Flight after the Cold War


The Voyager aircraft was used by Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan in their non-stop, round-the-world flight. See more pictures of flight.
Peter M. Bowers Collection

As the e­ighth decade of the twentieth century began, the world's political situation seemed to have stabilized. The Cold War contenders, the United States and the Soviet Union, though still armed to the teeth with enough weaponry to­ destroy civilization, were somehow becoming, if not friendly, at least not as overtly hostile. There were new players on the world scene -- Japan and a slowly unifying Europe and China -- but, for the most part, the main concern was that no war break out between the United States and the U.S.S.R.

The Soviet Union was continuing its long and outstanding series of space flights. Cosmonauts were spending lengthy periods in space, shuttling back and forth on their Soyuz vehicles as if they were space commuters. New Soviet aircraft were introduced, including advanced versions of the superb Sukhoi Su 27 and MiG-29, and Soviet vertical-lift fighters operated off a Soviet aircraft carrier. Then on December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union was split apart, dissolving like a cube of sugar in hot coffee. The communist system that had led the world in space, whose military might was renowned, never learned how to feed, clothe, or house its people, and, ultimately, the people spoke. Fortunately for the world, the Soviet Union went out with a whimper -- not with a nuclear bang.

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Flight Pictures

­While the collapse of the Soviet Union might have been the defining event of the decade, it was only one of the many dramatic and exciting situations that kept people everywhere glued to their television sets as good and bad news poured forth.

­On the good side, women achieved an ever increasing prominence in aerospace occupations. Captain Lynn Ripplemeyer flew a 747 across the Atlantic for People's Express. Sheila Widnall became the first female Secretary of the Air Force. Svetlana Savitskaya made the first EVA by a woman from the Salyut7/Soyuz T-12 for three hours. She was also the first woman to fly twice in space. The United States quickly countered when Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space twice and Kathryn Sullivan made the first EVA by an American woman, both onboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

The ebullient Jeana Yeager set a world record with Dick Rutan in their epochal nonstop, unrefueled flight around the world in the Voyager. But such progress was not without its costs. In a moment that remains etched in memory, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up on January 28, 1986. Among the crew were veteran astronaut Judith Resnik and teacher Christa McAuliffe. Then, in 1991, Major Mari T. Rossi crashed in a Chinook helicopter, becoming the first American woman to die in aerial combat.­

Aeronautical Progress

The Lockheed F-117a Nighthawk is a ground attack airplane. Its unique design helps to minimize its radar profile.
The Lockheed F-117a Nighthawk is a ground attack airplane. Its unique design helps to minimize its radar profile.
United States Air Force Museum

The speed of aeronautical progress accelerated as the world of flight eagerly seized upon computers, integrating them into every phase of air and space operations, from design to actual flying of air and spacecraft. The tremendous growth in computer technology was force-fed by the demand of aerospace companies, who pushed the envelope of computer development at a rate that no one would have believed and that ultimately benefitted everyone, including personal computer users.

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The Airbus Industrie A320 was a Computer Aided Design (CAD) and a Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM), and this would be the way of the future. Gone were wooden mock-ups and the absolute need for a prototype; with CAD/CAM the first aircraft made could be a production version, if desired.

Computers were also invaluable for the proliferation of simulators so lifelike they could be used for the transition training of airline and military crews. Simulators grew in importance as the cost of flying time went up; they would soon substitute for the actual use of aircraft for familiarization flying and flight checks.

Terrorism became more and more prevalent, with airliners being blown up on the ground and in the air. The most appalling incident was the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland on Dec­­ember 21, 1988. One decisive action against terrorists took place when President Ronald Reagan authorized Operation El Dorado Canyon, a swift strike by General Dynamics F-111s and Navy A-6 and A-7E aircraft that punished -- and reportedly terrorized -- Libya's Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.

In August 1990, Saddam Hussein sent his armies into Kuwait, annexing it as an Iraqi province. He next threatened Saudi Arabia, which was vulnerable to Iraq's military might. The United States led a U.N. force to intervene first with Operation Desert Shield and then to counterattack with Operation Desert Storm. Both operations revealed to the world the unprecedented might of the United States with conventional weapons. Stealth aircraft; precision-guided munitions; airborne command and control; and the use of space-based navigation, meteorological, communications, and intelligence systems overwhelmed the Iraqis.

The combination of Lockheed Martin F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters and precision-guided munitions revealed, in real time, some of the most spectacular bombing results in history. All over the world, people watched in awe as crosshairs were aligned on a target -- the window of a bunker, the cockpit of a parked aircraft -- followed by a bomb dropping to strike the target. In the meantime, no Nighthawk was even hit by enemy fire.­

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Military Planes after Desert Storm

The B-1 Lancer was a supersonic bombing plane designed to replace the venerable B-52 Stratofortress.
The B-1 Lancer was a supersonic bombing plane designed to replace the venerable B-52 Stratofortress.
Peter M. Bowers Collection

Many of those television sets watching the Persian Gulf War were in the Soviet Union, where both military and political leaders were forced to realize that the U.S.S.R. was no longer in any way competitive with the United States and, in its desperate economic situation, never could be again. This important factor hastened the Soviet Union's breakup and, perhaps more importantly, insured that it was a peaceful one.

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In the aftermath of Desert Storm, the United States did what it has always done -- it demobilized and stopped spending on defense. The three greatest air commands in history, SAC, TAC, and ADC were abolished, and in their place came the Air Mobility Command and Air Combat Command.

In the meantime, there was progress on many fronts, including the introduction of the Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirit stealth bomber and the new stealth fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Nor were foreign manufacturers idle, as France produced the Dassault-Breguet Rafale, Great Britain and Germany the Eurofighter, Israel the Lavi, and Sweden the Saab Gripen. The tilt-rotor Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey flew, and a wave of huge aircraft company mergers began when Lockheed acquired the General Dynamics Military Aircraft Division and the following year merged with Martin Marietta to become Lockheed Martin.

Unfortunately, wars were not going away, they were going to become what was called "asymmetric," and the unfathomable world of terrorism would become the nemesis of the next decade.

Read about the next chapter in the history of flight in Flight at the End of the 20th Century

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