United States Navy CT-39E of VR-30 in 1980
Role Trainer aircraft
Business jet
Manufacturer North American Aviation
Rockwell International
First flight September 16, 1958[1]
Introduction 1962
Status In active service
Primary users United States Air Force
United States Navy
United States Marine Corps
Produced 19591982
Number built 800+[2]
BAE Systems Flight Systems T-39A flight test aircraft at the Mojave Airport
NA-265-60 Series 60 Sabreliner at NTPS, Mojave

The North American Sabreliner, later sold as the Rockwell Sabreliner, is an American mid-sized business jet developed by North American Aviation. It was offered to the United States Air Force (USAF) in response to its Utility Trainer Experimental (UTX) program. It was named "Sabreliner" due to the similarity of the wing and tail to North American's F-86 Sabre jet fighter.[1] Military variants, designated T-39 Sabreliner, were used by the USAF, United States Navy (USN), and United States Marine Corps (USMC) after the USAF placed an initial order in 1959.[3] The Sabreliner was also developed into a commercial variant.

Design and development

North American Aviation began development of the Sabreliner as an in-house project, and in response to the UTX request for proposals, offered a military version to the USAF. UTX combined two different roles, personnel transport and combat readiness training, into the same aircraft.[2]

The civilian version prototype, which carried the model number NA-265, made its first flight on September 16, 1958. It was powered by two General Electric YJ85 turbojet engines. The type received its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) type certificate in April 1963. The UTX candidate, designated the T-39A, was identical in configuration to the NA-265, but when the contract was awarded and the T-39A entered production, it was powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT12A-8 turbojet engines.[2]

The civilian production version, or Series 40, was slightly refined over the prototype, with more speed and a roomier cabin. North American then stretched the design by 3 feet 2 inches (0.97 m), providing greater cabin space, and marketed it as the Series 60, which was certificated in April 1967. The cabin was made taller for the Series 70 and General Electric CF700 turbofans were installed for the Series 75A (also branded as the Series 80).[4]

By 1973, North American had merged with Rockwell Standard under the name Rockwell International. In 1976 Rockwell contracted Raisbeck Engineering to redesign the wing of the Sabreliner series.[5] The resulting Raisbeck Mark V wing was the first supercritical wing in service in the United States.[6] The Mark V wing was combined with Garrett TFE731 turbofan engines, to create the Series 65.[7] Sabreliner models 60 and 80 were retrofitted with the Mark V wing as the Series 60A (STC SA687NW) and Series 80A (STC SA847NW).

Sabreliner production came to a close in 1981. The next year, Rockwell sold its Sabreliner division to a private equity firm which formed Sabreliner Corporation, the support organization for continuing operators.[1]

Operational history

T-39D trainer of VT-86 Squadron US Navy at Pensacola NAS in 1975

Over 800 Sabreliners were produced, of which 200 were T-39s.[2] A number of retired military T-39s have also entered the civilian world since the military versions also carry FAA type certification. As of May 2007, 56 examples have been lost in accidents.[8] The Series 65 was the last series run and 76 of them were produced, mostly for the private market. Monsanto has the oldest continuously operating company corporate jet division starting with its purchase of a Sabreliner 40.[9]

T-39s were used in support of combat operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. In late 1965 T-39s replaced Martin B-57 Canberras on flights to transport high-priority cargo, such as exposed film from photoreconnaissance missions, from outlying bases to Saigon.[10]

The original Navy version, the T3J-1, redesignated T-39D after the 1962 redesignation of USN/USMC/USCG aircraft, was initially fitted with the radar system from the McDonnell F3H-1 Demon all-weather fighter and used as a radar trainer for pilots of that aircraft. The T-39D aircraft was subsequently introduced into the Basic Naval Aviation Observer (NAO), later Student Naval Flight Officer (SNFO) program. Three versions of the T-39D were used throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s: one without radar for high altitude instrument navigation training and low altitude visual navigation training in the SNFO Intermediate syllabus; a second variant equipped with the APQ-126 radar from the LTV A-7 Corsair II for training primarily bombardier/navigators, reconnaissance attack navigators, and electronic countermeasures officers in attack aircraft; and a third variant with the APQ-94 radar for training pilots of the Vought F-8 Crusader.

The T-39N and T-39G are currently used in the NFO Strike and Strike Fighter syllabi in training USN and USMC student Naval Flight Officers, as well as various NATO/allied/coalition student navigators. Foreign students also train in the T-39 in place of the Beechcraft T-1 Jayhawk during the Intermediate Jet syllabus.

