USAF technological innovations: 1960-1970

No one did more to harness science to air power objectives than Gen. Bernard A. Schriever.

As commander of Air Research and Development Command and its successor, Air Force Systems Command, Schriever had demonstrated great capacity during the 1950s in bringing the American ICBM force to fruition.

Then, directed in March 1963 by Secretary of the Air Force Eugene M. Zuckert, he undertook a major review of technologies applicable to U.S. Air Force needs through the mid-1970s. Called Project Forecast, it enlisted almost 500 participants, balancing blue-suiters who understood the requirements of war with some of the most eminent civilian scientists and engineers from the universities, manufacturers, institutes and government.

In fact, Schriever drew his team from an unprecedented variety of sources — from the Air Force and 63 other federal agencies, 26 institutions of higher learning, 70 corporations and 10 nonprofit organizations.

The selection of Schriever and his project manager, Maj. Gen. Charles Terhune, in itself suggests a maturing of the forecasting process. Both men not only understood the scientific world, but represented a growing number of engineers in uniform able to grasp the technical and military aspects of weapons development. As a result, Schriever and Terhune structured Project Forecast so that all ideas produced by the technical panels were assessed in relation to factors of cost and military requirements. In addition, evaluations of the predominant threats to American security and broad foreign policy objectives further narrowed the field of candidate technologies.

Finally, the capability panels translated the concepts which survived this screening process into actual weapons systems. Far more structured than Theodore von Karman’s Toward New Horizons report generated in the mid-1940s, Project Forecast, nonetheless, incorporated truly independent scientific advice and invited the widest possible participation. Also, like Toward New Horizons, it strove for comprehensiveness, producing twenty-five volumes which related new air power technologies to the world in which the Air Force found itself. Project Forecast enjoyed widespread influence throughout the Air Force and many of its recommendations, such as huge intercontinental transports and lightweight composites for aircraft and engine design, were fulfilled.

An SR-71 Blackbird flies a mission. The first SR-71 unit, the 4200th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing was established at Beale AFB, Calif., on Jan. 1, 1965. (Air Force photograph)

The fly-by-wire flight control system conference, 1968

On Dec. 16 and 17, 1968, (the 65th anniversary of powered flight in an unstable airplane: the Wright Flyer), the U.S. Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory hosted a meeting of 141 people engaged in fly-by-wire research or vitally interested in its future.

The conference was a showcase for the year-old B-47 test program and the laboratory prototypes built by Sperry Flight Systems Division and Douglas Aircraft Company. It also gave attendees an opportunity to speculate about the nature of fly-by-wire systems in future aircraft.

The conference papers largely reported on work in progress. The hidden agenda was to create a demand for fly-by-wire so great that further research would be sponsored by the Flight Dynamics Laboratory and its industrial partners. The early results, though promising, still did not fully convince the money controllers in Washington. If the laboratory personnel and contractors could sell the industry attendees on the idea, then pressure would be applied to the government for further support.

As Col. Charles A. Scolatti, chief of the Flight Control Division, said in the conclusion to his welcoming remarks, “I hope that this conference will provide you with reinforcement on the potential, soundness, and maturity of fly-by-wire flight control systems and open the doors which will permit you to consider fly-by-wire for flight control system tradeoff studies for our future aircraft and aerospace vehicle.” In short, the people at Wright-Patterson were sold, and now it was time to sell the others.

The F-111, sometimes called the Aardvark, featured swing wings that could be swept forward for slow flight or backward for greater speed. (Air Force photograph)

Missiles, missile warning, missile defense, tactical missiles

With the advent of the Kennedy administration, the ICBM program was reevaluated once more.

Meanwhile, the so-called missile gap faded as interest shifted from the numbers of missiles available to their reliability and flexibility. The Thor IRBM became operational in the United Kingdom between June 1959 and April 1960; Atlas D and E models went on alert between August 1960 and November 1961; Titan I and Atlas F became operational during April to December 1962; and Jupiters were installed in Italy in 1961 and in Turkey in 1962. In all, 13 Atlas and six Titan I squadrons became operational. Even as these missiles were put in place, important decisions were made with respect to their successors — the solid-fueled missiles.

