This is the story of an airplane. Not just any airplane, but a very special airplane. It could easily be about the great pilots that have flown her or some of the remarkable airfields and places that have been involved with her at some time or another, but it's not. It is the one and only Canadair CL-13 Sabre Mark 3, serial number 19200. Better known as the Canadian F-86 Sabre 3 and powered by the Canadian developed Orenda 3 engine.
Over a two month period in 1953, Jacqueline Cochran set five world speed and altitude records with this airplane. They included; being the first women to break the sound barrier on May 17, 1953, 100 km world speed record on May 18, 1953, 500 km circular course world record on May 23, 1953, 15 km closed course world record on June 3, 1953. She even managed to set an altitude record for women of 47,300 feet. General Chuck Yeager (the first man to break the sound barrier and at the time still a Major) also had a few flights in the aircraft and found the performance much improved with the Orenda engine. He assisted Jackie by flying as her wingman on several flights.
Autographed photo to Lewis Chow from Chuck Yaeger (Jacqueline Cochran in cockpit) thanking him for his help with the records.
Now is the time to go check your log books and photo albums. Because this little jet got around! It was one of 1815, Mark 1 to Mark 6 Sabres, which emerged from Canadair's Montreal plant between August 1950 and October 1958. The plant was at Cartierville airport, Ville Saint-Laurent in North West Montreal.
The F-86 Sabre was a great airplane and I have never heard anyone speak badly of it. Originating at North American Aviation's Inglewood, California plant, the first design even had straight wings. Fortunately, going over the data sheets from some captured German wind tunnel research, it was shown that swept wings offered a big improvement in performance. The Germans had incorporated this into the design of the Messerschmitt 262 as well as automatic slats. The F-86 wings were quickly redesigned with a 35 degree sweep and the first prototype flew on October 1, 1947. It was powered by a Chevrolet built General Electric TG 180 (J35) of 4000 lbs. thrust. The first production model flew on May 20, 1948 powered by a General Electric TG 190 (J47) engine of 5200 lbs. thrust. Canadair was chosen as the Canadian manufacturer and, after assembling an F-86A from parts sent up from North American, flew it in August 1950. This was the first and only Mark 1. The Mark 2 production began immediately with the first one flying on January 31, 1951.
All along, thought had been given to installing the new Canadian designed and built Orenda 3 engine in place of the General Electric J47. Because of the production demands of the Korean War, the American produced J47 engines fell well behind schedule and what was needed. Some thought was briefly given to using the Rolls-Royce Avon engine. It had a little more thrust but would require major modification to the fuselage because of its size. The Orenda 3 was rated at 6000 lbs. thrust and nearly equivalent to the Avon. Mr. C.D. Howe, the minister of everything eventually stepped in and managed to procure funding to jump start Orenda production.
Dr. Lewis Hong Chow and collegue standing next to Orenda 3 engine and F-86 Sabre
Early testing had been done at Edwards AFB, California in October 1950 then Malton, Ontario on an F-86A pulled off North American's assembly line and re-engined with an Orenda. Redesignated as an F-86J, it had stellar performance but serious overheating issues. The J47 engine was eventually put back into it and, after quite some time as a hangar queen in Malton, was flown on February 11, 1954 by Bob Christie down to Brookley AFB in Mobile, Alabama to be scrapped.
In 1952 Dick Richmond, Chief Developmental Engineer at Canadair, was asked the feasibility of installing the Orenda in the F-86. After having his team of aerodynamicists study the problem, they recommended full scale testing based on the required major structural changes to the fuselage air-intake duct and engine nose cone. Mr. Lewis Chow, Chief Experimental Engineer, went down to the Orenda Engine Test Facility in Malton, Ontario bringing with him six experimental engine nose cones and a new fuselage air-intake duct. North American Aviation had already said it couldn't be done. But, although the Orenda engine was bigger, this modification could save both time and money for the company and resolve the overheating issues. It took a lot longer then anticipated. A total of almost four months of day and night testing under Mr. Bert Scott of Orenda and Mr. Lewis Chow of Canadair, proved that the reconfigured air-intake duct and new engine nose cone would permit better airflow and more air into the Orenda engine allowing it to develop full power under all flying conditions. These changes have been used on all Orenda powered Sabres since.
