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In late 1950, as USAF B-29s were bombing North Korean supply lines in support of UN ground troops, they encountered a swept-winged North Korean aircraft capable of great speed. While the introduction of the MIG-15 caught United Nations forces by surprise, its counterpart would prove to be a legend among jet fighter aircraft.
As early as 1944, North American Aviation had proposed a jet aircraft design to the US Navy, as a result of combat against the early German jet fighters, such as the ME-262. This design, the FJ-1 Fury was, in essence, a jet version of the P-51 MUSTANG. Though its speed was impressive compared to piston-powered fighters, its overall performance failed to meet expectations. However, within a few months, the USAAF approached North American with a requirement for a medium-range, single-seat, high-altitude, jet-powered day escort fighter/fighter-bomber. In early 1945, North American submitted four designs to the Air Corps with North American granted permission to produce three examples of the XP-86 (Experimental Pursuit) aircraft. While the XP-86 was a lighter plane than the Fury, and could attain 582 mph, as opposed to 547 for the FJ-1, the XP-86 could not meet the Air Corps requirement for a top speed of 600 mph. Furthermore, two rival designs, the XP-80 and XP-84 having speeds in the range of the XP-86 were already under development and might result in cancellation of the contract for the XP-86.
North American was able to solve this problem with a leapfrog in technology. The XP-86 was the first American aircraft to take advantage of captured German test data at the end of World War II, which indicated a thin swept wing could greatly reduce drag and delay compressibility problems when an aircraft approached the speed of sound. Further study of the tests revealed a swept wing would solve the speed problem, while a slat on the wing’s leading edge would enhance low-speed stability. Since the 86 was approaching an advanced stage of development, North American’s senior management was hesitant to incorporate a swept wing design. However, after a series of wind tunnel tests, a 35-degree sweep offered the best performance with automatic front slats and an electrically adjusted stabilizer based on the ME-262. As a result of combat experience gained in Korea, the front edge wing slats were phased out in favor of a leading edge chord extending 6 inches from the wing root to 3 inches at the tip.
Though much of the design work was delayed until after the end of World War II, the first F-86 SABRE was completed on August 8, 1947, with the first flight occurring on October 1 of that year. The SABRE was first assigned to the USAF Strategic Air Command in 1949 prior to its deployment to Korea in late 1950. The F-86 set a number of speed records during its early years, an official world speed record of 671 mph in September 1948, a 1951Bendix Trophy for an average speed of 553.76 mph, as well as the first woman, Jacqueline Cochran, to break the speed of sound in May 1953.
When the Soviet MIG-15 was introduced in November 1950, it outperformed all UN aircraft, such as the straight-winged F-80 and F-84. The MIG was clearly a generation ahead of both types, as well as the F9F PANTHER, flown by the US Navy from carriers offshore. Three squadrons of F-86s were dispatched to the Far East in December 1950. Though the F-86 and the MIG-15 were evenly matched and based on similar design concepts, there were a number of differences. SABRES were more aerodynamically stable and could turn, roll and dive faster than the MIG. The F-86 could also go supersonic in a dive, while the MIG would experience structural damage attempting to do so. The SABRE was also equipped with a radar gunsight, which allowed pilots to quickly aim their .50 caliber guns more accurately-even compensating for speed. The MIG-15s key advantages were faster climbing and acceleration rates, effective handling at high altitudes and being somewhat more maneuverable. Firepower between the two aircraft was a tradeoff, with the SABRE firing more smaller rounds more accurately aimed and the MIG firing less accurate but larger bore (23mm and 37mm) ammunition. Perhaps the deciding factor in the air war over Korea was the quality of pilots. Many of the MIGs were flown by Soviet pilots for about the first year of their deployment. Many of these were aces from World War II and were thus capable pilots. The USAF followed the same philosophy, sending a number of World War II aces to Korea as well. While the Soviet pilots were well trained, the USAF training program at Nellis AFB was both more broad and intense. As Soviet pilots were rotated home, they were replaced by less capable Chinese and North Korean pilots. As the war progressed, this was reflected in the loss ratio between the two aircraft. While the overall loss ratio was in favor of the SABRE of about eight to one by wars end (78 to 687), the loss ratio against Soviet pilots has been disputed in recent years, with a number of former Soviet pilots stating a loss ratio of two to one in favor of the SABRE. The most hotly contested battles were fought over an area near the mouth of the Yalu River known as MIG ALLEY.
After the Korean War, the SABRE was exported to a number of nations to include NATO allies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, West Germany, Greece, Spain, Norway and Turkey, as well as Taiwan, Japan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The last SABRE was retired from the Bolivian Air Force in 1994. Though the SABRE was in service for many years, the high point of its career was in Korea-in which a few brave pilots and planes made the difference in saving a nation.
Aircraft designers and artists share a common trait – the ability to think out of the box and incorporate new concepts into their works . While the artist strives to create a pleasing appearance out of their work, whether art or sculpture, the aircraft designer must first meet a set of performance criteria in order to produce a successful aircraft, the artistic form being of secondary importance. During the course of this blog we’ll trace the career of an engineer who designed a number of aircraft achieving both impressive performance and appearance.
Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson was born in Ishpeming, Michigan on February 27, 1910. Johnson decided to pursue a career in aeronautical engineering at the age of 12, largely as a result of reading a series of Tom Swift novels. A few months later, he designed his own small plane, which he named the Merlin 1 Battle Plane. After seeing a Curtiss Jenny in flight during a local exhibition, he became interested in flying aircraft as well as designing them. During his high school years, Kelly moved to Flint, where his father had a construction business. He also worked part time in the motor test section of Buick, gaining a practical knowledge of engineering. By the time he completed high school, Kelly had saved about $300 to defray the costs of flight school. When Johnson approached the flight instructor, he persuaded him to use the money to further his education.
While Johnson was surprised at the instructor’s response, he respected him, and after holding a number of odd jobs, graduated from the University Of Michigan in 1932, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering. After gaining a number of teaching fellowships, as well as serving as a consultant to the university, he received a Master of Science in Aeronautical Engineering the following year. Johnson’s first assignment at Lockheed in 1933 was to design tools from which to build aircraft . However, it wasn’t long before he was involved in the design of Lockheed’s first line aircraft of the era, such as the Model 10 Electra flown by Amelia Earhart. Johnson would later design the military version of the Electra, the Hudson Lockheed, for the British from a set of sketches he made from his hotel room. By 1938 Kelly was serving as an assistant to Lockheed’s chief engineer, Hall Hibbard. In 1937 the Air Corps contracted with Lockheed to produce an aircraft capable of speeds in excess of 400 mph., with nearly double the range and firepower of existing fighter aircraft. Within a year, Hibbard and Johnson designed a twin-boomed plane, a radical departure from current practice, with armament of four fifty caliber machine guns with a 20 mm. cannon in the nose, with a larger internal fuel capacity augmented by detachable drop tanks underneath the inner wing panels. The aircraft was test flown in 1939 and entered service in 1941 as the P-38 Lightning. The P-38 proved to be a versatile plane, performing a variety of missions ranging from ground attack to the night fighter role.
In 1943 Hibbard and Johnson were presented with a new challenge. Both Germany and Britain were developing fighter aircraft driven by jet propulsion, while the USAAF program efforts lagged. Another reason for a practical jet fighter was the receipt of intelligence reports in early 1943 about a German jet fighter undergoing advanced testing, the ME-262. Fearful the new German fighter would soon become operational, Lockheed was awarded the contract and Johnson promised the design would be completed within six months. Hibbard and Johnson decided to build the new jet fighter around the existing British De Haviland Goblin engine, already in use in the Gloster Meteor. Within a mere 143 days, the new jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, had completed its first test flight and production began two months later. While too late to see action in World War II, the P-80 saw extensive action in Korea, in both the ground attack and aerial combat roles. Variants of the P-80/F-80 were in use until 1997.
Due to a perceived Soviet bomber threat, the CIA issued a requirement in late 1953 for an aircraft capable of scanning large segments of Soviet territory from an extremely high altitude. During the last year of the Korean War, several Convair B-36 bombers flew over Manchuria, taking pictures of Mig bases from a relatively high altitude. The large bomb bay area, long wings, and a high altitude dash capability from it’s four jet engines made the B-36 a good camera platform for its time. The proposed aircraft would not be as big, but would have long, glider like wings, coupled with a lightweight fuselage powered by a single jet engine mounted in the fuselage. The contract was awarded to Lockheed the following year and Kelly Johnson went to work. The initial specifications called for an aircraft capable of operating at an altitude of 70,000 ft. with a range of 1,700 miles. Johnson shortened the fuselage of an experimental F-104 Starfighter with long, slender wings. The design was powered by the J73 General Electric jet engine and emphasized weight saving, discarding features such as a landing gear and ejection seats. It took off from a special cart and belly landed when returning. The aircraft, designated Utility Two or U-2 , could cruise at an altitude of 73,000 ft. with a range of 1,600 miles. By 1955 the U-2 was in production and CIA operators were flying it over the world’s trouble spots the following year. These flights over the Soviet Union ended in May 1960 with Francis Gary Powers U-2 shot down by a Soviet SA-2 missile. However, the U-2 continued to serve in other areas, providing valuable intelligence during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the aircraft remaining in service for over 50 yrs.
In the 1960s, Johnson designed the successor to the U-2, the SR-71, The SR-71 was a twin jet, twin tail, delta-winged reconnaissance aircraft, capable of sustained mach 3 speeds with a service ceiling in excess of 85,000 ft. with a range of 2,900 miles. From the technology standpoint, the SR-71 or Blackbird, was a totally new design made largely of titanium, which was ironically imported from the Soviet Union at the time. The SR-71 was in service for over 30 yrs. and set a number of world speed and altitude records – many of them still standing. Kelly Johnson was instrumental in the design of some 40 aircraft during his forty plus years at Lockheed, designing a number of great planes at pivotal times in our nation’s history – making him a true hero of aviation.
This blog is the fourth in a series about the heroes of aviation.