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 Its service was so long-lived that the last operational F-86 was not withdrawn from service until 1993.

History

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

Design

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.

Variants

  • 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

Operators

  • 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

Weights
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
Armament
  • 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

Gallery

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

Credits

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.

One thought on “North American XP-86 Sabre

  1. A Messerschmitt Me163A was THE FIRST AIRCRAFT TO BREAK THE SOUND BARRIER in 1944 piloted by Heini Dittmar

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