+++ DISCLAIMER +++
Nothing you see here is real, even though the conversion or the presented background story might be based on historical facts. BEWARE!
The CAC Sabre, sometimes known as the Avon Sabre or CA-27, was an Australian variant of the North American Aviation F-86F Sabre fighter aircraft. In 1951, Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation obtained a license agreement to build the F-86F Sabre. In a major departure from the North American blueprint, it was decided that the CA-27 would be powered by a license-built version of the Rolls-Royce Avon R.A.7, rather than the General Electric J47. In theory, the Avon was capable of more than double the maximum thrust and double the thrust-to-weight ratio of the US engine. This necessitated a re-design of the fuselage, as the Avon was shorter, wider and lighter than the J47.
To accommodate the Avon, over 60 percent of the fuselage was altered and there was a 25 percent increase in the size of the air intake. Another major revision was in replacing the F-86F’s six machine guns with two 30mm ADEN cannon, while other changes were also made to the cockpit and to provide an increased fuel capacity.
The prototype aircraft first flew on 3 August 1953. The production aircrafts’ first deliveries to the Royal Australian Air Force began in 1954. The first batch of aircraft were powered by the Avon 20 engine and were designated the Sabre Mk 30. Between 1957 and 1958 this batch had the wing slats removed and were re-designated Sabre Mk 31. These Sabres were supplemented by 20 new-built aircraft. The last batch of aircraft were designated Sabre Mk 32 and used the Avon 26 engine, of which 69 were built up to 1961.
Beyond these land-based versions, an indigenous version for carrier operations had been developed and built in small numbers, too, the Sea Sabre Mk 40 and 41. The roots of this aircraft, which was rather a prestigious idea than a sensible project, could be traced back to the immediate post WWII era. A review by the Australian Government’s Defence Committee recommended that the post-war forces of the RAN be structured around a Task Force incorporating multiple aircraft carriers. Initial plans were for three carriers, with two active and a third in reserve, although funding cuts led to the purchase of only two carriers in June 1947: Majestic and sister ship HMS Terrible, for the combined cost of AU£2.75 million, plus stores, fuel, and ammunition. As Terrible was the closer of the two ships to completion, she was finished without modification, and was commissioned into the RAN on 16 December 1948 as HMAS Sydney. Work progressed on Majestic at a slower rate, as she was upgraded with the latest technology and equipment. To cover Majestic’s absence, the Colossus-class carrier HMS Vengeance was loaned to the RAN from 13 November 1952 until 12 August 1955.
Labour difficulties, late delivery of equipment, additional requirements for Australian operations, and the prioritization of merchant ships over naval construction delayed the completion of Majestic. Incorporation of new systems and enhancements caused the cost of the RAN carrier acquisition program to increase to AU£8.3 million. Construction and fitting out did not finish until October 1955. As the carrier neared completion, a commissioning crew was formed in Australia and first used to return Vengeance to the United Kingdom.
The completed carrier was commissioned into the RAN as HMAS Majestic on 26 October 1955, but only two days later, the ship was renamed Melbourne and recommissioned.
In the meantime, the rather political decision had been made to equip Melbourne with an indigenous jet-powered aircraft, replacing the piston-driven Hawker Fury that had been successfully operated from HMAS Sydney and HMAS Vengeance, so that the "new jet age" was even more recognizable. The choice fell on the CAC Sabre, certainly inspired by North American’s successful contemporary development of the navalized FJ-2 Fury from the land-based F-86 Sabre. The CAC 27 was already a proven design, and with its more powerful Avon engine it even offered a better suitability for carrier operations than the FJ-2 with its rather weak J47 engine.
Work on this project, which was initially simply designated Sabre Mk 40, started in 1954, just when the first CAC 27’s were delivered to operative RAAF units. While the navalized Avon Sabre differed outwardly only little from its land-based brethren, many details were changed and locally developed. Therefore, there was also, beyond the general outlines, little in common with the North American FJ-2 an -3 Fury.
Externally, a completely new wing with a folding mechanism was fitted. It was based on the F-86’s so-called "6-3" wing, with a leading edge that was extended 6 inches at the root and 3 inches at the tip. This modification enhanced maneuverability at the expense of a small increase in landing speed due to deletion of the leading edge slats, a detail that was later introduced on the Sabre Mk 31, too. As a side benefit, the new wing leading edges without the slat mechanisms held extra fuel. However, the Mk 40’s wing was different as camber was applied to the underside of the leading edge to improve low-speed handling for carrier operations. The wings were provided with four stations outboard of the landing gear wells for up to 1000 lb external loads on the inboard stations and 500 lb on the outboard stations.
