At the time of its introduction, the Voodoo was the heaviest fighter ever accepted by the Air Force. It did especially useful service in Cuba and Vietnam as a high-speed reconnaissance craft.
In 1948 McDonnell rolled out its prototype XF88, which was designed as a long-range escort-fighter for the Convair B36 Peacemaker. Weak engines and lack of range led to its cancellation, but in 1951 the Air Force requested McDonnell to redesign a similar aircraft. The XF-101 first flew in 1954 with twice the range and three times the engine power of its predecessor. It was a low-wing monoplane with swept wings and tail surfaces and twin engines jutting out from the bottom of the fuselage. Performance was excellent, and when the Strategic Air Command canceled the concept of a long-range escort-fighter, the airplane was adopted by the Tactical Air Command as the F-101 Voodoo. It was the first McDonnell design accepted by the Air Force and the largest fighter employed to that date.
The F-101A was extremely fast for its day and set several speed and distance records. A later version, the F-101B, was a two-seat bomber-interceptor employed by the Air Defense Command, unique in being the first armed with nuclear-tipped Genie air-to-air missiles. Several reconnaissance versions were also built, and it was an RF-101 that first discovered the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1961. Throughout the Vietnam War, the RF-101 rendered valuable service by virtue of its high speed and long range. The Air Force began phasing out the fighter versions in 1970, although RF-101s flew with the Air National Guard through 1985. The Royal Canadian Air Force was also equipped with its own version, the CF-101, which also enjoyed a long service life.
F-101A / RF-101G
Despite SAC’s loss of interest, the aircraft attracted the attention of Tactical Air Command (TAC), and the F-101 was reconfigured as a fighter bomber, intended to carry a single nuclear weapon for use against tactical targets such as airfields. With the support of TAC, testing was resumed, with Category II flight tests beginning in early 1955. A number of problems were identified during development, with many of these fixed. The aircraft had a dangerous tendency toward severe pitch-up at high angle of attack that was never entirely solved. Around 2,300 improvements were made to the aircraft in 1955–56 before full production was resumed in November 1956.
The first F-101A was delivered on 2 May 1957 to the 27th Strategic Fighter Wing, which transferred to TAC in July that year, replacing their F-84F Thunderstreak. The F-101A was powered by two Pratt & Whitney J57-P-13 turbojets, allowing good acceleration, climb-performance, ease in penetrating the sound barrier in level flight, and a maximum performance of Mach 1.52. The F-101’s large internal fuel capacity allowed a range of approximately 3,000 mi (4,828 km) nonstop. The aircraft was fitted with an MA-7 fire-control radar for both air-to-air and air-to-ground use, augmented by a Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS) system for delivering nuclear weapons, and was designed to carry a Mk 28 nuclear bomb. The original intended payload for the F-101A was the McDonnell Model 96 store, a large fuel/weapons pod similar in concept to that of the Convair B-58 Hustler, but was cancelled in March 1956 before the F-101 entered service. Other operational nuclear payloads included the Mk 7, Mk 43, and Mk 57 weapons. While theoretically capable of carrying conventional bombs, rockets, or Falcon air-to-air missiles, the Voodoo never used such weapons operationally. It was fitted with four 20mm M39 cannon, with one cannon often removed in service to make room for a TACAN beacon-receiver.
The F-101 set a number of speed records, including: a JF-101A (the ninth F-101A modified as a testbed for the more powerful J-57-P-53 engines of the F-101B) setting a world speed record of 1,207.6 mph (1,943.4 km/h) on 12 December 1957 during “Operation Firewall”, beating the previous record of 1,132 mph (1,811 km/h) set by the Fairey Delta 2 in March the previous year. The record was then subsequently taken in May 1958 by a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. On 27 November 1957, during “Operation Sun Run,” an RF-101C set the Los Angeles-New York-Los Angeles record in 6 hours 46 minutes, the New York to Los Angeles record in 3 hours, 36 minutes, and the Los Angeles to New York record in 3 hours 7 minutes.
A total of 77 F-101As were built. They were gradually withdrawn from service starting in 1966. Twenty-nine survivors were converted to RF-101G specifications with a modified nose, housing reconnaissance cameras in place of cannons and radar. These served with the Air National Guard through 1972.
