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 5 of 10)
“For someone just out of flight school, the Deuce was a pretty big step up,” recalls Ralph Hanna, who spent much of his career in air defense. After six months of training for T-37s and an additional eight months on T-33s, the F-102s were an adjustment, and not just because they were faster, bigger, and more powerful.
“The biggest thing was trying to fly and work radar at the same time,” says Hanna. “You really learned to use the radar once you got to an operational unit—under the tutelage of a senior guy.”
Although the Deuce was intended as an interim fix until its successor arrived, it did much of the Air Defense Command’s heavy lifting in the north. For a couple of decades, the F-102 flew from forward bases in Alaska, New England, Greenland, and Iceland. More than 1,000 F-102s would be built before production ended in 1958.
But the F-102 was not “the Ultimate Interceptor.” Even admirers acknowledged that the -102 was underpowered, had a limited range, and lacked avionics that could take full advantage of SAGE technology. Air Force officials were still waiting on the ideal advanced interceptor. “When the -102 came out, there was the idea…that something better was coming,” notes retired Colonel Fred Williams, who logged thousands of hours at the controls of interceptors.
Something better did come—the F-102B, which first flew in the spring of 1956. Despite the B designation, it was a new airplane, and was soon renamed the F-106 Delta Dart. Those who flew it called it “the Six.” It went to the Air Defense Command in mid-1959.
“The -106 did Mach 2.2,” recalls Jim Geddes, who flew both Deuces and Sixes. “Several of us had it up to 2.5 Mach and above. Maximum altitude of 65,000 feet, but you could get well above that.”
Ralph Hanna called its avionics “a quantum leap ahead…. The -102s were all analog. The -106 was the first airplane with a digital computer. It was a Cadillac—a great airplane from the pilot’s standpoint.”
The aircraft could cruise at Mach .92 with external tanks. The early models of the Six were “round eyes,” with conventional instruments, but later configurations had vertical gauge tapes, which Hanna found “a neat way to fly.”