Technological Innovations in the Early Years of the United States Air Force: 1970-1980

70 Anniversary Technology Poster #1 70-80

Missiles, Missile Warning, Missile Defense, Tactical Missiles

July 23, 1971: Hughes Aircraft Company was awarded a $70 million contract to build 2,000 Maverick (AGM–65A) air-to-surface missiles for use on F–4E and A–7D aircraft. (Source: Haulman)

May 5, 1972: The Air Force’s sea-launched ballistic-missile detection and warning system— Pave Phased Array Warning System (PAWS)—achieved initial operational capability. (Source: Haulman)

September 3, 1974: Strategic Air Command removed from alert its last Minuteman I intercontinental ballistic missile at the 90th Strategic Missile Wing, F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, during conversion to Minuteman III missiles. (Source: Haulman)

New Aircraft Technology

October 29, 1975: The first F–5E Tiger II aircraft entered the Air Force’s inventory at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. (Source: Haulman)

January 13, 1974: Dr. John L. McLucas, secretary of the Air Force, authorized purchase of the General Dynamics F–16—a low-cost, lightweight, highly maneuverable aircraft. (Source: Haulman)

January 9, 1975: The first operational F–15 Eagle, a new air-superiority fighter aircraft, arrived at the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. The F–15 was the first fighter to have a thrust greater than its weight, allowing it to accelerate while going straight up. (Source: Haulman)

March 22, 1976: The first A–10 Thunderbolt was delivered to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, for test and evaluation. The heavily armored jet attack aircraft, armed with a heavy Gatling gun in the nose and equipped with straight wings able to carry a variety of air-to-ground munitions, was designed for close air support missions. (Source: Haulman)

September 6, 1976: A Soviet pilot landed his MiG–25 Foxbat jet fighter in Hokkaido, Japan, and asked for asylum in the United States. Japanese and U.S. officials closely examined the aircraft and on November 15, returned it, dismantled, to the Soviet Union.

January 8, 1977: The first YC–141B (stretched C–141 Starlifter) rolled out of the Lockheed- Georgia Marietta plant. Equipped with in-flight refueling capability, it was 23.3 feet longer than the original C–141A, enabling it to carry more troops and cargo. (Source: Haulman)

March 23, 1977: Tactical Air Command’s first E–3A Sentry aircraft arrived at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. The Sentry, the Air Force’s first airborne warning and control system aircraft, carried a large rotating radar disk above its fuselage. In October, 1980, Operation ELF began with the deployment of four USAF E–3A airborne warning and control system aircraft to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to protect Saudi airspace during the Iran-Iraq War. Three KC–135s also deployed during the operation. (Source: Haulman)

January 6, 1979: The 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, received the first General Dynamics F–16 delivered to the Air Force. The F–16, the newest multirole fighter, could perform strike as well as air-superiority missions. (Source: Haulman)

For 20 years, the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory conducted a step-by-step research program in concert with industrial partners to make fly-by-wire possible. Beginning in 1956, the engineers at the Laboratory sponsored and participated in a graduated series of basic and applied research projects that culminated in the adoption of active flight control on the F-16 in the mid-1970s. The F-16 was the first operational fly-by-wire aircraft designed as such. The total direct investment in Air Force fly-by-wire research prior to its design in then-year dollars is slightly under $20 million, inexpensive considering the pervasive results. The speed of this revolution in flight control is a direct function of the persistence of a team of U.S. Air Force scientists and engineers, and a loosely related group of NASA researchers, working closely with industrial contractors. Since fly-by-wire technology enables active control of aircraft, they can be unstable in one or more axes. There are resultant advantages in maneuverability and reduction of the weight of control surfaces - advantages for both military and civilian aircraft. There are additional advantages for military aircraft in terms of survivability and weapons delivery. At the simplest level, the mechanical cables leading from control devices such as stick and rudder pedals are eliminated and replaced with sensors at the base of a control column and other sensors to keep track of aircraft attitude and acceleration. Inputs from the sensors are sent to a computer which then calculates the appropriate commands to actuators that will accomplish the pilot’s desires. Since all control signals are carried by wires rather than steel cables, the technology came to be called fly-by-wire. (Source: Tomayko)

The F-16 emerged from the Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter (LWF) Program, an innovative experimental prototyping effort that took place between 1972 and 1975. The LWF program was noteworthy for its rapid execution, innovative management strategies, and successful approach to technology transition. (Source: Aronstein and Piccirillo)

The Lightweight Fighter Program

The purpose of the prototype program, as reported in a July 1972 Interavia article, was “to determine the feasibility of developing a small, light-weight, low-cost fighter; to establish what such an aircraft can do; and to evaluate its possible operational utility. The demonstration, if successful, would give the Air Force the option of complementing the F-15 with a light-weight, lower cost day fighter, The first YF-16 was rolled out on December 13, 1973, and shipped to Edwards in a C-5A on January 9, 1974. There was an unscheduled first flight during a high-speed taxi test on January 20, when roll oscillations caused the left wingtip missile and the right horizontal tail to contact the ground. General Dynamics test pilot Philip Oestricher elected to take off to avoid further damage to the aircraft. This flight lasted six minutes. The first scheduled flight was made on February 2, less than 2 years after General Dynamics had submitted the proposal for the YF-16, or 22 months after contract award. The first supersonic flight was 3 days later, and the top speed of Mach 2 was reached on the 20th flight, on March 11. The second YF-16 was shipped to Edwards on February 27, but with no available F100 engine, did not fly until May 9. The test program was completed on January 31, 1975, with a total of 439 flight hours in 347 sorties. (Source: Aronstein and Piccirillo)

