American Warplanes – Early Cold War (1946–1961)

There was a large drawdown of aircraft numbers with the aviation element of the US army following the conclusion of the Second World War. From the wartime high of around 80,000 aircraft, the USAAF was down to approximately 10,000 aircraft by 1946. Only the latest generation of planes remained in front-line service with the USAAF.

In 1947, the USAAF finally managed to separate itself from the US army and became the US Air Force (USAF). The senior leadership of the new service quickly concluded that the most important post-war mission would remain the strategic bombing role, this time with nuclear weapons.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, in order to deliver nuclear weapons the USAF would have to rely on its remaining inventory of B-29 Superfortresses for that mission.

New labels

Post-war, the USAF reclassified the B-29 Superfortress as a medium bomber. This relabelling reflected a new system that defined bombers by their combat radius rather than their weight. Those with a combat radius of below 1,000 miles were considered ‘light bombers’. A combat radius of between 1,000 and 2,500 miles described ‘medium bombers’. Anything with a combat radius of over 2,500 miles was designated as a ‘heavy bomber’.

When the Korean War began in June 1950, the USAF had an inventory of 1,787 units of the B-29 Superfortress with the majority in storage. Approximately 400 would see front-line service, not only in the strategic bombing role but also in the tactical role. Twenty of the B-29 Superfortresses were lost to enemy action and another fourteen to non-combat causes.

Improving the breed

To overcome the design shortcomings of the wartime-built B-29 Superfortresses, especially their unreliable engines, numerous improvements were made to the aircraft starting in 1952. These included modernized more reliable versions of the wartime engines and a cruise-control system to aid the flight crew during long-range strategic bombing missions. However, despite these improvements, the B-29 Superfortresses were pulled from service in 1954.

To supplement the B-29 Superfortresses in the USAF inventory, a Boeing-built, improved model of the aircraft was ordered. Originally designated the B-29D Superfortress, it was soon relabelled as the B-50 Superfortress. This was done to reflect that while it still retained the general configuration of the wartime-built model, it was a much improved aircraft, fitted with new engines.

Some 346 units of the B-50 Superfortress would be built and they would last in USAF service until 1955. Some were later converted into aerial tankers, strategic reconnaissance aircraft and weather reconnaissance aircraft. The strategic and weather reconnaissance roles performed by these aircraft would eventually be performed by satellites, but that was some decades later.

A new bomber enters service

The eventual replacement for the wartime B-29 and the post-war B-50 in the USAF strategic bombing role was the prop-driven Convair B-36, eventually named the ‘Peacemaker’. It would be the largest combat aircraft ever to fly with the USAF.

The B-36 Peacemaker was originally slated for employment during the later stages of the Second World War but a number of factors prevented this from happening. These included design changes, production bottlenecks and the ever-changing level of interest in the aircraft by the USAAF.

The first nuclear-bomb-capable version of the B-36 Peacemaker was designated the B-36B and entered service with the USAF in 1948. The ‘D’ models of the aircraft, which consisted of twenty-two new-built models and sixty-four upgraded ‘B’ models, were fitted with four add-on jet engines to supplement their existing six prop-driven engines. All the follow-on versions of the B-36 Peacemaker were equipped with these add-on jet engines.

A total of 360 units of the B-36 Peacemaker series were constructed in various versions. None would be employed during the Korean War and all would be gone from the USAF inventory by 1959.

The first jet bomber

The first all-jet bomber to enter service with the USAF arrived in 1948 with the introduction of the North American B-45A. It was classified as a light tactical bomber and named the ‘Tornado’. There was also a B-45C model and a photoreconnaissance version labelled the RB-45C.

The B-45 Tornado series would see productive use during the Korean War as both a bomber and a photo-reconnaissance aircraft. Only one was lost in combat during the conflict. As they could carry nuclear weapons, fifty-five were deployed to England in 1952 as a deterrent to possible Soviet aggression in Western Europe.

Due to a number of troublesome design issues and the planned introduction of a new medium bomber, the USAF only took into service 142 units of the B-45 Tornado series out of the original planned order of 190 units of the aircraft. All the various versions of the B-45 Tornado would be removed from USAF service by 1958.

Next in line

The replacement for the B-45 Tornado was the Boeing B-47 medium bomber, named the ‘Stratojet’, which was considered a strategic bomber. It showed up in USAF operational service in 1950 but did not see action during the Korean War. There would eventually be several versions placed into service, labelled the ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘E’ variants. All told, 2,032 units of the B-47 Stratojet were built for the USAF.

