the swept wing. A larger aspect ratio would give better range, a narrower one better stability, and the correct choice would have to be a tradeoff between the two. Further tests carried out between late October and mid November indicated that a wing aspect ratio of 6 would be satisfactory, and such an aspect ratio had been planned for in the proposal accepted on November 1. However, early in 1946 additional wind tunnel tests indicated that stability with such a narrow wing would be too great a problem, and in March the design reverted to a shorter wingform. An aspect ratio of 4.79, a sweep-back of 35 degrees, and a thickness/chord ratio of 11% at the root and 10% at the tip was finally chosen.

All of these changes lengthened the time scale of the P-86 development in comparison to that of the Navy’s XFJ-1. The XFJ-1 took to the air for the first time on November 27, 1946, but the XP-86 still had almost another year of work ahead before it was ready for its first flight.

The first XP-86 prototype in flight during testing [North American Aviation]
On February 28, 1946, the mockup of the swept-winged XP-86 was inspected and approved. In August of 1946, the basic engineering drawings were made available to the manufacturing shop of North American, and the first metal was cut. The USAAF was so confident of the future performance of the XP-86, that on December 20, 1946 another letter contract for 33 production P-86As was approved. No service test aircraft were ordered. Although the 4000 lb.s.t. J35 would power the three XP-86 prototypes, production P-86As would be powered by the General Electric TG-190 (J47) turbojet offering 5000 lb.s.t.

The first of three prototypes, 45-59597, was rolled out of the Inglewood factory on August 8, 1947. It was powered by a Chevrolet-built J35-C-3 turbojet rated at 4000 pounds of static thrust. The aircraft was unarmed. After a few ground taxiing and braking tests, it was disassembled and trucked out to Muroc Dry Lake Army Air Base, where it was reassembled.

Test pilot George “Wheaties” Welch took the XP-86 up into the air for the first time on October 1, 1947. The flight went well until it came time to lower the landing gear and come in for a landing. Welch found that the nosewheel wouldn’t come down all the way. After spending forty minutes in fruitless attempts to shake the nosewheel down into place, Welch finally brought the plane in for a nose-high landing. Fortunately, the impact of the main wheels jolted the nosewheel into place, and the aircraft rolled safely to a stop. The swept-wing XP-86 had made its first flight.

On October 16, 1947, the USAF gave final approval to the fixed price contract for 33 P-86As, with the additional authorization for 190 P-86Bs. The P-86B was to be a strengthened P-86A for rough-field operations.

XP-86 number 45-59597 was officially delivered to the USAF on November 30, 1948. By that time, its designation had been changed to XF-86. Phase II flight tests, those flown by USAF pilots, began in early December of 1947. An Allison-built J35-A-5 rated at 4000 lbs of static thrust was installed for USAF tests. The second and third XP-86 prototypes, 45-59598 and 45-59599 respectively, joined the test program in early 1948. These were different from the first prototype as well as being different from each other in several respects. Numbers 1 and 2 had different fuel gauges, a stall warning system built into the control stick, a bypass for emergency operation of the hydraulic boost system, and hydraulically-actuated leading-edge slat locks. The number 3 prototype was the only one of the three to have fully-automatic leading-edge slats that opened at 135 mph. Numbers 2 and 3 had SCR-695-B IFF beacons and carried the AN/ARN-6 radio compass set.

The original XP-86 prototype was used for evaluating the effects of nuclear blasts on military hardware at Frenchman Flats. It was later scrapped. [This Day in Aviation]
In June of 1948, the new US Air Force redesignated all Pursuit aircraft as Fighter aircraft, changing the prefix from P to F. Thus the XP-86 became the XF-86. XP-86 number one was officially delivered to the USAF on November 30, 1948. The three prototypes remained in various test and evaluation roles well into the 1950s, and were unofficially referred to as YP-86s. All three prototypes were sold for scrap after being used in nuclear tests at Frenchman Flats in Nevada


The three XP-86 prototypes flying in formation together in 1948 [National Archives]
Evolving from the NA-134 project with wings borrowed from a P-51, the XP-86 would eventually end up with a low swept wing mounted to a tubular fuselage, with a large jet intake opening at the nose. The plexiglass bubble canopy gave the pilot great visibility, and afforded the pilot a pressurized cockpit. The tail featured a swept back rudder with tailplanes angled upwards, marking a departure from the largely perpendicular angles seen on most of the Sabre’s propeller driven predecessors. The landing gear was a tricycle configuration, which helped balance the weight of the jet engine at the rear.

