From Cold War to Space Race - Higher: 100 Years of Boeing (2015)

Higher: 100 Years of Boeing (2015)

5 From Cold War to Space Race


The B-52 Stratofortress has been in active service since 1955.


North American Aviation’s F-86 Sabre Jet was used extensively during the Korean War. More than 6,000 were ultimately produced.


The F-86D Sabre Jet was an all-weather interceptor variant of the F-86 with a distinctive nose radome.

In the postwar world, where atomic bombs were a reality, technological superiority equaled military superiority. Both world superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—competed for global influence, inflaming tensions and igniting regional wars. Each invested heavily in a massive array of weaponry that included increasingly advanced jet aircraft, rockets, and missiles.

Because World War II was won in the air, the U.S. military relied heavily on the aviation industry for its next-generation armaments. As Boeing and other manufacturers competed intensely for government contracts, their ingenuity, skill, and continuous improvements would lead to a breathtaking array of advanced aircraft, developed in an extraordinarily short period of time.

Three Cold War developments spurred much of this progress: the Korean War, the nuclear arms race, and the Soviet launch of the Sputnik artificial satellite. The latter contributed to a major expansion in the industry’s focus from aviation to aerospace—building aircraft and spacecraft that could travel through both Earth’s atmosphere and surrounding space.

The Korean War, which erupted in 1950, was the Cold War’s first actual battlefield. During the three-year war, the B-29 Superfortress was the only one of Boeing’s planes to see combat. The B-29s of the Far East Asia Forces Bomber Command flew more than 20,000 missions from bases in Japan and Okinawa, dropping 160,000 tons of bombs—more bombs by weight than the United States had dropped in the Pacific during World War II. Later in the war, the Soviet MiG-15 plane proved effective against formations of B-29s, and the plane was relegated to striking targets only in bad weather or at night, when the MiGs seldom flew.

Other U.S. aircraft manufacturers played a larger role in the war effort, with North American Aviation’s F-86 Sabre Jet distinguished as the most important jet fighter in Korea. The company’s F-82 Twin Mustang was used as a night fighter in the early part of the war, and its F-51D Mustang was flown by a number of United Nations member states to great success. The LT-6G Mosquito, a combat version of the T-6 Texan trainer, was relied on for light ground attacks, and the NAA RB-45C Tornado conducted reconnaissance missions during the Korean War.

Douglas Aircraft Company’s planes also were well represented. The A-26 Invader light bomber was used for strike missions, the A-1 Skyraider was the U.S. Navy’s primary ground attack airplane, and the F3D Skyknight was deployed by the U.S. Marine Corps as a nighttime fighter.

McDonnell Aircraft improved on its FH-1 Phantom with the larger and faster F2H Banshee single-seat jet fighter, which was assigned by both the Navy and the Marines to ground attack missions. Commemorated in James Michener’s novel The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the F2H Banshee was the primary U.S. Navy combat aircraft in the Korean War. It carried bombs, rockets, and cannons; a later version could accommodate nuclear bombs.

Another innovative fighter that helped make McDonnell the premier developer of such aircraft was the XF-85 Goblin. The tiny experimental jet was less than 15 feet long, yet its wingspan extended beyond 21 feet fully outstretched (the wings could be folded to five and a half feet in length). In its collapsed state, the Goblin could be tucked into a B-36 bomber and then lowered and released for protection. Two prototypes were constructed before the government terminated the program in 1949.

The industry also provided aircraft for other purposes such as search and rescue missions to locate and secure downed airmen, transportation of cargo and personnel, and reconnaissance missions. By and large, these planes were just slight improvements over the aircraft of the Second World War. This changed dramatically with the introduction of the B-47 Stratojet, the first swept-wing jet bomber.

The Stratojet series of jet bombers, beginning with the experimental XB-47, introduced a number of technological advancements and established many design parameters for large jet aircraft that exist to this day. Once in the skies, the sleek experimental jet broke speed and distance records, crossing the United States in less than four hours in 1949.

