In the early 1950s, the USAF had a problem: The F-101 Voodoo was obsolete. The fighter was twice as expensive as the F-104 Starfighter it was supposed to replace, it had a slower climb rate, and it was so hard to land that pilots were wary of even trying to land it. But the Voodoo was the only fighter in the Air Force that could carry nuclear bombs without the risk of a nuclear explosion, so it was too valuable for the USAF to scrap.
In the 1950s, the United States military was looking for a new supersonic jet fighter to replace the aging F-100 Super Sabre and F-104 Starfighter. In response, the military put out requests for proposals for new aircraft. Boeing received the most proposals and, as a result, Boeing was awarded an order to build two prototypes of the F-101 Voodoo. This was a big deal for Boeing. It meant that Boeing was going to be a major player in the military jet market, and the firm had pinned its future on the success of the F-101.
The F-101 Voodoo is one of the most interesting aircraft ever to have served with the United States Air Force. It’s one of the few aircraft that, in a time when most aircraft were obsolete, was still in production. The Voodoo was designed to replace the aging F-100 Super Sabre that was used to counter the Soviet’s MiG-19, MiG-21, and MiG-23s. The F-100 had been in production for almost twenty years at the time of its replacement, and was beginning to show its age. The F-101 was a single-seat all-weather interceptor aircraft with a top speed of Mach 2.3 that was capable of supersonic flight.
McDonnell’s 1,000-mph F-101 Voodoo made its mark operationally as a photoreconnaissance platform and fighter-interceptor. It was designed as a fighter escort for SAC nuclear bombers, then converted to various duties.
Lieutenant Colonel James R. Brickel became the focus of what could probably have been the heaviest anti-aircraft fire ever directed at a single plane as he rolled his RF-101C Voodoo into a photo run. Brickel had volunteered for a mission to acquire post-strike images of the Thai Nguyen iron and steel mill, 30 miles north of Hanoi, as the operations officer of the 20th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) based in Udorn, Thailand. In early March 1967, as part of Operation Rolling Thunder, Washington policymakers finally approved an airstrike against Thai Nguyen, which had previously been regarded as one of the most significant strategic targets in North Vietnam, after nearly three years of official hesitancy. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, had saturated the position with 37mm, 57mm, and radar-controlled 85mm anti-aircraft weapons by this point. Several SA-2 surface-to-air missile positions and roughly 100 MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters were also within a 60-mile radius of the plant.
The 20th TRS’s old RF-101Cs, which were due to be replaced by McDonnell RF-4Cs, were extremely vulnerable to the defenses gathered around Thai Nguyen, and Brickel was well aware of this. On that particular day, March 10, 1967, however, the options were restricted; someone needed images for a bomb damage assessment.
Because of the prior hit, defenses near the plant were on high alert, and as Brickel’s plane neared, every enemy gun began fire. An 85mm flak shell exploded practically directly below the left side of his jet as he was one minute away from the objective. The instrument panel flashed warning lights, the left engine’s oil pressure dropped to zero, hydraulic pressure to the flight controls ran out, the left aileron was holed, and the cockpit began to fill with smoke. To make matters worse, the Voodoo’s airspeed had dropped by 50 knots, making it an easier target for North Vietnamese gunners. But Brickel realized he couldn’t afford to abandon the mission as long as his plane was in the air. He rolled the cameras and maintained his course over the plant while fighting the controls. He somehow survived the tracer firestorm and was able to coax his badly damaged RF-101 back to a safe landing at Udorn, where he delivered the exposed film. General William W. Momyer, commander of the Seventh Air Force, later described Brickel’s performance over Thai Nguyen as “a spectacular exhibition of courage” during a ceremony in which he was given the Air Force Cross.
The F-101’s origins have nothing to do with the duties it performed over its long tenure with the United States Air Force, the Air National Guard, and the Canadian Armed Forces. When the newly formed Strategic Air Command sought proposals for a jet-powered “strategic penetration fighter” in early 1946, neither tactical reconnaissance nor all-weather interception were factors. At the time, SAC’s main criteria were sufficient range to accompany its bombers (Boeing B-29s and the soon-to-fly Convair B-36s) all the way to their targets, as well as sufficient speed and firepower to cope with enemy interceptors. The McDonnell XF-88 Voodoo, Lockheed XF-90 (unnamed), Republic XF-91 Thunderceptor, and North American YF-93A (a derivative of the F-86) were the four sweptwing concepts that were eventually accepted for prototype development and flew between 1948 and 1950. When a fly-off was held in the summer of 1950, McDonnell’s XF-88A emerged as the winner of the penetration fighter competition, an upgrade above its 1948 prototype. McDonnell’s victory was fleeting, however, as the Air Force quickly halted the XF-88A program in response to unanticipated budget constraints, opting instead to employ Republic F-84E Thunderjets as interim bomber escorts.
During armament testing, McDonnell’s second XF-88 “strategic penetration fighter” prototype fires its underwing rockets. (Air Force of the United States of America)
The straight-wing F-84s were soon discovered to be unsuitable for air-to-air combat in Korea, while the North American F-86 Sabrejet lacked the range to escort bombers to long-range targets. In January 1951, SAC released new requirements for a long-range fighter, this time adding specifications for simultaneous construction of a photoreconnaissance variant of the new type, determined to safeguard its increasing fleet of B-36s. Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Republic Aeronautical Systems, and McDonnell Douglas all submitted new designs, as did Northrop for a long-range variant of its F-89 Scorpion.
In May 1951, the Air Force announced that McDonnell’s entry, basically a scaled-up XF-88A upgraded with more powerful Allison J35-A-23 (later J71) engines, was the winning bidder. But before construction was authorized, the Air Force specified major changes aimed at improving overall range and performance, the most significant being the substitution of Pratt & Whitney J57-P-13 power plants (15,000 pounds static thrust in afterburner), which required enlarging and lengthening the fuselage to carry more fuel and house bigger engines plus extensively revising the air intakes and related engine ducting. When the McDonnell team led by Edward M. Flesh completed the final design in late 1951, the Voodoo had grown 13 feet longer and weighed twice as much as its XF-88A predecessor. The airframe was sufficiently different that the Air Force assigned it a new designation of F-101A.
The F-101A was the largest single-seat fighter ever built at the time, measuring 67 feet 5 inches long and weighing over 48,000 pounds when fully loaded. Despite the fact that the chord of the inboard half of each panel had been increased, the overall area of the wing was still only 368 square feet, resulting in a massive loading of 135.9 pounds per square foot (the highest of the Century Series in original configuration). The F-101A had twice the vertical tail surface of the XF-88, and the all-moving horizontal stabilizer was placed near the top of the fin to increase yaw stability at projected higher speeds. Internal fuel capacity was increased from 734 to 2,341 gallons, with two 450-gallon exterior drop tanks added for good measure. To extend the plane’s fighting radius even further, provisions were built for in-flight refueling by either flying boom or probe-and-drogue systems. Four 20mm cannons, three Hughes GAR-1 Falcon radar-homing missiles, and up to 12 unguided rockets gave all-weather capability, as did an APS-54 search radar.
The Air Force enlarged the fighter’s potential mission uses before the final design was finalized by adding the ability to carry a nuclear warhead on an external rack. The Air Force issued a relatively small manufacturing contract for 39 F-101As after mock-up examination in July 1952. Applicable procurement policies almost guaranteed the type’s manufacture (i.e., the so-called Cook-Craigie Production Plan, which eliminated the experimental prototype stage in favor of proceeding directly to limited production status). Officials in the Air Force had begun to doubt the strategic bomber escort mission and had no concrete plans in place for alternative tasks for the new fighter. Unsurprisingly, it was decided to limit manufacturing to the initial procurement until military acceptance testing and evaluation were well established.
The first F-101A was finished in August 1954 and delivered to Edwards Air Force Base, where it flew for the first time on September 24 with McDonnell test pilot Robert C. Little at the controls. Early testing revealed a top speed of Mach 1.54 (1,009 mph), an initial ascent rate of 44,100 feet per minute, a service ceiling of 49,450 feet, and a range of 2,186 miles. It also showed major aerodynamic weaknesses, prompting the Air Force to halt production in May 1956 pending the resolution of its concerns.
The most serious issue was a perilous “pitch-up” propensity that occurred at particular G levels and angles of attack in both high and low airspeed ranges, frequently followed by engine compressor stalls that resulted in power loss or total flame-out. Voodoo pilots were ordered to eject if the pitch-up—an uncontrollable flat spin condition varying between 20 and 70 degrees nose up—occurred below 15,000 feet. The pitch-up problem was significantly alleviated (though not completely eliminated) by inserting a pitch inhibitor that prevented the stick from being pulled past particular points at specific speeds, and the intakes and engine ducting were rebuilt to reduce the risk of compressor stalling. The hold order on F-101A production was finally withdrawn in November 1956, and the type was accepted for operational service in early May 1957, after nearly 2,000 engineering revisions.