The wing of the XP-86 was to be constructed of a double-skin structure with hat sections between layers extending from the center section to the outboard edges of the outer panel fuel tanks. This structure replaced the conventional rib and stringer construction in that area. This new construction method provided additional strength and allowed enough space in the wing for fuel tanks.

The wing-mounted speed brakes originally contemplated for the XP-86 were considered unsuitable for the wing design, so they were replaced by a hydraulic door-type brake mounted on each side of the rear fuselage and one brake mounted on the bottom of the fuselage in a dorsal position. The speed brakes opened frontwards, and had the advantage that they could be opened at any attitude and speed, including speeds above Mach One.

The maximum speed of the XP-86 was over 650 mph, 75 mph faster than anything else in service at the time. The noise and vibration levels were considerably lower than other jet-powered aircraft. However, the J35 engine did not produce enough thrust, and the XP-86 could only climb at 4,000 feet per minute. However, this was not considered an issue, since the production P-86As were to be powered by the 5000 lb.s.t. General Electric J47.

The XP-86 could go supersonic in a dive with only a moderate and manageable tendency to nose-up, although below 25,000 feet there was a tendency to roll which made it unwise to stay supersonic for very long. Production Sabres were limited to Mach 0.95 below 25,000 feet for safety reasons because of this roll tendency.

For the second and third prototypes, the ventral brake was eliminated, and the two rear-opening side fuselage brakes were replaced by brakes which had hinges at the front and opened out and down. These air brakes were adopted for production aircraft.

Prototype number 3 was the only one to be fitted with armament. The armament of six 0.50-inch M3 machine guns were mounted in blocks of three on either side of the cockpit. Ammunition bays were installed in the bottom of the fuselage underneath the gun bay, with as many as 300 rounds per gun. The guns were aimed by a Mk 18 gyroscopic gunsight with manual ranging.

Possibly the First Supersonic Aircraft

George Welch Circa 1947 – [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
There is actually a possibility that the XP-86 rather than the Bell XS-1 might have been the first aircraft to achieve supersonic flight. During some of his early flight tests, George Welch reported that he had encountered some rather unusual fluctuations in his airspeed and altitude indicators during high speed dives, which might have meant that he had exceeded the speed of sound. However, at that time, North American had no way of calibrating airspeed indicators into the transonic range above Mach 1, so it is uncertain just how fast Welch had gone. On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager exceeded Mach 1 in the XS-1. Although the event was kept secret from the general public, North American test crews heard about this feat through rumors and persuaded NACA to use its equipment to track the XP-86 in a high-speed dive to see if there was a possibility that the XP-86 could also go supersonic. This test was done on October 19, five days after Yeager’s flight, in which George Welch was tracked at Mach 1.02. The tests were flown again on October 21 with the same results. Since Welch had been performing the very same flight patterns in tests before October 14, there is the possibility that he, not Chuck Yeager, might have been first to exceed the speed of sound.

In any case, the fact that the XP-86 had exceeded the speed of sound was immediately classified, and remained so for several months afterward. In May of 1948, the world was informed that George Welch had exceeded Mach 1.0 in the XP-86, becoming the first “aircraft” to do so, with an aircraft being defined as a vehicle that takes off and lands under its own power. The date was set as April 26, 1948. This flight did actually take place, but George Welch was not the pilot. In fact, it was a British pilot who was evaluating the XP-86 who inadvertently broadcasted that he had exceeded Mach 1 over an open radio channel. However, the facts soon became common knowledge throughout the aviation community. The June 14, 1948 issue of Aviation Week published an article revealing that the XP-86 had gone supersonic.


  • XP-86 45-59597 – The first prototype Sabre produced, was reconfigured many times with various test configurations. May have been the first aircraft to have gone supersonic in October 1947 with George Welch at the controls.
  • XP-86 45-59598 – The second prototype, had different production model speedbrake and flap configuration, various sensors and equipment installed for testing purposes.
  • XP-86 45-59599 – The third prototype, and the only Sabre prototype to have been armed, fitted with the standard six M3 Browning guns


  • United States – The prototypes were extensively tested by North American Aviation before being handed over to the U.S. Air Force in 1948.

