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 Six fit seamlessly into the SAGE system, which was designed to control the interceptor after takeoff, direct it to the target, and bring it back to a final approach to its runway, where the pilot would make the landing. SAGE had been designed to select and fire weapons, but most pilots prefer to handle that job themselves.

“All you had to do was select the armament, shoot, and return to base,” says William Neville, a retired California Air National Guard brigadier general. “Never say a word to anybody. The computer locked onto the inbound target and onto you. You saw everything on the tactical situation display. The computer in the -106 determined the type of attack. For a low-altitude target, it would roll the airplane very gently and roll out, better than you could do by hand. A thing of beauty.”

Like most delta-wing aircraft, the Six misbehaved in a spin, sometimes in mysterious ways. Williams recounts the tale of a Montana Air National Guard F-106: “This guy was doing an intercept and got into a spin he couldn’t get out of. So he punched out. But the impetus of the seat leaving the airplane pushed the nose down, and the airplane, now unstalled and trimmed, flew on to make a soft wheels-up landing in a plowed field.”

Even in a spin, one didn’t punch out of the Six lightly. “The concept was we would all wear spurs connected to wires that went into the seat, so when you pulled the handles, the wires pulled in your legs,” Williams says. “As you went out, the seat rotated back to become a kind of sled, and then gradually released you at about 15,000 feet. I lost two friends to these.”

Neville considers himself lucky to have ejected from a Six and live to tell about it. “I got one that worked,” he says. “I can’t think of six people who got out of [an ejection] alive.”

On March 14, 1963, two Soviet Tu-16 Badgers penetrated 30 miles into U.S. airspace over Alaska’s southwestern corner. The F-102s scrambled from the forward base at King Salmon couldn’t overhaul the intruders before they cleared American airspace.

After this intrusion, F-106 units began sharing alert duty with the slower F-102s. The Mach 2-plus interceptors were deployed on six-week tours in Alaska as part of Project White Shoes. The pilots stood seven-day, four-hour alerts at forward bases, billeted with their aircraft in three-story Air Defense Command hangars replete with mess hall, library, ready room, lounge, and a fire pole for descending to the aircraft bays. Ralph Hanna remembers passing the time with games based on the few movies the pilots watched: “like bets on the number of folks killed in Clint Eastwood westerns or watching The Pink Panther backwards.”

Typically, six aircraft stood five-minute alerts, two at Galena, two at King Salmon, and two at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks. At Galena, Williams says, “we sat nuke alert with one-third at all times, 18 airplanes, two on five-minute, four on nuke-ready.”

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.

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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