Jets and Rocket Flight

The Boeing 707 is a passenger jet first developed in the 1950s. It was one of the first commercially successful airliners. See more pictures of flight.

The end of the Korean War found the world locked in an uneasy peace. The Cold War continually threatened to get hot, particularly when minor or major rebellions against the oppressive Soviet Union took place in East Germany, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia.

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One benefactor of the tension was the arms industry, which, among other products, fielded a seemingly endless series of ever more capable warplanes. These included the Century Series fighters, such as Lockheed's F-104 Starfighter, known as the "Missile with a Man in It"; the Republic F-105 Thunderchief; and the McDonnell F-4, which was briefly known as the F-110 in the USAF. Larger aircraft were not neglected; the Boeing B-52 entered service to replace its formidable older brother, the B-47, and the KC-135 filled the indispensable air refueling role. Air refueling began as an essential tool for bombers but soon adapted to fighters and eventually to cargo planes and helicopters. All found it equally indispensable.

­­The B-52 and the KC-135 would become the backbone of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the most powerful armed force in history. General Curtis E. LeMay commanded the SAC, and it was his goal to make the United States so unquestionably powerful that no nation would dare attack it with nuclear weapons. He succeeded remarkably.

The Soviet Union experienced a similar explosion of new military types. MiG fighters and Tupolev bombers were produced in great numbers and exported to all the Soviet satellite countries. The Soviet Union also demonstrated its military prowess in a continuing series of tests of both atomic and thermonuclear bombs.

The jet age came to passengers as well. There was an initial dark cloud when an unforeseen metal-fatigue problem led to the crash of three de Havilland Comet transports, prompting their subsequent removal from service. But Boeing, which had significant experience with pressurized aircraft such as the B-29 and B-50, had no problems with the introduction of its revolutionary 707. The Soviet Union used technology derived from captured B-29s to design their first passenger liner, the Tupolev Tu-104. The airline world was bowled over by the comfort, performance, and economy of the new jets. A revolution in travel was set in motion as both railroads and ocean liners were eclipsed by jet airliners.


Early Jet Engines

The Soviet Union used technology derived from captured B-29s to design their first passenger liner, the Tupolev Tu-104.
Warren M. Bodie Collection

The jet engine would affect every area of aviation, with the exception of the light aircraft, and was particularly important in spurring both the capability and the sale of helicopters. Rotary-wing aircraft could now fly at higher altitudes and speeds and embodied far greater lift capability. The same measure of performance would be true of executive aircraft as jet engine designs were introduced. Jet engines were also the harbinger of vertical flight for fixed-wing aircraft, a difficult task that is still not routine.



On October 4, 1957, the entire world, but most especially the United States, was rocked with both admiration and fear of a new Soviet achievement called Sputnik. This tiny satellite, beeping its simple beep as it orbited the earth, demonstrated how far Soviet scientists had come in the advanced rockets necessary to orbit a satellite. It was the first Soviet space triumph, but it was far from the last, as one new achievement followed another. The implications of the satellite were abundantly clear, but Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev emphasized that a rocket that could put a satellite into orbit could also place a nuclear warhead on targets anywhere on Earth.

There had already been a great race for aerial supremacy, one in which the United States had a clear lead. There were now two additional races: to achieve supremacy in the field of intercontinental ballistic missiles and to achieve supremacy in space. The best minds in both the Soviet Union and the United States would be marshaled to achieve supremacy in all three areas. The race for space was decided in the following decade, and the United States was able to maintain its lead in aviation.

But the race for supremacy in intercontinental ballistic missiles went on for the rest of the century and, indeed, continues at a lower level today. The Soviet Union succeeded in building larger, more accurate missiles with bigger warheads. The United States was able to build an almost equivalent missile force while maintaining a growing and prosperous economy. The misdirected management methods of the Soviet Union could not, and while it became a military giant, the Soviet Union's economy self-destructed from within on December 25, 1991.


Flight Reconaissance

The Lockheed U-2 was one of the first and most important reconaissance aircraft.
Warren M. Bodie Collection

Reconnaissance became extremely important during this period, beginning with the celebrated overflights of the Lockheed U-2, one of which resulted in a major national crisis when Captain Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960. The anticipation of this incident also laid the groundwork for the greatest reconnaissance aircraft of all time, the Lockheed SR-71. And, before long, satellites would be conducting reconnaissance from space.

In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States came closer to war than ever before or since with the Cuban missile crisis. A USAF U-2 reconnaissance plane discovered Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles being emplaced in Cuba. The United States, under President John F. Kennedy, reacted with a vigor that caused Khrushchev to back down, stating that any attack from Cuba would be regarded as a direct attack on the United States by the Soviet Union and would be met with overwhelming retaliatory force. Later, in his memoirs, Khrushchev would confess that the thought of nuclear armed B-52s orbiting his borders caused him to call off the crisis.


As the decade wound down, yet another confrontation was facing the two superpowers, this time in Vietnam. Here, as in Korea, the Soviet Union and its sometime ally, sometime enemy China preferred to have a client state engage in warfare with the United States. Although actual warfare would not come until 1965, the United States became involved in the early 1960s and found itself on a slippery downward slope that would not reach its bottom until January 1973.

Despite the terrible external pressures of war, the world still needed heroes. Aviation was still the home of heroes, and the beginning siren call of space elicited a new breed, from Scott Crossfield and the North American X-15 to Joe Kittinger and his incredible parachute jumps from balloons at the edge of space.

To learn more about the next chapter in aviation history, read about the Revolution in Flight