In the early 1950’s it became clear that the Interceptor being developed by Convair would not be operational by its 1954 deadline. Faced with this problem, the US Air Force (USAF) decided to procure from Convair a less sophisticated interim interceptor. This emerged as the F-102A Delta Dagger and the original project was then designated the F-102B. It is this latter project which eventually became the F-106 Delta Dart.
On Jun. 17, 1956, the F-102B was officially designated the F-106, reflecting the fact that the original requirements had changed considerably. All the requirements for speed, altitude and all-weather capability had been increased. The first prototypes flew in late 56 and early 57. According to Pacific Coast Air Museum, the performance was somewhat disappointing but this was primarily due to the delays in the power plant development and the subsequent substitution. However, continual development and improvements were implemented and ultimately, 277 single seat and 63 dual seat aircraft were built and delivered to the Air Force.
The aircraft was the primary air defense weapon for most of the 60’s and was kept in service much longer than the original design called for.
Developed to avoid the saturation of the U.S. skies with large formations of Soviets bombers, the AIR-2 Genie would be launched on a lead-collision flight path against its target and thanks to its relatively large lethal envelope at its time of detonation would either enfold the target or the target to fly into it. With its 1,5 kilotons warhead, the maximum AIR-2 lethal radius for an airframe was about 1,000 feet. The US Air Force Brigadier General Bill Rutledge, USAF (Ret.), was a former F-106 pilot and even if he never carried a “live” Genie shot, he fired an ATR-2A, a Genie with some ballast replacing the warhead but with the tracking equipment installed. Rutledge released its impressions about firing the ATR-2A to Ted Spitzmiller, who reported them in his book Century Series The USAF Quest for air supremacy 1950-1960: “It was amazing, an 832-pound rocket with a 35,000-pound thrust rocket motor. When that rocket motor fired, there was an instant contrail out in front of my aircraft. The standard load for an F-106 was four AIM-4 Falcons (two G models-heat seeking; and two F models-radar guided) and a Genie. Primary weapon was the Genie-a nuclear air-to-air rocket.” According to Rutledge the fire control system calculated a launch point and heading to effect proper launch, set the time of flight before detonation, and automatically launched the AIR-2A Genie given that the pilot had switches properly set. Then the pilot did one of several escape maneuvers, depending on altitude to keep himself out the fireball and overpressure shock wave.
Another former Delta Dart pilot, Daniel R. “Doc” Zoerb recalled his experience with the ATR-2A: “We fired the (practice) Genie against high-speed, high altitude drones, most challenging of which was the Bomarc at about 70,000 feet and Mach 2.5. The experience of feeling the weapons bay doors open, the “clunk” as the 850 pound rocket fell from the bay, and the audible (even in the cockpit) roar as the rocket motor lit was quite an experience, as was the speed and smoke trail that allowed you to maintain visual contact with the rocket til the spotting charge exploded. As I recall, the distance to the target at rocket launch…was about 7 or 8 nm at high altitude. The Genie accelerated to twice the launch Mach (which was circa 1.5 Mach) in a two-second rocket motor burn…a real bullet!”
As Zoerb explained, since the Genie was a nuclear warhead rocket, its detonation in the vicinity of any type of enemy aircraft would have had a negative effect on its electronics, on its structural integrity or on the desire of the target to continue its mission. The effects on friendly fighters, unaware of the Genie launch, would have also been unpleasant, with (at least) temporary blindness being the biggest fear. Hence the eye patch carried by the F-106 aircrews in the survival vest in hopes of preserving sight in at least one eye.
The F-106 was also a very fast aircraft which featured a supercruise ability as Mark Foxwell, another former Delta Dart driver, explained: “I recently visited the 27 Fighter Squadron at Langley, flying the F-22. They touted the Raptor’s supercruise capability, where they use AB to take it well supersonic and then cruise supersonic in military. Well I/we did that routinely on the Six (as the F-106 was called its pilots); I would take it in full AB to 49,000 and Mach 1.5, then go to full mil and cruise supersonic for 500 miles or more.”
Finally, Foxwell believe that the F-106 was also a bomber interceptor better equipped than today airframes, since the Delta Dart was optimized for its job of anti-Soviet bomber defense more than anything in its day and more than anything today. In fact, as he explains, even if the F-15 and F-16 had (and still have) greater firepower, radar and computer capabilities as does the F-22, these fighters are not optimized for the Strategic Air Defense mission and the F-106 could match or exceed them in speed, range and endurance. According to Foxwell in fact “the 106’s speed and range gave us the ability to ‘…get there the firstest with the mostest,’ which of course is how the Cold Wars were won.”
Century Series The USAF Quest for air supremacy 1950-1960 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force
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