Flight after the Cold War

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.


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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