The Golden Age of Jet Fighters

I have long been a fan of aviation, especially military aviation. To be very specific, I have always loved the century series of aircraft and consider them to be part of the golden age of jets. These jets were conceived using the lessons learned from the aircraft of the Korean War, who had in turn learned from WWII and post WWII jets.

The century series are of particular interest because they stem from the arms race of the early 1950s. To offer some perspective, as the United States and Soviet Union built more destructive weapons, they also built platforms to deliver those weapons, or even defend against them. In addition, they also built up their conventional forces to extreme levels. This arms race created new technologies acquired through thousands of hours of research.

Unlike modern fighters, the century series were built primarily for speed and to carry a large, often nuclear payload. Or, they were designed to intercept nuclear bombers whereas, the fighters built since the end of the Vietnam War are generally fmulti-role attack aircraft. This multi-role function allows these 4th generation fighters like the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 to switch from an air to air mission to ground attack sortie in mid-flight, provided they have the appropriate payload.

The century series of fighters were geared primarily toward the interception of Soviet bombers, or again, the delivery of nuclear payloads. The need to quickly get to a particular point, either interception or delivery of a payload, was of the utmost importance. The first, and slowest of the century series fighters was the North American F-100 Super Sabre that could trace its lineage directly to the Korean Era F-86 Sabre. This fighter was the first US fighter to achieve supersonic speed in level flight. The F-100, for the time, was an excellent aircraft that excelled in the role of fighter-bomber and evolved into a close air support aircraft when pressed into service during the Vietnam War. F-100 Super Sabre

The next aircraft in the series was the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo. It was initially designed to play the role of fighter-bomber, but was quickly transitioned to a reconnaissance aircraft. (Source) The F-101 flew with the United States Air National Guard until the 1980s and in Canada until it was replaced by the F/A-18. The F-101 was supersonic, and the dual air intake would become a staple of almost every American fighter for the next 50+ years. (Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, like the F-16, but those are few and far between). F-101 Voodoo

The Convair F-102 Delta Dagger first flew in 1953. The first item that is extremely noteworthy regarding this aircraft is the delta wings. This delta patter would incorporate an extreme sweep to the leading edges of the wings and a straight trailing edge. The tail, or horizontal stabilizer, could be eliminated from the aircraft. In theory, with enough thrust, the delta winged fighter could maintain Mach 2 flight speeds (twice the speed of sound) that would allow for the interception of slow Soviet bombers. However, pilots found the initial prototypes to be extremely difficult to fly.

The F-102 was expected to fly beyond Mach 1 with ease. However, due to transonic drag (drag developed on an aircraft below Mach 1) the plane was limited to just under the speed of sound. During tests of the 1950s, the Whitcomb area rule showed buildup of drag that prevented supersonic flight. (Source) A solution was proposed to lengthen the plane by roughly 11 feet and “pinch” the fuselage to decrease drag. The solution, known as the “coke bottle fuselage,” worked and the plane evolved into a supersonic fighter and the F-102 flew until 1988 with the Air National Guard. However, the designation F-102 was eventually dropped in favor of a virtually new aircraft I will discuss later. (Source) F-102 Delta Dagger

The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was famous and infamous at the same time. It was known by engineers and pilots as the “missile with a man in it” and by pilots as “The widow maker.” No explanation is needed for the latter. The F-104 was an incredibly fast plane with a top speed above Mach 2. (Source) In addition to extreme speeds, the designed interceptor flew above 100,000 feet with ease. This was a feet that was virtually unheard of at the time for a manned aircraft. These engineering feats came at a cost. The wings were extremely thin and sharp, often having to be sheathed when on the ground. (Source) Short wings, coupled with a tall vertical stabilizer gave the aircraft and ungainly appearance, but yet the look of a dragster. However, stability was the trade off for speed and maneuverability. The F-104 was not easy plane to fly.