In March 1961, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara was convinced of the necessity for building a solid-fueled ICBM, now called the Minuteman. The development of the Minuteman was so rapid and so successful that it accelerated by several years the phase-out of the first generation, liquid-fueled ICBMs. By December 1964, Atlas Ds came off alert, and by June 1965, Atlas E and F and Titan I were retired. The first 10 Minuteman I missiles came on alert in time for the Cuban Missile crisis in October 1962. Eventually a force of 1,000 Minuteman and 54 Titan I1 ICBMs were fielded.

Feb. 1, 1961: The Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile was launched for the first time at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in a major test. Under full guidance, it traveled 4,600 miles to its target area. The solid-fueled Minuteman could be stored more easily and fired more quickly than the liquid-fueled Atlas and Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Feb. 1, 1961: The ballistic missile early warning system site at Thule, Greenland, became operational. Subsequently, other sites became operational at Clear, Alaska, and Fylingdales in the United Kingdom. Operated by the North American Air Defense Command, the system could provide the United States warning of an impending Soviet missile attack in time to respond.

June 1, 1961: At Kincheloe Air Force Base, Mich., the first Bomarc-B pilotless interceptor site was declared operational. The Bomarc was a long-range, antiaircraft surface-to-air missile (SAM), the U.S. Air Force’s only one employed.

Aug. 8, 1961: The Air Force launched an Atlas F missile from Cape Canaveral, Fla., for the first time. The Atlas F, designed for long-term storage of liquid fuels and for shortened countdown, was the only Atlas model destined for emplacement in hardened, underground silos.

April 18, 1962: At Lowry Air Force Base, Colo., Strategic Air Command declared operational the Air Force’s first Titan I unit — the 724th Strategic Missile Squadron. Its nine missiles were the first to be placed in hardened underground silos.

June 29, 1962: An Air Force team fired a Minuteman missile from an underground silo at Cape Canaveral to a target area 2,300 miles downrange. This Minuteman was the first to be launched by a military crew.

July 19, 1962: A Nike-Zeus antimissile missile fired from Kwajalein Island in the Pacific Ocean made the first known interception of an intercontinental ballistic missile when it brought down the nose cone of an Atlas missile launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

June 8, 1963: The 570th Strategic Missile Squadron, the first Titan II unit, was activated at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. By April 21, 1964, the number of ICBMs equaled the number of bombers on SAC ground alert for the first time. Subsequently, the number of missiles exceeded the number of bombers in the nuclear-deterrent force.

April 20, 1965: Strategic Air Command shipped its last Atlas missile to storage facilities to be used as a launch vehicle in various research and development programs, thus completing the phase out of the first generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles, all of which were liquid-fueled.

June 30, 1965: At Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., the last of 800 Minuteman I missiles became operational when Strategic Air Command accepted the fifth Minuteman wing from Air Force Systems Command.

Oct. 31, 1965: Strategic Air Command accepted its first 10 Minuteman II missiles, assigning them to the 447th Strategic Missile Squadron at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. The Minuteman II was larger and more advanced than the Minuteman I, but it could be fired from the same silos.

Feb. 3, 1968: At the Arnold Engineering Development Center at Tullahoma, Tenn., a laser beam was used for the first time as a light source for photographing aircraft and missile models at high velocity.

Dec. 18, 1969: Air Force Missile Development Center crews completed the first guided launch of the Maverick — an air-to-surface television-guided missile capable of attacking moving targets at short range. Designated the AGM-65, the missile would eventually be carried by a variety of bomber, fighter, and attack aircraft.

June 19, 1970: The first Minuteman III missile unit became operational at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. The Minuteman III could launch multiple, independently targetable warheads.

The U.S. Air Force continued its quest of cruise missiles with a bit more success in the 1950s and 1960s. It briefly deployed the intercontinental range Northrop Snark in the period 1959-1661.

