The 1950’s—A Golden Age for Military Aviation

B-58 Hustler Super Sonic Bomber – First flight 1956
Sections: Introduction, The Classic Match-up, The Century Series (USA), The Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau (Soviet Union), Helicopters, A Would-be Heyday for Bombers, Advances in Missilery, In-Flight Refueling, Lovable Losers, Conclusion


Recently I read an article where they analyzed the design of the SR-71 Blackbird with a computer based design program in which would not make any changes- the design was that good. The SR-71 program was the result of many interesting developments in aviation during the 1950’s. The SR-71 was designed without the aid of computers at that time.

Below are some of the highlights of that era that would eventually lead to that development to replace the famous U-2 Spy plane in 1966 with the SR-71. Gary Power’s U-2 being shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 required a more capable aircraft.

U2 Spy plane in service since 1955

With a world exhausted from WWII, the powers that came out on top sought to create the next advance in aviation technology. While there were no computers at the time, there were piles of data from flight tests leading up to, and during WWII, plus the ever-present slide rule that could give a savvy user the solution he was looking for in short order.

While most is credited to German technology, other nations contributed innovations as well. By the 1950’s, a watershed of wartime discoveries in aviation were slowly working their way into current defense efforts.

Swept wing design was famously adapted by Willy Messerschmidt in WWII with his innovative ME-262, (first operational jet fighter to see combat). As with most inventions though, necessity was truly the mother of invention.  Early versions of the ‘262’ were straight winged taildraggers— instead of having the familiar nosewheel, the plane had a tailwheel, much like most of the aircraft up to that time. The problem with the earlier versions of the 262 is that the jet blast from the engines burned and dug pits in the tarmac. This created issues for ground handling of aircraft. With the addition of the nosewheel to the 262, the centre of gravity was changed, throwing off the handling characteristics. By moving the wing root (point at which the wing joins the fuselage) forward, and sweeping the end of the wings back, the centre of gravity issue was remedied and handling restored. Also the tarmac was left in better shape as a result.

The F-9 series US Navy Jet Fighter. The straight wing version (above left) first flew in 1947. The swept wing version (above right) first flew in 1951. This design existed at such a time of the transition from straight wing to swept wing within one airframe, and were both in the Korean Conflict. 

Fast forward to a few years later, and you have the victors of WWII hungrily mining what data they could from the Nazi and Japanese aviation industries. Straight wing fighters of the UK, US and France gave way to swept wing designs. Eventually so did bombers. Piston engines gave way to jets although the reliability of the newer engines was in question for some time. Flying an early jet one could more easily experience something called a ‘flame out’ if the pilot was too abrupt with his throttle settings. The engine would simply cut out if the ambient pressures were too different to sustain its function. Later improved jet engine designs were more forgiving.

The Classic Match-up: MiG 15 vs. F-86 Sabre

Nothing could be more emblematic of the air war in the Korean Conflict than the two great super powers squaring off with these flying machines that achieved some degree of parity. While both aircraft had their strengths, in the hands of a competent pilot, either could be very lethal. While the F-86 could dive a little faster than the MiG-15 due to the MiG’s having auto air breaks that would deploy once a certain speed was surpassed, the MiG could climb faster, and had higher altitude capability. This I discovered from flying each in the computer flight simulator IL-2 1946 modified, and also supports what I have read elsewhere.

There were countless other aircraft of various types also involved in Korea then, but they weren’t as glamorous as flying into MiG Alley near the Chinese boarder to hunt or be hunted. The North Korean and Chinese pilots were not nearly as well trained as the US pilots, many of whom were veterans of WWII. To help even the odds, the Soviets loaned the North Koreans some WWII veterans of their own. The story goes that the Soviet pilots were prohibited from speaking Russian on the radio. Only Chinese or Korean, which I can’t imagine would have been easy to communicate in the heat of an air battle. Soviet pilots were never allowed to fly over Allied territory, lest they get shot down and exposed for helping the North Koreans.

The Century Series (USA)

Beginning with the F-100 (thus, the Century Series), these planes began a legacy of aircraft that served in active duty through the 1970’s, and in some cases, beyond. All post-Korean Conflict designs, they helped raise the bar of technology in the 1950’s.