In October 1953, the USAF requested that two F-101As be built as prototype YRF-101A tactical reconnaissance aircraft. These were followed by 35 RF-101A production aircraft. The RF-101A shared the airframe of the F-101A, including its 6.33 g (62 m/s²) limit, but replaced the radar and cannons with up to six cameras in the reshaped nose. Like all other models of the F-101, it had provision for both flying boom and probe-and-drogue in-flight refueling capability, as well as for a buddy tank that allowed it to refuel other aircraft. It entered service in May 1957, replacing the RB-57 Canberra.
USAF RF-101As from the 363d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Shaw AFB, SC flew reconnaissance sorties over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
In October 1959, eight RF-101As were transferred to Taiwan, which used them for overflights of the Chinese mainland. These ROCAF RF-101A with modified C-model vertical fins with air intake. The intake is used to cool the drag chute compartment and eliminates the 5-minute limit on using the afterburners on the A model. Two were reportedly shot down.
F-101C / RF-101H
The F-101A fighter-bomber had been accepted into Tactical Air Command (TAC) service despite a number of problems. Among others, its airframe had proven to be capable of withstanding only 6.33 g (62 m/s²) maneuvers, rather than the intended 7.33 g (72 m/s²). An improved model, the F-101C, was introduced in 1957. It had a 500 lb (227 kg) heavier structure to allow 7.33-g maneuvers as well as a revised fuel system to increase the maximum flight time in afterburner. Like the F-101A it was also fitted with an underfuselage pylon for carrying atomic weapons, as well as two hardpoints for 450-gallon drop tanks. A total of 47 were produced.
Originally serving with the 27th Tactical Fighter Wing at Bergstrom AFB, Texas, the aircraft were transferred in 1958 from TAC to the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, part of United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) which operated three squadrons from the twin RAF air stations Bentwaters & Woodbridge. The 78th Tactical Fighter Squadron was stationed at Woodbridge, while the 91st and 92nd were stationed at Bentwaters. The 81st TFW served as a strategic nuclear deterrent force, the Voodoo’s long range putting almost all of the Warsaw Pact countries, and targets up to 500 miles deep into the Soviet Union within reach.
Both the A and C model aircraft were assigned to the 81st TFW, and were used interchangeably within the three squadrons. Operational F-101A/C were upgraded in service with Low Angle Drogued Delivery (LADD) and Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS) equipment for its primary mission of delivering nuclear weapons at extremely low altitudes. Pilots were trained for high speed, low level missions into Soviet or Eastern Bloc territory, with primary targets being airfields. These missions were expected to be one-way, with the pilots having to eject behind Soviet lines.
The F-101C never saw combat and was replaced in 1966 with the F-4C Phantom II. Thirty-two aircraft were later converted for unarmed reconnaissance use under the RF-101H designation. They served with Air National Guard units until 1972.
Using the reinforced airframe of the F-101C, the RF-101C first flew on 12 July 1957, entering service in 1958. Like the RF-101A, the RF-101C had up to six cameras in place of radar and cannons in the reshaped nose and retained the bombing ability of the fighter-bomber versions. 166 RF-101Cs were built, including 96 originally scheduled to be F-101C fighter-bombers.
The 1964 Project “Toy Tiger” fitted some RF-101C with a new camera package and a centerline pod for photo-flash cartridges. Some were further upgraded under the Mod 1181 program with automatic control for the cameras.
The RF-101C saw service during the Cuban Missile Crisis and soon followed the North American F-100 Super Sabres in October 1961, into combat when RF-101s from the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing deployed to Vietnam. The RF-101C was deployed operationally during the Vietnam War, sustaining losses with the first F-101 being lost in November 1964 to ground fire. From 1965 through November 1970, its role was gradually taken over by the RF-4C Phantom II. In some 35,000 sorties, 39 aircraft were lost, 33 in combat, including five to SAMs, one to an airfield attack, and one in air combat to a MiG-21 in September 1967. The RF-101C’s speed made it largely immune to MiG interception. 27 of the combat losses occurred on reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam. In April 1967, ALQ-71 ECM pods were fitted to provide some protection against SAMs. Although the Voodoo was again able to operate at medium altitudes, the added drag and weight decreased the speed enough to make RF-101 vulnerable to the maneuverable (and cannon-equipped) MiGs and thus requiring fighter escort.
