Locklin on science

the early supersonic age: the F105

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on April 12, 2011

My interest in the aesthetics of technology always brings me to early eras of device. In the first generation of a technology, the device physically is at its most pure and evocative. Often times, the implementation is bad, but it is rare that an early designer screws up the physical appearance of the thing. Aesthetics is usually all they really have to go on, the first time they make something, so engineering “firsts” are generally badassed looking: from Bunel’s The Great Eastern steamship, to an early Atwater Kent radio: early designs are always cool looking.

One of the more fascinating pieces of technology was that of the early super sonic jet fighter bomber. Modern supersonic jet fighters and fighter bombers are crushing bores. Even the stealthy versions merely end up looking sort of creepy. They fly rings around the early ones, but they look like something extruded from a toy factory. The first or first and a half generations of supersonic fighter bombers were insane and beautiful contraptions. The designers were generally just pleased with themselves to get these tin cans moving past Mach-1. The idea was, if they went fast enough, they couldn’t get hit by anything. Things didn’t work out that way. They often didn’t have much in the way of cargo capacity, maneuverability, avionics or range. They were generally blundering great hulking things; they had to be to hold the big jet engines and enormous tanks of jet fuel necessary to push them supersonic. Sometimes they were so futuristic, the designers forgot to put guns on the them; they only had futuristic (and largely useless) missiles. This is one reason why america did so badly in the air war over Vietnam, despite the enemy only being equipped with “outdated” subsonic Vietnamese Mig-17’s. The American jets couldn’t turn and didn’t have guns, which made them Mig meat.

One of my favorites of this era is the F-105 Thunderchief. The Thud was an ugly buzzard; the kind of ugly that is weirdly beautiful. It’s fuselage was an afterthought, designed in two stages as engineers figured out things about supersonic aerodynamics. It was filled to the nostrils with sophisticated electronics which made up a good fraction of the cost of the thing and mostly didn’t work right. The designers included a gun, but they forgot important things like making the fuselage rigid, until one of the air force’s aerobatic team thunderbirds’ Thuds dissolved in mid air in an aggressive turn. I don’t know why they were flying such a turkey for an aerobatic team: must have been military thinking at work -after all, the thing cost a lot; might as well show it off! The wings and control surfaces on the thing are much too small for its enormous size (still the biggest single seat aircraft ever built), making it about as maneuverable as it’s nickname, “the ultra lead sled.”

The original use for the Thunderchief was nuclear deterrence. It was built to fly low and very fast, over long distances and under Soviet radar to deliver a tactical nuke from its internal bomb bay. Most of the F-1XX series of fighters and bombers had a similarly nuclear war oriented mission. The F-106 delta dart interceptor, most famous because of one of its pilots was president a few years ago, had a nuclear tipped rocket it was supposed to fire at formations of Soviet bombers. What a glorious idea! With one Delta Dart jet and a nuclear tipped rocket (rockets: how futuristic!), you could pin down or destroy entire attacking Soviet squadrons of bombers! You didn’t even need sophisticated avionics; just point it in the general direction of the bombers and cut loose! Once the Soviets heard of it, of course, they stopped flying in formations. Not very clever of Convair (now General Dynamics) to have missed out on that little defensive tactic. It was still a useful interceptor, particularly after they replaced the nuclear rocket with a cannon, but only in an absurd backhanded way.

“The Delta Dagger shooting one of its nuke tipped Genie missiles”

The F-105’s main actual mission in it’s service life was to bomb Vietnam. It carried a lot of bombs (more than a B-17), was fairly long range, and was designed to penetrate Soviet air defenses, which the NVA had a pretty advanced version of. It did reasonably well at the task, all things considered, and it flew 75% of the air strike missions against North Vietnam during its heyday. Hundreds of them were shot down. Hundreds! Almost half the total production of the things ended up in a zillion expensive pieces over Vietnam. There was a ridge near Hanoi called “Thud Ridge” because of all the F-105 corpses littering the place. A typical pilot could expect to be shot down twice during his 100 missions; they had about a 50% survival rate. The main good thing about it was it was pretty fast, and so enormous, you could punch one full of holes from rockets and shells and it might still make it back to base. It wasn’t exactly sturdy, but its low flying, high speed characteristics (which is why it had such short wings, which made for shitty turning) and large size gave it at least a fighting chance when in deep NVA territory.

“She had long legs at low altitude. She was fast. It was very easy to go fast with her, especially on the deck. And nobody else could go that fast.”

One of the more badassed roles for the Thud was the Wild Weasel mission. Wild Weasels were older, outdated aircraft with sophisticated electronics designed to attract the attention of surface to air missile bases and attack them, when they got radar lock. The original Weasels were F-100’s, but these proved too fragile for such a brutal mission. The really crazy thing was, in those days the electronics was still flakey, so they often detected the SAM launch visually, and attacked the source of the smoke contrail with dive bombing techniques. That’s a lot like knocking out machine gun nests by charging them with grenades. At first, the weasels were being shot down faster than they could replace the crews. Still, the F-105 eventually proved its mettle in such combat, and the Wild Weasel idea is still used today with great success. It is this concept which makes for true air superiority in modern combat zones.

“She was as stable as a Swiss franc and she could hit. She could hit with the Gatlin gun and she could hit with bombs, lots of bombs.”