On August 10, 1956, the first production F-101A rests on a dry lakebed near Edwards Air Force Base. The Air Force had put a halt to manufacturing in May due to aerodynamic faults. (Air Force of the United States of America)
The photoreconnaissance version, the RF-101A, was developed and tested around 18 months after the fighter version, but due to difficulties in the fighter development, the photoreconnaissance version entered operational service at nearly the same time. The RF-101A first flew in June 1956, and it was distinguished from the fighter by the addition of 150 gallons of internal fuel and a longer nose that carried three vertical and two oblique Fairchild cameras in place of the search radar and 20mm cannons. The RFs could all carry a single nuclear weapon on a centerline rack and were slightly faster than the Fs due to their lighter weight.
The 27th Strategic Fighter Wing deployed F-101As in their original bomber escort role in May 1957. SAC, on the other hand, had opted to reject the long-range fighter concept by this point. Despite its superior range, the Voodoo was unable to accompany the bombers (B-36s, B-47s, and B-52s) all the way to their intended targets. The F-101A’s career may have ended there if it hadn’t been for Tactical Air Command’s intervention, which saw the huge fighter’s potential as a tactical nuclear weapons delivery vehicle. As a result, in mid-1957, the TAC renamed the 27th Strategic Fighter Wing the 27th Fighter-Bomber Wing, and all F-101As were equipped with the low-altitude bombing system and other equipment required for their new role as nuclear attack jets. The last of 77 F-101As was delivered to the Air Force in late November 1957, with 50 of them assigned to operational units and the remaining 27 kept for experimental and test purposes. F-101As were used on the front lines until 1966, when they were phased out and transferred to Air National Guard forces.
In May 1957, the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW) at Shaw Air Force Base, N.C., received the first of 35 production RF-101As. It was the Air Force’s first supersonic reconnaissance aircraft, and four RF-101As broke a new transcontinental speed record on November 27, 1957, as part of Operation Sun Run. They flew from New Jersey’s McGuire Air Force Base to California’s March Air Force Base in six hours, 46 minutes, and 36 seconds (average speed 721.85 mph).
On November 6, 1962, a 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing RF-101 casts its shadow alongside a missile-laden Soviet cargo ship in Port Casailda, Cuba. (Air Force of the United States of America)
RF-101As were utilized as reconnaissance trainers in the mid- to late 1960s, and they were phased out of the active Air Force inventory by 1971. Following conversion to RF-101G standards, a few serviceable examples were handed to Air National Guard forces.
Pilots who flew the Voodoo were blown away by its performance, christening it the “One-O-Wonder,” but they also thought it was harsh. “The F-101 was a lady—a beautiful airplane, but touchy, extremely delicate,” Colonel C. Robert “Oz” Osborne Jr. said. It needed to be flown correctly.” “It’s the biggest by-the-book fighter I’ve ever flown—the Voodoo would bite you!” said Air Force test pilot Richard Baird. You had to follow the rules to the letter.” Colonel Jonathan Gardner, a reconnaissance pilot, remarked, “The first trip, you didn’t fly it—you grabbed on to it!”
In March 1956, the modified F-101C and RF-101C were both ordered. Externally, the Cs were identical to the A models, but their airframes were strengthened to handle a greater load limit (6.33 G to 7.33 G), and in the case of the fighter version, they were outfitted as tactical fighter-bombers from the start. The Air Force received all 47 F-101Cs constructed in 1957-58, and they served as nuclear strike aircraft with the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing until 1965-66, when they were phased out. Until the Lockheed F-104, the F-101C was the fastest tactical fighter in operational service, and on December 12, 1957, a stripped-down example set a new world speed record of 1,204 mph (Mach 1.83).
The RF-101C, which was produced in higher quantities than its fighter cousin, entered service in September 1957 and was retired in March 1959. The 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in the United States, the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in Europe, and the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in the Far East all used RF-101Cs. RF-101As and Cs of the 363rd TRW flew low-level surveillance missions over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
The RF-101C was the only Voodoo type to see action in Vietnam; in fact, RF-101Cs of the 67th TRW began surveillance missions over Laos and South Vietnam as early as 1961, operating out of Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa. When RF-101Cs from the 20th TRS, 67th TRW came to Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base and began flying reconnaissance sorties over North Vietnam in 1965, true combat activities began. During this time, the 45th TRS Voodoos were stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base in South Vietnam to cover operations in the South, and on February 8, 1965, they served as pathfinders for the first bombing mission against the North. Between 1965 and 1970, 33 RF-101Cs were lost to enemy anti-aircraft and missiles, and one was shot down by a MiG-21 from North Vietnam.