On 27 November 1957 during Operation Sun Run, an RF-101C piloted by then-Captain Robert Sweet set the Los Angeles-New York-Los Angeles record in 6 hours 46 minutes, and the New York to Los Angeles record in 3 hours, 36 minutes. Another RF-101C, piloted by then-Lieutenant Gustav Klatt, set the Los Angeles to New York record in 3 hours 7 minutes.
After withdrawal from Vietnam, the RF-101C continued to serve with USAF units through 1979.
In service, the RF-101C was nicknamed the “Long Bird;” it was the only version of the Voodoo to see combat.
F-101B / CF-101B / EF-101B
In the late 1940s, the Air Force had started a research project into future interceptor aircraft that eventually settled on an advanced specification known as the 1954 interceptor. Contracts for this specification eventually resulted in the selection of the F-102 Delta Dagger, but by 1952 it was becoming clear that none of the parts of the specification other than the airframe would be ready by 1954; the engines, weapons and fire control systems were all going to take too long to get into service. An effort was then started to quickly produce an interim supersonic design to replace the various subsonic interceptors then in service, and the F-101 airframe was selected as a starting point.
Although McDonnell proposed the designation F-109 for the new aircraft (which was to be a substantial departure from the basic Voodoo), the USAF assigned the designation F-101B. It was first deployed into service on January 5, 1959, with the 60th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. The production ended in March 1961. The Voodoo featured a modified cockpit to carry a crew of two, with a larger and more rounded forward fuselage to hold the Hughes MG-13 fire control radar of the F-102. It had data link to the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system, allowing ground controllers to steer the aircraft towards its targets by making adjustments through the plane’s autopilot. The F-101B had more powerful Pratt & Whitney J57-P-55 engines, making it the only Voodoo not using the -13 engines. The new engines featured a substantially longer afterburner than J57-P-13s. To avoid a major redesign, the extended afterburners were simply allowed to extend out of the fuselage by almost 8 ft (2.4 m). The more powerful engines and aerodynamic refinements allowed an increased speed of Mach 1.85.
The F-101B was stripped of the four M39 cannons and carried four AIM-4 Falcon air-to-air missiles instead, arranged two apiece on a rotating pallet in the fuselage weapons bay. The initial load was two GAR-1 (AIM-4A) semi-active radar homing and two GAR-2 (AIM-4B) infrared-guided weapons with one of each carried on each side of the rotating pallet. After the first two missiles were fired, the door turned over to expose the second pair. Standard practice was to fire the weapons in SARH/IR pairs to increase the likelihood of a hit. Late-production models had provision for two 1.7-kiloton MB-1/AIR-2 Genie nuclear rockets on one side of the pallet with IR-guided GAR-2A (AIM-4C) on the other side. “Project Kitty Car” upgraded most earlier F-101Bs to this standard beginning in 1961.
From 1963–66, F-101Bs were upgraded under the Interceptor Improvement Program (IIP; also known as “Project Bold Journey”), with a fire control system enhancement against hostile ECM and an infrared sighting and tracking (IRST) system in the nose in place of the in-flight refueling probe.
The F-101B was made in greater numbers than the F-101A and C, with a total of 479 being delivered by the end of production in 1961. Most of these were delivered to the Air Defense Command (ADC) beginning in January 1959. The only foreign customer for the F-101B was Canada. For more details on the history of the Voodoo in Canada, see McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo.
The F-101B was withdrawn from ADC service from 1969 to 1972, with many surviving USAF aircraft transferred to the Air National Guard (replacing F-102s), serving until 1982. The last Voodoo in US service (F-101B-105-MC 58-300) was finally retired by the 2nd Fighter Interceptor Training Squadron at Tyndall AFB in Florida on 21 September 1982.
TF-101B / F-101F / CF-101F
Some of the F-101Bs were completed as dual-control operational trainer aircraft initially dubbed TF-101B, but later redesignated F-101F. Seventy-nine new-build F-101Fs were manufactured, and 152 more existing aircraft were later modified with dual controls. Ten of these were supplied to Canada under the designation CF-101F. These were later replaced with 10 updated aircraft in 1971.
In the early 1970s, a batch of 22 ex-RCAF CF-101Bs were returned to the USAF and converted to RF-101B reconnaissance aircraft with their radar and weapons bay replaced with a package of three KS-87B cameras and two AXQ-2 TV cameras. An in-flight refueling boom receptacle was also fitted. These aircraft served with the 192d Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of the Nevada Air National Guard through 1975. They were expensive to operate and maintain and had a short service life.