F-86F Sabre Rollout – First Engine Runs Imminent

Doug Mathews' magnificent F-86F out in the Florida sunshine on February 20th for the first time in quite a while. The aircraft is nearing the end of a protracted, and comprehensive, restoration. First engine runs are expected imminently. (image via Doug Matthews)

On Wednesday, February 19th, Doug Matthews’ Classic Fighters of America rolled out their freshly-restored North American F-86F-30 Sabre (52-5116) into the Florida sunshine for the first time following its arduous, decade-long restoration effort. We have been following this project for some time now, and it is clear that the workmanship is of a very high calibre. Classic Fighters had hoped to have the Sabre flying by January, but they shouldn’t miss this target by much. When asked for a comment about how things are progressing, Doug Matthews responded wryly, “Getting close! Engine runs next month!”

The restoration crew at Classic Fighters of America lined up in front of the Sabre they have spent much of the past decade bringing back to immaculate flying condition. (image via Classic Fighters of America)

Every system in the aircraft has been thoroughly overhauled or newly-fabricated, and the entire wiring system is brand new. According to the restoration shop, Also featured are faux .50 caliber machine guns, a modern ejection seat and an all glass/Garmin instrument panel, topped off with a special treatment paint scheme taking three months to complete.”

Joseph McConnell’s F-86F had the name “Betty” written on the right side of the fuselage, apparently the name his mother went by. (image via Classic Fighters of America)

This particular aircraft served in the U.S. Air Force initially, before reconditioning for service in Argentina. It joined the Argentine Air Force as ‘C-119’ in November, 1960, and flew with that nation until its retirement in 1986. Around 1989, Rick Sharpe brought her back to the USA. She passed through a number of owners in the interim, including the Commemorative Air Force (her last owner), before Doug Matthews acquired the fighter in 2013. In seeking a suitable F-86 for this project, Matthews was keen to find an example similar to the one he already flies, F-86F 53-1201, which wears the livery of the famed Skyblazers aerial demonstration, forerunner to today’s USAF Thunderbirds.

Matthews has had the aircraft painted to resemble F-86F 51-2910 BEAUTEOUS BUTCH II, one of the Sabres which famed jet-ace Captain Joseph McConnell flew from Suwon Air Base during the Korean War with the 39th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing. McConnell is credited with shooting down sixteen MiG-15 jet fighters during the conflict, while damaging an additional five examples.

Captain Joseph McConnell posing in the cockpit of his F-86 shortly after downing his 16th and final enemy aircraft during the Korean War. (USAF image)

Captain McConnell is America’s highest-scoring jet ace, but interestingly, he started out as a navigator on B-24 Liberator bombers during WWII, flying on sixty combat missions. He stayed in the military after following the Allied victory though, and pursued his dream of becoming a fighter pilot; earning his wings at Williams AFB, Arizona in February, 1948. He joined the Korean conflict, quite late, arriving for service in September, 1952. All of his victories came between January and May, 1953, with the first eight being scored in F-86E-10 51-2753. McConnell had each of his fighters painted with the name Beauteous Butch on the side in honor of his wife Pearl, whose nickname was “Butch”. His second Sabre was F-86F-15 51-12971 however, a Chinese MiG-15 pilot named Daoping Jiang got the better of him on April 12th, 1953, shooting him down over the Yellow Sea. Fortunately, McConnell managed to eject from his stricken fighter, and a rescue helicopter plucked him from the water and brought him safely home. He was back flying in combat the following day though, and shot down another MiG-15. The third Sabre which McConnell flew in combat successfully was F-86F-1 51-2910. He shot his final two MiG’s and damaged a third on his final combat mission on May 18th, 1953. His Sabre was painted in his honor following this mission, renamed now as BEAUTEOUS BUTCH II.

A classic portrait of a classic jet-ace. Captain Joseph Christopher McConnell standing in the cockpit of his F-86 Sabre.
(U.S. Air Force Photo)

McConnell was sent home to the USA, where he took up a posting with the Sabre-equipped 445th FS at George AFB in Apple Valley, California.  Soon after, he took up a prestigious posting as a test pilot under secondment at Edwards Air Force Base to evaluate the then-new F-86H variant. While conducting a test flight in the 5th production example, F-86H-1-NA 52-1981, on August 25th, 1954, the aircraft experienced a serious control-system failure and crashed. Sadly, McConnell lost his life in the accident. His legend lives on though, and will be rekindled for the aviation-minded public when Doug Matthew’s new Sabre flies…

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