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 7 of 10)
Interceptions in Alaska generally went closer to the bone than they did over the Atlantic. “There were cases where Russians would start in over the border, then, when we scrambled, they ran for home,” recalls Jim Geddes. “But it was understood: We catch you over our land, you’re dead. A couple of times there were missiles armed, 20 seconds to fire, before getting called off.”
The Atlantic targets were usually Tu-95 Bears, flying alone or in pairs as they threaded their way through the gaps between Iceland, Greenland, and North America.
The Atlantic intercepts, flown over international waters, were never surprises since the Bears were tracked by Norwegian radar from the moment they took off from Murmansk.
“We knew they could be nasty,” says Hanna, who flew Deuces there. “In foul weather they would drag you down toward the water, trying to scrape you off.” Often the Bear would turn very slowly out to sea, hoping to lure the interceptors past their point of no return.
“We’d fly formation with them,” says Geddes. “We had 200-mm lenses. Just got right up on the wing of an airplane and went up and down the fuselage, taking pictures.”
Alex McDonald recalls the story of a Deuce suffering a compressor stall as it decelerated behind a Bear, which was flying without lights that could betray its exact location. When the Deuce pilot restarted, says McDonald, “fire came up over the canopy—pretty dramatic. Every light in the Bear came on.”
While the Six served in air defense for almost 30 years, it was never exported and never saw combat. “The armament wasn’t good for fighter-versus-fighter,” Hanna explains. “It was a bit too specialized for the NORAD defense role. [In Vietnam] most of our engagements were offensive.” The big delta wing would have made a tempting target for surface-to-air missiles, and the F-106 had no defenses against them, he adds.
But it was an airplane pilots liked. “The -106 was a manly airplane, so fast and so advanced for its time,” says Bill Neville. “When it all worked, it was marvelous. It’s still the fastest single-engine fighter of all time.”