Centennial Phoenix: The Canadair Sabre

Riverview Park in Peterborough on June 6 as 428 Wing unveiled its beautifully refurbished Sabre.

Riverview Park in Peterborough on June 6 as 428 Wing unveiled its beautifully refurbished Sabre.

One of CANAV’s landmark publications is The Canadair Sabre, praised internationally as the finest F-86 book ever published. No.8 of our 30 titles to date, the book appeared in August 1986 and chronicles Sabre history from first flight in the US in 1947, to the RCAF getting involved less than two years later. In these early postwar days Canada was under pressure to support the UK by equipping with Vampire jet fighters. RCAF HQ, however, knew that the West’s new threat, the mighty USSR, already had such fighters as the MiG-15 (no one at RCAF HQ wanted to send a Vampire out to tangle with a MiG-15).

The Vintage Wings Sabre taxies arrives at Hamilton on June 3. Then, pilot Tim Leslie steps from his cockpit. Even as he was unstrapping, Tim was taking questions from the crowd. Talk about interactive!

The Vintage Wings Sabre arrives at the CWH at Hamilton on June 3, 2009. Even as he was unstrapping, pilot Tim Leslie was taking questions from the crowd. Talk about interactive!

So it was that Ottawa committed to the Sabre as its postwar day fighter. The RCAF quickly began sending technical staff and pilots on course to the US, as Canadair began setting up for production. Canadair test pilot A.J. “Al” Lilly was the first Canadian to fly a Sabre (August 3, 1950 at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio), and the first Canadian to go supersonic (two days later). At Dorval on August 8 he flew the first Canadair Sabre. Meanwhile, F/L Omer Levesque became the first RCAF pilot to fly a Sabre (November 1950). In May 1951, 410 at St. Hubert became the first RCAF Sabre squadron.

The Canadian Warplane Heritage and Vintage Wings Sabres nose-to-nose at Hamilton on June 3. The CWH jet is 23651 and still wears its original Golden Hawks paint scheme circa 1960 .

The Canadian Warplane Heritage and Vintage Wings Sabres nose-to-nose at Hamilton on June 3. The CWH jet is 23651 and still wears its original Golden Hawks paint scheme circa 1960 .

As they say, “the rest is history”, much of which is covered in The Canadair Sabre. CANAV’s print run totalled 10,422 copies, the job being done by the Bryant Press in Toronto. The whole creative and production job was in the ancient style – roughing out design page-by-page, then getting everything laid out in cut-and-paste style by hand, making film and plates, then rolling Bryant’s huge, dinosauric Harris presses. Somehow it all came together and, 23 years later, only a few unopened boxes of gorgeous Sabre books remain.

The ex-RCAF Sabre pilots who attended the Peterborough event.

The ex-RCAF Sabre pilots who attended the Peterborough event.

Book selling “experts” always scoff at a publisher who won’t remainder books after so many years. But CANAV did not go into business to remainder its beautiful books. Other publishers would call my stock of Sabre books a  “toxic asset”. Shows you how little they know. Those very books sitting on pallets in the warehouse are far from toxic. For example, Sabre sales each year cover the storage costs for CANAV’s entire inventory. How toxic is that! No … instead of being dumped, a nice book needs a nice home and in the near future that’s where the 10,422nd copy of The Canadair Sabre will surely reside, making the publisher a happy boy indeed.
What’s that they say about “What goes around comes around?” Well … doesn’t it just! Canada’s Centennial of Flight has turned into not just the year of the AEA2005 Silver Dart replica, but it’s also a sort of Year of the Phoenix, which is to say, a year of resurrected Sabres. Under Michael Potter, Vintage Wings of Gatineau, Quebec has restored to flying condition Canadair Sabre 23314, which is wowing fans at airshows from coast to coast. I first saw it at Comox in April, then in June at Hamilton.

The Vintage Wings Sabre formates with the Centennial of Flight CF-18 and a Snowbird Tutor at Comox on April 25, 2009.

The Vintage Wings Sabre formates with the Centennial of Flight CF-18 and a Snowbird Tutor at Comox on April 25, 2009.

Having begun in 1954, the Vintage Wings Sabre served with illustrious 441 Squadron at Marville, France and later with such outfits as the Sabre Transition Unit at Chatham, New Brunswick. Following retirement of the Sabre from Canadian service in 1968, 23314 rusted at Mountainview (near Trenton, Ontario) until sold in the US, where it flew with various owners as N8687D, until coming home in 2007.
23314 isn’t Canada’s only 2009 “Phoenix” Sabre. For $4500 in 1970, 428 Wing, Royal Canadian Air Force Association of Peterborough, Ontario acquired 23245. This Sabre did not get to serve overseas on NATO duty, but flew at No.1 (Fighter) OTU at Chatham, then was a ground training aid. Mounted on a pylon at Peterborough’s Riverview Park and Zoo, it sat for decades until 428 decided to give it a Centennial of Flight makeover. Peterborough’s renowned Flying Colours aircraft refurbishing company undertook the job, along with many other contributors from crane to trucking experts.

On June 6, 2009 – the 65th anniversary of D-Day – 428 Wing re-dedicated its freshly-restored Sabre. Hundreds of keen supporters turned out at Riverview Park to marvel at one of aviation’s grandest sights – an F-86 “flying low and fast” over the trees, now in the NATO colours of 430 “Silver Falcon” Squadron. On hand for the historic event was the Wing in force, then 534 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Cadets, old-time Sabre pilots, Edmonton MP Laurie Hawn (former CF-104 and CF-18 pilot), Col Mike Hood (Wing Commander Trenton) and many others. This was one of Canada’s great Centennial of Flight events and I sure wasn’t surprised to learn that 428 has been named Canada’s top Air Force Association wing for 2009.
Canada has other Sabres – at the Canadian Warplane Heritage, Reynolds-Alberta Museum, Western Canada Aviation Museum, etc. But the special dedication shown by Vintage Wings and 428 Wing has helped put this classic fighter back in the limelight and has turned 2009 into a bit of a “Year of the Sabre”.

If you don’t yet have The Canadair Sabre in your library, get moving and let CANAV know, before the last copy flies into the sunset. While it goes for $114 on Ebay, you can order a shiny new, autographed copy from CANAV for only $32. Click here to order your copy today!

Cheers … Larry Milberry

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