WarbirdsNews is proud to present the second in our series of articles by noted aviation journalist and author, Robert F. Dorr. This time he takes a look at the North American F-100 Super Sabre, and we hope you enjoy his candid look at the aircraft from the perspective of someone who was present when the aircraft first gained the public’s attention.
The F-100 Super Sabre: Funny-Looking at First
By Robert F. Dorr
Today, the F-100 is as familiar as an old friend’s face. That makes it easy to forget how ridiculously alien this “century series” jet fighter appeared to our eyes when the Pentagon released the first photos not long after George Welch completed the May 25th, 1953 maiden flight of the first North American YF-100 Super Sabre (52-5754) at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (The “Y” prefix identifies a “service-test” airframe).”Wheaties” Welch, a 16-kill ace who’d downed four Japanese warplanes at Pearl Harbor, exceeded the speed of sound on that maiden sortie and ran away from Lieutenant Colonel Frank K. “Pete” Everest, Jr., piloting an F-86 Sabre chase aircraft. At the time, Sabres were racking up a ten-to-one kill ratio over the MiG-15 in Korea. The Soviet counterpart to the F-100, the MiG-19, had made its first flight on January 5th, 1953—making it the world’s first fighter capable of supersonic speed in level flight.While the name Aardvark may have attached itself to a different aircraft, the F-100 more properly evoked the burrowing, nocturnal African animal. Its low-hanging snout and oddly shaped nose air intake were at the front of a fuselage whose bottom appeared to have been shaped by drawing a straight line with a ruler.
Century series pioneer:
“When we shaped the F-100 we were thinking air-to-air,” said James Wheeler, a North American Aviation engineer. It never occurred to those who designed and built the aircraft that it would fly more air-to-ground missions in Vietnam than any other platform, or that airmen would start calling it the “Hun” late in its career. The F-100 designation (which had been assigned on February 7th, 1951) made it the first of the “century series,” a new generation of U.S. fighters that included the F-101 Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-104 Starfighter, F-105 Thunderchief and F-106 Delta Dart.Welch died in an October 12th, 1954 crash of the ninth production F-100A (52-5764) that highlighted known drawbacks to the early Super Sabre design. After two more Super Sabre crashes that November, one of which killed Royal Air Force Air Commodore Geoffrey D. Stephenson, the Pentagon grounded the F-100A fleet. Engineers already knew that the fighter needed a larger and taller vertical tail. Welch had been pulling up from a dive at a high Mach number and a high angle of attack, and the inadequate size of his fin had been unable to compensate for the forces that simply ripped his aircraft apart. From that point onward, all production Super Sabres received a new fin design that was 27 per cent larger and increased height to 15 feet 6 inches (4.6 meters).
The first F-100C (53-1709) made its initial flight on September 9th, 1955, piloted by George Hoskins. It introduced a strengthened wing, capability for up to six 750-pound (340-kilogram) bombs, and an improved system for the ASM-N-7 Bullpup missile, which was redesignated AGM-12 in 1962. North American Aviation, which that year was advertising itself as having more aircraft than any other manufacturer, rolled out most “C models” from their Inglewood, California plant, but shifted production for the variant to Columbus, Ohio, which added a further 25 F-100Cs to the eventual total of 451.The designation JF-100C went to a solitary “Hun” (53-1715) that flew ordnance separation tests at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Two-seat Super Sabre:
The Air Force was late developing a two-seat trainer version of the F-86 Sabre, and it was a trouble-prone program that produced just two TF-86F airframes. In contrast, a two-seat “Hun” had always been envisioned. North American converted F-100C 54-1966 into the first TF-100C two-seat trainer. Future NASA astronaut Robert White made the first TF-100C flight on August 3rd, 1956. It was the prototype for the subsequent, two-seat F-100F, which was destined to do less training than fighting.The definitive, single-seat “Hun” was the F-100D; designed for both conventional and nuclear air-to-ground missions. The first example, 54-2121, went aloft for its baptismal flight on January 24th, 1956 with North American’s Dan Dranell at the controls. The improved engine in the F-100D was the 16,950-pound (7689 kilogram) thrust Pratt & Whitney J57-P-21A and its four 20-mm cannons were improved M39E models. North American produced 940 F-100Ds at Inglewood plus 334 in Columbus.
