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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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.

“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.”

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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