The Thin Aluminum Line

Supersonic airplanes and a screen of radar stood ready during the cold war to avert the end of the world.

The Soviets' first atomic bomb test in 1949, in background, prompted tense aerial duels between (top to bottom) Soviet Tu-95 bombers, F-101s, and F-102s. Bottom: The blast effects of a one megaton bomb exploding over Pittsburgh. (David Peters; Sources: NASM (SI Neg. #85-16420); NASM (SI Neg. #1B44791); SOVFOTO)
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In the 1950s, everyone knew how the Third World War would be fought. Hundreds of Soviet bombers would sweep south across the Arctic, hauling thermonuclear loads destined for U.S. cities. The response, too, was a given. Fighters would rise to meet the intruders as they crossed into North American airspace, taking down as many bombers as possible. As the battle moved south, anti-aircraft missiles would also rise to knock out the bombers.

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Some enemies would get through. Air defense, in the view of those within the newly created Strategic Air Command, was like boxing. You took a few punches, then knocked the other guy out with your own city-incinerating bombers.

To prevent this exchange, Pentagon strategists concentrated on building offensive weapons that would guarantee delivery of massive strikes. So, at the expense of fighters, SAC developed increasingly capable strategic bombers. In the early 1950s the only aircraft waiting to counter the Soviet long-range bomber fleets were the aging workhorse aircraft of the Korean War. The United States stationed a contingent of these aircraft at forward-deployed bases in Alaska.

The Lockheed F-94As and F-82 Twin Mustangs standing alert at these bases were hardly equipped for the task. “A [Soviet] Il-28 Beagle coming over, we were supposed to intercept him and force him to land by aiming a .45 pistol at him,” jokes Guy Sherrill, a retired Air Force colonel who flew F-94s from Galena and King Salmon airbases in 1953.

Sherrill had been chosen to train on a new all-weather jet interceptor, Northrop Grumman’s F-89, a big, straight-wing, twin-engine two-seater. Someone discerned a stinger in the high T-tail and dubbed the low-slung machine “Scorpion.”

The F-89 had first flown in August 1948, but even in the early years of production had acquired a bad reputation. At the time Sherrill was supposed to train on them, the Scorpions were grounded, he says, “because their wings were falling off.” Instead, he got interceptor training in a B-25 and went on to fly the F-94. Later, he would stand his fair share of Arctic alerts with the Scorpion’s improved J version, whose wings stayed on in flight.

Scorpions entered service in 1950, but by then they were already antiquated. “The bombers were ahead of us,” Sherrill says, citing training attempts to intercept a B-52 at 46,000 feet. “Only way to do it was straight up. [You] finally got a firing position, then started sliding backwards.”

Fast new bombers were also appearing on the Soviet side. The Tupolev Tu-16 Badger was seen in 1953, and the Tu-95 Bear, a swept-wing turboprop giant, a year later. No mere knockoffs of Western designs, they were as different from their U.S. counterparts as Klingon Birds of Prey are from Federation Starships. “We had the -89J for a couple of years,” recalls Alex McDonald, who ended his North Dakota Air National Guard career as a major general. “Despite being slow and heavy, we were very successful in our intercepts against B-58s and that sort of airplane. But we couldn’t chase them down.”

To compensate, the F-89J was armed with MB-1 Genies, an unguided nuclear missile that could be fired at enemy bombers (See “Suicide by Genie?”, p. 33).

The inability to catch fast bombers was proof to some within the Air Force that the interceptor fleet needed to be upgraded, as part of a larger overhaul. What was required to deflect a Soviet attack was not a clutch of obsolescent aircraft guided by World War II-vintage radars but an impenetrable defensive umbrella. A new system to detect intruders was needed, and new airplanes to chase them down and kill them.

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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