The B-47 Stratojet would remain in service as a strategic bomber until 1965. Some would eventually be reconfigured for other roles and remain in USAF service for a few more years. These roles included camera-equipped reconnaissance, electronic intelligence (ELINT) and electronic countermeasure (ECM).

The adoption of a British bomber

Much to the surprise of the American aviation industry, in 1951 the USAF contracted with the Martin Company to build a modified licence-built version of the twin-jet-engine English Electric Company bomber named the ‘Canberra’. It had first flown in Britain in 1949 and entered operational RAF service in 1951. Unlike the previous multi-engine bombers, which were intended as long-range strategic bombers, the Canberra was a short-range light tactical bomber.

In USAF service the American-built version of the British bomber was labelled the B-57 and also named the Canberra. It entered operational service with the USAF in 1953. By the time production ended in 1957, a total of 403 units of the B-57 Canberra had been built in a number of different versions. Some would see service with the USAF during the Vietnam War (1965–75). The last of them would be pulled from use by 1983.

The adoption of a US navy bomber

Another aircraft adopted by the USAF in the role of short-range light tactical bomber was a Douglas twin-jet-engine model originally designed for the US navy. In navy service it would be designated the A3D and named the ‘Skywarrior’. In USAF service seventy-two units were labelled as the B-66B and referred to as the ‘Douglas Destroyer’. It entered service in 1956 and was pulled from use in 1962. This would be the last acquisition of a short-range light tactical bomber by the USAF.

The majority of B-66 Douglas Destroyers were built as photo-reconnaissance aircraft, designated the RB-66B. Some of these were later converted into either electronic warfare (EW) or ELINT aircraft for use during the Vietnam War. With the end of American military involvement in 1973, all were quickly withdrawn from service.

The old warhorse

The staple of the USAF strategic bomber fleet during much of the Cold War was the Boeing B-52 bomber series, named the ‘Stratofortress’. It first appeared in USAF operational service in 1955 as the replacement for the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. The B-52 Stratofortress also replaced the Convair B-36 Peacemaker.

Between 1954 and 1963, a total of 744 units of the B-52 Stratofortress were constructed. As with most long-serving USAF aircraft, it was progressively improved over the years. This resulted in eight different versions labelled ‘A’ through ‘H’ seeing service, with the ‘B’ variant being the first dedicated strategic bomber model and the few ‘A’ models being test aircraft.

Reflecting their very active service lives, the earlier models of the B-52 Stratofortress, the ‘B’ through ‘F’, were phased out between 1966 and 1978. That left the last two models in service, the ‘G’ and ‘H’. These remained in service through to the end of the Cold War. Some 193 units of the ‘G’ model were built between 1959 and 1961, with 102 units of the ‘H’ model completed between 1961 and 1963.

The combat debut of the B-52 Stratofortress occurred during the Vietnam War, with the ‘D’ model being the primary version employed. During that conflict thirty-one were lost to combat and non-combat causes. The B-52 Stratofortress series would also see service during Operation DESERT STORM in 1991 and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in 2003. The B-52 would also play a part in the American military invasion of Afghanistan that took place in 2001, named Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

A new designation system

In 1962, a Congressionally-mandated ‘Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System’ was put into place for the USAF, US navy and US army. With this new designation system the first prefix letter represented an aircraft’s basic mission code. Examples would be ‘B’ for bomber, ‘F’ for fighter or ‘A’ for attack plane.

Any special features of an aircraft were identified by a mission modification letter placed before the basic mission code letter. Examples include ‘E’ for ECM aircraft or ‘R’ for reconnaissance aircraft.

The number/s following the basic mission code letter are based on the plane’s USAF acquisition sequence either before or after 1962. The last USAF aircraft assigned a pre-1962 number designation was the F-111 Aardvark and the first USAF aircraft assigned a post-1962 number designation was the F-4C Phantom II.

The USAF inventory of B-52Gs was destroyed in 1992 as per treaty requirements. Only the B-52H remains in service with the USAF today. Of the 102 units of the B-52H constructed, fifty-eight are in service with another eighteen held in reserve.

Not a success story

As another intended replacement for the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, Convair came up with the B-58 strategic jet bomber. There was only a single model designated the B-58A and it was assigned the name ‘Hustler’. It showed up in the USAF inventory in 1960. Like the B-52 Stratofortress, it was intended to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union from high altitudes. Another fifty-seven units were built as strategic reconnaissance aircraft.

Due to the increasing effectiveness of the Soviet Air Defence System in the early 1960s, the B-58A Hustler was forced into the low-level strategic bomber role. This was a role it was never designed for and, unlike the more flexible design of the B-52 Stratofortress series, the B-58A Hustler was unable to adapt to the new operational requirements. That and its cost, inability to carry conventional weapons, as well as a very high accident rate, caused the USAF to pull it from service by 1970.