North American XP-86 Specifications

Wingspan 37 ft 1.5 in / 11.32 m
Length 37 ft 6.5 in / 11.44 m
Height 14 ft 9 in / 4.5 m
Wing Area 299 ft² / 27.8 m²
Engine 1x Chevrolet J35-C-3 Turbojet Engine

4000 lbst

Fuel Capacity 410 US Gal / 1,552 L

750 US Gal / 2,839 L with wingtip drop tanks

Empty 9,730 lb / 4,413 kg
Gross 13,395 lb / 6,076 kg
Maximum Take Off 16,438 lb / 7,456 kg
Climb Rate
Rate of Climb at Sea Level 4000 ft / 1219 m per minute
Time to 20,000 ft / 6,096 m 6.4 minutes
Time to 30,000 ft / 9,144 m 12.1 minutes
Maximum Speed
Sea Level 599 mph / 964 kmh
14,000 ft / 4267 m 618 mph / 995 kmh
35,000 ft / 10,668 m 575 mph / 925 kmh
Takeoff Run 3,030 ft / 924 m
Range 297 mi / 478 km
Maximum Service Ceiling 41,300 ft / 12,588 m
Crew 1 pilot
  • 6x Browning M3 machine guns, 267 rounds per gun
  • Sperry type A-1B gun/bomb/rocket sight
  • AN/APG-5C ranging radar
  • Underwing Rocket Launchers, up to 8x 5-inch HVAR


Illustrations by Ed Jackson

XP-86 – 1st Prototype 45-59597 circa 1947 note it bears the P for “Pursuit”
XP-86 – 1st Prototype 45-59597 circa June 1948 in white paint scheme, note the wingtip pitot probes
XP-86 – 1st Prototype 45-59597 circa 1948, note the additional test equipment behind the pilot’s seat
XP-86 – 2nd Prototype 45-59598 circa 1948
XP-86 – 3rd Prototype 45-59599 circa 1948


EF-18 Hornet in Spanish Service

Spanish flag Spain (1985)
Multirole Fighter Aircraft – 96 Built

The first European customer for the F/A-18 Hornet multirole fighter was the Spanish Air Force, the Ejercito del Aire Espanol (EdA). Spain did not join NATO until May of 1982, but even before that date the Spanish government had issued a requirement for a new fighter/attack aircraft that would replace its fleet of F-4C Phantoms, F-5 Freedom Fighters, and Mirages. In response to the announced requirement, the US government initially offered Spain an interim loan of 42 ex-USAF F-4E Phantoms, followed by the sale of 72 F-16s. However, the F-18 entered the competition in 1980, offering the benefit of a twin-engine safety margin.


In December of 1982, Spain announced that they had selected the Hornet and made plans to order 72 single-seaters (F/A-18A) and 12 two-seat (F/A-18B) versions. However, this proved more than the Spanish government could afford, and the order was reduced to only 60 A variants and 12 B variants on May 31, 1983. An option was put aside for 12 additional Hornets, but due to budgetary restrictions, they were not taken up.

As part of an offset agreement reached with Spain, Construcciones Aeronauticas SA (CASA) at Gefale is responsible for the maintenance of the EdA Hornets. CASA is also responsible for major overhauls of Canadian Hornets based in Europe, as well as the Hornets of the US 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean.

EF-18 on takeoff at exercise Anatolian Eagle, Turkey (USAF)

The Spanish Hornets are sometimes referred to as EF-18A and EF-18B, the “E” standing for “España” (Spain) rather than for “Electronic” as would normally be the case for an official Department of Defense designation. They have local EdA designations C.15 and CE.15 respectively. Serial numbers are C.15-13 through C.15-72 and CE.15-01 through CE.15-12 respectively.

The first EdA Hornet, EF-18B CE.15-01, was presented in a formal ceremony at St Louis on November 22, 1985, and made its first flight on December 4. The first few two-seaters were sent to Whiteman AFB in Missouri, where McDonnell Douglas personnel assisted in the training of the first few Spanish instructors. The first two-seater was flown to Spain on July 10, 1986. By early 1987, all 12 two-seaters had been delivered to Spain, after which the single-seaters were delivered. A total of 60 EF-18As and 12 EF-18Bs were delivered to Spain, the last planes being delivered in July of 1990.

The Hornet serves with Escuadron (Squadron) 151 and Escuadron 152 of Ala de Caza (Fighter Wing) 15 at Zaragoza-Valenzuela and with Escuadron 121 and Escuadron 122 of Ala de Caza 12 at Torrejon de Ardoz. Escuadron 151 was established first and declared combat-ready in September of 1988. In EdA service, the Hornet operates as an all-weather interceptor sixty percent of the time and as a night and day fighter-bomber for the remainder. In case of war, each of the four front-line squadrons is assigned a primary role. 121 is tasked with tactical air support for maritime operations, 151 and 122 are assigned the all-weather interception role, and 152 is assigned the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) mission.