One of things I liked best about the Thud was how it fought all these crazy missions despite its physical limitations. It was ugly, weird looking (I think i looks more like an Aardvark than the F-111 does, with its narrow shoulders, big ass and long nose), ungainly, designed for a completely different role and yet the men who fought in these monstrosities of mis-engineering heroically got the job done. One of them managed to destroy a Mig by dropping a hail of bombs it the Mig’s flight path; that’s scrappy! Remember: this thing was meant to fly extremely fast, really low, and deliver one bomb on Soviet targets, and that’s it; after that the grand nuclear duke-em-out would be over. It wasn’t meant to drop conventional bombs at all, let alone fly hundreds of missions doing so. In a way it was a sort of manned cruise missile in its design; more or less disposable. It even looked a lot like the cruise missiles of the day. It was sort of like using a Caddy to fight tanks. The rate at which men died in these contraptions more or less reflected this fact; they had about the survival rate of a B-17 crew in WW-2. The men who flew these jets were homeric heroes. They knew they were ultimately doomed, but they fought anyway, and grew enormous walrus mustaches to ward off bad luck.

“But she wasn’t perfect. No real lady is. She couldn’t turn worth a damn. We figured even a frisbee would outturn the Thud.”

I look at the F-105 as a beautiful pinnacle of 1950s american design. This was the type of jet that inspired cars to sprout totally ridiculous tailfins, and rocket shaped rear blinkers. This was the type of jet that gave us science fiction visions of the future that was all brushed aluminum and swept back wings. It was made back when people believed that the human future would be high speed, silvery, clean and wholesome. It was honest and straightforward in design; like a comic book rocket ship. Nobody could build a machine with that kind of purity any more without making several ironic pop cultural references, because people now a days are not as good and true as they once were. Like America, the Thud was embroiled in a dirty war which it wasn’t designed for, but it did its best, and taught important lessons to the next generation.

“She was ugly, she was strong, but she had dignity.”



10 Responses

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  1. Ilya said, on April 18, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Creepy? I suppose the F-117 and the B-2 look sorta creepy, being all black and all, but the B1 looks pretty cool, and hey, the B-2 is like a fat ninja plane 😛

    But come on, when it comes to cool looks, I’d think the F-22 and the F-35 take the cake…of course, just because they look cool doesn’t mean they’ve done anything so far…it seems the F-22 is too expensive to fly in conflicts without an enemy air force to shoot at. And even then, it seems the F-15s and F-16s have it under control.

    But I digress…

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 20, 2011 at 4:20 am

      B-1 looks kind of 70s slick, like Burt Reynolds moustache. It ain’t insane and awesome looking like the 105. The 105 is more like the mohawk on a 1950s veteran.

      I think the F-35 looks like a practical joke (I’ve an article brewing on its engineering, which is similarly funny looking). The F-22 is an amazing jet: watching it fly is like watching aerial poetry. However, sitting on the concrete, it’s just a boring looking F-15 type thing. The 105 is way more spirited looking.

      • Ilya said, on April 20, 2011 at 5:12 am

        Heh…there’s a reason why Tom Clancy describes the F-22 as Kim Basinger if she were a jet :P. (Or something like that.) Only problem with the F-22 is that it’s expensive as hell to fly, and built to fight an enemy that shouldn’t exist (near peer fighter aircraft).

        Heck, the fact that it’s a stealth jet sort of doesn’t matter when the people we fight don’t have radars to begin with.

        Sort of makes the ban on its export look kind of silly…we don’t use them, but it seems that the Israelis would make wonderful use of U.S. stealth jets.

        But the F-35…yeeaaah…small little bastard brother of the F-22…the Raptor’s far cooler, but the new guy can do more things, and carry more bombs. So he’s more useful in the near future.

        • Scott Locklin said, on April 20, 2011 at 5:18 am

          I dated a Kim Basinger lookalike … She’s an A-6, not an F-22. The F-22 is one of those silicone tit transsexuals with visible abdominal muscles.

          The main problem with the F-35: much like nanotech, it doesn’t actually exist, and almost certainly never will, at least in the way it is pitched to the public. They recently admitted, this “affordable” fighter is going to cost half what the F-22 does… and this is the admission a half decade out from the postulated deployment date. It was supposed to cost what an F-16 does. Instead it’s two F-15’s or more; and that’s just what they’re admitting … and it doesn’t even exist yet. I was looking at the SBIR solicitations for it in 2006 -the basic parts, like, wheels and turbine blades and stuff didn’t work yet. It was obvious even then that this was a fantasy jet.

  2. Crocodile Chuck said, on April 20, 2011 at 3:54 am

    Nice post, Scott. During the Cuban Missile Crisis the F-105’s were armed with nuclear bombs-and a number of them were always in the air over North America in case of missile attack.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 20, 2011 at 4:21 am

      Didn’t know they kept ’em nuke ready in the states. I thought they were all TAC forward in Germany and such.

  3. Six said, on August 3, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    You should drop in on Ed Rasimus at http://thundertales.blogspot.com/ sometime. He was a Thud pilot in Vietnam. He later went back and did another 100+ missions in an F4 and wrote a couple of books about his experiences. Talk about a guy who makes clinking sounds when he walks.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 3, 2011 at 6:50 pm

      His book was one of my favorites about the Thud thus far:
      I reviewed it on Amazon some time ago.

      I had no idea he was on the ‘net; thanks for pointing it out!

      • scott said, on August 30, 2011 at 1:27 pm

        I read Thud Ridge by Jack Broughton when I was a kid – fascinating stuff and it really connected well with this post. The author was always complaining that his super-cool Doppler radar never worked, and he did a good job conveying in a tight-lipped laconic Air Force kind of way how insanely dangerous these mssions were. I chuckled a lot about your commentary on other century-series fighters, because my dad flew the
        F-100 “lead sled” on close air support missions in Vietnam and also flew the F-104 (in my opinion, the coolest looking fighter we ever built, hanging proudly in the Air and Space Museum, although it wasn’t very aerodynamically stable and the pilots called it “the widowmaker!”). Good read!

  4. […] I have said before, the early supersonic era is one of my favorite epochs of aerospace technology. Not because the […]

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