North American RF-86 Sabre


The success of the F-86 Sabre in numerous engagements with MiG-15’s flown by Russian and North Korean pilots during the Korean War is well known. Much less well known are the activities of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron which was part of the 67th Tactical reconnaissance Wing based at Kimpo Air Base.

Early in the war the wing was operating a mixture of RB-26C Invaders, RF-51D Mustangs and RF-80A Shooting Stars and whilst these aircraft all performed creditably in the difficult circumstances, what was needed was a newer aircraft with increased performance. A recce version of the F-86 was the obvious solution, but the F-86’s coming off the production line were needed for air-to-air operations, consequently, all requests to higher authority for an RF-86 were rejected. Undaunted 3 officers from the 15th TRS (Maj Bruce Fish, Maj Ruffin Garay and Capt Joe Daley) obtained a scrap nose section of an F-86A and demonstrated how a single camera could be installed by removing two of the aircraft’s six Browning 50-cal machine guns. Now the project was shown to be feasible, the Commanding Officer of the 67th TRW, Col Edwin ‘Chick’ Chickering persuaded FEAF to release two high-hour F086As to be modified for reconnaissance duties.

RF-86A 48-217 'Honeybucket'

This initial project was called ‘Honeybucket’, after the twin bucket container Korean farmers used to carry human waste to their fields to use as fertiliser. The two F-86As (48-187 & 48-217) were modified at Tachikawa in Japan and each was equipped with a single high-speed K-25 bomb-scoring camera mounted horizontally in the right gun bay, shooting into an angular mirror assembly through a single camera port under the right ammunition bay. One single cannon on the starboard side and all the port side cannons remained and operated as usual. These two aircraft began operations from Kimpo in Dec 1951.

RF-86A 48-196 'Ashtray'

The success of the two ‘Honeybucket’ RF-86 Sabres convinced FEAF that additional aircraft were required. Consequently, project ‘Ashtray’ began when a further 10 ageing F-86As were selected for conversion into reconnaissance aircraft. However, the ‘Ashtray’ RF-86 aircraft were configured differently to the original ‘Honeybucket’ Sabres. Some ‘Ashtray’ RF-86As, but not all, dispensed with the fighters APG-30 gunsight radar in the nose and the two lower guns. They were equipped with a 36-in focal length forward oblique camera that took photos through a pair of small doors that opened and closed like the floor ashtrays of cars in that era – hence the name. The ‘Ashtray’ aircraft were also equipped with a 6-in focal length camera vertical camera in the lower fuselage, located halfway between the nose gear and the main gear. The large size of the K-9 cameras resulted in a large fairing being fitted over the modified ammunition bay area, giving the ‘Ashtray’ aircraft very distinctive cheeks. The two ‘Honeybucket’ aircraft were upgraded to ‘Ashtray’ standard by equipping them with two horizontal K-9 cameras with a new mirror assembly looking through a pair of camera ports on the underside of the nose.

RF-86F 52-5330 'Haymaker'

Towards the end of the Korean War, it was decided to convert three of the more advanced F-86F Sabres in reconnaissance aircraft under project ‘Haymaker’. The three F-86F aircraft (52-4330, 52-4357 & 52-4529) were converted at Tsuiki in Japan. The ‘Haymaker’ RF-86F aircraft had a horizontal K-14 camera, in place of the K-9 camera, which shot through a mirror complex with an aperture underneath the fuselage. Two downward K-14 cameras were also installed and the underside of the forward fuselage was again bulged to cover the camera installation.

RF-86F camera layout'

As a result of the success of the Haymaker RF-86F’s, North American began to actually manufacture new RF-86F’s. These aircraft were equipped with a pair of faster vertically mounted K-22 split-vertical cameras. These cameras straddled a K-17 vertical dicing camera. The increased size of the cameras and the film magazines resulted in a noticeable bulge where the gun bay doors had been located. The RF-86Fs were unarmed but had false gun ports painted on their nose.

After the Korean War ended the US Air Force decided to utilise the RF-84F Thunderflash as its standard tactical reconnaissance aircraft. However, Japan, South Korea and Nationalist China continued to operate RF-86Fs. Between 1961 and 1962 Mitsubishi converted 18 F-86’s to RF-86F configuration and these aircraft were operated by the 501st Hikotai at Iruma Air Base where they remained in service until 25 Mar 1977 when they were replaced by RF-4E Phantoms. A number of RF-86Fs ended their days with the District of Columbia Air National Guard and were eventually scrapped in 1958.