Revolution in Flight

The Bell Huey Cobra attack helicopter arrived in the 1960s and remains a valuable fighting force. See more pictures of flight.
U.S. Department of Defense

The revolution in flight after World War II accelerated progress everywhere, including flight. The new tools, including massive computers; new materials, such as titanium; and new techniques of manufacture, all spurred development not only of space efforts but also consumer products. The public was not quite ready to demand personal computers, but for the first time, slide rules began to take a back seat to still clumsy mainframe computer programs.

Flight Pictures

Every nation raced forward with new aircraft designs, some of them seemingly suited to national backgrounds. The Soviets, for example, tended toward gigantic aircraft such as the Antonov An-22 and the Mil Mi 10 and Mi 12 helicopters. They were also determined to be first wherever possible and rushed the Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic transport (SST) into production so that it could fly before its elegant--and expensive--competitor, the Anglo-French Concorde. The United States, for both economic and environmental reasons, opted out of the SST competition, a move that proved to be very intelligent indeed. In air transport, it was time for smaller, more economic jet airliners to fly the shorter routes, and there appeared the Douglas DC-9, Boeing 737, and British Aircraft Corporation 111. The process would continue for years. Thousands of transports would be manufactured, and accumulated passenger miles would become astronomical.

­All was not completely serene in the airline industry. The practice of terrorists hijacking airliners became ever more common. Things would get worse over the years.

The increasing effectiveness of SAMS (surface-to-air missiles) was devastating both in Vietnam and in the recurring wars in the Middle East. They also affected bombing strategy, because they forced the cancellation of the Mach 3 North American XB-70 bomber.

The rocket technology for SAMS was relatively primitive; it derived from that of the German World War II Wasserfall. Rockets for ICBMs and for spacecraft became increasingly advanced, however. Under the leadership of General Bernard Schriever, the United States went through four generations of ICBM development, starting with the Atlas and working through the Titan, Minuteman, and Peacekeeper. The Soviets had their counterpart series of rockets, which were usually more powerful than those of the United States.

It was upon these rockets that the race to the moon was based. The Soviet Union kept its efforts cloaked in secrecy, as was its national habit, whereas the United States portrayed its plan for reaching the moon as a scientific experiment--open to all. Three massive, integrated programs, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, led to the first successful moon landing on July 20, 1969.

As things worked out, the Soviet Union never reached the point where it could challenge the United States in the moon race, and it turned to other things, including deep space probes of remarkable capability. In time, the race would turn into international cooperation.

Throughout this period, the agony of the Vietnam War dragged on, with a curious inversion dictated by U.S. political leaders, including President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The inversion called for U.S. strategic B-52s to be employed in a tactical role in South Vietnam, while U.S. tactical fighters (McDonnell F-4s and Republic F-105s) were employed in a strategic role against North Vietnam. But it was not until strategic bombing was used during Operation Linebacker II in December 1972, that the North Vietnamese succumbed to pressure and agreed to a peace treaty.