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 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.”

During the development of the F-106, Convair struggled with recurring delays. The Air Force had hedged its bet with another interceptor program.

Designers took another look backward. This time the Air Force revisited the McDonnell XF-88, a defunct candidate for bomber escort and long-range penetration missions, and asked the builder to create its own Ultimate Interceptor. The result was the F-101 Voodoo.

The F-101 made its first flight in May 1954, but the airplane would undergo thousands of modifications over several years before making its debut. The vastly improved F-101B was first flown in 1957, and after a good deal of further honing, the first began service with the Air Defense Command in 1957. As Voodoo orders increased, F-106 orders declined.

The Voodoo variation on the Ultimate Interceptor theme was a big, twin-engine, comfortably supersonic (about Mach 1.7) two-seater with long legs, a Hughes MA-12 fire control system, and SAGE compatibility.

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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