The designation F-100E went to an improved F-100D that was never built.The final Super Sabre was the two-seat F-100F, lengthened by 36 feet (0.914 meters) to house a second crewmember. Following the one-of-a-kind TF-100C, the first F-100F (56-3725) took to the air on March 7th, 1957, piloted by North American’s George Mace. North American built 339 F-100Fs and delivered some to Denmark, France, and Turkey. The US Air Force’s Thunderbirds demonstration team flew F-100Cs from 1957 to 1964 and—after an unsuccessful period with the F-105B Thunderchief—F-100Ds briefly in 1964 and 1965. First combat for the F-100 was a June 9th, 1964 strike on Pathet Lao forces in Laos mounted from Da Nang, South Vietnam, by the 615th Tactical Fighter Squadron under Colonel George Laven. In a 1990 interview, Laven’s wingman, former First Lieutenant Lloyd Houchin called the mission “a complete fiasco,” which was “poorly planned and poorly executed” and called Laven—who’d flown fighters in World War II—”woefully inadequate in terms of technical proficiency as an F-100 pilot.” Laven had not been scheduled to fly the mission and had been slotted-in at the last minute.
MiG kill, maybe…
During the brief period when the F-100 was used for air-to-air fighting, on April 4th, 1965 Captain Donald Kilgus of the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron at the controls of an F-100D (55-5894, ‘KAY LYNN’) fired on a North Vietnamese MiG-17. Kilgus believed he shot down the MiG and interviews with others as well as North Vietnamese records support him, but the Air Force dubbed it a “probable” kill. The F-100 has never been officially credited with an aerial victory.In Vietnam, the F-100 was flown by Air Force squadrons and activated Air National Guard units from Iowa, Colorado, and New York. Typically, the F-100 carried bombs or rockets against Viet Cong troops in South Vietnam. But some Super Sabres also flew “wild weasel” missions stalking enemy missile sites and others acted as high-speed “Misty” forward air controllers.
What was it like to fly?
The F-100 had a tendency toward adverse yaw and demanded the full attention of its pilot. Retired Major Milton R. Sanders, who flew with the 615th squadron in Vietnam, said the F-100 “never allowed you to relax.” Sanders said, “It was an excellent airplane for its time. It was a very accurate bomber in South Vietnam, but pilots had to understand its characteristics and had to guard against making a bad mistake with too little altitude and too little airspeed to recover.” The notorious adverse yaw tendency, Sanders said, “killed more than its share of pilots.”North American built 2,294 Super Sabres. In 1953, the Pentagon paid $697,029 for each aircraft. The F-100 is a costly candidate for the warbird world but two have been restored and flown at air shows in recent years. The Collings Foundation’s Vietnam Memorial Flight Collection operates an F-100F (56-3844) in the markings of MISTY ONE (56-3951) of the 309th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 31st Tactical Fighter Wing in which Colonel George “Bud” Day was shot down (on August 26th, 1967) before becoming a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Day, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor while a prisoner in Hanoi, later flew in the Collings aircraft (in March 2011) before he died (on July 27th, 2013). The second F-100F warbird (56-3948) registered to Dean Cutshall has made infrequent appearances at air shows, but has been a regular at Thunder Over Michigan over the past few seasons.
About the author:
Robert F. Dorr, Warbirds News staff writer, is an author (since 1955), an Air Force veteran (1957-60) and a retired U. S. diplomat. He has written dozens of critically acclaimed books, and literally thousands of articles on aviation topics. He recently published his first novel, an alternate history entitled “Hitler’s Time Machine,” available for Kindle and in print here: