When most American troops were returning to civilian life after winning of World War II, the Army Air Force established a new outfit, responsible for delivering America’s new atomic weapon: Strategic Air Command. Before the United States had an arsenal of nuclear-armed submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the only way to target our opponents was to send the pilots and crew of SAC flying over hostile territory. Advancements in jets, missiles, and air defense technology meant SAC’s arsenal of planes had to constantly adapt and be replaced in order to provide the nuclear deterrent needed during the Cold War. Here are just some of the aircraft used by SAC during its 45-year history:
After World War II, Boeing modified its iconic B-29 design, adding more powerful engines, a larger tail fin, and a stronger air frame. Boeing also produced reconnaissance and aerial tanker versions of their last piston-powered warplane. RB-50s conducted reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, but the advent of jet-powered MiG fighters means that Soviet flyers can – and on occasion do – shoot down these high-flying “Superforts.”
F-82E Twin Mustang
Designed during World War II as a long-range escort and night fighter, the war ended before North American’s Twin Mustang could enter service. However when hostilities broke out on the Korean Peninsula in 1950, F-82 pilots were on hand to score the first aerial victories of the war. During its brief tenure with SAC (1947-1950), the twin fuselage aircraft was the only fighter with sufficient range and ceiling to escort American bombers on missions inside the Soviet Union.
The Republic F-84 Thunderjet flew escort for B-29 missions during the Korean War. When the more advanced, swept-wing MiG-15 jets began scoring kills against the F-84, the aircraft transitioned to low-level interdiction operations, accounting for 60 percent of the ground targets destroyed during the war. The first production fighter to use in-flight refueling, and the first fighter to carry a nuclear weapon, the “Lead Sled” would only serve SAC until 1957 – when nuclear weapons and advancement of technology made the escort mission obsolete.