Technological Innovations in the Early Years of the United States Air Force: 1947-1960

70 Anniversary Technology Poster #1 47-60

The early years of the newly-established independent Air Force brought a variety of technological breakthroughs, resulting in new capabilities and even new missions. The young Air Force could have easily adapted a modified version of the Olympic motto, with a major focus on “higher, faster, and farther.” From the earliest days of flight, airmen strived to set or exceed new altitude, speed, and distance records. The early years of the independent Air Force brought new technologies resulting in sometimes exponential improvements in these and other areas.


One of the most famous “barriers” broken by the young Air Force was the sound barrier, and that breakthrough established the importance of significantly higher velocities than had been achieved previously and ensuring that airframes and humans could operate effectively at high speeds. On October 14, 1947, Capt. Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager made the first faster-than-sound flight at Muroc Air Base, California, in a rocket-powered USAF research plane—Bell XS–1—and won the Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year. On December 10, 1954, In a rocket-propelled sled run, Col. John P. Stapp, USAF, attained a speed of 632 miles per hour and sustained greater G forces than humans had ever endured in recorded deceleration tests—the equivalent of Mach 1.7 at 35,000 feet. The test determined that humans could survive ejection from aircraft at supersonic speeds. Then on February 26, 1955, George Smith, a North American Aviation test pilot, ejected from an F–100 Super Sabre traveling at Mach 1.05, becoming the first person to survive ejection from an aircraft flying at supersonic speed.

Advent of the Jet Age

Speed was one of the primary considerations as the Air Force transitioned to an increasing reliance on jet propulsion. The Korean War was a major milestone in this transition. The battle for air superiority was vital and also especially reflected the end of propeller-driven fighters and the supremacy of jet aircraft. As the war began, USAF Far East Air Forces had the F–51D Mustang, the all-weather F–82 Twin Mustang, and the straight-winged, jet-powered F–80 Shooting Star. At first, the inexperienced North Korean pilots with World War II-era piston-engine aircraft were no match for the U.S. American air supremacy, however, it was challenged beginning in November 1950 with the appearance of the MiG–15, flown by Soviet pilots. The swept-wing F–86 Sabre was the USAF answer, and U.S. pilots flying the Sabres ultimately prevailed. During development, the F–86 set a speed record of 670.981 mph at Muroc Air Base. The 4th Fighter Interceptor Group was the first F–86 unit in theater, and the aircraft entered combat on December 16, 1950, even though it was actually an F–80 that scored the first jet-to-jet aerial victory on November 8, 1950. Lt. Col. Bruce Hinton, commander of the 336th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, was the first F–86 pilot to down a MiG. The following May, Capt. James Jabara became the first jet-versus-jet ace, with his fifth and sixth aerial victories on May 20, later attaining a total of 15 kills. The leading jet ace was Capt. Joseph McConnell, Jr., who shot down a total of 16 MiG–15s between January and May 1953.

Within the next decade, other aircraft types began to transition to jet propulsion. One of the most well-known is the B–52 Stratofortress strategic bomber. Although the program had its origins from the late 1940s, the first B–52 flew in December 1954. Capable of reaching a speed of 628 mph (546 knots) and carrying 43,000 pounds, the aircraft was truly impressive, exceeding the original requirements significantly. On June 29, 1955, the Boeing Aircraft Company delivered the first B–52 Stratofortress to enter USAF operational service to the 93d Bombardment Wing at Castle Air Force Base, California. The B–52 became—and continues to be—an important part of the Air Force’s strategic bomber inventory. The Boeing B–52 eight-engine bomber, designed to drop nuclear weapons from high altitude, was used as a conventional bomber in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and in Southwest Asia in 1991 and recent years. On February 12, 1959, when SAC retired its last B–36 Peacemaker, the command officially became an all-jet bomber force.

The application of jet technology to the aerial refueling mission also occurred during this period. On June 28, 1957, the first KC–135 Stratotanker arrived at Castle Air Force Base, California, assigned to the 93d Air Refueling Squadron there. Able to take off at gross weights of up to 322,500 pounds, the jet tanker could cruise at the same speed as jet bombers while refueling, drastically reducing the time for in-flight refueling missions.

