Air Force Museum of Alberta

Canadair F-86 Sabre

The Canadair Sabre Jet was the mainstay of the RCAF and NATO forces during the early years of the Cold War, helping to counter the air threats from Soviet fighters behind the Iron Curtain. 

Canadair F-86 Sabre

The Canadair Sabre Jet was the mainstay of the RCAF and NATO forces during the early years of the Cold War, helping to counter the air threats from Soviet fighters behind the Iron Curtain. 

F-86 and the Cold War

In 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War, the Canadian government decided to re-equip the RCAF with the F-86 Sabre Jet. Canadair of Montreal, Quebec was contracted to build an initial batch of 10 aircraft, but with the outbreak of the Korean War, the order was increased to a production batch of 100 aircraft.

The first Canadian Sabre Jet took to the skies two years later, and between 1950 and 1958 a total of 1,815 Sabre Jets were built in Canada.

Six versions of the Sabre were built by Canadair, with the aircraft serving overseas during the Korean War and in Europe during the Cold War where they were stationed in the UK, France and West Germany. 

The Sabre proved itself as a fast, reliable and highly manoeuvrable aircraft and was eventually regarded as the "best dogfighter" of its era.

NATO Support

By 1951, Canada was committed to supporting NATO in Europe. Twelve squadrons and three hundred aircraft of 1 Canadian Air Division were moved across the Atlantic to Europe plus the equipment and personnel to fly and maintain them.

The first two squadrons of Sabres were shipped to England aboard the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent, but because of the time required to cross the Atlantic the remaining ten squadrons were flown to their European bases. This was called "Operation Leap Frog."

The Leap Frog route covered 5600 kilometers and took nine hours of flying at 625 km/hr. The fastest Atlantic crossing took seven days and the longest, 30 days. Poor flying weather was the major cause of flight delays.  

Once in Europe, 1 Air Division was broken down into four Wings and each Wing hosted three squadrons. Between 1954 and 1957, the overseas ferry unit completed thirty crossings of the North Atlantic and delivered more than eight hundred aircraft to the RCAF, Royal Air Force, and other NATO members without the loss of a single pilot.

Europe map v3

Overseas Operations

In Europe, the F-86 Sabre provided daylight air defence against the Warsaw Pact. 1 Air Division were on alert from daybreak to nightfall, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Eight aircraft maintained five minute alert status and eight maintained fifteen minute status. This alert status rotated between two wings for a one-week period.

While on alert, the five-minute aircraft were often ordered to scramble by the RCAF Radar unit in Metz, France. These scrambles were ordered without prior notice and, once airborne, the pilots were advised that it was a practice to test their reaction time. Mandatory scrambles were ordered to intercept any aircraft that could not be identified by NATO radar stations.

To maintain NATO standards, each squadron deployed to a weapons range and practiced air gunnery twice a year. The camps were initially held in Rabat, Morocco and later at Decimomannu in Sardinia. Four aircraft fired on a flag towed by another aircraft. Rounds from each aircraft were coloured so it would leave a distinctive mark in the flag. NATO required a minimum score of 20%.

Canadian pilots established themselves as excellent marksmen. In 1958, an annual gunnery competition was established called "The Guynemer Trophy", which Canada won every year until 1962.

The Golden Hawks

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the RCAF and the 50th anniversary of powered flight in Canada, the RCAF formed an aerobatic flying team of Canadair Mk.5 Sabres in 1959. The six-plane team flew 63 shows in their first season. 

The Golden Hawks proved so popular that they continued to perform for five more years. In 1961 the aircraft were upgraded to the Mk.6 Sabre and one more jet was added to the team. The Golden Hawks flew a total of 317 shows across North America before they were disbanded in February 1964.

The F-86 Sabre at the AFMA

The Sabre Mk. 5 Serial No. 23338 was built by Canadair of Montreal, Quebec in 1954. It was one of 370 Mk.5's built by Canadair with the majority designated for deployment to RCAF squadrons in Europe.

However this aircraft was first deployed to the Central Experimental and Proving Establishment (C.E.P.E), Winter Experimental Establishment at RCAF Station Namao, Alberta in October 1954, before being sent to France with the 416 "Black Lynx" Squadron, No.1 Air Division, No.2 Wing in Grostenquin, France. 

After 10 months in France the aircraft was sent back to the No.1 Operation Training Unit in Chatham, New Brunswick in August 1955.  It remained there until May 1968 when it was transferred to the Sabre Transition Unit in Chatham, NB.

In September 1970 it was struck off strength with the RCAF and sold to the Maritime Aircraft Repair & Overhaul/Target Air Limited, in Moncton, New Brunswick. 

The Black Cat

In the early 1980's the Sabre was acquired by Flight Systems, Inc of Mojave CA, and converted into a QF-86E drone for target practice. This program was designed to test anti-aircraft systems and involved the installation of remote control hardware into the airframe so the aircraft could be flown unmanned. Almost 60 Canadair Sabres took part in this program where a majority were eventually shot down during tests of ground-to-air missiles.

Sabre 23338 was given the US Registration number N4689N and between 1984 and 1988, it flew as many as 13 unmanned sorties and survived the program. Sabre 23338 was apparently shot at by ground-to-air missiles nine times with each one missing. Afterwards this lucky aircraft was given the nickname "Black Cat".

The Sabre was transferred to Chanute AFB, Illinois in 1988 and then Holloman AFB, New Mexico in the early 1990's. It returned to Mojave, CA in the late 1990's after it was sold to a private buyer. In 2006 the aircraft made its final flight when it was purchased by Aviation Classics and flown to Reno, Nevada by USAF pilot John Penney.

The aircraft was dismantled for restoration but ended up in long-term storage. In 2015 the aircraft came up for sale, and Gerry Morrison of the Air Force Museum Society of Alberta flew down to view the aircraft, and purchased it the next day.

The aircraft was shipped back to the Air Force Museum in Calgary, and after 2,000 hours of restoration work by a group of dedicated volunteers, the Sabre Jet was unveiled in 2016 at the Ken and Roma Lett, Cold War Museum in Calgary, Alberta.  

F-86 - Sabre Jet 


  • Crew - 1
  • Sabre version: Mk.5
  • Maximum Takeoff Weight - 7,800 Kg
  • Powerplant -1x Orenda 10
  • Maximum Thrust - 6,500 lbf


  • Maximum Speed - 1,100 km/h or 615 Knots
  • Service Ceiling - 50,000 ft
  • Range - 1,300 km, 800 miles


  • 6 x 12.7 mm M3 Browning machine guns
  • 16 x 127 mm HVAR rockets
  • 2 x 1000 lb AN-M65A1 Fin M129 bombs
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