This is one of the planes I always wanted to fly. They were on their way out by the I went through pilot training in 1984. One guy in my class had an F-106 assignment to the New Jersey Air National Guard in Atlantic City. I envied him the F-106. The Atlantic City part not so much.
I've loved delta winged aircraft ever since a pair of F-102s flew over my house when I was in 2nd grade. They looked so sleek, fast and futuristic.
I think it looks futuristic even today.
Plus they're easy to draw. If you can draw a triangle you can draw an F-106. I know this because I drew plenty of them in grade school when I should have been studying.
The mid 1950s was the time of the "bomber gap". We were certain that any day vast hordes of Soviet bombers would come pouring across the Arctic Circle to rain destruction on American cities.
Mind you there was never any bomber gap. The Russians never had as many bombers as we thought they were building. Still, we needed a defense against the ones they did build.
The solution was a combination of surface-air-missiles (Nike and Bomarc) plus manned interceptors. The first supersonic "all weather" interceptors were the McDonnell Douglas F-101 and Convair's own F-102. Neither of which were considered really adequate for the job. The F-102 was barely supersonic and its radar and fire-control systems were fairly primitive.
You can tell an F-102 by the triangular fin. It wasn't a very good plane, but that's a story for another day.
In the mid 1950s the Air Force put out a request for an "ultimate interceptor". The contract was awarded to Convair for an improved version of the F-102.
The end result was a highly redesigned version of the "Deuce" with much improved aerodynamics, a much more powerful engine and greatly improved avionics. By the time it neared production it had so little in common with its predecessor that the F-102B was renamed the F-106 "Delta Dart".
Mind you nobody ever called it a Delta Dart. It was always just an F-106 or "the Six".
The Six had much better aerodynamics than the 102 plus considerably more thrust. This one served as a chase aircraft for the B-1 program.
The prototype initially failed to perform as expected. After some redesign, long delays, and near cancellation of the program (sound familiar?) Convair finally got the plane up to specifications. The F-106 entered active service with Air Defense Command in 1959.
This shows the "area ruled" fuselage which is pinched in the middle like a Coke bottle.
Allow me to go off topic for just a second and talk about SAGE or the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment. This was one of the earliest computer networks, using massive IBM mainframes that each took up a very large building. Data from air defense radars was networked and displayed at the SAGE Direction Centers. The Direction Center controllers could use a "light gun" to designate targets on their radar displays and dispatch interceptors to the target. Today we call this an Integrated Air Defense System or IADS. Odds are you've seen parts of SAGE as its giant computers and spinning tape drives showed up on many a TV show in the 1960s.
SAGE controller's console. Complete with cigarette lighter and ashtray!
Now here's the really cool part. The ground controller could actually fly
the F-106 to the target by data-link. Doesn't sound like a big deal today, but this was pretty cosmic stuff in 1959! This also allowed the F-106 to sneak up on its target without using its on-board radar and warning the bomber of its presence.
This was the last purpose built interceptor to see service with the US Air Force and it was well suited for the task. Here's the good stuff:
It was fast. A very clean airframe plus a powerful engine made for great performance. It held the absolute speed record for two years (1536 mph) and to this day holds the speed record for single engine aircraft. It reportedly flew quite well at 50,000 feet and could be "zoom climbed" well past 70,000 feet.
It had "long legs".
The Pratt & Whitney J75 engine gave an impressive 24,500 pounds of thrust. The afterburner would "hard light" with a loud bang.
The delta wing had room for plenty of gas, giving it a combat radius of 700 miles. A useful trait for an interceptor. The further out you can attack the bombers the better. With air refueling of course it could go even further.
It had very advanced avionics for its day.
The F-106 could be air refueled. The receptacle was quite a ways behind the pilot.
In addition to its MA-1 fire control system it had Infra-Red Search-and-Track plus a moving map display - in this case an actual map. Hot stuff by 1959 standards.
It was fairly maneuverable.
Infra Red tracker extended. This is an F-102 but the 106 had the same device essentially.
Not essential for a pure interceptor but nice to have. As it was described to me, the delta wing gave it one
awesome "bat turn" but then it would bleed off its airspeed.
It had a very good safety record.
This profile shows just how much wing area it had.
Well, it did after the bugs got worked out of it.
Its original ejection seat was designed for high-speeds and high altitudes. It was nicknamed "the supersonic bobsled" because it flipped the pilot onto his back to protect him from the wind blast. After this seat killed several pilots it was determined that an ejection at high altitudes and supersonic speeds just wasn't all that likely. Better to give the pilot a chance when his engine quits right after takeoff. Once a new zero-zero seat (zero altitude and zero airspeed) was retrofitted the F-106 had one of the best safety records for single engine jets.
Of course like any aircraft it had its limitations:
Poor visibility. Note the large support that splits the canopy above the pilot's head and directly in front of him. Rear visibility was also poor.
High pilot workload. Note the Y-shaped control stick. The left portion of the "Y" moved independently and controlled the radar. The F-106 pilot literally had his hands full flying the airplane and operating the radar. In the F-4 those duties were relegated to the back-seater.
F-106 cockpit. Note the radar scope (top) and moving map display (bottom).
This cockpit has vertical "tapes" instead of the older round-dial instruments. This was the more common setup.
