Consider something for a minute.
This month marks the 44th anniversary for the F-15 Eagle, which entered service with the Air Force in January 1976. Several generations of American fighter pilots have flown a fighter that dates back to 1972. Yes, avionics and weaponry have been extensively upgraded — a modern Eagle could easily blast an “A” model out of the sky. Newer, more advanced fighters like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning have come out since, but the F-15 has an outstanding record (over 100 victories and counting, with no losses in combat) and has relatively low operating costs. And the Air Force is still ordering new ones.
But think about the pace of development today versus that of the 1940s. Continue reading “Off we go into the wild blue yonder”
Don’t get me wrong: today’s aircraft are beautiful in a deadly, radar-absorbing kind of way; but the U.S. Air Force’s inventory during the early Cold War-era was like steamy, chromed-up sex (see the color picture below).
Just a couple of random thoughts while we are on the subject of old warbirds: my great-uncle flew on B-36 Peacemakers (the massive plane in the top center) so that plane has always fascinated me. The B-36’s wingspan was so large that one of its wings was wider than an entire B-24 Liberator. Just its control surfaces (flaps, ailerons, etc.) cover more square footage than the B-24’s entire wing area. You’ve probably heard the slogan “six turning and four burning,” which comes from the Peacemaker’s six piston engines and four jets, but more engines equals more problems so crews had another nickname: “two turning, two burning, two smoking, two choking, and two more unaccounted for.” Continue reading “Jets were a whole lot sexier 60 years ago”
On 13 June 1949, a flight of fighters closed in on their target: Misawa Air Force Base. Misawa scrambled fighters to intercept the incoming aircraft, and soon, nearly two dozen aircraft are downed or on fire. Sadly, this was a drill and all of the aircraft were American.
Leading the attacking formation was 1st Lt. James Patrick Hurley (b. 18 January 1925), a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy (Class of ’46), from the 40th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Group out of Johnson Air Force Base. Hurley’s F-51 Mustang collided with another Mustang flown by Lt. Stewart Abbott Young, Jr. (b. 22 March 1934) of the 8th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group, who had scrambled to intercept. Young was killed when his crippled fighter smashed into the flight line. The Mustang impacted among several dozen fully fueled F-80 Shooting Star jets, which were prepared for an operational readiness test the following day. Continue reading “Someone had a really bad day”
In April 1972, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched its Easter Offensive — the largest military invasion since China crossed the Yalu River during the Korean War. American military presence in Vietnam had largely been reduced to air power, and the 5th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam'(ARVN) was soon surrounded by three enemy divisions at An Loc, the capital of Binh Phuoc province. The only shot the defenders had at victory would be through the devastating firepower of U.S. Air Force B-52s and AC-130 gunships, but in order to survive, they would need the unsung heroes referred to as “trash haulers” — C-130 crews flying in ammunition and badly needed supplies.
The roads to An Loc were cut so the defenders had to rely on aerial resupply. The drop zone was in such a small area (a soccer field), in close proximity to what one crew member described as the “deadliest concentration of antiaircraft fire ever seen in South Vietnam.” Vietnamese Air Force C-123 pilots, used to daylight drops in far less challenging situations, couldn’t put the supplies on target, so the job went to the better trained American crews.
Two Vietnamese C-123s were shot down and several American C-130s were badly damaged during the campaign. NVA gunfire was so deadly that air crews began building custom armor to improve their chances of surviving the flight. On 15 April, the enemy guns tore through the belly of a C-130 flown by Capt. William Caldwell, killing the engineer, Tech. Sgt. Jon Sanders and wounding two crew members. Also hit was the 27,000-pound load of ammunition, which caught fire. Loadmaster Staff Sgt. Charles Shaub quickly jettisoned the pallets, which exploded almost instantly after leaving the plane, then fought a raging fire which burned him badly. Although two of the Hercules’ four engines were no longer operable, Caldwell limped the broken bird back to Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The landing gear had to be extended manually and the C-130 lost one of its two functioning engines just before landing. Caldwell and Shaub were both awarded the Air Force Cross for their superb airmanship.
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.