RF-86A and photo reconnasissance F-86As

RF-86A and photo reconnaissance F-86As

Photographic reconnaissance during the Korean War initially fell to RB-17, RB-26C, RF-51D and RF-80A aircraft. The last three were operated by the constituent squadrons of the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW), the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS), the 45th TRS and the 15th TRSs respectively. Later, the North American RB-45C Tornado was used on photo recce missions over Korea. These reconnaissance aircraft proved that they could rarely operate unescorted in North Korean airspace where MiGs were active. Thus, it soon became apparent that a faster reconnaissance aircraft was needed, and this fact was brought to the attention of Far East Materiel Command (FEAMCOM). The pilots in the field felt that the Sabre would be the only reasonable answer, especially those from the 15th TRS. However, FEAMCOM initially resisted such suggestions, and it fell back to the 15th TRS personnel to try their own solution.

They began inspecting 4th FIW F-86As on their airfield at Kimpo, looking for places where they might fit a camera. Fed up with constantly finding 15th TRS personnel in his hangar, the CO of the 4th FIW, Col Harrison Thyng, agreed to let the squadron have a salvaged airframe to experiment with. Working in their own time, personnel from the 15th TRS soon realized that it was possible to mount a small camera in the right hand gun bay by removing the lower pair of machine guns, and the ammunition containers. In their place, the camera was fitted horizontally, and shot down through the nose, courtesy of a 45-degree angled mirror. Fuselage form was preserved by an optical glass panel. The salvaged airframe thus became the mock-up for what would be known as the 'Honeybucket' conversion. Soon after inspecting the airframe, Col Edwin Chickering authorised FEAMCOM to modify two early F-86As (48-187 and 48-217) to Honeybucket specification, and they passed to FEAMCOM in the Fall of 1951.

The camera used in this conversion was the K-25, mounted exactly as in the mock-up. However, testing proved that vibration caused blurred photographs, and it became apparent that a more radical solution would be required if the Sabre was to be used as a photo-reconnaissance platform. Nevertheless, the Honeybucket Sabres flew recce missions into North Korea, alongside 'regular' F-86As of the 4th FIW. These missions started as normal fighter sweeps, and the Honeybucket aircraft were parked among the normal aircraft to preserve their anonymity.

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67th TRW Honeybucket F-86A 48-217, one of the original conversions. Note the dicing camera in the intake lip.

Following on from the relative success of early Sabre recce operations, 5th AF and FEAMCOM authorised a further batch of five 48-FY Sabres for conversion, under the project 'Ashtray' tag. The conversion of this later batch of Sabres began in October 1951, and the completed aircraft were redesignated RF-86A. In addition, the two Honeybucket aircraft received the RF-86A designation. The Ashtray aircraft were individually converted, and thus each was different from the last. In general, the compartment below the cockpit was enlarged and fitted with constant temperature air conditioning for a forward oblique 24-inch K-11 camera and two 20-inch K-24 cameras mounted lengthways with a mirror arrangement to provide vertical coverage. The RF-86As could be distinguished by the presence of camera bay fairings underneath the forward fuselage just forward of the wings. Most RF-86As were unarmed, although some retained a pair of 0.50-in machine guns with limited ammunition capacity. The following aircraft were converted to RF-86A configuration: 48-183, 48-187, 48-195, 48-196, 48-217, 48-246, and 48-257.

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67th TRW Ashtray RF-86A 48-196. This is one of two RF Sabres to later serve with the California ANG.

