F-86A Sabre Restoration at March Field Air Museum

F-86A 49-1324 under restoration at the March Field Air Museum. (image via March Field Air Museum)

by Adam Estes

A rare North American F-86A Sabre, albeit one with a somewhat existential identity, is among several restoration projects presently underway at the March Field Air Museum in Riverside, California. The aircraft has only been on hand since August 9th this year, but the rebuild team has already made significant progress.

The F-86 at the March Field Air Museum shortly after recovery crew personnel had unloaded it from the delivery vehicle. (image via March Field Air Museum)

This Sabre has spent most of the previous four decades in and around Salt Lake City, Utah, serving as a memorial to pilots from the Utah Air National Guard. However, since 2016, the airframe had sat in storage at Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base, which lies within the grounds of Salt Lake City International Airport. March Field Air Museum’s Aircraft Recovery Team arrived to collect the disassembled airframe on August 8th. With help from 151st Maintenance Group personnel at the base, the transport crew loaded the entire aircraft onto the museum’s 38-foot trailer in just four hours, making the journey home to Riverside on the following day. The museum’s Restoration Manager, Alex LaBonte, began searching for clues regarding the aircraft’s service record almost a soon as his team had unloaded it. This was no easy task as the Sabre’s identity was unknown at the time of its recovery and it clearly included components from several different airframes. The primary issue, therefore, involved identifying the individual aircraft which comprised the majority of its parts.

Inspecting the Sabre’s engine bay. (image via March Field Air Museum)

The Utah Air National Guard had painted the fighter jet to commemorate one of their own Sabres, F-86A 49-1273, during its time with 191st Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (now the 191st Air Refueling Squadron). But nothing substantial from that fighter could possibly form part of March Field’s newest Sabre as the real 49-1273 no longer exists; it crashed in Lamb’s Canyon, just a few miles east of Salt Lake City, on March 13th, 1955. After a month of painstaking research in military archives, interviews, and a thorough inspection of the aircraft, LaBonte’s team finally had some answers. They determined that their Sabre’s forward fuselage came from F-86A 49-1324, while the aft section came from F-86F 52-5233, and the wings from an as-yet unidentified third example. While the aircraft is certainly a composite, a museum will typically base the airframe’s id around the most significant fuselage section, which is the forward fuselage in this case.

The forward fuselage for this Sabre comes from F-86A 49-1324, while the rear fuselage is from F-86F 52-5233. The wings come from another, as yet unidentified example. This image depicts the early stages of the paint stripping process. (image via March Field Air Museum)

As a result, the museum has likely chosen to present this Sabre as F-86A-5-NA 49-1324. North American Aviation (NAA) constructed ‘324 at the company’s plant in Inglewood, California, rolling her out on September 6th, 1950. The United States Air Force (USAF) accepted the airframe on October 19th, and took delivery on October 23rd, 1950. The aircraft arrived at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 24th, 1950, when it joined the 3595th Pilot Training Wing (PTW). The jet fighter served at Nellis until November 1st, 1951, when it returned to NAA’s facilities in Long Beach, California, presumably for maintenance and upgrades. The Sabre returned to the newly-redesignated 3595th Training Wing (TW) at Nellis on January 29, 1952, where it continued to to fly until September 14, 1953.

A period photograph of F-86A 49-1324 during its time with the 3595th at Nellis, AFB in the early 1950s. (image via MFAM)

After a stay within the Sacramento Air Material Area, the Sabre transitioned into the Air National Guard (ANG), moving between the following units:

  • 176th FIS – WI ANG at Truax Field, Madison, Wisconsin – 7th December, 1953
  • 194th FBS – CA ANG at Hayward Field, near Oakland, California – 14 September, 1954 (Fresno from 22 Apr ’55)
  • San Antonio Air Materiel Area – 1st July 1955
  • 194th FIS – CA ANG – Fresno, California – 10 August, 1955
  • 192nd FIS – NV ANG – Reno, Nevada –  22 May, 1958
The aircraft went into storage during 1958. On April 6th, 1959 the U.S. Government donated the now surplus Sabre to the City of Roseburg in Oregon, which placed the airframe on display as a military memorial in Stewart Park. In 1972, the City of Roseburg swapped out their Sabre for a later variant to Ben Hall of Seattle, Washington. Hall then moved 49-1324 to Everett, Washington and placed it on the U.S. civil registry as N57964. Whatever his original intentions may have been, Hall never ended up restoring ‘324 to fly, selling the project on in 1978. The new owner, James Underwood, then moved the Sabre to his home in Lancaster, California, storing it in his back garden along with parts from other aircraft, which included the aft section of F-86F 52-5233.