The transition to jet propulsion transformed the strategic reconnaissance mission during the Cold War even more dramatically. Working in the strictest secrecy in the early 1950s, the Lockheed Corporation began the design of what would become the U–2 high altitude, long-range reconnaissance aircraft. The first test flight was in July 1955, and on June 11, 1957, the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Laughlin AFB, Texas, accepted delivery of its first U–2. The aircraft could fly 10-hour missions, flying at top speeds of 600 mph to unprecedented high altitudes.

Dawn of the Missile Age: New Technology and a New U.S. Air Force Mission

The first atomic weapons were delivered by manned aircraft. Strategic bombing was a key mission for the Air Force even while it fell under the U.S. Army, and the use of manned bombers for delivering nuclear weapons was a logical consequence of this mission. In spite of the fact that this puts aircrews in danger, the manned bombers remain an essential element of the nuclear triad today. Nevertheless, another key element of U.S. nuclear capability began to evolve during the 1950s, with the application of rocket propulsion technology and the capability of delivering nuclear warheads using unmanned ballistic missiles.

With the Air Force responsible for developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), on July 1, 1957, the first intercontinental ballistic missile wing, the 704th Strategic Missile Wing, activated at Cooke (later, Vandenberg) AFB, California. Less than six months later, on December 17, the Air Force test-launched an Atlas ICBM. Its reentry vehicle landed in the target area after a flight of about 500 miles. A couple of months later, Francis E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, became SAC’s first intercontinental missile base. On September 9, 1959, SAC fired an Atlas ICBM from Vandenberg AFB, the first firing from the west coast. The missile travelled 4,300 miles with a speed of 16,000 miles per hour, and after the test, Gen. Thomas S. Power, commander of SAC, declared the Atlas operational. By the end of 1959, Atlas had become the first U.S. long-range ballistic missile equipped with a nuclear warhead to be placed on alert status. By the end of August, 1960, the 564th Strategic Missile Squadron at F.E. Warren had six Atlas missiles ready to launch, becoming the first operational ICBM squadron.

Even though the ICBM would be an integral part of the strategic nuclear triad, there was no doubt that intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) were an important capability. They clearly were vital to the Soviet arsenal, since a Soviet IRBM—with a potential range of up to 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles)—could possibly hit virtually any target in Europe or Asia. A team of scientists under the leadership of James R. Killian, Jr. recommended making the development of a U.S. IRBM a priority in order to counter a possible Soviet threat, noting that an IRBM capability could be achieved more quickly than an ICBM. Although Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson would ultimately give responsibility for ICBM development to the Air Force, he endorsed a decision to assign responsibility for the first IRBM (which became the Thor) to the Air Force and the second IRBM program (subsequently the Jupiter) to the Army and Navy. On January 1, 1958, the Air Force activated the 672d Strategic Missile Squadron, the first unit with Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles, at Cooke AFB.

This period also brought important developments in the area of air-launched missiles. On April 23, 1959, the GAM-77 (AGM-28) Hound Dog was test fired for the first time from a B–52 bomber at Eglin AFB, Florida. This was a supersonic air-to-ground missile designed to deliver a nuclear warhead over a distance of several hundred miles. Missile technology also revolutionized aerial combat. On September 11, 1953, the Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air missile made its first successful interception, sending an F–6F drone down in flames. This new technology offered pilots a method other than gunfire for shooting down enemy aircraft.Hound Dog Missle

Automating Air Defense: Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE)

A superb example of breaking the automation barrier, the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) was a complex air defense system of radars and other data sources, along with AN/FSQ-7 computers to receive the data to detect and track aircraft, processing the data to create a picture of the air situation and, if necessary, guide weapons to destroy enemy aircraft. The concept originated in 1951, and on January 17, 1956, the Department of Defense revealed the existence of SAGE. Construction began at McChord AFB in 1957. On September 24, 1958, a Bomarc missile pilotless interceptor, launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, by a SAGE unit in Kingston, New York, destroyed a 1,000-miles-per-hour target flying 48,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean and traveling about 75 miles.

The Air Force in Space: Satellite Communications

Atlas BoosterOn December 18, 1958, the Air Force placed the first artificial communications satellite, a Project SCORE (Signal Communication by Orbiting Relay) vehicle, into low-earth orbit with the four-ton Atlas B launcher. The launch demonstrated the peacetime application of missile technology. The following day, the satellite broadcast a taped recording of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Christmas message—the first time a human voice had been heard from space. The projected duration of the orbit was 20 days, and the orbit actually lasted for 35 days.