Slightly larger stabilizers were fitted and the landing gear was strengthened, including a longer front wheel strut. The latter necessitated an enlarged front wheel well, so that the front leg’s attachment point had to be moved forward. A ventral launch cable hook was added under the wing roots and an external massive arrester hook under the rear fuselage.
Internally, systems were protected against salt and humidity and a Rolls-Royce Avon 211 turbojet was fitted, a downrated variant of the already navalized Avon 208 from the British DH Sea Vixen, but adapted to the different CAC 27 airframe and delivering 8.000 lbf (35.5 kN) thrust – slightly more than the engines of the land-based CAC Sabres, but also without an afterburner.
A single Mk 40 prototype was built from a new CAC 27 airframe taken directly from the production line in early 1955 and made its maiden flight on August 20th of the same year. In order to reflect its naval nature and its ancestry, this new CAC 27 variant was officially christened “Sea Sabre”.
Even though the modified machine handled well, and the new, cambered wing proved to be effective, many minor technical flaws were discovered and delayed the aircraft’s development until 1957. These included the wing folding mechanism and the respective fuel plumbing connections, the landing gear, which had to be beefed up even more for hard carrier landings and the airframe’s structural strength for catapult launches, esp. around the ventral launch hook.
In the meantime, work on the land-based CAC 27 progressed in parallel, too, and innovations that led to the Mk 31 and 32 were also incorporated into the naval Mk 40, leading to the Sea Sabre Mk 41, which became the effective production aircraft. These updates included, among others, a detachable (but fixed) refueling probe under the starboard wing, two more pylons for light loads located under the wing roots and the capability to carry and deploy IR-guided AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, what significantly increased the Mk 41’s efficiency as day fighter. With all these constant changes it took until April 1958 that the Sabre Mk 41, after a second prototype had been directly built to the new standard, was finally approved and cleared for production. Upon delivery, the RAN Sea Sabres carried a standard NATO paint scheme with Extra Dark Sea Grey upper surfaces and Sky undersides.
In the meantime, the political enthusiasm concerning the Australian carrier fleet had waned, so that only twenty-two aircraft were ordered. The reason behind this decision was that Australia’s carrier fleet and its capacity had become severely reduced: Following the first decommissioning of HMAS Sydney in 1958, Melbourne became the only aircraft carrier in Australian service, and she was unavailable to provide air cover for the RAN for up to four months in every year; this time was required for refits, refueling, personnel leave, and non-carrier duties, such as the transportation of troops or aircraft. Although one of the largest ships to serve in the RAN, Melbourne was one of the smallest carriers to operate in the post-World War II period, so that its contribution to military actions was rather limited. To make matters worse, a decision was made in 1959 to restrict Melbourne’s role to helicopter operations only, rendering any carrier-based aircraft in Australian service obsolete. However, this decision was reversed shortly before its planned 1963 implementation, but Australia’s fleet of carrier-borne fixed-wing aircraft would not grow to proportions envisioned 10 years ago.
Nevertheless, on 10 November 1964, an AU£212 million increase in defense spending included the purchase of new aircraft for Melbourne. The RAN planned to acquire 14 Grumman S-2E Tracker anti-submarine aircraft and to modernize Melbourne to operate these. The acquisition of 18 new fighter-bombers was suggested (either Sea Sabre Mk 41s or the American Douglas A-4 Skyhawk), too, but these were dropped from the initial plan. A separate proposal to order 10 A-4G Skyhawks, a variant of the Skyhawk designed specifically for the RAN and optimized for air defense, was approved in 1965, but the new aircraft did not fly from Melbourne until the conclusion of her refit in 1969. This move, however, precluded the production of any new and further Sea Sabre.
At that time, the RAN Sea Sabres received a new livery in US Navy style, with upper surfaces in Light Gull Gray with white undersides. The CAC Sea Sabres remained the main day fighter and attack aircraft for the RAN, after the vintage Sea Furies had been retired in 1962. The other contemporary RAN fighter type in service, the Sea Venom FAW.53 all-weather fighter that had replaced the Furies, already showed its obsolescence.
In 1969, the RAN purchased another ten A-4G Skyhawks, primarily in order to replace the Sea Venoms on the carriers, instead of the proposed seventh and eighth Oberon-class submarines. These were operated together with the Sea Sabres in mixed units on board of Melbourne and from land bases, e.g. from NAS Nowra in New South Wales, where a number of Sea Sabres were also allocated to 724 Squadron for operational training.