F-86F-35-NA Sabre 52-5233 during its time with the 72nd Fighter Bomber Squadron circa 1955. The rear fuselage from this aircraft now forms part of the composite F-86A under restoration at the March Field Air Museum. (U.S. Air Force photo)

In 1981, the Utah Air National Guard acquired ‘324’s forward fuselage and 52-5233’s aft section along with a set of wings and other components from Mr. Underwood, exchanging them for six surplus J47 turbojets stored in the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. Moving the composite airframe to Salt Lake City, the Utah Air Guard initially displayed the jet on its gear at a facility now known as Roland R. Wright ANG Base. The Sabre remained there until its move to the Utah National Guard Headquarters building in Draper, where it became a pole-mounted memorial. In 2016, the National Guard removed the Sabre from its pole for refurbishing and moved it into storage back at Roland Wright until the March Field Air Museum’s acquisition earlier this year.

Stripping paint from the Sabre. (image via March Field Air Museum)

Stripping paint from the Sabre. (image via March Field Air Museum)

Given the March Field Air Museum’s policy for restoring their aircraft in markings representative of the actual airframe’s history, it seems very likely that the museum will complete 49-1324 in the livery which it wore with the 3595th at Nellis. Once completed, the F-86A will go on display alongside the March Field Air Museum’s F-86L and F-86H, creating the rare opportunity for visitors to see three of the Sabre’s more distinctive variants at the same time.

The F-86 looking more complete, although a lot more work remains before the aircraft will be ready for display. (image via March Field Air Museum)

Working on the Sabre in one of the maintenance buildings at the March Field Air Museum. (image via March Field Air Museum)

A fascinating detail came to light in recent months when Restoration Manager, Alex LaBonte, discovered three linked 7.62mm shell casings in the nose wheel compartment. Upon further inspection, one of the casings revealed a note hidden within which read as follows: “One of our Navy contacts tell[s?]…has some important information. We feel it is very important to find out what it is. We will leave another shell at the navy anchor to the east on the foothills. Hurry. If the message is what we fear, then all our lives are in danger.”

The three linked shell casings found in the F-86’s wheel well during the restoration, including the note, which hints of an espionage ring, which museum personnel found hidden within one of the casings. The casings (and presumably the note) had been inside the aircraft for considerable time, given the high degree of corrosion on both the brass shell casings and the steel links connecting them. (image via March Field Air Museum)

A look at the wheel well where the shell casings were found with the note. (image via March Field Air Museum)

This rather chilling note bears all the hallmarks of having been part of an espionage ‘dead drop’ – a method for passing covert messages in plain sight without the need for the parties involved to actually meet in person. The landing gear wheel well would have been a perfect location to hide/exchange such a message without attracting suspicion. Correspondence with the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. seems to support the possibility of it the note being a genuine sign of espionage afoot, but there is little indication of who the note’s sender or intended recipient were, nor even when it was sent. But, for certain, the message could not have been placed in the aircraft any earlier than 1974 as the shell casing manufacture dates from that year (at Lake City Army Ammunition Plant near Independence, Missouri). This rules out the possibility that the dead drop could have occurred during the aircraft’s service life, nor when it was on display in Oregon. And it is utterly improbable that the drop could have occurred during the Sabre’s time atop the pole in Utah. So this leaves a conundrum for the museum to solve!

Many thanks to Adam Estes for this fascinating report. It is marvelous to see the Sabre restoration coming along so nicely. The discovery of the espionage note is extraordinary though, and given that the intended recipient clearly never received it, and the tenor of the message… one wonders what happened to those involved! From the editor’s perspective, it could well have occurred during the airframe’s period at Everett, the location for Boeing’s massive manufacturing plant, which would have been a huge target for nefarious intelligence gathering operations, and probably still is. The heavy state of corrosion for both the casings and their links definitely seems to indicate a significant period of exposure, which would agree with the time period, and the fact that the message was never picked up could perhaps date the original drop off time to 1981, when the fuselage moved to its new owner in California. That seems a distinct possibility at least… A little sleuthing around Everett might even reveal the navy anchor mentioned in the text, and a type writer expert could probably identify the kind of machine which printed the original text. It is all very intriguing!



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