On June 14, 1952 Glendon Lynes took the 100th Canadair Sabre Mark 2, s/n 19200, up for its first flight. Another eleven flights followed before the J47 engine was pulled and an Orenda 3 engine of 6000 lbs. thrust installed. It was flown on September 25, 1952 by W.S. (Bill) Longhurst, now as a Mark 3 Sabre. The aircraft was really an experimental aircraft and unique in that it had no armament. Even the gunports in the nose were absent. It had no markings on it with the exception of the serial number over the letters 'E.O.P' (Experimental Orenda Prototype) on the tail.
About the same time Jacqueline Cochran was looking for an F-86 Sabre to set some speed records with. She was a very well known American pilot married to a very well off industrialist, Fred Odlum. She had been trying, unsuccessfully, to procure a USAF jet for her attempts. After meeting AVM W.A. Curtis, chief of the RCAF and having him make a request to Mr. Brooke Claxton, the Minister of National Defense, they authorized Canadair to permit her to use the Mark 3 Sabre, but insisted she sign on as a company consultant with special flying duties at Canadair to use their jet.
Jacqueline Cochran posed in front of T-38
In November 1952, she came up to Montreal and had Bill Longhurst check her out on the T-33. The record attempts were to be made between Ottawa and Montreal but there was no proper measurement equipment in place. It was decided to fly the aircraft to Edwards AFB in California. On April 8, 1953, Bill Longhurst flew the airplane, powered by the J47, down while a sixteen man support team of performance engineers and ground crew from Canadair and Orenda, led by Lewis Chow, went along to supervise the test flights. The Orenda engine was shipped down separately.
There still exists some question about the primary purpose of bringing the Sabre 3 to Edwards AFB. Was it for Jackie Cochran to establish her world records or was it to give the RCAF its first high-speed pacer aircraft capable of accurately measuring the speed and altitude of any other RCAF aircraft?
The Sabre 3 arrived on April 9, 1953 at Edwards. On the 18th, work started in earnest with Airspeed Position Error testing. This was followed by calibration flights at 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000 feet. Dives were then performed from 40,000 feet over and over again. In all, twenty-nine calibration and test flights were carried out before Jackie Cochran even got into the airplane. Many of the flights were at high speeds and extremely low altitude (25 feet above ground level). Lewis Chow said that the day often started at 4am and credit has to go to him and his ground crew, as well as, Bill Longhurst, the pilot, for keeping the aircraft flying safely. All the calibration testing and training flights were done with the J47 engine in place.
Dr. Lewis Hong Chow with crew at Edwards Air Force base in California - Lewis in middle
Not counting the ferry flights down and back, a total of fifty-one flights were made at Edwards AFB. The Orenda engine was a limited-life engine and restricted to 10 hours, so a quick engine replacement was done, and it was only used for the record flights. When Jackie Cochran was finished her record flights there were about thirty minutes left on the engine.
This is where the story might have ended. If this was the United States the airplane would be hanging in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for everyone to see and remain there forever. However, this was Canada. The J47 engine was put back in and the aircraft returned to Canadair at Montreal. The wings had been slightly damaged at Edwards and, rather than repair them, they were replaced with a new '6-3' wing from a Mk 5 Sabre. (Six inches more chord at the wing root and three more inches at the tip). This basically made it a Mark 4 Sabre although it was never redesignated as such. It was test flown by Glen Lynes on August 25, 1953.
On June 21, 1954, it was finally transferred to the RCAF. Initially, it went from 11 TSU (Technical Service Unit-Canadair) to Air Material Command CEPE at RCAF Rockcliffe (Central Experimental and Proving Establishment) with its engine still listed as an Orenda 3. Due to the short runway length at Rockcliffe, by August 3, 1954, it was transferred to AFHQ Jet Practice Flights at RCAF Station Uplands in Ottawa, Ontario.
It remained in Ottawa for about a year. On August 29, 1955, it was transferred to RCAF St. Jean, Quebec and converted to Instructional Category. Given the new registration number 613B, it remained there for the rest of its service career before being struck off strength by the Canadian Armed Forces on June 22, 1969. At that time CFB St. Jean was authorized to retain it for static display.