It was guided by a one-ton inertial system updated by stellar navigation. But, as with its predecessors, it was expensive, technically flawed, and in the end, unsuccessful. There were numerous aerodynamic problems, and test failures were so frequent that some pundit dubbed the waters off of the test site at Cape Canaveral as “Snark-infested waters.” One missile, however, went too far. It was last seen by the Air Force after its launch in 1956; in 1982 a Brazilian farmer in the Amazon basin found it!

Its designated follow-on missile was no better, as the North American Navaho is probably best remembered for the rhyme, “Never go, Navaho.” The Air Force did best with the Martin Matador/Mace missile that was operational between 1955 until 1969 in both Europe and East Asia.

It was about the size of a fighter and used a number of different guidance systems: radio control, radar map comparison method, and inertial.

But like its big brother the Snark, the Matador/Mace’s record was hindered by troublesome engines, guidance problems, as well as low reliability and accuracy. The Navy had about the same luck (or lack of luck) with its Chance Vought Regulus, a missile that was very much like the Matador in appearance and performance. It did give the Navy a nuclear punch and was liked by some naval officers.

A Titan I undergoes a test launch. (Air Force photograph)

New aircraft technology

June 9, 1961: Delivery of the first C-135 Stratolifter introduced jet cargo aircraft into the fleet of the Military Air Transport Service.

Jan. 1, 1965: The Air Force’s first SR-71 Blackbird unit, the 4200th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, activated at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. The SR-71 could attain a speed of more than Mach 3 and altitudes beyond 70,000 feet, but it required special fuel and maintenance support.

April 23, 1965: The first operational Lockheed C-141 Starlifter aircraft was delivered to Travis Air Force Base, Calif. Capable of crossing any ocean nonstop at more than 500 miles per hour, the Starlifter could transport up to 70,000 pounds of payload, including 154 troops, 123 paratroopers, or a combination of troops and supplies.

Dec. 8, 1965: The secretary of defense announced plans to phase out older models of the B-52 bombers and all B-58 bombers. Newer B-52 models made the older ones obsolete, and the B-58 had proven impractical because of its high fuel consumption.

March 31, 1966: Strategic Air Command phased out its last B-47 Stratojet. The first all-jet strategic bomber, it had entered active service in 1951, 15 years earlier.

March 15, 1967: The Sikorsky HH-53B, the largest and fastest helicopter in the Air Force inventory, made its first flight. It would be used for air rescue operations in Southeast Asia.

Oct.16, 1967: The first operational F-111A supersonic tactical fighter landed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The variable swept-wing jet used its terrain-following radar-guidance controls for the flight from Fort Worth, Texas.

June 17, 1968: The first C-9 Nightingale aeromedical-evacuation aircraft ordered by Military Airlift Command for the airlift of patients within the United States rolled out at McDonnell Douglas Corporation, Long Beach, Calif.

Aug. 25, 1968: The North American OV-10 Bronco, the Air Force’s newest forward-air-control aircraft, began a 90-day combat-evaluation program in South Vietnam.

Jan. 1, 1969: The 71st Special Operations Squadron of the Air Force Reserve flew the first AC-119 Shadow gunship combat mission in Vietnam. The AC-119’s multiple machine guns could strafe the ground even more effectively than those of its predecessor, the AC-47.

June 6, 1970: Gen. Jack J. Catton, commander of Military Airlift Command, accepted delivery of the first C-5 Galaxy for operational use by the Air Force. At the time, the C-5 was the largest operational airplane in the world.

Oct. 2, 1970: The Special Operations Center at Hurlburt Field, Fla., took possession of the new UH-1N Bell Twin Huey, making the center the first operational Air Force organization to have the helicopter.

Command, control development

Feb. 3, 1961: As part of a project called “LOOKING GLASS,” Strategic Air Command began flying EC-135s to provide a 24-hour-a-day airborne command post for the president and secretary of defense in case enemy attack wiped out land-based command and control sites that controlled strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Dec. 15, 1961: The North American Air Defense Command semiautomatic ground-environment system became fully operational with completion of its 21st and last control center at Sioux City, Iowa.