Spain has ordered 80 Texas Instruments AGM-88 HARM antiradiation missiles and 20 McDonnell Douglas AGM-84 Harpoon anti-shipping missiles. The Spanish Hornets carry the Sanders AN/ALQ-126B deception jammer and, on the last 36 aircraft, Northrop AN/ALQ-162(V) countermeasure systems. For air-to-ground work, EdA Hornets carry low-drag BR and Mk 80 series bombs, Rockeye II cluster bombs, BME-300 anti-airfield cluster bombs, BEAC fuel-air explosive bombs, GBU-10 and GBU-16 Paveway II laser bombs, AGM-65G Maverick air-to-surface missiles, and AGM-88 HARM antiradiation missiles. In the air-to-air missions, EdA Hornets carry a 20-mm M61A1 cannon, AIM-9L/M Sidewinders and AIM-7F/M Sparrows. The Sparrows were supplemented from late 1995 onward by AIM-120 AMRAAMs. Spanish Hornets can also carry AN/ALE-39 chaff/flare dispensers, ALR-167 radar homing and warning systems and ALQ-126B Jammers which have been supplanted in most of the aircraft by the more advanced ALQ-162. EdA Hornets can carry the AN/AAS-38 Nite Hawk FLIR/laser designator pod on the port fuselage stores station. Air refueling for the Spanish Hornets is provided by KC-130Hs from Grupo (Group) 31 and Boeing 707TTs from Grupo 45.

In 1993, plans were announced for the EdA’s fleet of EF-18A/B Hornets to be upgraded to F/A-18C/D standards. McDonnell Douglas reworked 46 of these planes, with the remainder being upgraded by CASA. Most of the changes involved computer improvements and new software, although some changes were required to the weapons delivery pylons. Following the rework, the planes were redesignated EF-18A+ and EF-18B+.

Worried about a “fighter gap” opening up early in the next century because of delays in the Eurofighter 2000 program, Spain searched for additional fighter aircraft, acquiring some additional Mirage F1s from Qatar and France. The USAF offered Spain 50 surplus F-16A/B Fighting Falcons and the US Navy offered about 30 F/A-18As. These F/A-18s had the advantage in the contest, since Spain already operated the Hornet, and in late 1995 the Spanish government approved the purchase of 24 US Navy surplus F/A-18A/Bs. This marked the first sale of US Navy surplus Hornets. There was a separate deal for new F404-GE-400 engines, which were being contracted directly from General Electric.

The US Navy surplus Hornets were intended to equip the 211 Escuadron of Grupo 21 based at Moron. Escuadron 211 had been operating the F/RF-5A fighter, but these planes had been phased out of front-line service and transferred to Ala 21, while the Moron-based unit was temporarily equipped with CASA C-101 Aviojets. The first six were delivered in late 1995. They bore EdA serials C.15-73 to C-15-78 (being ex-US Navy BuNos 161936, 162415, 162416, 162426, 162446, and 162471 respectively). The remainder would follow at a rate of six per year until 1998. After a period of service, they were retrofitted in Spain and later subjected to a mid-life update.

With the withdrawal of USAFE and Canadian squadrons from Europe, Spanish F-18s (and Mirage F1s) have been in demand for NATO exercises and are frequent visitors to air bases in Europe and the UK. In 1994, eight EF-18s participated in a Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB in Nevada. Eight EF-18s participated in Deny Flight operations out of Aviano, Italy beginning in December of 1994. On May 25, they received their first taste of combat when they participated in an attack against a Serb ammunition depot near Pale (currently in Bosnia and Herzegovina).

The Hornet is extremely popular with its EdA crews and is reportedly a pure joy to fly, stable and yet highly maneuverable and with good acceleration. By 2002, only six Spanish Hornets had been lost in accidents. This is the best safety record of any EdA fighter that ever served, and as good, if not better, than that of any other F/A-18 operator.

Active Service

Spanish Hornet at a NATO Tiger Meet exercise (FloxPapa)

After the Bosnian War began in 1992, the UN Security Council passed a resolution prohibiting military flights in Bosnian Airspace. Despite this no-fly order, hundreds of violations were committed. As a result, enforcement of the UN no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina by NATO began in 1993 as Operation Deny Flight, which was successful in denying unauthorized airplane access over Bosnia, but was ineffective with regards to helicopters. However, Operation Deny Flight was extended beyond the enforcement of the no-fly-zone, with ground air strikes in support of UN forces being made in the operation. As a NATO member state, the Spanish Air Force was involved and flew missions jointly with the U.S. Air Force, with eight EF-18s, two KC-130s and one CASA 212 participating in 23,000 fighter sorties, 27,000 close air support missions, 21,000 training sorties and 29,000 SEAD and other types of sorties.