Around 1970, Melbourne operated a standard air group of four jet aircraft, six Trackers, and ten Wessex helicopters until 1972, when the Wessexes were replaced with ten Westland Sea King anti-submarine warfare helicopters and the number of jet fighters doubled. Even though the A-4G’s more and more took over the operational duties on board of Melbourne, the Sea Sabres were still frequently deployed on the carrier, too, until the early Eighties, when both the Skyhawks and the Sea Sabres received once more a new camouflage, this time a wraparound scheme in two shades of grey, reflecting their primary airspace defense mission.
The CAC 27 Mk 41s’ last carrier operations took place in 1981 in the course of Melbourne’s involvements in two major exercises, Sea Hawk and Kangaroo 81, the ship’s final missions at sea. After Melbourne was decommissioned in 1984, the Fleet Air Arm ceased fixed-wing combat aircraft operation. This was the operational end of the Sabre Mk 41, which had reached the end of their airframe lifetime, and the Sea Sabre fleet had, during its career, severely suffered from accidents and losses: upon retirement, only eight of the original twenty-two aircraft still existed in flightworthy condition, so that the aircraft were all scrapped. The younger RAN A-4Gs were eventually sold to New Zealand, where they were kept in service until 2002.
Length: 37 ft 6 in (11.43 m)
Wingspan: 37 ft 1 in (11.3 m)
Height: 14 ft 5 in (4.39 m)
Wing area: 302.3 sq ft (28.1 m²)
Empty weight: 12,000 lb (5,443 kg)
Loaded weight: 16,000 lb (7,256 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 21,210 lb (9,621 kg)
1× Rolls-Royce Avon 208A turbojet engine with 8,200 lbf (36.44 kN)
Maximum speed: 700 mph (1,100 km/h) (605 knots)
Range: 1,153 mi, (1,000 NM, 1,850 km)
Service ceiling: 52,000 ft (15,850 m)
Rate of climb: 12,000 ft/min at sea level (61 m/s)
2× 30 mm ADEN cannons with 150 rounds per gun
5,300 lb (2,400 kg) of payload on six external hardpoints;
Bombs were usually mounted on outer two pylons as the mid pair were wet-plumbed pylons for
2× 200 gallons drop tanks, while the inner pair was usually occupied by a pair of AIM-9 Sidewinder
A wide variety of bombs could be carried with maximum standard loadout being 2x 1,000 lb bombs
or 2x Matra pods with unguided SURA missiles plus 2 drop tanks for ground attacks, or 2x AIM-9 plus
two drop tanks as day fighter
The kit and its assembly:
This project was initially inspired by a set of decals from an ESCI A-4G which I had bought in a lot – I wondered if I could use it for a submission to the “In the navy” group build at whatifmodelers. in early 2020. I considered an FJ-3M in Australian colors on this basis and had stashed away a Sword kit of that aircraft for this purpose. However, I had already built an FJ variant for the GB (a kitbashed mix of an F-86D and an FJ-4B in USMC colors), and was reluctant to add another Fury.
This spontaneously changed after (thanks to Corona virus quarantine…) I cleaned up one of my kit hoards and found a conversion set for a 1:72 CAC 27 from JAYS Model Kits which I had bought eons ago without a concrete plan. That was the eventual trigger to spin the RAN Fury idea further – why not a navalized version of the Avon Sabre for HMAS Melbourne?
The result is either another kitbash or a highly modified FJ-3M from Sword. The JAYS Model Kits set comes with a THICK sprue that carries two fuselage halves and an air intake, and it also offers a vacu canopy as a thin fallback option because the set is actually intended to be used together with a Hobby Craft F-86F.
While the parts, molded in a somewhat waxy and brittle styrene, look crude on the massive sprue, the fuselage halves come with very fine recessed engravings. And once you have cleaned the parts (NOTHING for people faint at heart, a mini drill with a saw blade is highly recommended), their fit is surprisingly good. The air intake was so exact that no putty was needed to blend it with the rest of the fuselage.
The rest came from the Sword kit and integrating the parts into the CAC 27 fuselage went more smoothly than expected. For instance, the FJ-3M comes with a nice cockpit tub that also holds a full air intake duct. Thanks to the slightly wider fuselage of the CAC 27, it could be mounted into the new fuselage halves without problems and the intake duct almost perfectly matches the intake frame from the conversion set. The tailpipe could be easily integrated without any mods, too. The fins had to be glued directly to the fuselage – but this is the way how the Sword kit is actually constructed! Even the FJ-3M’s wings match the different fuselage perfectly. The only modifications I had to make is a slight enlargement of the ventral wing opening at the front and at the read in order to take the deeper wing element from the Sword kit, but that was an easy task. Once in place, the parts blend almost perfectly into each other, just minor PSR was necessary to hide the seams!
