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    Cold War Aviation

Bear to the left of the X-35B and walk a short ways to the display of Cold War Aviation airplanes. The museum’s done a nice job here of putting the U.S. planes of each era next to their Soviet counterparts. On your right are the two planes that fought for air superiority over Korea: The North American F-86 Sabre and the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15.

The Soviet Union introduced the MiG-15 into combat over Korea in November of 1950, and it quickly dominated the skies. At the time, the U.S. was still using piston-engine aircraft to supplement its first generation of jet fighters, the F-80 Shooting Star and F-84 Thunderbolt. None were a match for the MiG-15, which was faster, more maneuverable, and had better armament. In fact, the U.S. stopped flying piston-engine aircraft over Korea because of the MiG-15, and fast-tracked the release of the F-86 Sabre as a result.

The F-86 was one of the first fighters the U.S. developed as World War II came to an end. You’ll notice that unlike World War II fighters, the F-86 Sabre has swept wings that angle back from the fuselage. This is the result of aerodynamic data obtained from German scientists during the war, showing that swept wings handled better than straight wings at speeds above 600 miles per hour.

Besides swept wings, the Sabre had six .50-caliber machine guns (and sometimes air-to-air missiles) attached to a radar-assisted gun sights. Designed by engineers at MIT, those gun sights were a distinct advantage for the F-86, because they automatically calculated the range, angle, and speed of their target. With these, the F-86 could shoot down an enemy aircraft at distances above 1 mile away. (For comparison, a few hundred yards was the maximum effective range of World War II-era guns.) As a result, the F-86 had a 10:1 kill ratio versus the MiG-15 in combat. The F-86 on display here fought in combat above Korea starting in 1950.

Across the walkway from these Korean War fighters are their counterparts from the Vietnam War: the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 and American McDonnell F-4 Phantom.

The Soviets began development of the MiG-21 shortly after the end of the Korean War, based on what they had learned operating the MiG-15 in combat. The MiG-21’s improvements included better radar, faster engines, air-to-air missiles, and a delta (triangle-shaped) wing. That said, the MiG-21 has some serious design problems, including poor pilot visibility badly placed fuel tanks that made the plane unstable after 45 minutes of flight.

Still, the design helped it narrow the gap with American fighters of the era – only 5.5 MiG-21’s were shot down for every one F-4 Phantom, a loss rate of about half that of the MiG-15 from Korea. The MiG-21 began service in 1960, and some are still used by air forces around the world today.

The F-4 Phantom entered service in the U.S. Navy in 1959, and was the Navy’s first fighter jet able to fly at twice the speed of sound. It was used primarily to defend the Navy’s carriers, but was also a solid attack plane. It could be fitted with a variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, depending on the need. The plane on display here flew combat missions over Vietnam from 1972-3; its one confirmed victory came against a MiG-21.

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft is the centerpiece of the Cold War Aviation gallery. There are many examples of outstanding engineering in the Air and Space museums, but the Blackbird is, as the kids say, on another level. For starters, the Blackbird is the world’s fastest jet-engine aircraft. How fast? The Air Force won’t say, but various sources list its top speed at around 2,200 MPH. That’s almost certainly too low – the plane on display here averaged 2,124 mph on its flight to the museum (setting the current transcontinental speed record of 64 minutes), and we think the Blackbird has a little something more for flying over Vladivostok than Valdosta.

Unofficial Tip: During its transcontinental record flight, this SR-71 flew from St. Louis to Cincinnati in 8 ½ minutes.

Flying at 3 times the speed of sound generates a lot of heat from air friction, and the Blackbird design team had to invent solutions to heat-related problems. One solution was the use of a titanium alloy skin instead of aluminum for the outside of the plane, because aluminum would weaken at the Blackbird’s typical operating temperatures. Same thing for the windshield, which is made of quartz, not glass, and welded to the frame.

Another problem was accounting for the thermal expansion of the plane’s metal skin during flight – heat from air friction makes the titanium alloy expand. To allow for this expansion, the SR-71’s wings were designed with small gaps between each titanium plate. But since some of the plane’s fuel was stored in the wings, it meant that the Blackbird intentionally leaked fuel between these gaps during takeoff, in-air refueling, and while flying at lower speeds. Also, much of the wing surface was corrugated for strength and stability at high temperatures.

The Blackbird was also designed to fly higher than other aircraft, typically above 80,000 feet. At those altitudes, Blackbird pilots had to wear astronaut-like pressure suits, in case the cabin depressurized suddenly.

Altitude and speed were the Blackbird’s primary defensive capabilities, because the plane carried no guns or missiles. It did carry an assortment of electronics designed to confuse or disable ground- and air-based anti-aircraft arms. Besides those, the Blackbird had some early stealth technology: the plane’s cross-section was designed to minimize radar reflection, and the airframe was painted in a radar-absorbing black material that also dissipated its heat signature. No SR-71 was shot down during its 32-year service. The last SR-71 was retired by the Air Force in 1998.

Other Lands at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center