A Brief History
On October 1, 1942, the United States was a bit behind Germany and Britain in the development of jet engines and jet powered aircraft, but still managed to conduct the first ever flight of an American prototype jet fighter, the Bell P-59 Airacomet. Only 5 years later, the US North American F-86 Sabre made its first flight, and the tale of these 2 fighter airplanes could not have been much more different.
The P-59 was a disappointing flop, and only 50 production models were built. One was exchanged with the British for one of their Gloster Meteor jet fighters, and British pilots quickly discovered the American jet was quite inferior. In fact, the P-59 was substantially inferior to the latest models of the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt it was supposed to replace. All it was good for was to train pilots and mechanics in the routines of maintaining and operating jet aircraft, and the P-59 was not used in combat. By 1950 not a single Airacomet was ‘airaworthy.’
The F-86, however, was a tremendous success, and is often included in lists of the greatest fighter aircraft of all time. Amazing that in only 5 years such tremendous strides had been made. A measure of its success is that it is the most produced Western jet fighter of all time, and another is its 10 to 1 victory ratio over the MiG-15 during the Korean War. Along with the US, 27 nations flew the F-86. The Sabre was capable of breaking the sound barrier in a dive, and Jackie Cochran became the first woman pilot to break the speed of sound in an F-86. Here we list some of the contrasting data about each jet for comparison. You decide if the F-86 was the better program!
P-59 vs. F-86F
First Flight: October 1, 1942 vs. October 1, 1947
Retired: 1950 vs. 1994
Powerplant: 2 X GE J31-GE-5 (2000 lbs thrust each) vs. 1 X GE J47-GE-27 (5910 lbs thrust)
Top Speed: 413 mph vs. 687 mph (level flight, combat weight)
Ceiling: 46,200 feet vs. 49,600 feet
Range: 375 miles vs. 1525 miles
Armament: 1 X 37mm cannon; 3 X .50 caliber machine guns vs. 4 X 20 mm cannon; 6 X .50 caliber Machine Guns
Number Built: 66 (50 operational) vs. 9860
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been inside either of these planes? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Carpenter, David M. P-59 Airacomet First Jet Flame Powered: The Story of America’s First Super Secret Jet October 2, 1942. Jet Pioneers of America, 1992.
Linney, Mark. North American F-86 Sabre Owners’ Workshop Manual: An insight into owning, flying, and maintaining the USAF’s legendary Cold War jet fighter. Zenith Press, 2011.