The technology push side of the story also had its foundations in about 1974, when the then Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), along with the Air Force as a sponsoring element, released a request for proposal (RFP) for a stealth aircraft. The RFP was released at that time in the open, searching for new ideas to move ahead. There were five fighter aircraft manufacturers who were invited to participate in a design competition. The competition and what happened is a long story, but I will jump to the end. (Source: Kaminski)

Lockheed was not one of the original five participants, but they were allowed to come into the program and join the DARPA competition late. In April 1975, a breakthrough occurred at Lockheed that is interesting in a historical sense. A Lockheed radar specialist named Denys Overhalser, with whom I worked for many years, was reading some Soviet literature. He stumbled onto something that was very, very critically important at the time, given our limited ability to do electromagnetic computations. He found an algorithm for accurately calculating the radar cross-section of particular three-dimensional geometric shapes, allowing us to analyze and determine the contributions of those shapes to radar scatter. In fact, it was those fundamental shapes that Lockheed employed in their design. (Source: Kaminski)

By April 1976, Lockheed had won both phases of the DARPA design competition. At this point Lockheed was given the go-ahead to build two prototype aircraft (Have Blue) of roughly 10,000 to 12,000 pounds. The purpose of the Have Blue aircraft was to show that we could achieve in flight what we had predicted in our analysis and what we had achieved in scale-model tests on a radar cross-section measurement facility. In this technology push program, in a sense, we were building the very best antenna we could. Every now and then we checked to see if it could fly! That was the thrust that had to be taken at this point in the program. We were trying to push the low observable technologies to the maximum degree possible. (Source: Kaminski)

It was an aircraft with very unusual flying characteristics, but it was a key demonstrator, a key predecessor for what became the operational F-117 stealth fighter in 1983. The first Have Blue flight occurred on December 1, 1977, a little over nineteen months from go-ahead in the program. The flight test program ended on the next to the last mission. That is, we had one more mission to go before completing the program, when we lost the second of two aircraft. (Source: Kaminski)


July 29, 1971: The Air Force completed its flight tests of the experimental X–24A lifting body. Data from these tests contributed to the development of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration space shuttle. (Source: Haulman) February 22, 1978: An Atlas booster launched the first Global Positioning System satellite. A “constellation” of such satellites revolutionized navigation. (Source: Haulman)


This decade saw the most convincing demonstration of the benefit reaped from precision munitions. In any event, in the spring of 1972, for Linebacker I, the most famous PGM case was the dropping of the Thanh Hoa bridge. It had been a target for five or six years, and we had never been able to destroy it. On April 27, 1972, four USAF fighter crews, releasing Paveway I laser-guided “smart” bombs, knocked down the Thanh Hoa bridge in North Vietnam. Previously, 871 conventional sorties had resulted in only superficial damage to the bridge. (Source: Mets)

Laser-guided bombs provided further victories. On May10-11, F–4 Phantoms from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing dropped PGMs on the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi, North Vietnam, closing it to traffic. One month later, B–52s used laser-guided bombs to destroy a major hydroelectrical plant near Hanoi. Then in September, U.S. aircraft used PGMs to destroy the Long Bien bridge over the Red River in downtown Hanoi. (Sources: Mets and Haulman)

Breaking Training Barriers November 29, 1975: The first annual RED FLAG exercise began at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, ushering in a new era of highly realistic USAF air combat training for pilots and aircrews. (Source: Haulman)


David C. Aronstein and Albert C. Piccirillo, “The F–16 Lightweight Fighter: A Case Study in Technology Transition,” in Technology and the Air Force: A Retrospective Assessment, ed. By Jacob Neufeld, George M. Watson, Jr., and David Chenoweth. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997.

Daniel L. Haulman, One Hundred Years of Flight: USAF Chronology of Significant Air and Space Events, 1903–2002. Air Force History and Museums Program and Air University Press, 2003.

Paul G. Kaminski, “Low Observables: the Air Force and Stealth,” in Technology and the Air Force: A Retrospective Assessment, ed. By Jacob Neufeld, George M. Watson, Jr., and David Chenoweth. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997. David R. Mets, “Stretching the Rubber Band: Smart Weapons for Air-to-Ground Attack,” in Technology and the Air Force: A Retrospective Assessment, ed. By Jacob Neufeld, George M. Watson, Jr., and David Chenoweth. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997. James E. Tomayko, “Blind Faith: The United States Air Force and the Development of Fly-By-Wire Technology,” in Technology and the Air Force: A Retrospective Assessment, ed. By Jacob Neufeld, George M. Watson, Jr., and David Chenoweth. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997.