Other mods include an extended front wheel well for the longer leg from the FJ-3M and a scratched arrester hook installation, made from wire, which is on purpose different from the Y-shaped hook of the Furies.
For the canopy I relied on the vacu piece that came with the JAYS set. Fitting it was not easy, though, it took some PSR to blend the windscreen into the rest of the fuselage. Not perfect, but O.K. for such a solution from a conversion set.
The underwing pylons were taken from the Sword kit, including the early Sidewinders. I just replaced the drop tanks – the OOB tanks are very wide, and even though they might be authentic for the FJ-3, I was skeptical if they fit at all under the wings with the landing gear extended? In order to avoid trouble and for a more modern look, I replaced them outright with more slender tanks, which were to mimic A-4 tanks (USN FJ-4s frequently carried Skyhawk tanks). They actually come from a Revell F-16 kit, with modified fins. The refueling probe comes from the Sword kit.
A last word about the Sword kit: much light, but also much shadow. While I appreciate the fine surface engravings, the recognizably cambered wings, a detailed cockpit with a two-piece resin seat and a pretty landing gear as well as the long air intake, I wonder why the creators totally failed to provide ANY detail of the arrester hook (there is literally nothing, as if this was a land-based Sabre variant!?) or went for doubtful solutions like a front landing gear that consists of five(!) single, tiny parts? Sadism? The resin seat was also broken (despite being packed in a seperate bag), and it did not fit into the cockpit tub at all. Meh!
Painting and markings:
From the start I planned to give the model the late RAN A-4Gs’ unique air superiority paint scheme, which was AFAIK introduced in the late Seventies: a two-tone wraparound scheme consisting of “Light Admiralty Grey” (BS381C 697) and “Aircraft Grey” (BS 381C 693). Quite simple, but finding suitable paints was not an easy task, and I based my choice on pictures of the real aircraft (esp. from "buzz" number 880 at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, you find pics of it with very good light condition) rather than rely on (pretty doubtful if not contradictive) recommendations in various painting instructions from models or decal sets.
I wanted to keep things simple and settled upon Dark Gull Grey (FS 36231) and Light Blue (FS 35414), both enamel colors from Modelmaster, since both are rather dull interpretations of these tones. Esp. the Light Blue comes quite close to Light Admiralty Grey, even though it should be lighter for more contrast to the darker grey tone. But it has that subtle greenish touch of the original BS tone, and I did not want to mix the colors.
The pattern was adapted from the late A-4Gs’ scheme, and the colors were dulled down even more through a light black ink wash. Some post-shading with lighter tones emphasized the contrast between the two colors again. And while it is not an exact representation of the unique RAN air superiority scheme, I think that the overall impression is there.
The cockpit interior was painted in very dark grey, while the landing gear, its wells and the inside of the air intake became white. A red rim was painted around the front opening, and the landing gear covers received a red outline, too. The white drop tanks are a detail I took from real world RAN A-4Gs — in the early days of the air superiority scheme, the tanks were frequently still finished in the old USN style livery, hence the white body but fins and tail section already in the updated colors.
The decals became a fight, though. As mentioned above, the came from an ESCI kit – and, as expected, the were brittle. All decals with a clear carrier film disintegrated while soaking in water, only those with a fully printed carrier film were more or less usable. One roundel broke and had to be repaired, and the checkered fin flash was a very delicate affair that broke several times, even though I tried to save and repair it with paint. But you can unfortunately see the damage.
Most stencils and some replacements (e. g. the “Navy” tag) come from the Sword FJ-3. While these decals are crisply printed, their carrier film is utterly thin, so thin that applying esp. the larger decals turned out to be hazardous and complicated. Another point that did not really convince me about the Sword kit.
Finally, the kit was sealed with matt acrylic varnish (Italeri) and some soot stains were added around the exhaust and the gun ports with graphite.
In the end, this build looks, despite the troubles and the rather exotic ingredients like a relatively simple Sabre with Australian markings, just with a different Navy livery. You neither immediately recognize the FJ-3 behind it, nor the Avon Sabre’s bigger fuselage, unless you take a close and probably educated look. Very subtle, though.
The RAN air superiority scheme from the late Skyhawks suits the Sabre/Fury-thing well – I like the fact that it is a modern fighter scheme, but, thanks to the tones and the colorful other markings, not as dull and boring like many others, e. g. the contemporary USN "Ghost" scheme. Made me wonder about an early RAAF F-18 in this livery — should look very pretty, too?
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