The next military operation of the Spanish Forces was Operation Deliberate Force, aimed at weakening the military power of the Bosnian Serb Army which had perpetrated the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, in which 8300 Bosnians were murdered. The air campaign lasted for three weeks, with eight EF-18s and several other Spanish aircraft involved in operations flying over 3500 sorties.

Spanish Air Force EF-18 Hornets have also flown Ground Attack, SEAD, and combat air patrol (CAP) combat missions in Kosovo, under NATO command, in the Aviano detachment (Italy). They shared the base with Canadian and USMC F/A-18s. Over Yugoslavia, eight EF-18s, based at Aviano AB, participated in bombing raids in Operation Allied Force in 1999, a NATO military campaign directed against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as part of the Kosovo War. The operation was carried out without UN approval due to China and Russia vetoing it. The end of the campaign lead to the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and end to the Kosovo War.

During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, a coalition of nations imposed a no-fly zone over the country in order to prevent Muammar Ghadaffi’s Lybian Armed Forces from using the air force to bomb the rebels, along with an arms embargo. Six Spanish Hornets, along with a few other Spanish planes, participated in enforcing the no-fly zone. Spain also allowed the use of its Rota, Morón and Torrejón bases by the coalition. The total costs for Spain over the 7-month operation ammounted to more than 50 million euros.


  • EF-18A – Single seat version, locally designated C.15
  • EF-18B – Two seat version, locally designated C.15E
  • EF-18A+ – Single seat version upgraded to F-18C standard
  • EF-18B+ – Two seat version upgraded to F-18D standard*Note: The “E” in “EF-18” stands for “España” rather than “Electronic [warfare]” as typically designated by the U.S. Department of Defense

EF-18A Specifications

Wingspan 40 ft 5 in / 13.5 m
Length 56 ft 0 in / 16.8 m
Height 15 ft 4 in / 4.6 m
Engine 2x General Electric F404-GE-402 turbofan engines
Maximum Takeoff Weight 51,900 lbs / 23,540 kg
Climb Rate 833 fps / 254 m/s
Maximum Speed Mach 1.7+
Range 1250 mi / 2,000 km
Maximum Service Ceiling 50,000 ft / 15,240 m
Crew 1 pilot
  • One M61A1/A2 Vulcan 20mm cannon
  • AIM 9 Sidewinder, AIM 7 Sparrow, AIM-120 AMRAAM
  • Harpoon, Harm, SLAM, SLAM-ER, Maverick missiles
  • Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW)
  • Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)
  • various general purpose bombs, mines and rockets


llustrations by Haryo Panji

Two Hornets prepare for takeoff at exercise Anatolian Eagle, Turkey (USAF)
Armed EF-18, with laser guided GBU-10 Paveway II bombs and and AIM-9 Air to Air missiles (USAF)



Rockwell B-1A Lancer

USA flag United States of America (1974)
Prototype Supersonic Heavy Bomber – 4 Built

B-1A 74-0159

The B-1A program arose out of a need for a long-range, supersonic, low-flying heavy bomber. The program’s initial development was pushed forward through an ever-shifting geopolitical landscape, as well as opposition and contention among the the top levels of the U.S. government. Even with advanced features such as variable sweep wings, and variable air intake and exhaust capability, it was derided as a ‘dinosaur’ in the age of ICBMs. The opposition and political infighting nearly ended the Lancer, before it was given a miraculous second chance.


B-1A 74-158 taxiing on ground. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The origin of the Rockwell B-1 can be traced back to 1961, when the Air Force began to consider alternatives to the North American B-70 Valkyrie, which had just been downgraded from production to test aircraft status. At that time, the long range strategic missile was assumed to be the weapon of the future, with manned long-range bombers being relegated to a secondary role. The B-70 had been designed to fly at extremely high altitudes and at Mach 3 speeds, and increasingly effective Soviet anti aircraft defenses had made such an aircraft rather vulnerable.

Nevertheless, the Air Force commissioned several studies to explore possible roles for manned bombers in future planning. If successful, these would replace the B-52. At this time, the ability to fly through enemy airspace at extremely low altitudes was was thought to be the key for survival in the face of sophisticated air defenses.

