During the Cold War, U.S. aircraft designers produced some absolutely incredible warplanes. Looking back from an era of stealth technology and fifth-generation jets, some of these aircraft may seem primitive and a few are remembered for their flaws, but make no mistake: these machines were truly cutting edge in their day. Not only our freedom and security, but that of the rest of the world, depended on holding the edge over the communists. Because had it not been for a constant output of highly advanced and steadily improving fighters, attack planes, and interceptors, we might not have deterred a possible third world war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Below are just some of these amazing platforms that kept the Cold War cold.
By the time the United States Air Force became a standalone service in 1947, the dawning of the jet age was rapidly making our stockpiles of piston-engine aircraft left over from World War II obsolete. Republic Aviation produced over 15,000 P-47s from 1941-1945, and made constant improvements to the aircraft. By the time the United States invaded Normandy, the rugged fighter-bomber could either escort heavy bombers into Europe or devastate Axis ground targets with its eight M2 .50-cal. machineguns and 2,500 pounds of bombs. It was re-designated the F-47 in 1948 and would be retired from active duty Air Force service in 1949.
While you surely know about iconic Vietnam-era planes like the F-4 Phantom II or the UH-1 Huey helicopter, you probably haven’t heard much about aircraft like the Black Spot, Skyknight, or the Dragonfly. Although they aren’t as well-known, these fascinating warplanes played crucial roles during operations in Southeast Asia.
Hiller OH-23 Raven
The OH-23 was used as a scout helicopter during a time when the U.S. military was still figuring out how to best utilize helicopters on the battlefield. Ravens would scout ahead of friendly units, but were underpowered for Vietnam’s terrain and their skid guns (when they worked) weren’t adequate either. Nearly 100 of these lightweight helicopters were lost before the Army replaced them with the vastly improved OH-6 Cayuse in 1966.
It’s hard to believe that the B-52B in this photo from 1969…
… is the same plane (NASA Tail Number 008) in this picture from 2001:
When it comes to aerial combat, a new and improved warplane can make everything your opponent has in the air completely obsolete overnight. Japan’s “Zero” ruled the skies over the Pacific at the outset of World War II and the MiG-15 was dominant in the beginning of the Korean War, but United States defense contractors turned out faster, more agile, and deadlier planes like the F6F Hellcat or the F-86 Sabre and gave us air supremacy on such a level that it is as if owning the skies is an American birthright. These 20 aircraft didn’t make it to the production line, but without them we wouldn’t have pushed the design envelope and gained the technology that produced Super Hornets, Strike Eagles, stealth bombers, and even a Space Shuttle.
If Pablo Picasso became an aircraft designer instead of an artist, Grumman’s X5F5 Skyrocket would have been his best work. Although it looked like a caricature of today’s A-10 Warthog – on drugs – it handled like a dream. In fact, it almost beat out a number of other prototypes and proven fighters during a 1941 competition for the Navy.