The Thin Aluminum Line
Supersonic airplanes and a screen of radar stood ready during the cold war to avert the end of the world.
- By Carl Posey
- Air & Space magazine, January 2007
David Peters; Sources: NASM (SI Neg. #85-16420); NASM (SI Neg. #1B44791); SOVFOTO
(Page 4 of 10)
Perched precariously atop rocky promontories or along the pebbly, ice-bound shores of the Arctic seas, most DEW Line stations existed in almost total isolation, broken only by occasional airlifts of people and supplies.
The missing piece of this new air defense scheme was an all-weather fighter that could catch anything the other side deployed.
When the Air Force started what it called the “Ultimate Interceptor Program,” it began by looking at a design that had been shelved years before.
In September 1948, just weeks after the F-89’s maiden flight, the Consolidated Vultee XF-92 had made its first flight, at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Clean and arrow-like, it was the first military jet to incorporate the delta wing, pioneered by German designer Alexander Lippisch. At the time, however, airplanes built for long-range escort and penetration missions were eclipsing interceptors, and the XF-92 program was shut down.
In 1951, the Air Force asked Convair to take another look. The result was the YF-102, similar to the earlier delta prototype but larger.
Engineers applied the then-novel area rule to sand away transonic drag, making a determinedly subsonic airplane supersonic. (Even if an airplane is flying at subsonic speed, localized areas of airflow can be supersonic, and the resulting shock waves cause considerable drag. The effect can be reduced by presenting a smaller area to the oncoming flow.)
The YF-102 first flew in October 1953 and, after considerable tweaking, went to the Air Force in 1956. The F-102 was officially named the Delta Dagger but universally called “the Deuce.” Controllers monitoring radar signals from the DEW line and elsewhere were to vector the -102 into the area of a target, where its own radar could guide it to complete the attack.
The first supersonic military jet, it had a top speed of 810 mph at 35,000 feet (about Mach 1.2), a ceiling of 55,000 feet, and a thousand-mile range. Its armament comprised two dozen 2.75-inch folding-fin aircraft rockets and four Falcon AIM-4 missiles, two guided by radar and two by infrared.