The first jet fighter in action

In 1948, the USAF did away with the ‘P’ for pursuit plane and officially adopted the letter ‘F’ for fighter. By 1950, a total of 1,714 units of the Second World War-designed subsonic Lockheed F-80, named the ‘Shooting Star’, had entered into the USAF fleet. The aircraft was built in a number of different versions.

During the Korean War the F-80 Shooting Star would serve mostly as a fighter-bomber because it lacked the performance to be an air-superiority fighter when compared to the Soviet-supplied MiG-15. However, the F-80 Shooting Star is credited with seventeen air-to-air kills, six being MiG-15s, and the destruction of another twenty-four enemy aircraft on the ground during the conflict. Some 227 of the F-80 Shooting Stars would be downed in action during the Korean War. Those remaining would be pulled from USAF service by 1958.

The strangest-looking fighter

In what appeared to be a design throwback, the USAF took into operational service in 1948 the twin-engine, prop-driven North American F-82, referred to as the ‘Twin Mustang’. Some 270 units were eventually acquired by the USAF in two versions: the F-82F and the F-82G.

Originally intended for use during the Second World War as long-range bomber escorts for the B-29 Superfortress, the F-82 Twin Mustang was pushed into the role of interim interceptor in 1947 when it was feared that Soviet-built copies of the B-29 Superfortress might attack the United States. It would eventually be replaced by faster jet-powered interceptors.

With a dearth of suitable aircraft at the outbreak of the Korean War, the F-82 Twin Mustang was sent into the combat zone and was responsible for the downing of the first three enemy aircraft in the conflict on 27 June 1950. Besides acting as an interceptor during the Korean War, the F-82 Twin Mustang also performed the roles of fighter-bomber and night-fighter as it was radar-equipped.

As newer, more capable aircraft began appearing in USAF service during the Korean War, the last of the F-82 Twin Mustangs were pulled from combat in that theatre by 1952. The F-82 Twin Mustang lasted in USAF service until 1958.

The first post-war-built fighter

As jet-engine technology rapidly evolved in the early post-war years, the USAF took into service in quick succession a number of subsonic fighter-bombers, each an improvement over its predecessor. The first of these was the Republic F-84, named the ‘Thunderjet’, that appeared in 1947.

The early versions of the F-84 Thunderjet were so plagued by design problems that the USAF considered them unfit for any mission. It took until 1949 before the aircraft reached operational service.

The F-84 Thunderjet would be the first USAF fighter capable of carrying a tactical nuclear weapon, which had become much smaller and lighter than the approximately 5-ton atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945. The initial model of the Thunderjet was the F-84B, followed by a number of other versions from ‘C’ to ‘F’. The USAF would acquire 4,450 units of the F-84 Thunderjet series.

Aerial combat over the skies of North Korea quickly showed that the straight-wing F-84 series lacked the performance to achieve air superiority over the swept-wing MiG-15. As a result, it was confined to use as a fighter-bomber. The USAF claims that 60 per cent of the ordnance dropped on the enemy during the Korean War was delivered by the F-84 Thunderjet series. A total of 335 units of the plane were lost in combat during the conflict. The last of the F-84 Thunderjets would be retired from USAF service in 1965.

To prolong the service life of the F-84 Thunderjet series, Republic demonstrated a prototype of a swept-wing version of the aircraft in 1950. The USAF was impressed with the prototype’s much improved performance and ordered it into series production in 1954 as the F-84F Thunderjet. Reflecting the dramatic design change that came with the ‘F’ model of the aircraft, it was soon relabelled as the F-84F ‘Thunderstreak’.

In total, Republic would build 2,112 units of the F-84F Thunderstreak, with General Motors constructing an additional 599 units. Of this combined total of 2,711 units, 1,301 went to America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Also assembled would be 718 units of a photo-reconnaissance version designated the RF-84F Thunderstreak. The F-84F Thunderstreak would remain in USAF service until the early 1960s.

The MiG-killer

The replacement for the F-80 Shooting Star in the air-superiority role during the Korean War was the subsonic North American F-86 named the ‘Sabre’. It was derived from the design of a North American US navy prototype fighter designated the Model NA-134, which eventually entered service as the FJ-1 and was later named the ‘Fury’.

In the air-to-air arena, the swept-wing F-86 Sabre would account for 379 MiG-15s during the conflict, losing seventy-eight units in the process. The USAF top-scoring F-86 Sabre ace during the Korean War was Captain Joseph C. McConnell, who accounted for sixteen MiG-15s in aerial combat.

