“If it looks right, it flies right. It’s a polite way of saying that anything that looks under-powered or short of lift-generating aerodynamics probably is.”
(Wired.com, June 2016)
There are several aircraft shapes that please me immensely, although I can’t explain why. The Spitfire, the T-33, the T-38 (both more than their single-seat ancestors the F-80 and the F-5). The T-38 still says “modern” to me despite having first flown in April 1959. I also find the quirky functional shape of the A400M Atlas weirdly pleasing. Here is an aircraft that looks suited to the job in hand.
The North American F-100 Super Sabre is another one of those aircraft. I like its lines, but until quite recently I didn’t realize what a comparatively ugly duckling it was at first, and that several problems resulted from that very ugliness.
The first of the so called “Century” Series of fighters (F-100 to F-106), the F-100 was the first jet fighter capable of exceeding the speed of sound in level flight. It was introduced to the United States Air Force in 1954, and wasn’t retired completely until 1979 when the last Air National Guard units gave up their aircraft.
North American Aviation submitted an unsolicited proposal to the USAF at the beginning of 1951. NAA referred to its proposal as the Sabre 45 as a hat-tip to its earlier F-86 and because of the 45 degree sweep of the new design’s wings. The Air Force accepted North American’s proposal after some modifications. Two YF-100A prototypes and 280 production F-100As were ordered by the end of 1952, so clearly the Air Force must have liked what they had seen.
The story starts to get a little odd after that. The first production F-100A flew in October 1953. The USAF operational evaluation ran from November 1953 until December 1955. The first F-100A unit was equipped in September 1954 but was not operational until September 1955. The evaluation found the F-100A to have superior performance, but also said that it was not ready for wide-scale deployment due to various deficiencies in its design.
Those deficiencies were pretty serious. The Wikipedia article on the F-100 talks about yaw instability, in which the aircraft would yaw and roll in flight so quickly that the pilot would be unable to recover the situation. This could result in over-stressing and the eventual disintegration of the airframe. A different control problem was caused by the handling characteristics of the swept wing. Loss of lift on the wingtips near stalling speed caused a violent pitch-up which became known as the “Sabre Dance”. The consequences of this could also be disastrous.
In early October 1954, North American’s chief test pilot George Welch was killed when his F-100A (52-5764) disintegrated attempting to recover from a dive from 45,000 feet at Mach 1.55 over the Mojave Desert. By November 1954, F-100As had suffered six major accidents due to flight instability, structural failures, and hydraulic-system failures. The Air Force responded by grounding the entire fleet until February 1955. It seems that the deficiencies were never fully rectified and the F-100A was withdrawn from service starting in 1958, with the last aircraft leaving active duty in 1961. In that time, 47 aircraft had been lost in major accidents.
However, as students of history and those dwindling few who lived through the time will recall, the Cold War reached new heights in the late 50s and early 60s. The Berlin Crisis of 1961 forced the USAF to recall as many operational aircraft as possible. Operation Stair Step saw the deployment of 200 ANG aircraft (aging F-84 and F-86s) to Europe. As a result the F-100A fleet was recalled to service (along with the recently-retired F-84F Thunderstreak) in early 1962. The F-100A acquired a new lease of life and was finally retired in 1970.
While the F-100A was designed as an interceptor, Tactical Air Command (TAC) had requested that all future versions of the F-100 should have fighter-bomber capabilities including the ability to deliver nuclear weapons The F-100C entered service in this role in 1954. Operational testing in 1955 revealed that the F-100C shared all the flaws of the F-100A despite (or just simply even with) an uprated engine. However the because of its high speed the F-100C was regraded as an excellent platform from which to “toss” nuclear weapons
The “definitive” Super Sabre, the F-100D was intended to be a ground attack aircraft first and a pure fighter second. The “final” (and most pleasing for me) shape was achieved when the aircraft’s wingspan was extended by more than two feet, and the vertical tail was increased in area by more than 25%. Even then there was considerable tinkering. Various post-production “fixes” created a significant diversity of capabilities between individual aircraft. Joe Baugher says
“By the early ‘sixties, the F-100D had been subjected to so many in-service modifications to correct its obvious deficiencies that no two F-100Ds were alike, making for a maintenance and spare parts nightmare”
Joe Baugher – http://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_fighters/f100_6.html
Around 700 F-100D and an unspecified number of C and F models underwent system modifications under a program known as Project High Wire which ran continuously from 1962 to 1965. Another modification program saw the original afterburners of the F-100’s J-57 engines replaced with more advanced units taken from retired F-102 Delta Daggers.
Through the early sixties, the United States had committed itself to fighting a conventional war in Vietnam. Joe Baugher notes that by June of 1967, only five squadrons of F-100s remained at home in the USA. Most of the rest had been transferred to Vietnam as the war escalated. The F-100D was surprisingly adaptable to rough-field operations in Southeast Asia and had an excellent maintenance record.
The two-seat F-100F also saw combat in Vietnam. The F-models supplemented or replaced the Cessna O-1, O-2, and North American OV-10 in the Forward Air Control (FAC) role following heavy losses of the lighter aircraft in well-defended areas. Detachment 1 of the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron, flew F-100Fs in the FAC role. The unit was better known by its radio call sign “Misty” – the favorite song of its commander, Medal of Honor recipient Major (later Colonel) George “Bud” Day.
F-100s served with the USAF and the air forces of France, Denmark, Turkey and the Republic of China. Denmark and Turkey kept their F-100s in service until 1982.
Over the lifetime of its USAF service, 889 F-100 aircraft were destroyed in accidents, involving the deaths of 324 pilots. The worst year for F-100 accidents was 1958, with 116 aircraft destroyed, and 47 pilots killed
Of the 2294 F-100s built, a large number still survive. The F-100 seems to be the “must-have” airframe of aviation museums around the world. Apart from those in the United States, examples can be found in Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Taiwan, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
Additionally around the world the viewer can find 17 x F-100A, 15 x F-100C, 38 x F-100D, (thirty-eight!?!) and 20 x F-100F.
The F-100 is not confined to museums, however. There are four privately owned F-100Fs (F-100F 56-3948 shown below) which are kept in airworthy condition and make star appearances at air shows around the United States.
I recalled seeing an F-100 with a US civil registration on TV years ago. My British VHS cassette won’t play over here, but a memorable segment on jet engines in the TV series Coltrane’s Planes and Automobiles showed the late Robbie Coltrane being persuaded by his director to toast a marshmallow (on a VERY long stick) in the afterburner of a jet aircraft. This aircraft turned out to be 56-3844 aka N415FS, an F-100F formerly of Flight Systems and now owned and flown by the Collings Foundation in Stow, MA.
I must have seen the two F-100s at the National Museum of the United States Air Force during my visit in 2002, but I don’t have any pictures. I must go back and look again next time I am in Ohio. During my 2015 scavenger hunt in Nebraska I was unreliably informed (by a Google book viewed on my cellphone) that there was an F-100 at the municipal airport in Fairbury, NE, but all I saw was a very beaten up T-33. Wikipedia informs me that there is an F-100F (56-3825) at the Municipal Airport at Aurora, NE. Is this the example that was at Fairbury or did a compiler just get the locations wrong? I have no idea. Ironically Aurora is not very far from York NE, where I spotted my RF-84F. 56-3825 will remain the one that got away. I missed it by 25 miles. Maybe some day I’ll retrace my steps in Nebraska.