In the late 1970s, 411 'County of York' Reserve Squadron in Toronto was looking for a Sabre to use as a gate guardian. Although none were available, someone at #10 TAG (Tactical Air Group headquartered in St. Hubert, Quebec) remembered the one that was at St. Jean. It was recovered from a farmer's field near St. Jean Airport in a pretty sorry state and was trucked to CFB Downsview. 411 had flown both the Vampire and the Sabre jets in the past. The C.O at the time was Lt. Col. Paul Hayes, a former Air Division Sabre pilot with more than 2000 hours on type. It was noted with a little curiosity that this Sabre 2 had a Sabre 5 wing and an inquisitive ground crewman finally got into the wheel well and checked the serial numbers. Getting in touch with Canadair, they were briefly told the aircrafts history and that it was quite special.
By the early 1980s, it was still languishing at Downsview. The Sabre was used in the background for the science fiction movie 'The Last Chase' starring Lee Majors and Burgess Meredith, filmed in Caledon, Ontario and released in 1981. It now wore an American paint scheme as USAF 54989.
In 1980, 411 Squadron had converted to the CH-136 Kiowa Light Tactical Helicopter and the military really didn't know what to do with the Sabre anymore. The C.O. at the time, Lt. Col. J.N. (Jim) Peirce, realized the historical significance of the aircraft and decided to donate it to the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba for some Harvard airframe components. By now the engine had been removed and the cockpit had been stripped of all instrumentation. When it arrived in Winnipeg it was in pieces and still in its USAF livery. They reassembled it and painted it in a scheme similar to the original. They also tried in vane to get a Mk 2 wing to put back on it.
The Mark 3 Sabre stayed in Winnipeg until 1998 when Byron Reynolds traded a well worn deHavilland Vampire s/n 17020 for it. It was moved to the Reynolds Aviation Museum. In 1992, Stan Reynolds started donating a multitude of automotive, agricultural and aviation artifacts to the province of Alberta. They formed the basis of the government run Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. In 2007, the Mark 3 Sabre was also transferred there. Because their storage and display facilities are at current capacity, the Sabre is parked outside. They would like, in the long term, to bring it inside.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Orenda powered Sabre was one of the finest aircraft ever made. It has proven itself on the battlefield and has withstood the test of time. Yes, they can still be found flying and can be purchased in airworthy condition. We are fortunate to have one in my area that is part of the Vintage Wings of Canada collection. It is a Sabre 5, ex-RCAF s/n 23314 and, after spending a few years in the United States, was returned to Canada. It was given the distinctive paint job of the Golden Hawks, the Canadian Sabre aerobatic team and christened Hawk One. It now does numerous airshows across the country initiating a new generation to the allure of the Sabre.
Bernie Runstedler, October 2012
The writing of this story would have been impossible without the help of the following people: Lewis Chow, Chief Experimental Engineer, Canadair (Retired), Flt/Sgt B. F. Runstedler RCAF (Ret'd), Bill Upton Canadair (Ret'd), Michelle Kopfer, Archives Technician, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas, Brian Mullen, Media Projects Manager, Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Washington D.C., Tim Dube, Chairman, Ottawa Chapter, Canadian Aviation Historical Society, Fiona Smith-Hale, Manager Information Resources, Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, Ottawa,Ontario, Ian Leslie, Library Assistant, Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, Ottawa, Ontario, Shirley Render, Executive Director, Western Canadian Aviation Museum, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Keith Olsen, Western Canadian Aviation Museum, Brian Sutherland, Directorate of History and Heritage, Ottawa, Ontario, Justin Cuffe, Curator-Transportation Collections, Reynolds-Alberta Museum, Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Vic Johnson, Editor, Airforce Magazine (Ret'd) and Paul Hayes, CAF Brigadier-General(Ret'd).
A tribute to the life of Mr. Lewis Chow is currently on display at the Canadian Bush Plane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The author, numerous friends and colleagues of Mr. Chow are endeavoring to expand this exhibit with the hope to contain more of his significant contributions in the field of aviation in Canada. As part of the expansion, Mr. Todd Fleet, Curator of the museum would welcome the airplane as a part of the permanent display.
NOTE: Bernie Runstedler is a long time Private Pilot living in the Ottawa area. He has authored numerous aviation articles and, in 1999, had his first book "Breezes Against My Brow" published. He has a great love of Canadian aviation history and does all he can to help maintain and preserve it.