The first such study was known as the Subsonic Low Altitude Bomber (SLAB), which was completed in 1961. It envisaged a 500,000 pound fixed-wing aircraft with a total range of 11,000 nautical miles, with 4300 nm of these miles being flown at low altitudes. This was followed soon after by the Extended Range Strike Aircraft (ERSA), which had a weight of 600,000 pounds and featured a variable sweep wing. The ERSA was supposed to be able to carry a payload of 10,000 pounds and achieve a range of 8750 nautical miles, with 2500 of these miles being flown at altitudes as low as 500 feet. In August of 1963, a third study known as Low-Altitude Manned Penetrator(LAMP) was completed. It called for a 20,000 payload and a 6200 nautical mile range, 2000 miles being flown at low altitude. None of these projects ever got beyond the basic concept stage.

In October of 1963, the Air Force looked over these proposals and used the results as the foundation of a new bomber proposal, termed Advanced Manned Precision Strike System (AMPSS). In November of that year, 3 contractors were issued Requests for Proposals for the AMPSS. The companies were Boeing, General Dynamics, and North American. However, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara kept a tight rein on funds, and expressed doubts about the assumptions behind AMPSS, so the RFPs only involved basic concept studies and did not focus on a specific aircraft. In addition, the contractors all agreed that some of the suggested USAF requirements either did not make much sense or else were prohibitively costly.

In mid-1964, the USAF had revised its requirements and retitled the project as Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft (AMSA). The AMSA still envisaged an aircraft with the takeoff and low-altitude performance characteristics of the AMPSS, but in addition asked for a high-altitude supersonic performance capability. The projected gross weight for the aircraft was 375,000 pounds, and the range was to be 6300 nautical miles, 2000 of which would be flown at low altitude.

Secretary McNamara was never very excited about the AMSA, since he thought that strategic missiles could do a better job of “assured destruction” than manned bombers, and thought that the cost of the AMSA would probably be excessive. Nevertheless, there was a potential gain in avionics and propulsion technology that could be achieved if the project were to proceed, and McNamara released a small amount of funding for preliminary AMSA studies. The airframe for the AMSA would be worked on by Boeing, General Dynamics, and North American, whereas Curtiss-Wright, General Electric, and Pratt & Whitney would work on the engines. Both IBM and Hughes aircraft looked at potential avionics systems. These contractors issued their reports in late 1964. General Electric and Pratt & Whitney were given a contract to produce two demonstrator engines, but no airframe and avionics contracts were issued at that time.

74-0160 on display at Edwards AFB in 1980. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A bit of confusion entered the picture when the Defense Department selected the FB-111A as the replacement for the B-52C, B-52F, and B-58. The Air Force had not requested a bomber version of the controversial F-111, and was not all that enthusiastic about the choice. Nevertheless, a low-cost interim bomber did have some attractive features, and the Air Force went along with the choice of the FB-111A provided it did not interfere with AMSA development.

By 1968, an advanced development contract was issued to IBM and the Autonetics Division of North American Rockwell. On September 22, 1967, North American Aviation had merged with Rockwell Standard Corporation to create North American Rockwell. Earlier in that year, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had recommended the immediate development of the AMSA, but Secretary McNamara was still opposed, preferring instead to upgrade the existing FB-111 and B-52 fleet. McNamara vetoed the proposal.

When Richard Nixon became President in January of 1969, his Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird reviewed Defense Department needs and announced in March of 1969 that the planned acquisition of 253 FB-111s would be reduced to only 76, since the FB-111 lacked the range and payload required for strategic operations, and recommended that the AMSA design studies be accelerated.

The AMSA was officially assigned the designation B-1A in April of 1969. This was the first entry in the new bomber designation series, first created in 1962.

New Requests For Proposals were issued in November of 1969. IBM and Autonetics were selected for the avionics work on December 19. The selection of airframe and engine contractors was delayed by budget cuts in FY 1970 and 1971. On December 8, 1969 North American Rockwell and General Electric were announced as the winners of the respective airframe and engine contracts for the B-1A.

The original program called for 2 test airframes, 5 flyable aircraft, and 40 engines. This was cut in 1971 to one ground test aircraft and 3 flight test articles (74-0158/0160). First flight was set for April of 1974. A fourth prototype (76-1074) was ordered in the FY 1976 budget. This fourth plane was to be built to production standards. At one time, some 240 B-1As were to be built, with initial operational capability set for 1979.


B-1A Orthogonal Projection. Note the difference between the wings at maximum and minimum sweep. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The fuselage of the B-1A was fairly slim, and seated a crew of four in the nose. There was a large swept vertical tail, with a set of all-flying slab tailplanes mounted fairly high on the vertical tail. The aircraft’s fuselage blended smoothly into the wing to enhance lift and reduce drag. In addition, the fuselage was designed to reduce the aircraft’s radar cross section in order to minimize the probability of detection by enemy defenses.

