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F-86 Sabre: 'Last of the Sports Models'

BALTIMORE -- They called it the "last of the sports models." Sleek and swept winged, the North American F-86 Sabre was the epitome of the Cold War jet fighter.

The Sabre came into being at the dawn of jet age. Although its first flight wasn't until Oct. 1, 1947, the Sabre's roots were really in World War II. The aircraft was first proposed in late 1944, and in May 1945, the government ordered three prototypes of what was then called the XP-86.

Although some legacies of World War II aircraft were evident in the design, such as its primary armament of six .50-caliber machine guns, the end of the war allowed designers were able to benefit from captured German research data. As a result, the F-86 incorporated a number of innovative features, including the first use of swept wings in American jet fighter design.

The initial production version, the F-86A day fighter, first flew on May 20, 1948. By the end of the year, it had set a world speed record of 670.9 mph.

When fighting broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950, the Sabre was quickly deployed to meet the threat posed by Communist jets. During the war, F-86 pilots racked up an impressive 10-to-1 kill ratio against its chief rival, the MiG-15, thereby cementing the Sabre's reputation as the world's dominant fighter aircraft.

The Sabre family eventually grew to include a number of variants, including a day fighter (F-86 models A, E and F), an all-weather fighter (F-86D) and a fighter-bomber (F-86H), although only the day fighter versions ever saw combat.

The F-86D and F-86H each marked significant departures from previous models. The D-model featured a large radome on the nose and air-to-air rockets instead of the internal guns found in other variants. The H-model was larger, heavier and had a more powerful engine than previous models and was armed with four 20 mm cannons.

According to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, more than 5,500 Sabre day fighters, 2,500 all-weather fighters, and 450 fighter-bombers were ultimately produced for U.S. and foreign air forces before rapid advances in the field of aerodynamics and aircraft design rendered the F-86 obsolescent. By the end of the 1950s production had ceased.

The Maryland Air National Guard's experience with the F-86 began in June 1955, when it received its first six F-86Es. It was the fighter Maryland almost didn't get.

The National Guard Bureau had initially been reluctant to assign an air defense mission to the Maryland Guard because it was equipped with propeller-driven F-51 Mustangs and its home base, Harbor Field, did not have runways long enough to support jet operations. In the end, Maryland got the mission - and the F-86E fighters to perform it - by guaranteeing that it would be able to find a suitable base of operations.

Maryland's 104th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron continued to fly the E-model until December 1957, when it converted to the F-86H in preparation to be reorganized as a tactical fighter squadron.

The last active Air Force F-86s were retired in 1958, leaving only the Air National Guard still flying the aircraft. Though beloved by its pilots, the Sabre was now clearly obsolete as a combat aircraft. This became especially evident when portions of the 175th Tactical Fighter Group were mobilized in 1968.

In order to meet the demands for air power stemming from the Pueblo Crisis in Korea and the Tet offensive in Vietnam, a number of Air National Guard fighter units were mobilized, the 175th among them. But because the Maryland Guard was still equipped with F-86s, it was assigned a training mission at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., rather than a combat mission overseas. In the end, even this proved not to be viable, and by the end of the year the unit was released from active duty and sent home.

Two years later, in August 1970, the 175th turned in its F-86Hs and converted to the A-37 Dragonfly ground attack aircraft.