The B-47 quickly became the foundation of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, which acquired more than 2,000 of the graceful jets. Entering service during the last weeks of the Korean War in 1953, it did not engage in any combat missions during the conflict, which was winding down. Nevertheless, its very existence was enough to worry the Soviet Union about the nuclear bombing capabilities of the United States. Besides, another jet bomber already was in the drawing stages.

The Air Force had requested that Boeing design a heavy bomber as a successor to the B-47. But military officials were concerned that the sheer size and weight of the aircraft prohibited the use of jet engines. This thinking was understandable: the B-47 had 18 small rocket units in the fuselage for jet-assisted takeoff and a drag chute to reduce the landing speed. The Air Force’s request led Boeing designers to conclude that a heavy bomber with turboprop engines powering the plane was the best solution. Top company engineers including George Schairer and Ed Wells, who had already drawn up initial plans for a jet-powered heavy bomber, put these designs on the back burner and drummed up ideas better suiting the military’s requirements. The Boeing engineers met with representatives from the Air Force at Wright Field Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, to discuss the bomber’s design. The meeting did not go well. It was immediately apparent that despite the specifics of the bid request, the Air Force in fact did want a jet bomber. Colonel Henry “Pete” Warden, Air Force chief of bomber development, reportedly glanced at the drawings the engineers presented and brusquely explained that the Air Force was not in the market for a propeller-driven heavy bomber.

Realizing that the government would reject their design, the Boeing engineers acted quickly. They convened at the Van Cleve Hotel, where they were staying in Dayton, and expanded on Schairer’s and Wells’s initial drawings for a jet-powered heavy bomber. They reconfigured the aircraft with eight engines and wings swept at 35 degrees with a 185-foot wingspan. In what has become industry legend, Schairer then went to a local hobby shop and bought some balsa wood, glue, paint, and carving tools. Throughout the night in the hotel suite, they fashioned a model of what would become the famous B-52 bomber. “The Air Force bought the concept on the basis of the model that weekend,” said author Clive Irving.

From the handmade model to the actual plane, more than three million engineering hours were put into the B-52’s development. The two prototypes alone cost a reported $2 million each. The jet was the first swept-wing long-range heavy bomber in history. At 350,000 pounds, it also was the heaviest bomber ever made and was taller than a four-story office building. The time and expense were well worth it: following the B-52’s maiden flight in 1952, Ed Wells reported to the Boeing board of directors that it was “the most successful first flight of any airplane the company has ever built.”

The B-52 Stratofortress entered military service in July 1955. Two years later, three B-52Bs completed a 24,325-mile nonstop flight around the world in 45 hours, 19 minutes, at an average speed of 520 miles per hour. During the first decade of its service to the Air Force, the jet was part of the country’s strategic defense arsenal, but throughout the Vietnam War it saw extensive service as a conventional bomber. The B-52 also played an important role in the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

Sixty years after its introduction, this vital strategic heavy bomber—updated with new avionics, data-link communications, and other electronic systems—is still in operation. Although it originally was designed as an intercontinental high-altitude nuclear bomber, the jet’s operational capabilities were enhanced over the decades to address changing defense needs. The bomber has been reconfigured for low-level and extended-range flights and modified to launch long-range cruise missiles. The B-52 remains the longest-serving bomber in U.S. military history.

The U.S. aerospace industry’s long string of remarkable military aircraft continued after the war. In 1956, McDonnell Aircraft introduced the F3H Demon, a subsonic swept-wing U.S. Navy carrier-based jet armed with missiles rather than guns, a first. Another aircraft with a spectral name (James McDonnell had a keen interest in the spirit world) was the F-101 Voodoo tactical fighter, which broke the world speed record in December 1957, flying 1,207 miles per hour. The plane could be used in multiple missions as a long-range attack fighter, as an interceptor, or for photoreconnaissance, a capability that proved effective during the Cuban Missile Crisis.


The first Wichita- built B-52D bomber takes its inaugural flight. The plane was the first U.S. swept-wing long-range jet bomber.