  • F-100 Super Saber (First flight in 1953)
    A step forward from the successful F-86 Saber project, this was designed to incorporate lessons learned from the Korean Conflict. It was the first US fighter capable of supersonic speed in level flight. During the Vietnam War, it served tactical strike duties until later specialized attack aircraft like the capable A-7s of the US Navy superseded it.
  • F-101 VooDoo (First flight in 1954)
    First designed as a long-range bomber escort, it was then developed as a nuclear-armed fighter-bomber, then later a tactical conventional bomber or as photo reconnaissance (recon). It set a number of world speed records for jet powered aircraft, including fastest airspeed, attaining 1,207.6 miles (1,943.4 km) per hour in 1957. They operated in the recon role until 1979. (Citation: Wikipedia)
  • F-102 Delta Dagger (First flight in 1953) 
    Also known as The Deuce (for ‘102’), this was first designed as a pure strategic interceptor of incoming enemy bombers, but later found life as a straight tactical interceptor with the Air National Guard until the 1970’s.
  • F-103 (never flew)
    From the Wikipedia website: The Republic XF-103 was an American project created to develop a powerful missile-armed interceptor aircraft capable of destroying Soviet bombers while flying at speeds as high as Mach 3 (2,300 mph; 3,700 km/h). Despite a prolonged development, it never progressed past the mockup stage. In short, it never quite measured up to expectations, but was turned into a testbed project aiding other aircraft, like the B-58 Hustler Super Sonic Bomber.
  • F-104 Star Fighter (First flight in 1956)
    This was designed first and foremost for the interception of high altitude enemy bombers of the 1950’s.  When first deployed, it won the 1958 Collier Trophy. The F-104 was designed by Kelly Johnson who was already famous for his work with the legendary P-38, F-80 Shooting Star, and other projects. With the advent of ballistic missiles and ICBMs, the original role was superseded by events. Later versions of the Star Fighter would carry more fuel and avionics and provide fighter cover in the Vietnam War.
  • F-105 Thunderchief (First flight in 1955)
    The F-105 was originally designed to be a nuclear-capable Mach 2 strike aircraft. Its most likely opponent at the time was the Soviet Union. When the possibility of the F-105 carrying nukes into combat was diminished due to ICBM development, it was to be later re-purposed in the Vietnam War as a conventional strike fighter- obviously to not-so-good effect. A quote from Wikipedia:  “The Mach 2 capable F-105 conducted the majority of strike bombing missions during the early years of the Vietnam War; it was the only U.S. aircraft to have been removed from combat due to high loss rates.” Perhaps that’s why it was given the nickname ‘The Thud’
  • F-106 Delta Dart (First flight in 1956) 
    Designed as an all weather interceptor, it saw service until the 1980’s when the remaining examples ended their careers ingloriously as target drones for practice. Most of its duty was spent on the front lines of the cold war in Alaska, West Germany, and South Korea awaiting the bombers that never came.

The Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau (Soviet Union)

Founded by Russians Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich in 1939, the bureau assigned the prefix “MiG” to all aircraft that they produced. This began with the MiG-1 in 1940. The MiG-15 (first flight 1947) is the first prominent jet of the family, with successive designs such as the MiG-17 (first flight 1950), MiG-19 (first flight 1952), and later MiG-21 (first flight 1956).

The MiG-21 (NATO name: ‘Fishbed,’) still actively serves in a number of airforces around the world today.


Although helicopters had been produced since WWII, the implementation of them in any numbers to be effective in the field did not come until the 1950’s. The US certainly used them to great effect in the Korean Conflict for evacuating wounded, search and rescue missions, and inserting small forces in difficult terrain. Lessons learned in Korea would help to shape US strategic thinking in the Vietnam War, and beyond.

A Would-be Heyday for Bombers

From the B-29 late in WWII, the scale and power of aircraft expanded in both size and capability, like with the B-36 Peacemaker  (first flight 1946).

B-29 Stratofortress (left,) compared to the B-36 peacemaker (right)

Of those designs still around to this day, the Soviet’s TU-95 Bear bomber (first flight 1952) and the US B-52 Stratofortress (first flight also in 1952) continue to log flight hours with updated avionics and weapons.

The days of massed bombers carrying nuclear warheads were eclipsed with the advent of Ballistic Missiles. It is a lot harder to knock a missile out of the air than a big bomber, and actually more probable with surface to air missile technology advancing by leaps and bounds in the 1950’s.

Typically if aircraft could not be repurposed (like the TU-95 or the B-52) for conventional bombing, their days were numbered.

Advances in Missilery

All manner of missiles saw breathtaking advances in the 1950’s. Missiles we have today can trace their technological legacy back to these heady days.

