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 Voodoo would become a mainstay of Canada’s North American air defense. Canada had been flying the Avro CF-100 Canuck, an indigenous twin-engine jet affectionately known as the “Clunk” for the sound made by its gear retracting.

For a replacement, Canada had started its own Ultimate Interceptor program. The Avro CF-105 Arrow was a supersonic, twin-engine delta wing, armed to the teeth. It was also expensive. With no customers, the program was canceled in 1959; on a single afternoon Avro sacked 20,000 employees (see “Fallen Arrow,” Apr./May 1998).

The United States sent Canada

BOMARC surface-to-air missiles as an alternative. (The name is a combination of the system’s creators: Boeing and the Michigan Aeronautical Research Center.) But when the controversial defense system came to an end over cost and performance issues, the Canadian government decided a supersonic interceptor might be the answer after all. Canada quickly put the Voodoos to work chasing Soviet Bears in a mission called Cold Shaft (see “Chasing Bears,” p. 34).

The newer Voodoos gave Canadian crews the option of flying infrared-guided as well as radar-guided intercepts, a huge plus should enemy aircraft jam electronic systems.

According to former backseater Lynn Wagar, the infrared AIM-4 missiles gave the airplane one last crack at an intruder after firing two nuclear-tipped Genies.

The F-101Bs restored the two-man protocol for firing Genies. “I armed the weapons,” says Wagar. “The pilot had the trigger up front.”

The Voodoos left Canadian service in 1985, replaced by a relative handful of CF-18 Hornets. Evolutionarily, however, it was the great success of this brief age of interceptors, for the ancestral line of the F-4 Phantom II and its successors runs back to the Voodoo, not to the F-106.

Asked whether the Six had been the Ultimate Interceptor, Fred Williams manages a rueful smile. In 1977, his squadron of updated F-106s flew against the newly acquired F-15s being tested at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

“We did air-to-air, and that first day we did well,” he says. “But after that first day, those guys figured out how to use their radars. Once they had the picture, it was all over for us.”

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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