The seven RF-86A aircraft went to the 67th Wing's 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron from April 1952. On combat missions, they were usually able to evade interception and perform missions that were more hazardous than the typical reconnaissance flight. Only one RF-86A was lost in combat; 48-217, which was hit by ground fire on a mission over a hydroelectric plant at Wonsan. The pilot, Maj. Jack Williams, the squadron CO, managed to bail out, but was found dead by the rescue helicopter. A further two RF-86As were written off in routine flying accidents in Korea, and another example was authorised for reclamation following combat damage. The three surviving RF-86As were replaced by RF-86Fs in Korea and passed through 6400th Air Depot Wing, FEAMCOM in early 1953 for return to the US. Two of these aircraft went on to serve with 115th and 196th Fighter Bomber Squadrons (later FIS) of the California Air National Guard, the third to the 121st FBS, District of Columbia ANG. The de-converted RF-86As were favoured by ANG pilots for cross-country trips, as lots of baggage could be stored in the vacant camera bay. 48-195 was nearly lost whilst with the196th FBS, as Don Frisbie explains:
"I was making a high-speed pass across the airfield at about 500 knots IAS and got a forward fire light and smoke in the cockpit. I immediately retarded the throttle to idle and started a steep climb. The fire light didn't go out immediately, and the smoke persisted, so I stop-cocked the engine and turned the fuel shut-off to 'Off'. The fire light went out and the smoke and fumes quit. I ended up at about 12,000 feet over the field, made a 360-degree turn to a high key at about 7,500 feet and made a normal flame-out pattern and landing from there. Maintenance found a leaking fuel line that was aggravated by the very high fuel pressure at the low altitude and very high airspeed."
Although one of the RF-86As was subsequently lost in an accident (the 121st FBS example), the remaining pair saw out their active service with the Air National Guard until retired in 1958. They were scrapped at Davis Monthan AFB.


To replace the RF-86As, FEAMCOM authorised conversion of three F-86Fs under Project Haymaker. These machines had the same camera installation as the RF-86As (i.e. without the 'cheek' fairings), though using K-14 cameras as the main equipment. These aircraft arrived in service in early 1953.

Seen at Kimpo in early 1953, 52-5330 is an early-type RF-86F, typified by the lack of cheek fairings. Note also the blanked-over lower gun muzzle. (Royce Raven)

Further to this, North American converted eight RF-86Fs, though this time, they managed to mount the cameras vertically, and NAA-converted RF-86Fs thus gained the 'cheek' fairings to account for the more awkward (but better photographically) camera installation. The NAA-built RF-86Fs used two K-22s and a single K-17 camera. These NAA machines arrived in Korea from June 1953, and were too late to see action in the war. At least fifteen further Sabres were converted to RF-86F specification. Most of the RF-86Fs had a ballasted panel fitted to the forward fuselage in place of the gun muzzle panel. To preserve the looks of a 'standard' F-86F, 'fake' gun muzzles were painted on this flat panel.

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Though fuzzy, this photo appears to show NAA's early RF-86F. Note elongated canopy fairing and long, narrow cheek fairing.

67th TRW RF-86Fs continued in service until replaced by the RF-84F, and took part in many detachments, notably to Taiwan during September/October of 1955. All surviving RF-86Fs were 'on paper' transferred to 21st TRS in July 1957, and were forwarded to 2723rd Air Base Sqn at Kisarazu before the end of the year, most going on to see further service with Taiwan and Korea under the Military Assistance Plan.

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A 15th TRS Haymaker RF-86F pictured in Korea. Note 'cheek' fairings and painted on gun muzzles. This machine was authorized for reclamation and scrapped at Kisarazu in 1957.

It appears that about 24 F-86Fs were converted to RF-86F specification for USAF use, plus another 18 which were converted for the Japanese Air Self Defense Force.


The Japanese converted 18 F-86Fs to RF-86F specification, using modification kits supplied by NAA. Conversion was carried out by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries at Nagoya, starting in 1961. The first machines were delivered in August of 1961, with the 18th aircraft passing to the JASDF in January 1962. These RF-86Fs initially served with 501st Hikotai at Matsushima, which was formed on 01Dec61. The squadron moved to Iruma AB in 1962, and then to Hyakuri AB for conversion to RF-4EJ on 25Mar77

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Underside scrap view of JASDF RF-86F. Installation is the same as NAA's conversion.

Other JASDF units which operated small numbers of RF-86Fs were Air Proving Group at Hamamatsu AB, and HQ Squadron (Koku Sotai Shireibu Hikotai) at Iruma AB. The latter unit was the last to fly the RF-86F, removing them from service in October 1979.

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A Japanese Air Self Defense Force RF-86F, seen here in the colours of 501st Tac Recon Sqn.

Following retirement by the JASDF, a number of F-86Fs were returned to the USA under Military Assistance terms, for conversion to QF-86F pilotless drone/targets for the US Navy. In addition, four RF-86Fs were returned to provide spare parts for the drones. No RF-86Fs were converted to QF-86F configuration.