In order to achieve the required high-speed performance and still be able to have a good low-speed takeoff and landing capability, a variable-sweep wing was used. This made it possible for the aircraft to use short runways that would be inaccessible to the B-52. The outer wing panels were attached to a wing carry-through attachment box which faired smoothly into a slim, narrow fuselage. Each outer wing had full-span slats and slotted flaps, but used no ailerons. Lateral control was provided by a set of spoilers on the wing upper surface, acting in conjunction with differential operation of the slab tailplanes.

The engines were four afterburning General Electric F101-100 turbofans. The engines were installed in pairs inside large nacelles underneath the wing roots,, and close to the aircraft’s center of gravity to improve stability while flying at high speed through highly-turbulent low-altitude air. The nacelles were far enough apart so that the main landing gear members could be installed in the wing roots between them with enough clearance to retract inwards. In order to achieve the required Mach 2 performance at high altitudes, the air intake inlets were variable. In addition, the exhaust nozzles were fully variable.

Initially, it had been expected that a Mach 1.2 performance could be achieved at low altitude, which required that titanium rather than aluminum be used in critical areas in the fuselage and wing structure. However, this low altitude performance requirement was lowered to only Mach 0.85, enabling a greater percentage of aluminum to be used, lowering the overall cost. Titanium was used primarily for the wing carry-through box, the inner ends of the outer wings incorporating the pivots, and for some areas around the engines and rear fuselage.

Eight integral fuel tanks were planned, one in each outer wing panel, and the rest in the fuselage. About 150,000 pounds of fuel could be carried. There were three 15-foot weapons bays in the lower fuselage, two ahead and one behind the wing carry-through box. Each bay could carry up to 25,000 pounds of conventional or nuclear weapons. The total weapons load was almost twice what a B-52 could carry. All of the offensive weapons were to be carried internally, with no provision for externally-mounted pylons. A key weapon was to be the AGM-69A SRAM (Short-Range Attack Missile), 8 of which could be carried on a rotary launcher in each of the weapons bays.

No defensive armament was planned, the B-1A relying on its low-altitude performance and its suite of electronic countermeasures gear to avoid interception.

An extensive suite of electronics was planned, including a Litton LN-15 inertial navigation system, a Doppler radar altimeter, a Hughes forward-looking infrared, and a General Electric APQ-114 forward-looking radar and a Texas Instruments APQ-146 terrain-following radar.

The B-1A carried a crew of four–a pilot, copilot, offensive systems officer, and defensive systems officer. The crew escape system resembled that of the F-111 crew escape module. In an emergency, a capsule containing all four crewmembers would separate from the aircraft and be steered and stabilized by various fins and spoilers. A rocket motor would fire and lift the capsule up and away from the aircraft. Three parachutes would then open and would lower the capsule along with the crew safely to the surface. Once down, the capsule would serve as a survival shelter for the crew members.


The B-1A mockup review occurred in late October of 1971. There were 297 requests for alterations.

The first B-1 flight aircraft (74-0158) rolled out from USAF Plant 42 at Palmdale, CA on October 26, 1974. It made its first flight on December 23, 1974, a short hop to Edwards AFB where the flight testing was to be carried out. The crew was Rockwell test pilot Charlie C. Bock,; Jr, Col. Emil Sturmthal, and Richard Abrams. The third aircraft (74-0160) was to be the avionics testbed and flew for the first time on March 26, 1976. The second aircraft (74-0159) was initially used for some static ground testing and did not make its first flight until June 14, 1976.

The B-1A test program went fairly smoothly. However, there were numerous modifications introduced throughout the program and some items of additional equipment were added. The avionics suite of the B-1A was perhaps the most complex yet used on an aircraft. The Initial Operational Test and Evaluation tests were successfully passed in September of 1976. The Phase 1 flight test program was completed on September 30, 1976. In December of 1976, the Air Force concluded that the B-1A was to go into production, with contracts placed for the first three aircraft and plans were made for an initial Block 2 production batch of 8 aircraft.

It seemed that the B-1A was well on its way to a full production run of 240 aircraft. However, the cost of the B-1A program began to escalate, and there were still some unresolved issues concerning the avionics suite. In 1970, the estimated per-unit price was $40 million, and by 1972, the cost had risen to $45.6 million. Although this sounds like small-change by today’s standards, this was considerably greater than the figure for any previous production aircraft. Moreover, by 1975, this number had climbed to $70 million.