The initial version of the F-86 Sabre was the ‘A’ model, of which 554 were built and delivered to the USAF beginning in 1949. It was at a performance disadvantage when confronting the MiG-15 in combat in 1950, both in its rate of climb and ceiling. These shortcomings were offset by more experienced and better-trained USAF pilots using superior tactics.

The performance disadvantage between the F-86 Sabre and the MiG-15 was corrected somewhat by the USAF acquisition of 426 units of the improved F-86E variant beginning in 1951. The operational performance of the F-86 Sabre would not truly match up to that of the MiG-15 until the introduction of the F-86F in 1953. A total of 2,540 units of the F-86F would be constructed.

There was also a USAF F-86D version of the Sabre, which did not see service during the Korean War. It was intended strictly as an all-weather interceptor of enemy bombers. It was larger and heavier than earlier versions of the aircraft. Directed by radar ground control, the F-86D Sabre relied on unguided rockets to destroy enemy bombers as it lacked machine guns/automatic cannons. The USAF took 2,504 units of the F-86D into service.

Besides the four versions of the F-86 Sabre series already mentioned, there were two other models built for the USAF, labelled the ‘H’ and the ‘L’. The F-86H was classified as a fighter-bomber and appeared in USAF service in 1954. When series production of the aircraft ended the following year, a total of 473 units had entered service with the USAF.

The final F-86 variant was the ‘L’ model, an improved all-weather fighter-interceptor version of the F-86D, of which 981 were taken into service by the USAF. The last of the F-86 Sabre series would be withdrawn from USAF service by 1956.

All-weather subsonic fighter-interceptors

The fear of a Soviet bomber attack on the United States in the immediate post-war years pushed the USAF to search for a jet-powered all-weather interceptor to replace its aging prop-driven interceptors. The term ‘all-weather’ meant that the aircraft was radar-equipped and could therefore fly at night.

The first jet-powered all-weather interceptor selected by the USAF to defend the United States was the Northrop F-89, named the ‘Scorpion’. Unfortunately the first three models, labelled the F-89A, F-89B and F-89C, were so troubled by serious design flaws that the USAF was forced to look for an interim aircraft that could be rushed into service until the F-89 Scorpion series design issues had been resolved.

The interim all-weather jet-powered interceptor adopted by the USAF in 1949 in lieu of the F-89 Scorpion series was the Lockheed F-94, named the ‘Starfire’. A total of 466 units of the F-94 Starfire, in three different versions, were acquired by the USAF. Employed during the Korean War, twelve would be lost to a variety of causes. The F-94 Starfire would remain in the USAF inventory until 1959.

The first model of the F-89 Scorpion series to be considered somewhat satisfactory by the USAF was the F-89D variant, of which 682 would enter operational service beginning in 1954. It was followed into service by 156 units of the F-89H beginning in 1959. The USAF then went back and had 350 units of the F-89D upgraded into a more advanced version designated the F-89J Scorpion.

The F-86 Scorpion series did not see service during the Korean War and all would be pulled from USAF service by 1969.

Supersonic fighters

All the early-generation USAF jet fighters were subsonic. The first supersonic fighter in USAF service was the North American F-100, named the ‘Super Sabre’, which entered service in 1954. It was the intended replacement for the F-86 Sabre in the air-superiority role and was derived from that aircraft. The first supersonic Soviet fighter was the MiG-19, with production beginning in 1955.

By the time production of the F-100 Super Sabre ended in 1959, a total of 2,294 units had been constructed in a number of different versions. The most numerous and advanced model of the aircraft was the ‘D’ version of which 1,294 units were built, starting in 1955. By then the primary role of the aircraft was as a fighter-bomber as it did not compare well with Soviet fighters in the air-superiority role.

The F-100 Super Sabre saw extensive use during the Vietnam War. It first arrived in South-East Asia in 1961. A total of 242 units of the F-100 Super Sabre were lost in combat, with 186 being accounted for by enemy anti-aircraft guns. None were taken out by enemy fighters during the conflict.

As a result of its high losses when confronted by the well-equipped North Vietnamese air defence system, the F-100 Super Sabre was restricted to bombing missions over South Vietnam starting in 1965. The aircraft was withdrawn from South-East Asia in 1971 to be replaced by more capable aircraft. The F-100 Super Sabre would survive in USAF service until 1979.

A problem fighter

The supersonic McDonnell F-101, named the ‘Voodoo’, as with the F-100 Super Sabre was rushed into service by the USAF in 1957. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a long list of unresolved problems, which could have been addressed if a proper test programme had been completed before production was authorized. The initial batch of forty units of the F-101A model was so bedevilled by design shortcomings that it took from 1955 through 1956 to correct most of them.

