The Century Series Fighters and the Conquest of an Unfriendly Sky


Demons and Voodoos:

Perhaps more so than any of the other Century Series airplanes, I feel a personal connection to the F-101. As a child, the aviation museum that I had spent many hours daydreaming about working for was the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum in Enfield, Nova Scotia, and for a gate guardian, the museum has a CF-101 Voodoo, an airplane that was very sleek, yet imposing to a younger me. This particular 101, 57-0380 is one of several that survive in Canada, standing as a lasting monument to the Cold War years, when American fighters were made available to the Royal Canadian Air Force (and later the Unified Canadian Forces) to assist in the defense of the continent, a role that was somewhat divergent from the original purpose of the airplane.

The Voodoo, as it would be known, was descended from the McDonnell F3H Demon (and the experimental XF-88 Voodoo), and was designed as a penetration fighter, which was expected to escort U.S. bombers on long-range missions for Strategic Air Command. However, by the time the design process was concluded, the Voodoo was a fighter-bomber and tactical reconnaissance aircraft, a role at which the airplane would excel. Further development of the type was undertaken when it became apparent that development of the F-102 might be slowed by its onboard fire control system. The Voodoo was selected as a candidate for an upgrade process that would see the avionics in the aircraft switched out for those of an interceptor. McDonnell had originally anticipated calling this product the F-109, but the Air Force decided to stick with the 101 designation, assigning the developed platform the F-101B label. 57-0830 was one such F-101B, and was known in Canada as a CF-101. F-101Bs would also see extensive service with Air Defense Command in the United States. The longest-serving versions of the aircraft would be the RF-101s, the reconnaissance platforms that would be instrumental in the Cuban missile crisis, as well as later on in Vietnam.

A Convair YF-102  its straight sided fuselage. photographed on a ramp.
A Convair YF-102 its straight sided fuselage. photographed on a ramp.

The F-102 Delta Dagger:

Planned in the late 1940s as the central component of the air defense of the continental United States, the F-102 was conceived in a time when long-range ballistic missiles with any degree of accuracy were a pipe dream, and the looming threat was cast by the Soviet bomber fleet, a massive formation of menacing aircraft with high altitude capabilities that stood poised to destroy Americans’ way of life. As such, its development was of paramount strategic importance. Indeed, there were many within the Air Force command structure who were convinced that the only airplanes needed to be built were those capable of carrying the fight to altitudes exceeding 50,000 feet. This aircraft was specifically designed around a fire control system.

Much was expected of the Delta Dagger, because the aircraft it was replacing was largely inadequate. Aircraft such as the Northrop F-89 Scorpion, a straight-wing interceptor. The engineers at Convair believed that the secret to extreme speed while retaining extreme effectiveness was wound up in a careful study of aerodynamics. The airplane made use of a delta wing design, and featured an internal weapons bay. However, this was insufficient to allow the airplane to exceed MACH 1. With a new fuselage design accounting for the area rule, the airplane was able to exceed the sound barrier, albeit not with fuel tanks on the wings, an almost constant necessity because of the operational ranges asked of the aircraft and its crews. The aircraft featured another design flaw, which was not well understood at the time, when the airplane entered a high-angle climb in full afterburner, as might be asked of an interceptor: The airflow into the engine was rendered insufficient, and this would frequently cause the engine to overheat and  destroy itself.

Because of this curious feature, pilots were cautioned about the execution of snap-intercepts, loaded into their aircraft and deployed to the far-north warning line, where they would forever be kept on their toes by extreme winds, snow, ice and cold temperatures. Pilots operating the 102s at high latitudes would often grow weary of trying to land the airplane in a 40-knot Arctic crosswind on a runway embanked with snow walls standing dozens of feet tall.

When the anticipated, large-scale conflict with the Soviets did not arrive in the 1950s, the Air Force continued to hold on to its F-102s, even deploying them to Vietnam after several ground radar stations had picked up contacts in the air, believed to be Il-28 Beagles in the service of the North Vietnamese. Theater commanders at the time considered this threat credible, but most Air Force pilots who flew in Vietnam will simply laugh if you ask them about the North Vietnamese bombers.

In the years following the Vietnam War, many of the F-102s were passed along to the Air National Guard units in various states, although by 1979, the day of the Delta Dagger had ended.


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