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.


Advances in Flight in the 1960s

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was one of the fastest and highest-flying planes ever made -- it could go well over 2,000 miles an hour.
U.S. Department of Defense

The United States' involvement in the Vietnam War had been long, longer still for the Vietnamese. But wars were shorter in the Middle East. Faced with Arab invasion threats, Israel made a surprise attack on the Arab forces surrounding it in June 1967, decisively defeating them and extending its borders to their present configuration. The SAMS intervened in the next few years, as the Soviet Union supplied Egypt and Syria with massive amounts of antiaircraft equipment. A surprise attack by the Arab nations in October 1973 came within hours of defeating Israel, which, in turn, was within hours of using its nuclear missiles as a last line of defense. Israel managed to survive and, sustained by a massive airlift of arms and aircraft from the United States, was just able to defeat the Arabs. Even though Middle Eastern wars were shorter, events would prove that peace is not easily distinguishable from warfare.

The United States, having passed on the SST, startled the air transport world with a gigantic gamble by Boeing and Pan American -- the leviathan Boeing 747 airliner. After some initial problems with engines, the 747 turned the industry upside down as fares were lowered and more and more people traveled. Airline travel was no longer just for business people and the wealthy, nor was it reserved for citizens of the United States. Now average citizens from all over the world could -- and did -- travel.


Helicopters began to take on new jobs all over the world, delivering supplies to oil rigs, covering sporting events, and acting as indispensable medical and police stalwarts. Interest in fixed-wing vertical takeoff and landing aircraft also increased. In Great Britain, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier promised great things for the future with vectored thrust technology, while in the United States there were a whole range of experiments including tilt rotor, tilt fan, and tilt wing.

All of these advances were being made under the umbrella of the most interesting acronym in history: MAD. This acronym stood for "Mutual Assured Destruction" and meant that if either the Soviet Union or the United States of America launched an ICBM attack, the other nation would still have sufficient power for a devastating counterstrike. Under MAD, nuclear weapons were built at a tremendous rate on either side, yet somehow the unusual logic held, and there was no massive nuclear exchange.

To learn about the next chapter in the history of aviation, read Conquering Air and Space.