The F-101A Voodoo was originally intended as a fighter-bomber but became an all-weather interceptor when placed into operational service as the ‘B’ model in 1959. Not completely happy with the F-101 Voodoo as an interceptor, most of the nearly 770 F-101 Voodoos built were later converted or reconfigured as photoreconnaissance aircraft that would see service during the Vietnam War while the fighter version did not. The F-101 Voodoo series would remain in use with the USAF until 1982.

The answer to the enemy bomber threat

The USAF replacement for the troublesome F-89 Scorpion series was the Convair F-102A, named the ‘Delta Dagger’. It entered operational service with the USAF in 1956 and was its first supersonic all-weather interceptor. It also proved to be the first delta-wing aircraft to enter the USAF inventory.

A total of 1,212 units of the F-102 Delta Dagger were built, with 111 of them configured as two-seat trainers. Unfortunately for the USAF, the F-102 Delta Dagger was plagued with as many design issues as the F-89 Scorpion, which took both money and time to resolve.

The F-102A Delta Dagger would be deployed to South-East Asia from 1962 as a bomber escort by the USAF. They would also see some limited activity as a fighter-bomber, without much success. Fourteen of the F-102 Delta Daggers would be lost in combat for a variety of reasons. The Delta Daggers were pulled from service in South-East Asia in 1968 and all were withdrawn from USAF service by 1977.

An updated version of the F-102A was originally designated as the F-102B but reflecting its many structural design changes, it was later designated as the F-106 and named the ‘Delta Dart’. It first entered service in 1959.

The USAF was not too thrilled with the F-106 Delta Dart and this was reflected in the planned order of 1,000 units being reduced to 340, supplied in two different models. The F-106 Delta Dart did not see service during the Vietnam War and all were retired in 1988, making it the last dedicated interceptor-fighter in USAF service.

New fighter-bomber

The supersonic Republic F-105, named the ‘Thunderchief’, was originally intended as a fighter-bomber for the delivery of nuclear weapons. It was the replacement for the F-84 Thunderjet and the F-100 Super Sabre and entered operational service with the USAF in 1958. Some 833 units of the F-105 Thunderchief were built in several versions before production ceased in 1964.

The F-105B and F-105D versions of the Thunderchief would see extensive combat during the early part of the Vietnam War. Due to the very effective North Vietnamese air defence system, the USAF lost a total of 350 F-105 Thunderchiefs in combat with 312 credited to enemy anti-aircraft guns. In 1970 the USAF pulled the last of its F-105 Thunderchief squadrons from South-East Asia due to its high losses and replaced them with more capable aircraft.

A two-seat trainer version labelled the F-105F was converted to perform the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mission over North Vietnam. It was unofficially labelled the EF-105F and named the ‘Wild Weasel III’. The final upgraded version of that same aircraft was labelled the F-105G. It, like the original EF-105F, carried anti-radiation missiles (ARMs) intended to home in on radar emissions generated by enemy air defence radar and destroy them.

The last of the F-105 series Thunderchiefs were pulled from USAF service by 1988.

Korean War-inspired fighter

Based on input from USAF fighter pilots who had seen aerial combat during the Korean War, a new supersonic jet-powered air-superiority fighter entered operational service with the USAF in 1958. It was the Lockheed F-104, named the ‘Starfighter’. It would see some limited service during the Vietnam War but the North Vietnamese Air Force pilots refused to engage it in air-to-air combat whenever it appeared.

The initial version of the Starfighter was the F-104A and was originally envisioned strictly as an interceptor. It did spend some time as a fighter-interceptor but had a number of design issues that soured the USAF on its use for that purpose and eventually it ended up in other roles. The F-104A later became a daytime-only fighter-bomber, the F-104B was a two-seat trainer and the F-104C an all-weather fighter-bomber.

The ‘Century Series’

An unofficial but popular name for a number of supersonic fighter-interceptors and fighter-bombers that entered USAF service between the 1950s and 1960s was the Century Series. The name is derived from the fighter designation numbers beginning with the F-100 Super Sabre through to the F-106 Delta Dart. In between these fighters were the F-101 Voodoo, the F-102 Delta Dagger, F-104 Starfighter and F-105 Thunderchief. Not included in the Century Series are those fighters that were not placed into series production.

The original plans had called for the USAF to acquire 722 units of the F-104 Starfighter. However, disappointment in its capabilities, despite setting early world records in speed and altitude, led to the USAF capping their orders for the aircraft to only 296. The F-104 Starfighter series would last in service until 1975 with the USAF.

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