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The aircraft pictured in JASDF markings above is seen here at China Lake, having undergone spares reclamation for the QF-86F drone program.

Following the withdrawal of QF-86F drones, two RF-86Fs were rescued by museums; one by Pacific Coast Air Museum at Santa Rosa CA, and one by Air Classics Museum, Aurora IL.

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Pacific Coast' Air Museum's RF-86F 62-6428/52-4913 seen soon after it's arrival from China Lake. Note that it has a QF-86F tail fitted. This machine has since been fully restored.

Air Classics Museum's RF-86F restoration was completed in early 1999; the excellent standard of work is readily apparent. The aircraft carries a 15th TRS/67th TRW USAF scheme, the name 'Over Exposed' has been applied on the left fuselage.
(photo credit Jim Chybicki, Technical Director Air Classics Museum of Aviation)


Between 11th April and 2nd May 1958, 10 RF-86F were delivered, plus at least one further aircraft from Taiwan. The RF-86Fs served with a separate unit - 32nd Sqn - at Suwon. At this stage, the ROKAF had no infrastructure to support the RF-86Fs, as there were no photo developing or interpretation capabilities in the country. Major F-86 maintenance was accomplished in Japan. At that time, the ROKAF had 9 bases, but only three were considered operational.

By 1976, it was reported that 130 Sabres of all types (F-86F, D and RF-86F) were still in service with ROKAF, but that in 1978/9, the remaining 50 F-86F and 18 F-86D were finally retired. However, as late as 1987, F-86Fs and RF-86Fs were still in service at Taegu AB, and it may well be that a number remained in service with the photo reconnaissance squadron, plus some F-86F continuation trainers.

RF-86F 52-4492 was one of the ROKAF aircraft, and was returned to the United States for display at Bergstrom AFB, TX by Oct91.



The Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) acquired 320 F-86F and 7 RF-86F between 01Dec54 and the end of 1958. The RF-86Fs initially served with 12th Squadron at Taoyuan AB from 1955, and then transferred all RF-86Fs to 4th Sqn, also at Taoyuan AB, in 1957. This unit then converted to RF-100A in 1959, but the RF-100 was never fully operational in RoCAF service. Surviving RoCAF RF-86Fs were passed to Korea.



The Yugoslav IF-86D


Having already purchased a number of F-86Ds in the early 1960s, in 1963 the Yugoslavs began conversion of its first reconnaissance F-86D aircraft. These recconnaissance aircraft were designated IF-86D ('I' for izvidacki - reconnaissance) in Yugoslav service. The conversion entailed the removal of the Mighty Mouse rocket pack, and three K-24 cameras were installed in its place. In addition, two pylons were installed under the forward fuselage for carrying FOTAB (Foto Avio Bombe/photo aerial bomb) and SAB (Svetlece Avio Bombe/light illuminating aerial bomb) flares. The modification of 32 such aircraft was carried out by VTRZ 'Zmaj' (Dragon) depot at Pleso, near Zagreb, the first IF-86D being delivered before the end of 1963. It was initially thought that these conversions were carried out on a further of Yugoslav AF Sabres, but it now seems that some, if not all aircraft were from existing Yugoslav F-86Ds. In service, the IF-86Ds retained their natural metal colour scheme until retired from service in 1971.

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Underside of an IF-86D showing the camera windows and flare pylons. (left) At right is a shot of stripped-out IF-86D cockpit. Prominent is the blanked off space left by deletion of the pilot's radar scope. (both Mitja Marusko)

In the first half of 1964, 184 ivp (Reconnaissance Wing) at Pleso received the first of its 20 IF-86D aircraft. The Wing also used modified RF-84Gs and IT-33As at this time. During 1965, 184 ivp disbanded, although the IF-86D unit, 352 reconnaissance eskadrille, was retained. Eventually this unit converted onto MiG-21R reconnaissance fighters.

During 1967 a reconnaissance eskadrille was formed at Pleso, equipped with IF-86D, and came under the command of the F-86D Wing (thought to be 83 vp) based there. The Wing then began to train for the reception of new MiG-21F fighters. The F-86Ds were then passed to 94 vp at Skopski Petrovac, whose F-86Es were retired. With the large number of F-86Ds at Skopski Petrovac, a new fighter Wing was formed, and this new unit completed training on the F-86D to operational status within three months.




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