This was a common mistake in fighter design at the time. The F-4 notably didn't have a gun until late in its career. The F-106 wasn't equipped with a gun until 1972.
Weak missile armament. This is what really crippled an otherwise fine aircraft. The Hughes AIM-4 Falcon missile.
The F-106 carried four Falcon missiles in its internal weapons bay. Carrying the missiles internally made for a low-drag airframe but also meant equipping it with a different missile would have been difficult.
When fired the weapons bay doors would automatically snap open by pneumatic (air) pressure. The missiles would be extended into the slipstream by a trapeze like mechanism and then fired. The whole process took place in less time than it took me to describe it.
Weapons bay open showing a pair of Falcon missiles.
A normal load was two heat-seeking AIM-4G and two radar homing AIM-4F missiles. These had a very small 5 pound warhead and were not proximity fused. They had to achieve a direct hit to get a kill. Close didn't count. The Falcon might
have been adequate against a lumbering Soviet bomber but that's about it.
This video shows an F-106 launching two Falcons at a "Firebee" drone. You can see him take the shot at the 1:25 mark.
The heat seekers were especially troublesome. Prior to launch, the seeker head needed to be charged with nitrogen. This took 30 seconds. Once charged, you had two minutes to "use it or lose it".
In Vietnam the F-4 was briefly equipped with AIM-4Gs and the results were abysmal. Out of 54 launches there were only 5 kills scored with the Falcon. Presumably the MiG pilots became suicidal and flew into the missiles. I can't think of any other explanation.
The missiles were normally fired in pairs to give a better chance of a hit. Also because the pneumatically operated weapons bay only had enough air to cycle the doors three times. This gave the F-106 three possible shots:
2 x Heat-seeking Falcon
2 x Radar-guided Falcon
1 x Genie
I saved the best for last. The Six had one neat trick up its sleeve. The Genie.
Needs no introduction.
No, not that Genie! This one!
Genie launch by a California ANG F-106.
The AIR-2 Genie was a large, unguided rocket with a 1.5 kiloton nuclear warhead. It worked like this: the MA-1 fire control system would calculate the range to the target and download that information to the Genie. Once fired, the rocket would go in a straight line while the F-106
executed a retrograde maneuver
ran like hell in the other direction. Once the rocket's internal timer calculated that it had gone the programmed distance the target would magically disappear. In its place would be a nuclear fireball.
Anything within 100 yards of the blast would be instantly destroyed. Any bomber crews within a mile of the blast would be dead in 5 minutes from a lethal dose of radiation. Yeah, nasty.
All in all an elegant, if horrific, solution. It's so low tech that it's almost unbeatable.
You can't jam or decoy it because it's unguided. You can pull all the G's you want, it doesn't care, it's not trying to hit you. Even if you know it's coming, you won't be able to generate a mile of miss distance in the 12 seconds (roughly) it takes to get there. Multiple targets? It loves that! The more the merrier!
There is of course the minor problem of setting off nuclear weapons over friendly territory. Oops! That was Burbank down there! My bad! The idea at least was that they would be employed over remote northern areas (cough Canada cough) as the Soviet bombers came over the pole.
A live AIR-2 was detonated overhead five Air Force officers in a 1957 test. I don't know what became of them but this can't be good for you. All I was able to find was that the cameraman and one of the officers were still alive in 2012. The comic books of my childhood obviously lied to me since none of them developed super-powers.
After our experience in Vietnam, the lack of a gun became a serious concern for the Air Force. In 1972 the Six received some much needed updates. A new clear-topped canopy improved the pilot's vision, at least above if not forwards. The avionics were improved. Most importantly a 20mm Gatling-gun was installed, taking the place of the Genie rocket in the weapons bay.
Since its main job was air defense against Soviet bombers, the F-106 was very rarely deployed overseas. During periods of crisis they were briefly deployed to Germany and South Korea.
These were never exported. Canada considered buying the F-106 after cancelling their Avro Arrow interceptor. For some reason they chose the older and less advanced F-101 Voodoo instead. My guess is they considered two engines to be an advantage when operating over the more remote areas of Canada. The Canadian Voodoos also carried the nuclear Genie, but that's a rather long story that deserves its own diary.
It was considered for use in the Vietnam conflict but never deployed. Probably just as well. Its predecessor the F-102 had a rather unimpressive combat record in Vietnam and the Falcon missile just wasn't useful in a dogfight. The Six probably could have out flown the MiGs but it didn't have anything to shoot them with.
The F-106 had a long service life, the last ones were retired from the Air National Guard in 1988. NASA kept a few of them flying until 1998. Most of them were converted to QF-106 target drones and now reside at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
With further development this could have been a great airplane. The six generally beat the F-4 in visual dogfights when the two were flown against each other. The Air Force ended choosing the Navy's F-4 instead of purchasing additional F-106s however.
The Six had considerably more wing than the F-4 and could usually beat it in a visual dogfight.
1. The DOD wanted to standardize aircraft between the services.
2. The F-4 had a better radar plus an extra person to operate it.
3. The F-4 had better missiles: the AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder.
4. The F-4 carried twice as many missiles.
5. Here's the big one: the F-4 could also drop bombs.
Perhaps this sounds eerily familiar to the debate we're having today over the F-35. One jack-of-all-trades fighter for the Air Force, Navy and Marines? One that can drop bombs as well as fight in the air? History may not repeat itself but it does rhyme.