McDonnell also used the Phantom name again with the F-4 Phantom II, an all-new two-seat twin-jet fighter. The plane traveled at more than twice the speed of sound and had a range of 1,750 miles, making it the U.S. Navy’s fastest, longest-range fighter. From the debut of the prototype in 1959, the Phantom II smashed previous records for speed, altitude, and time-to-climb rate (the time it takes aircraft to reach a certain altitude), and it continued to break its own records in succeeding years. These remarkable attributes were of vital military importance.

The F-4 Phantom II entered service with the Navy in 1960, although both the U.S. Air Force and Marines also would adopt the fighter for their own uses. Intended initially as an interceptor, the in-demand and versatile jet saw service from both aircraft carriers and land bases. “The Phantom II was the linchpin fighter aircraft of the Allies during the Vietnam conflict, highly revered because of its multi-role capability,” said former U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula. “It could do surface attack, close air support, interdiction, air-to-air combat [and] reconnaissance. It could carry a huge bomb load, greater than a B-17 during World War II, [and] eight air-to-air weapons. It was the right airplane for the right time.” McDonnell Aircraft would build more than 5,000 of the big fighters over the next 20 years.

In 1960, Boeing acquired Vertol Aircraft of Philadelphia, adding a new factory location and product line to its portfolio. Vertol had been founded 20 years earlier by engineer and helicopter pioneer Frank Piasecki as the P-V Engineering Forum. The company was well known for its groundbreaking tandem-rotor helicopters such as the HRP-1 Rescuer and H-21 Workhorse. With the acquisition, Boeing became responsible for building and upgrading the CH-47 Chinook and CH-46 Sea Knight tandem-rotor helicopters, which were of vital importance to American military efforts. Chinook heavy-lift transport helicopters logged thousands of hours of combat service during the Vietnam War. In the last days of the war, a lone Chinook reportedly transported 147 refugees to safety in a single trip. The Sea Knight medium assault transport helicopter could take off from water or land and was deployed by the U.S. Marine Corps primarily to carry troops and cargo. By 1968, the Sea Knight had carried half a million troops, hauled countless tons of supplies, and made 8,700 trips carrying the wounded, while Chinooks were responsible for rescuing hundreds of Vietnamese civilians caught in the war zones.

The Soviet Union also spent the postwar years developing highly advanced aerial weapons of war. A new round of Cold War maneuverings was ignited by the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite into orbit above the earth in 1957. Sputnik was a “major triumph of Soviet intelligence, with immense military significance,” the Seattle Times ominously stated. Fearing the United States was falling behind technologically, the U.S. government and the aerospace industry strengthened their development of increasingly sophisticated missiles, rockets, and, ultimately, manned spacecraft.

One week after the satellite’s launch, the U.S. Air Force announced a competition to design a reusable manned spacecraft capable of orbiting Earth, reentering the atmosphere, and landing safely. The following year, Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Space Race was on, sparking a dazzling rivalry for supremacy in the heavens. The urgency to win the contest catalyzed U.S. aircraft manufacturers to push the envelope of ingenuity as they competed for—and also collaborated on—a continuing stream of government contracts.

Among the first was a contract with Douglas Aircraft to manufacture a new multistage launch vehicle called Delta. The first stage used a modified Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile. Thor, named for the Norse god of thunder, was originally designed in the mid-1950s to carry thermonuclear missiles that could reach Moscow from bases in England and other allied nations. Although the first Delta launch was unsuccessful, the second, on August 12, 1960, operated smoothly. Delta became one of the world’s most active satellite launch vehicles.

McDonnell Aircraft also distinguished itself as a manufacturer of missiles and rockets. Under the direction of founder James McDonnell, known as “Mr. Mac” to his employees, the company built a series of decoy missiles called Quails that were carried and launched by B-52s to confuse enemy radar. Its experimental Alpha Draco missile built on the boost-glide principle of propulsion developed by Wernher von Braun with the V-2 missile during World War II.