The Sabreliner requires a minimum crew of two and, depending on cabin configuration, can carry up to seven passengers (NA-265 through NA-265-40) or ten passengers (NA-265-60 and subsequent models). As a Navy flight training aircraft, it will typically fly with a pilot, one or two NFO instructors, and two to three student NFOs or student navigators/CSOs.[2]

Being derived from the F-86, the Sabreliner is the only business jet authorised for aerobatics and is used by two California companies: Flight Research Inc. and Patriots Jet Team, for inflight upset-recovery training to reduce loss-of-control, involving full stalls, fully inverted flight, and 20-40° descents in a 2.8g envelope, within its 3g rating.[11]

Al-Qaeda use

Between 1993 and 1994, Osama bin Laden reportedly owned and used a former USAF T-39A, which had been converted to civilian use and refurbished at Van Nuys Airport. An Egyptian pilot and bin Laden proxy, Essam al-Ridi, lawfully purchased the aircraft from a U.S. broker in California in 1992, claiming to represent wealthy Egyptians. Al Ridi reported to have personally delivered the plane to bin Laden—who was then exiled in Khartoum, Sudan—in January 1993. There, the jet was reportedly used to ferry five Al-Qaeda operatives to Kenya to agitate tribal insurgency against US peacekeeping troops in nearby Somalia; one of the passengers was allegedly senior bin Laden deputy Mohammed Atef.[12]

More than a year later, around October 1994, the jet overran the runway in Khartoum Airport and crashed into a sand dune.[13] The aircraft was badly damaged and subsequently abandoned due to high anticipated repair costs; both al Ridi[12] and Al-Qaeda-trained pilot Ihab Mohammad Ali[14] separately claimed to have been at the controls (the aircraft is fitted with dual controls). In later years, Ali testified that, in 1995, bin Laden asked him to ram the plane against that of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak,[14] despite the aircraft having never been repaired after the Khartoum accident.



(NA-265 or NA-246) Prototype powered by two General Electric J85-GE-X turbojet engines, one built sometimes unofficially called XT-39.
Sabreliner 75, displaying higher cabin roof than earlier variants
Sabreliner 40
(NA-265-40 or NA-282) Civil production variant for 11 passengers powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT12A-6A or -8 engines, two cabin windows each side; 65 built.
Sabreliner 40A
A Sabreliner marketing version of the Sabre 40 with lighter avionics similar to the Aero Commander, also produced by Rockwell International at the time. In addition to the lighter avionics package, the interior was redesigned for lighter construction.
Sabreliner 50
(NA-265-50 or NA-287) One built in 1964 as a Model 60 with Pratt & Whitney JT12A engines, experimental platform for radome nose cowling.
Sabreliner 60
(NA-265-60 or NA-306) Stretched Model 40 for 12 passengers with two Pratt & Whitney JT12A-8 engines, five cabin windows each side, 130 built.
Sabreliner 60A
Series 60 with Mark V super-critical wing.
Sabreliner 65
(NA-265-65 or NA-465) Based on the Series 60 with Garrett AiResearch TFE731-3R-1D engines and new Mark V super-critical wing, 76 built.
Sabreliner 75
(NA-265-70 or NA-370) Series 60A with a raised cabin roof for greater cabin headroom, two Pratt & Whitney JT12A-8 engines; nine built.
Sabreliner 75A (Sabreliner 80)
(NA-265-80 or NA-380) Sabreliner 75 powered by two General Electric CF700 turbofan engines, 66 built.
Sabreliner 80A
Series 80 with Mark V supercritical wing.


Pilot proficiency trainer and utility transport for USAF, based on Sabreliner prototype but powered by two 3,000 lbf (13 kN) Pratt & Whitney J60-P3 engines, 143 built.[15]
T-39A modified as a cargo and personnel transport, Pratt & Whitney J60-P3/-3A engines.
One T-39A modified for electronic systems testing.
Radar systems trainer for USAF, fitted with avionics of the Republic F-105D Thunderchief fighter bomber (including R-14 NASARR main radar and AN/APN-131 doppler radar) and with stations for three trainees, six built.[16]
Proposed radar systems trainer for USAF fitted with avionics of McDonnell F-101B Voodoo all-weather interceptor. Unbuilt.[17]
Pre-production designation for T-39D.[18]
Radar systems trainer for USN, 1962 redesignation of T3J-1, Pratt & Whitney J60-P3 engines, 42 delivered from 1963,[18] equipped with AN/APQ-94 radar for radar intercept officer training and the AN/APQ-126 radar for bombardier/navigator training.[citation needed]
USN cargo/transport version, with JT12A-8 engines, originally designated VT-39E, seven second-hand aircraft.
Electronic warfare crew training conversion of the T-39A for USAF training of F-105G "Wild Weasel" crews.[19]
USN cargo/transport version based on the stretched fuselage Sabreliner 60, Pratt & Whitney JT12A engines equipped with thrust reversers, 13 bought.
CT-39G modified for the Undergraduate Flight Officer Training program. Derivative of NA-265-60.[20]
U.S. Navy T-39N in Centennial of Naval Aviation commemorative paint scheme in 2011.
Navy trainer for the Undergraduate Flight Officer Training program. Derivative of NA-265-40.[20]


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Swedish Air Force Sabreliner 40 at RAF Northolt in 2013
United States

Accidents and incidents

As of December 2019, there have been 62 recorded incidents and accidents involving the Sabreliner, resulting in 153 deaths.[21] Listed below are a select few of the most notable ones.

Aircraft on display

T-39D display at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum
Sabreliner on display at National Electronics Museum, used as test bed for development of radars

Specifications (T3J-1/T-39D)

Three-view of the Navy's T-39N version

Data from T-39 Sabreliner on Boeing History site[1]

General characteristics


See also

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era


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