Canadair Sabre celebrates its 70th anniversary

It was on Aug. 9, 1950, that the first single-engine Canadair Sabre 1 jet fighter roared off the runway at Montreal’s Dorval Airport on its maiden flight with test pilot Al Lilly at the controls.

The original Canadair Sabre, No. 19101, first flew at Montreal’s Dorval on August 9, 1950. This aircraft was largely made from US-made parts and was basically a F-86A. Canadair Photo

For the next 15 minutes, the silver aircraft armed with six machine guns and capable of speeds of at least 650 miles per hour (1,046 kilometres per hour) circled overhead. The next day Lilly became the first Canadian pilot to break the sound barrier when he dove the seven-tonne aircraft vertically from 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

The Canadian government obtained the manufacturing rights for the F-86 Sabre from North American Aviation in April 1949 and placed a production contract with Canadair.

The prototype Sabre 1 was assembled at Cartierville Airport from U.S.-made components and was powered by the same 5,000-pound thrust General Electric J47-GE-13 engine installed in American-built F-86s.

Since the runway at Cartierville Airport was being lengthened to support jet activity, the prototype was towed to nearby Dorval Airport for its test flight and a couple weeks later was flown to Toronto and placed on static display at the Canadian National Exhibition.

The Sabre transformed Canadair as a company, as well as the Canadian aerospace supply chain and the RCAF itself; Cold War tensions led to a major expansion of the military in Western democracies after the Soviet Union tested a nuclear weapon in August 1949, and North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950.

Only one Sabre 1 was built, but Canada ordered 350 General Electric-powered Sabre Mk.2 aircraft with deliveries starting in the spring of 1951. This was followed by an order for 438 Sabre Mk.4s equipped with the same engine to serve with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Royal Air Force in the U.K., which didn’t have a swept wing fighter jet that could counter the Soviet MiG-15 fighter.

In 1952, 60 Sabre Mk.2s were also supplied to the U.S. Air Force for use in Korea.

From the outset, the Canadian government expressed its desire to have the Sabre powered by the more powerful Avro Orenda jet engine being developed to power the twin-engine Avro CF-100 all-weather interceptor – both of which were made in Malton, Ont.

The RCAF operated the Sabre until 1969 and Canadair Sabres also served with at least 12 other air forces. Photo by Richard Dumigan courtesy of Eric Dumigan

The Sabre Mk.3 prototype, initially powered by the GE J47 engine and later powered by the 6,000 lb. thrust Orenda 3, flew for the first time at Cartierville Airport on June 14, 1952, and was used by American aviator Jacqueline Cochran at Edwards Air Force Base in California to set a number of speed records. She become the first female pilot to break the sound barrier in May 1953.

The Sabre replaced the North American P-51 Mustang and de Havilland Vampire in RCAF service in Canada, and the Canadian government committed 12 squadrons to NATO to defend Western Europe in 1952 with four RCAF bases in France and Germany receiving three squadrons each.

The first production Sabre Mk.5 powered by the 6,400 lb. thrust Orenda 10 flew on July 30, 1953, and the first Sabre 6 powered by a 7,400 lb. thrust Orenda 14 engine flew on Oct. 19, 1954. These aircraft featured several modifications to accommodate the larger diameter Orenda engine and improve aircraft performance including power assisted flight controls, leading edge devices and a larger wing.

The early RCAF Sabres were replaced with the Sabre 5 and Sabre 6. The Canadair model was more manoeuvrable and climbed faster than the F-86 manufactured by North American Aviation, with the Sabre 6 having the best performance. (The aircraft was never designated the CF-86 in Canada.)

Canadair built 1,815 Sabre fighters at Carterville Airport between 1950 and 1959 with production peaking at 50 aircraft a month. The first aircraft were built with American parts, but latter aircraft were built primarily with Canadian parts and raw materials.


A fleet of Canadair Sabres seen above St. Hubert, Que., in 1955. Photo by Richard Dumigan courtesy of Eric Dumigan

Major Canadian subcontractors included Héroux Machinery of Longueuil (now Héroux Devtek) and Jarry Machine Shop of Montreal (which became part of Menasco, moved to Oakville and is now known as UTC Aerospace Systems).

The RCAF operated the Sabre until 1969 and Canadair Sabres also served with at least 12 other air forces: Bangladesh (via Pakistan), Columbia, Greece, Honduras, Italy, Pakistan (via Iran), South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, West Germany, and Yugoslavia.

The tremendous historical interest in the aircraft led aviation historian Larry Milberry to publish 10,000 copies of his book The Canadair Sabre in 1986, which became a best seller.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of powered flight in Canada in 2009, Vintage Wings of Gatineau, Que., restored a former RCAF Sabre 5 (serial 23314) to perform at airshows across Canada wearing the livery of the RCAF’s precision aerobatic team, the Golden Hawks, which was created in 1959 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of powered flight.

3 thoughts on “Canadair Sabre celebrates its 70th anniversary

  1. What a beautiful aircraft to watch in the air, it is my favorite specially when painted in the Golden Hawks colours.

  2. To close the loop, we should note that the Commonwealth Sabre or Avon Sabre with a Rolls Royce Avon engine and two 30 MM Aden cannons rather than 6 x 50 Cal machine guns was built under licence in Australia and was flown by the RAAF in Australia and SE Asia circa 1954 to early ’70s

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