Major Jerry D. Lents recalled a trip with Captain Jack W. Weatherby out of Tan Son Nhut in pursuit of surface-to-air missile positions that resulted in one such loss. “We let down to 200 feet and crossed into North Vietnam at our redline speed of 600 knots,” Lents recalled. Suddenly, Jack came on the radio…and said, ‘I’ve got a hit.’ I’m taking a detour to the north!’ I noticed the hole in his aft fuselage area, just forward of and slightly above the afterburners. During our turn, I stepped over him and said, “Yes, Jack, you have a hole through the fuselage.” Then I noticed a small amount of fuel begin to leak from the fuselage. ‘There’s a little petrol leaking out, but it’s not horrible,’ I said. ‘Jack!’ I cried as I watched a small flame begin to emerge from the hole. You’ve set yourself on fire! Get away of here! Get away of here! ‘Get out of here!’ It blew up, and the entire tail part disintegrated and tumbled back. The fuselage was a raging inferno. We were just at 200 feet when the explosion destroyed his entire airplane and 13-14,000 pounds of fuel in the air. Only a small portion of it fell to the ground. There is no black smoke. Nothing.” Captain Weatherby received the Air Force Cross posthumously.
Voodoos were restricted from operations over North Vietnam beginning in late 1967, when more RF-4Cs arrived to take up reconnaissance tasks. By late 1970, they had all been removed from the battle zone. RF-101Cs were decommissioned from active U.S. Air Force service upon their return to the United States, and many were assigned to Air National Guard units.
In 1965, 29 F-101As and 31 F-101Cs were converted to operate as unarmed reconnaissance aircraft with Air National Guard units under the new designations RF-101G and RF-101H, respectively. The radar and armament were removed, and a nose cone with cameras and modern electrical components was installed in their place. Three Air National Guard units flew RF-101Gs and Hs: the 154th TRS in Arkansas, the 165th TRS in Kentucky, and the 192nd TRS in Nevada. President Lyndon B. Johnson activated all three Air National Guard Voodoo squadrons after the North Koreans seized the US Navy spy vessel Pueblo in early 1968. Each flew 19,715 tactical hours in 11,561 sorties and exposed 841,601 feet of aerial film during their rotational deployment at Itazuke Air Force Base in Japan. In 1976, the remaining single-seat reconnaissance Voodoos were retired from the National Guard.
The two-seat, all-weather fighter-interceptor version, the F-101B, was the most numerically significant and longest-lived Voodoo. The Air Force’s ambitious two-step interceptor program with Convair—the Mach 1 F-102A to be followed by the Mach 2 F-102B (redesignated F-106A in 1956)—was well behind schedule by the end of 1953. A plane was needed to bridge the gap between this so-called Ultimate Interceptor and Air Defense Command’s subsonic Northrop F-89 Scorpions, Lockheed F-94 Starfires, and North American F-86D Sabres. The express objective of ADC was strategic defense—intercepting and destroying Soviet bombers en route to the United States before they arrived.
Late in 1953, the Air Force requested bids from aircraft manufacturers for a new missile-armed, all-weather interceptor, designated Weapons System (WS) 217A. Northrop reacted with a more advanced version of the F-89, while North American presented an F-100 all-weather variant. McDonnell proposed a single-seat or two-seat version of the F-101 with updated fire control and missile systems, as well as more powerful Wright J67 engines (license-built copies of the British Bristol Olympus that were supposed to produce 22,000 pounds static thrust each). In mid-1954, the Air Force chose McDonnell’s proposal, specifying the two-seat version, and in March 1955, it issued a letter of intent for an initial batch of 28 aircraft and prospective manufacture of 68 more. The first flight was expected to take place in mid-1956, with the type entering operational service in early 1958.
The 18th Fighter Interceptor Squadron’s F-101Bs are on patrol. The B variation became the most popular and long-lasting Voodoo variety. (Air Force of the United States of America)
McDonnell requested the designation F-109 for the airframe portion of the WS-217A project after the letter of intent was released, but the Air Force, perhaps aware of the financial challenges associated with “new” aircraft rather than “improvements” to an existing type, designated it the F-101B. Despite the fact that McDonnell had the F-101B mockup ready for inspection by September 1955, the entire Voodoo program was placed on hold indefinitely while the F-101A’s aerodynamic issues were resolved.