As a result of the company’s advanced jet fighter, missile, and rocket designs, the U.S. government awarded a historic contract to McDonnell Aircraft: the manufacture of America’s first manned spacecraft for NASA’s Project Mercury. America’s goal was to put an astronaut into orbit around Earth and bring him back safely—before the Soviet Union could do it. The contract called for McDonnell to manufacture a dozen single- person space capsules. NASA initially had selected 110 military test pilots for the project, winnowing the number down, after a series of grueling physical and psychological tests, to seven astronauts, among them Alan Shepard. In January 1961, Shepard was chosen for the first American manned mission into space.

A series of delays postponed the anticipated launch, however. Much to NASA’s disappointment, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin not only became the first human in space but also the first to orbit Earth. The United States was only one month behind when Shepard became the first American to venture into space on a suborbital flight in May. On February 20, 1962, astronaut John Glenn, aboard the Mercury capsule Friendship 7, became the first American to orbit the planet. The capsule was so small that Glenn famously remarked, “You don’t get into it, you put it on.” Mercury’s success led to McDonnell Aircraft’s later development of the capsule for Project Gemini, NASA’s second human spaceflight program, preceding Project Apollo.

Although the United States came in second to the Soviet Union in putting both a satellite and a human being in space, President John F. Kennedy pledged in 1961 that the country would be the first to put a human being on the moon, and it would do it before the end of the decade. The goal was so preposterous that many people thought the youthful president was bluffing. The Soviets had put the first dog into space only four years earlier, and now the United States was planning to transport people to and from the moon, 240,000 miles away? “It was such a ludicrous proposal,” said Cold War historian Audra J. Wolfe. “But if you were the country that could pull it off, surely you could do anything.”

To achieve the goal, Kennedy vowed to out-spend the Soviets and build a giant rocket so complex and powerful that it could speed through space at more than 25,000 miles per hour. “To do it first before this decade is out, we must be bold,” Kennedy said in a 1962 speech at Rice University.

The president was convinced that NASA, sustained by the American aerospace industry’s inventiveness and manufacturing expertise, would make good on his pledge. The industry had performed beyond expectations during World War II, and aircraft manufacturers had proven their willingness to collaborate effectively on seemingly unachievable efforts of vital import to the country. They also had continually adapted their aircraft to incorporate each other’s technological breakthroughs, culminating in progressive advancements at breakneck speed. Certainly the industry could do the same for the space program.


NASA chose McDonnell to build the Project Mercury spacecraft (above and next). Riding inside the Mercury capsule, Alan Shepard would be the first American in space.


“NASA [realized] we’d never get to the moon if we did it in-house,” said aviation expert Howard McCurdy. “Industry would have to do close to 90 percent of the work.”

In the industry’s corner were von Braun and his fellow German aerospace experts. Sending humans to the moon was something that von Braun had thought about for years and believed entirely possible. A few years later, these unlikely collaborators—top former German scientists, NASA, and the U.S. aerospace industry—would contribute to the most extraordinary feat ever accomplished by human beings.

In the meantime, the nuclear arms race heated up. The pressure intensified to develop missiles and rockets that would serve as effective nuclear deterrents in the defense of North America and its allies. Dutch Kindelberger at North American Aviation had experimented with rockets and missiles since the end of the Second World War. In 1955, he established a separate division in Los Angeles called Rocketdyne to design, develop, and manufacture large, liquid-propellant rocket engines. Over the following years, North American would continue to develop innovative electronic technologies to guide, manage, and build remarkable rocket propulsion systems.

One North American Aviation program, the X-15 manned rocket-powered aircraft, was designed to study flight conditions beyond Earth’s atmosphere and their effects on the craft and the pilot. Built for the Air Force, the Navy, and NASA, the X-15 was launched from a modified B-52 bomber. The X-15 set an altitude record of 354,200 feet (67 miles) in August 1963 and a speed record of Mach 6.7 in October 1967. Because jets traveling at hypersonic speed—five times the speed of sound or faster—fly into the thermodynamic barrier, the frictional heat on their surfaces is too intense for traditional aircraft metals. Solving this problem by using a special heat-resistant nickel alloy elevated North American as a leader in rocket science. The data provided by the program helped inform the development of subsequent manned space missions.