Jan. 5, 1970: Aerospace Defense Command’s Backup Intercept Control III radar system became fully operational with the acceptance of the facility at the 80th Air Defense Group, Fortuna Air Force Station, N.D. Designed to provide immediate information on any airborne threat to North America, this system augmented the semiautomatic ground-environment system.

On Dec. 21, 1968, NASA launched Apollo 8 atop a Saturn V booster from Cape Kennedy, Fla., with astronauts Air Force Colonels Frank Borman and William A. Anders, Navy Capt. James A. Lovell, Jr. on board. (NASA photograph)


Oct. 16, 1963: At Cape Canaveral, Fla., the Air Force inaugurated a space-based nuclear-detection system by launching twin satellites to assume circular 7,000-mile-high orbits on opposite sides of Earth. The 475-pound, 20-sided satellites, known as Project Vela Hotel or Project 823, could detect nuclear explosions anyplace on Earth.

Dec. 10, 1963: Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara assigned development of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory to the Air Force.

July 8, 1965: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration transferred its Syncom II and Syncom III satellites to the Department of Defense. The Air Force Satellite Control Facility and its remote tracking stations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans became responsible for their orbital control.

March 16, 1966: Astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott blasted into space atop a Titan II missile on the Gemini 8 mission. The two astronauts later performed the first docking maneuver in space, linking their capsule with an Agena target vehicle that had been launched by an Atlas booster. At the conclusion of the mission, 20 minutes after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean 500 miles east of Okinawa, Air Force pararescuemen attached flotation gear to the Gemini 8 space capsule, marking the first time Air Force rescue forces had participated in the recovery of a Gemini capsule.

June 16, 1966: A Titan IIIC boosted seven experimental communications satellites and one gravity-gradient satellite into orbit 18,000 nautical miles above the equator. The satellites demonstrated the feasibility of a global military-communications satellite system.

Sept. 20, 1966: Lt. Col. Donald M. Sorlie became the first Air Force pilot to fly the National Aeronautics and Space Administration lifting body from the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Air-launched from a B-52 at an altitude of 45,000 feet, the craft reached a speed of nearly 400 miles per hour during the three-and-one-half-minute flight. It tested the concept that a space capsule could fly back from outer space rather than falling by parachute into the sea for ship recovery.

June 13, 1968: A Titan IIIC launch vehicle successfully placed in orbit eight communications satellites from Cape Kennedy, Fla., to augment the initial Defense Satellite Communications System.

Dec. 21, 1968: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched Apollo 8 atop a Saturn V booster from Cape Kennedy, Fla. The astronauts aboard included Col. Frank Borman and Col. William A. Anders, Air Force, and Capt. James A. Lovell, Jr., United States Navy. A few days later, the three men achieved the first lunar orbit.

Feb. 9, 1969: The free world’s first tactical communications satellite, the 1,600-pound TACSAT 1, blasted into geostationary orbit from the Air Force Eastern Test Range, Fla., atop a Titan IIIC launch vehicle. TACSAT was designed to relay communications among small land-mobile, airborne, or shipborne tactical stations.

Les trois astronautes américains avec, de gauche à droite, William Anders, James Lovell et Frank Borman allongés dans la capsule ‘Apollo 8’, aux Etats-Unis le 20 décembre 1968. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Nuclear developments

July 8, 1962: In Operation DOMINIC, a Thor rocket launched from Johnston Island carried a megaton-plus hydrogen device to an altitude above 200 miles—the highest altitude for a U.S. thermonuclear blast.

Precision guided munitions

In 1967, an Eglin AFB test unit was in Vietnam with laser-guided bombs, ready to use them in combat, and they were so tested. The reason that they did not get the publicity is that just about the time the Air Force started dropping them, President Johnson called a bombing halt. Bombing in the jungles of South Vietnam did not generate the kind of media attention that PGMs later got from Desert Storm. The Eglin unit employed the test items extensively in South Vietnam in 1968 while the bombing halt was operative up north, and the results were highly encouraging.

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