The F-104 filled the role of interceptor until the F-106 was in production. The United States Air Force only purchased 296 of the aircraft. But the plane did sell well with other nations and were in service with those countries until as recently as 2004. (Source) The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) ultimately used the fighter with a rocket engine and allowed pilots to practice controlling an aircraft using only wingtip and nose thrusters, much like the characteristics of the space shuttle. (Source) Today, few fighters can surpass its rare speed and climbing abilities. F-104 Starfighter

The most widely utilized and probably most widely known, was the Republic F-105 Thunderchief. What is worth pointing out is this aircraft was originally designed to have the capability to be a low level nuclear bomber, that would eventually replace the F-84 Thunderstreak. (Source) It was pressed into service as the main fighter-bomber for the USAF during the Vietnam War. The F-105 had a very odd, yet graceful appearance with curved wings mounted midway up a very long fuselage and only two outboard pylons for air to air missiles. The weapons rack was designed to be an internal bomb bay for a nuclear bomb, but during the Vietnam War bombs were mounted to a centerline pylon underneath the fuselage. While the “Thud” was far from maneuverable, it was extremely fast. (Source) All in all, the F-105 performed above and beyond and was all the Air Force could ask for with its durability and reputation as a plane that would bring its pilots home. F-105 Thunderchief

The last of the century series fighters was the Convair F-106 Delta Dart. At first glace, it looked like a carbon copy of the F-102. Its birthplace lies in the development of the F-102. As problems arose and needed design changes to the F-102 came about, it was given the designation F-102B. As further developments continued, the Air Force changed the designation to the F-106A. The major changed included variable air intakes, as well as the “coke-bottle” fuselage. While the wing design was still the same, the air brake was changed and the vertical stabilizer was clipped. (Source) The F-106 was seen as a great dog fighter and had the M61 Vulcan cannon mounted internally. However, the fighter never served in combat and was ultimately replaced by the famed McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. Its last flight was with the New Jersey Air National Guard in 1988.
(Source)F-106 Delta Dart

Now back to my original, rambling thoughts. In many ways I think of the 1950s and even into the 1960s as the golden age of jet aviation. So many different aircraft were being designed and pitched to the Department of Defense. Many had radical designs, offered new innovations, or were simply improvements over existing technology. Republic, Grumman, Lockheed, General Dynamics, Convair and even Rockwell were all among companies pushing their designs. Jet fighters were relatively new and the DoD was pushing for higher, faster, and more capable aircraft to fight the evil communists.

This golden age also allowed the US to focus its defense resources in an effort to defeat the aforementioned communists. The US had a dedicated enemy they could engage toe to toe on the battlefield, unlike recent wars. This allowed for a well defined mission and need for the role of its attack aircraft. At the same time technological advancements were booming. New avionics, new weapons, new engines, and virtually everything on an aircraft took off. (Pardon the pun). In my mind, the influence of the century series of aircraft has been felt in the next generation of fighters with the F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon, and F/A-18 Hornet. While the century series remained in service for near 30 years, most were relegated to test bed and Air National Guard duties within 20 years of their in service dates. Their advancements were felt in the true generation 4 fighters that have either been recently retired, or are still in frontline service, but awaiting replacement by the next generation, almost 40 years after their development.

While this blog entry has not been terribly full of new information or deep insight, it has sought to fill a gap in aviation knowledge and connect someone to a time of the explosion in the development of jets. A lot has been written on these aircraft, so there really is not much that I can add. As a child, I admired these planes, although I only saw them on static display, sometimes at an airshow, and even less frequently in the skies. I look at them now as a historian and marvel at the quick development from mock up to first flight to in service dates. (Try designing a fighter today and go from drawing board to deployment in less than 5 years). I am still amazed at what was learned about flight from these aircraft and how that was applied to generation 3 fights and then ultimately to the generation 4 and 5. If one is knowledgeable and looks carefully, they can see those old birds and their guiding hands on the fighters that streak across the skies today.


(Whitcomb Area Rule)

All pictures are courtesy of google images. Feel free to right click the picture to see the credit.