North American also worked on the government’s Navaho project to develop a ground-to-ground supersonic intercontinental cruise missile. The company’s experiments bred breakthroughs in computerized guidance systems and other spacecraft features and functions. “The program was just full of new technology in cooling systems, engine systems, propulsion, rockets, and separation of the booster from the vehicle, which [would] become important to the Apollo program in the 1960s,” said former NASA program manager Dale Myers.

During this same time, Hughes Aircraft was focusing on making light military helicopters such as the OH-6 Cayuse. Douglas Aircraft pushed boundaries with the Nike Ajax, a long-range antiaircraft weapon and the world’s first operational surface-to-air guided missile. A later version was the Nike Zeus, a three-stage solid-fuel rocket guided by a computerized control system.


The Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile project used the full range of Boeing’s capabilities. The company was in charge of building both the missiles and the silos. At one point almost 40,000 Boeing workers were on the project.


A McDonnell FH-1 Phantom lifts off in the first jet-propelled carrier takeoff.

At Boeing, although the United States had canceled the GAPA rocket program at the end of the Korean War, remnants of the project spurred other notable developments. GAPA’s computer system BEMAC (Boeing Electro-Mechanical Computer) was integral in the development of the Bomarc missile, the world’s first long-range anti-aircraft missile and the first missile that Boeing mass-produced. Engineers from Boeing (“Bo”) and the University of Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (“marc”) initially had designed the pilotless supersonic missile in 1949.

A Bomarc with a range of more than 400 miles launched into the skies for the first time on September 10, 1952. The test flight was a success: the missile shot straight up off the launch pad and through the clouds, leaving a sunlit vapor trail in its wake. Boeing ultimately would build 700 Bomarc missiles between 1957 and 1964. Armed with either a conventional or a nuclear warhead, the missiles were placed in remote areas in 420 individual launch shelters that Boeing also manufactured. They were kept combat ready.

Among Boeing’s military projects, none was more important than the long-range, three-stage Minuteman LGM-30 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In 1958, Boeing was chosen to design and develop the Minuteman, which was capable of carrying multiple warheads. As with the Bomarc contract, the company was also contracted to build hidden underground launch facilities around the country. The deal was a major one. “Virtually all the nation’s aircraft and missile firms bid for the coveted assignment,” the Seattle Times reported the day news of the contract broke. Boeing president Bill Allen told the paper that while the award was “exceptionally good news” for the company, the Minuteman was “one of the greatest challenges … we ever have faced.”

He added, “We intend to measure up to it.”

Boeing did. Powered by a rubbery mass of solid fuel, the Minuteman LGM-30 entered the Strategic Air Command’s arsenal in 1962. Four years later, more than 1,000 Minuteman missiles were operational, buried in underground silos at six sites. As Allen acknowledged, the project was one of Boeing’s largest, longest running, and most complex military contracts. The company relied on 35,000 suppliers and more than 18,000 subcontractors for equipment, parts, and services. North American Aviation, for instance, supplied the guidance and control systems. As it had demonstrated during World War II, Boeing could be relied upon to effectively manage its industry peers.

When the Minuteman was delivered to the government on time and under budget, Boeing was extolled as the aircraft industry’s most adroit manager of contractors, suppliers, and complex systems.

These many technological fulfillments, while deemed necessary to the country’s defense, nonetheless created fears that the United States and the Soviet Union were inexorably marching toward apocalypse. The silver lining was that this research and development would be vital to non-military aerospace projects in the years ahead—applying the industry’s success with adaptive architecture to peaceful objectives.


The F2H-2 Banshee was used for ground attacks by both the U.S. Navy and Marines.


The F-101 Voodoo could serve as a fighter or interceptor; later it was used for photo reconnaissance.