Further delays and uncertainties with the J67 engines led to a decision to use Pratt & Whitney J57-P- 55 power plants, which featured longer afterburners and a thrust rating of 16,900 pounds per engine. The F-101B shared the center and aft fuselage sections and tail group of the F-101A series, and, other than bulged wheel well doors to house larger tires, the same wing planform. But the F-101B introduced a completely new, 4-foot-longer forward fuselage section with a tandem cockpit layout for the pilot and radar operator. Also new was a Hughes MG-13 tracking and fire control system, essentially an upgrade of the E-6 system already utilized in the F-89D, and a rotary weapons bay that held four Hughes Falcon semi-active radar (GAR-1) and infrared (GAR-2) missiles.
The first F-101B took launched from Lambert Field in St. Louis on March 27, 1957, a year late, and the Air Force spent nearly two years testing and evaluating the Voodoo interceptors before sending them into regular service. The F-101B’s flight performance met expectations, with a top speed of Mach 1.66 (1,094 mph), a combat ceiling of 51,000 feet, and a standard range of 1,387 miles, but it had significant issues that limited its operational efficiency. The radar operator’s position was badly constructed, and modest tweaks were all that could be done to enhance it. Worse, the MG-13’s fire control system couldn’t keep up with the weapons on a rapid vehicle like the F-101. Because of the cost, a proposal to replace the system with the more modern MA-1 designed for the F-106 was rejected.
Despite these flaws, the 60th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (FIS) at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts began flying F-101Bs on January 5, 1959. On the plus side, by the time they arrived at ADC, the two-seat Voodoos had been thoroughly tested, and they finally provided the Air Force with an advanced-performance interceptor at a “reasonable” cost ($1.7 million per plane versus $4.7 million for an F-106A).
By the end of 1960, 17 ADC squadrons had been outfitted with F-101Bs. With 480 aircraft delivered, production terminated in March 1961. Beginning in 1959, McDonnell began a modification in which one out of every four F-101Bs would be modified with dual controls while still being able to perform full ADC missions. After 79 examples were upgraded, these aircraft were renamed F-101Fs in 1961. They were originally classified TF-101Bs for conversion and operational training.
In place of two Falcons, late-production F-101Bs had updated fire control systems and the capacity to carry two nuclear-tipped, unguided Genie MB-1 missiles. Most F-101Bs were fitted with infrared sensors to facilitate tracking of hostile aircraft despite radar jamming as part of a modernization program (Project Bold Journey) completed between 1963 and 1966. They also received a much-improved pitch control mechanism that worked through an automatic flight control system.
The final active-duty squadrons flying the F-101Bs/Fs, the 60th and 62nd FISs, withdrew their Voodoos in April 1971, without firing a single shot in anger. Simultaneously, F-101Bs and Fs were deployed to Air National Guard units, beginning with the 116th FIS, Washington ANG, in November 1969, and eventually equipping eight fighter-interceptor units in seven states.
The 111th FIS, Texas ANG (the unit in which President George W. Bush flew F-102s) was the final Guard unit to fly F-101Bs, and it retired them in 1981. After 1971, the Air Force kept a small number of F-101Bs for fighter-interceptor training, with the last one retiring in September 1982.
From the Ozark region of Arkansas, E.R. Johnson, a frequent contributor to Aviation History, writes. He is a mission pilot and aerospace education officer in the Arkansas Wing of the Civil Air Patrol. He is a U.S. Navy veteran and previous president of the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society. McDonnell F-101 (further reading) Robert F. Dorr’s Voodoo; Lou Drendel and Paul Stevens’ Voodoo; and the Office of Air Force History’s Encyclopedia of US Air Force Aircraft and Missile Systems, Vol. 1: Post–World War II Fighters.
This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, go to this link.
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We can’t really tell you how this F-101 shot down a Japanese Zero along the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater in the Pacific during World War II… but we’d like to believe that it did. See, we’re getting a little carried away, so let’s just focus on the aircraft: it’s a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, its nickname is the “Voodoo”, and it received this nickname because of the aircraft’s ability to out-maneuver and shoot down Japanese aircraft. The F-101 Voodoo was the first US fighter to fly faster than the speed of sound, and it achieved 725 mph. And it. Read more about f-101 voodoo model kit and let us know what you think.
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