  • Air to Air
    The US started deploying their AIM-9 Sidewinder Heat Seeking Missile in 1956. The Sidewinder was engineered so as to be easily modified for upgrades. Later versions would introduce radar-seeking warheads. The Soviets happened to get a hold of one during an unsuccessful air to air conflict, and produced their own version named the ‘K-13.’ Later versions of both missiles are still in service today.
  • Ground to Air
    The US’s NIKE AJAX SAM (surface to air missile) was the most effective use of radar technology to date for that type of weapon. Originally introduced in 1954, the AJAX remained in service until 1970. How many native Chicagoans remember Montrose Point and other locations on Lake Michigan in the 1960’s with these all set, and ready to fire into the sky? The Russians, never to be outdone, came up with their own system SA-2 Guideline introduced in 1957 to counteract the US advantage. Reports from pilots trying to evade these missiles  describe them as like “seeing telephone poles take off from the ground to come up and try and knock you out of the sky”. Some variant of these radar guided missiles serve in both inventories to this day.
  • Air to Surface
    The AGM-Bullpup introduced by the United States in 1959 was among the most effective guided air to surface missiles up to that time. It was used in the Vietnam War and up to the 1970’s. Subsequent development of that technology lead to the later more advanced Maverick air to surface missile. The Soviets followed on nearly ten years later (1968) with their version, the KH-23 Grom.  Up until that time the only alternative was exotic TV guided bombs from WWII which were rare.
  • Ground to Ground, and ICBMs
    Thanks in large part to the defection of many German scientists at the end of the war who clearly had a good start on rocket technology, the global talent pool was dispersed among the victors of WWII. Here I will not go into detail beyond reiterating that the advent of the ICBM negated any advantage that a strategic bomber force would have, conventional or otherwise.

In-Flight Refueling

While this seemingly improbable technology had been around since the 1930’s, its most practical application to date was with the KC-97 Stratofreighter in 1951. Incorporation of a solid mast-like boom hanging off the back of the plane made in flight refueling more practical, as opposed to the drogue hoses used before which were not very efficient. This ‘boom concept’ (as it was called) was adopted at the encouragement of US General Curtis LeMay who saw this as a way to keep aircraft aloft for extended periods of time otherwise not possible. Smaller aircraft for in-flight refueling were also used with drogue hoses like the A-1 Skyraider, but this larger plane really paved the way for the in flight tankers we know today.

Reworking of many existing aircraft to make them capable of in flight refueling became a priority at the time.

Boeing KC-97L
KC-97 Stratofreighter with boom refueling probe

I was once acquainted with a guy who was a boom operator on a later KC-135 tanker. He relayed that it could be a nerve racking experience, as one wrong move and you could “end up in the next zip code.”

Lovable Losers

With so many ideas being tried out, quite a few concepts were produced only to have been found wanting in some aspects, and retired after relatively short service. Among my favorite failures are these two. While not very successful, they were interesting designs for their time.

The Vought F7U Cutlass (left above from 1948,) was designed as a ship born carrier aircraft with capabilities for fighter or attack duties. Reported to be taken from a famous German aircraft manufacturer’s notes, the theories did not translate well into practice. While the airframe was certainly innovative, the engines were reported to be underpowered. It earned such nicknames from its pilots as The Ensign Killer, and The Gutless Cutlass.

The Douglas F4D (right above from 1951,) had a more success, but didn’t serve very long. It stayed in service with the US Navy until 1964 after an 8 year career that started with its designer, Ed Heinemann, winning the prestigious Collier Trophy for his work.

To see a short video (9 and a half minutes) including the above 2 aircraft as well as some other aviation legends from the 1950’s, watch below


Naval aviation also saw many advances during this time as well. The F-4 Phantom II first flew in 1958, and went on to become a legend in its own right, but was not introduced to service until 1960- certainly worth reading more about.

There were some beautiful aircraft produced during the 1950’s, as well as some ugly ones too. Most have been forgotten, but all can be traced in some lineage to current designs.

The iconic SR-71 Blackbird (first flight 1964,) was also designed by Kelly Johnson, the same who designed the F-104 Star Fighter mentioned above in The Century Series.

While there were many other interesting aircraft designed during this time period, this article serves to wet one’s appetite by connecting some dots for you, in hopes that it may inspire further reading on such a rich subject.


SR-71 Blackbird was very much a product of the 1950’s
Golden Age of Military Aviation development

Written by Thomas Gorman, Edited by Lisa Markwart.

All photos credit Wikipedia and Wikicommons, unless otherwise specified.

All IL-2 1946 flight simulator screen captures courtesy Ubisoft, Oleg Maddox and countless community members who have enriched the experience

Final version: published July 26, 2017


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