Alarmed at these rising costs, the new presidential administration of Jimmy Carter (which had taken office on January 20, 1977) began to take a second look at the whole B-1A program. On June 30, 1977, President Carter announced that plans to produce the B-1A would be cancelled, and that the defense needs of the USA would be met by ICBMs, SLBMs, and a fleet of modernized B-52s armed with ALCMs. President Carter genuinely wanted to reduce the arms race, but he was unaware at the time of the secret projects that would ultimately lead to the F-117A stealth attack aircraft and the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

B-1A during the B-1B flight test program. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Despite the cancellation of the production program, the Carter administration allowed the flight testing of the B-1A to continue. Most of the effort involved the avionics, in particular the defensive systems. In addition, General Electric continued to work on improvements for the F101 engine, and most of the contractors kept their engineering teams intact. Perhaps most important, work continued in reducing the radar cross section of the aircraft. Less than a month after the cancellation, 74-0160 launched a SRAM on July 28, 1977 at an altitude of 6,000 feet over the White Sands missile range. This aircraft was later modified with an advanced electronic countermeasures system mounted in a dorsal spine, and Doppler beam sharpening was added to the forward-looking radar. 74-0158 had achieved Mach 2.0 in April of 1976, and after completing its stability and control tests was placed in storage in 1978. On October 5, 1978, 74-0159 achieved a speed of Mach 2.22, the highest speed achieved during the B-1A program.

74-0158 was retired from flying in April of 1981 after having flown 138 sorties, the largest number of flights of any of the prototypes. By this time, it had acquired a three-tone desert camouflage scheme. It was eventually dismantled and used as a weapons trainer at Lowry AFB.

74-0159 was later used as a flight test article in the B-1B program. It was modified by having B-1B flight control system features installed. It began flying on March 23, 1983. Unfortunately, it crashed on August 29, 1984 when the aircraft’s center of gravity got unbalanced during fuel transfer management procedures, causing it to lose control. The escape capsule deployed successfully, but the parachute risers did not deploy properly. The capsule hit the ground at a steep angle, so steep that the inflatable cushions could not shield the impact. Chief test pilot Doug Benefield was killed, and two other crew members were seriously injured.

74-0160 was later converted to a ground trainer under the designation GB-1A and is now on display at the Wings Over The Rockies Air and Space Museum (formerly Lowry AFB), near Denver, Colorado.

76-0174 had been ordered to serve as a pre-production B-1A aircraft and was configured with full avionics systems. When the B-1A program was cancelled, work on this aircraft was well under way. Unlike the first three B-1s, 76-0174 was equipped with four conventional ejector seats in place of the escape capsule. This change was made after tests had determined that the crew escape module was unstable if ejected at speeds above 347 knots. It flew on February 14, 1979 and carried out 70 sorties. This plane was later used as a test article in support of the B-1B program. It resumed flying on July 30, 1984. Externally, the main change was the removal of the long dorsal spine but many of the B-1B avionics systems were installed internally. It is now on display at the USAF Museum at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio.


  • B-1A – The initial prototype run of four aircraft


  • U.S. Air Force – The sole operator of the B-1A was the USAF


B-1A Lancer

(at max sweep)
78 ft 2.5 in / 23.84 m
(at min sweep)
136 ft 8.5 in / 41.67 m
Length 143 ft 3.5 in / 43.8 m
Height 34 ft 0 in / 10.36 m
Wing Area 1,950 ft² / 181.2 m²
Engine 4x General Electric F101-GE-100 turbofans, 17,390 lbf dry, 30,000 lbf with afterburner
Fuel Capacity 29,755 US Gal / 11,2634 L
Loaded Weight 389,000 lb / 176,450 kg
Maximum Take Off Weight 395,000 lb / 179,170 kg
Maximum Speed Mach 2.2 / 1,688 mph / 2716.5 kmh at 50,000 ft / 15,240 m
Maximum Service Ceiling 62,000 ft / 18,900 m
Crew 1 pilot, 1 copilot, 1 offensive systems officer, 1 defensive systems officer


Illustrations by Basilisk

B-1A 74-0158 seen in Anti-Flash White
B-1A 74-0160 seen in a SAC Low Level Livery
B-1A 76-0174 seen in camouflage paint scheme
B-1A 76-174 seen in camouflage during testing. (U.S. Air Force photo)
A right side ground view of a B-1A aircraft wearing dark green camo. (U.S. Air Force Photo)
B-1A 76-174 in flight with wings extended in the 25-degree sweep position. (U.S. Air Force photo)