In the time since man first battled with his fellow man, aerial warfare takes up a milli-second. Heavier-than-air flight is less than a century old and it was not until 1910 that a military firearm was fired or a dummy bomb dropped from an aeroplane in flight. In the following decade, World War I accelerated aviation technology out of all recognition and airplanes had become an important weapon.
In five short years, they had photographed the front line from the air, sunk submarines, bombed capital cities, and pursued and shot down other aircraft. Over the next two decades, military aviation marked time, with developments of World War I biplanes being used by most air forces until war clouds again loomed over Europe in the late 1930s.
From the first day of World War II, it was clear that aerial warfare would play a crucial role in the outcome of the conflict. The German Blitzkrieg unleashed over Poland, Norway, the Low Countries, and France swept all before it. RAF fighter aircraft saved the British Isles from a German invasion during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, while the Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor just over a year later at first caught the world’s most powerful nation totally unprepared, but unleashed aerial retribution such as the world had never witnessed before.
For the next five years, the race for superiority saw unprecedented advances in aviation technology ranging from the development of the jet engine, radar, aircraft carriers, airborne assaults, helicopters, pressurized cockpits, and hydraulically operated folding wings for naval aircraft. Weapon technology saw the introduction of 30mm cannons, flying bombs, guided missiles, “Grand Slam” bombs, ballistic rockets, and the atomic bomb.
By the end of the war, air power could now reduce the world to a wasteland and an even longer struggle for air superiority was about to begin. The dying months of the conflict had seen the so-called Allies involved in a deadly race to capture German aviation designers, technicians, and the experimental aircraft that they had been developing. The results of the captured German research, which were divided between the victorious nations, mainly the United States and the Soviet Union, were integrated with that carried out by their own designers, paving the way for a quantum leap in technology over the next decade.
The impetus for these advances was yet another war, one of a different kind—the Cold War that “broke out” following the Soviet blockade of Berlin in June 1948. This blockade was defeated by an unprecedented US and British airlift to sustain the city that lasted for more than a year. US and Soviet defense budgets mushroomed as the two “Superpowers” raced to replace outdated World War II combat aircraft with state-of-the-art jet warplanes. Some idea of the pace of change can be measured by the world absolute air speed record which stood at 486mph (777kmh) at the end of the war and would more than double in the next decade.
When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the conflict was about to test Soviet and US aviation technology as the Cold War threatened to escalate into World War III. The latest combat aircraft from both “Superpowers” faced each other in a desperate battle for air superiority in the remote Southeast Asian skies. The most successful fighters involved in the Korean War were very similar in design, size and performance. Both the North American F-86 Sabre, which first flew in October 1947, and the Soviet MiG-15 which flew a month later, benefited from German swept-wing research while the Soviet fighter also utilized British jet-engine technology by reverse engineering the Rolls Royce Nene. However, the US fighter had a 10-to-1 kill ratio over the MiGs by the time the conflict ended in July 1953, the Sabre’s ability to absorb battle damage, and the quality of its pilots, being the deciding factors.
The Korean War further escalated the Cold War arms race. The largest slice of the US defense budget at the time went to the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) which ordered more than 2,000 B-47 Stratojet global mission bombers. The futuristic three-man nuclear bomber, powered by six turbojets fitted in pods under a thin swept wing that again was based on German research, had an unrefueled range of nearly 3,000 miles (4,800km). Vast amounts of money was also being poured into the development of supersonic “second generation” fighters which culminated in the American Century Fighter series in the mid-1950s. The first of these was the F-100 Super Sabre which was quickly followed by the F-101 Voodoo and F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart.