Cold War

The Mach 2.39 F-106 Delta Dart (Cornfield Bomber)

On December 15, 1959, Major Joe Rogers from the United States Air Force Flight Test Center piloted an F-106A, bearing the serial number 56-0467, along a straight eleven-mile (18 km) trajectory.

He maintained an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,192 m) and achieved a world absolute speed record of 1,525.95 mph (2,455.77 km/h), equivalent to Mach 2.39.

This remarkable feat surpassed the prior record of 1,484.3 mph (2,388.95 km/h) by 34.63 mph (55.73 km/h), a record which was established on October 7, 1959, by Colonel Georgi Mosolov of the USSR, piloting a modified Mikoyan Ye-6/3, also known as Ye-66 (Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21F-13 with an alternative engine).

Contents

Its Role

The Convair F-106 Delta Dart served as a supersonic, all-weather delta wing interceptor aircraft for the United States Air Force from the 1960s until 1988. It was manufactured by the Convair Division of General Dynamics.

The F-106 participated in Operation Highspeed, a flyoff competition with the U.S. Navy F4H-1 (F-4B) Phantom, but it did not win.
Operation Highspeed: The F-106 participated in Operation Highspeed, a flyoff competition with the U.S. Navy F4H-1 (F-4B) Phantom, but it did not win.

Developed with a specialized focus as an interceptor, the F-106 Delta Dart was dubbed the “Ultimate Interceptor,” primarily tasked with intercepting and neutralizing enemy aircraft. particularly bombers, utilizing a Hughes MA-1 electronic guidance and fire control system.

The F-106 stands as the last dedicated interceptor in the U.S. Air Force’s arsenal.

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Initially designed as a progressive variant of the F-102A Delta Dagger and assigned the designation F-102B, the extensive modifications and structural alterations warranted a change in designation to F-106 in June 1956.

It was exclusively designed as an interceptor, powered by the formidable Pratt & Whitney J-75-17 engine.

Operational Capability in October 1959

The F-106A, a single-seat model, experienced its inaugural flight on December 26, 1956, and was officially delivered to the USAF in May 1959, commencing its operational journey with the Air Defense Command’s 539th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at McGuire AFB, New Jersey.

An air-to-air right side view of an F-106 Delta Dart aircraft being refueled from a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a training mission. The aircraft are from the 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.

It attained full operational capability in October 1959 with the 498th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, Geiger AFB, Washington.

The two-seat model, F-106B, first took to the skies on April 9, 1958, and reached initial operational status by July 1960, maintaining the comprehensive combat capabilities of the F-106A.

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Production of the F-106 concluded in late 1960, with 277 F-106As and 63 F-106Bs constructed, each with a cost of approximately $5 million.

Potential Soviet Threat

The aircraft operated as the primary alert interceptor for the Air Defense Command, standing guard against potential Soviet nuclear bomber incursions throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s before the F-15 Eagle eventually succeeded it.

The final active-duty F-106 Delta Dart was stationed with the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Griffiss AFB, Rome, New York, and was transported to AMARC at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona for storage in 1987.

The last squadron to operate the F-106 was the 119th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the 177th Fighter Interceptor Group, Atlantic City, New Jersey Air National Guard, which continued to fly the aircraft until June 1988.

F-106A Delta Dart (s/n 57-2494) of the 102nd Fighter Interceptor Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard based at Otis Air Force Base, Massachusetts (USA), intercepting a Soviet Tu-95 Bear D bomber aircraft off Cape Cod on 15 April 1982.

The design lineage of the F-106, along with its predecessor the F-102A, is intricately intertwined with Langley and the development of “area ruling” (Area Rule) in the early 1950s.

Area Rule is a design technique to minimize drag at transonic speeds, and it is manifested in the “coke bottle” or “wasp waist” shaped fuselage of the F-106.

Thanks to area ruling, the YF-102A could surpass the speed of sound with ease, paving the way for the more advanced F-106.

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The revolutionary nature of area ruling earned its innovator, Richard T. Whitcomb, the prestigious Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association in 1955, acknowledging it as the most significant achievement in aeronautics that year.

The F-106 was powered by a solitary Pratt & Whitney J75-P-17 turbojet engine, generating 16,100 lbs of thrust, and 24,500 lbs with afterburning.

F-106 Delta Dart Test Flights

The initial F-106A, bearing the serial number 56-0451, was ready by the close of 1956. Its inaugural flight was conducted by Convair’s test pilot Richard L. Johnson at Edwards AFB on December 26, 1956—Johnson also piloted the first flight of the F-102.

Service Period: The F-106 served the United States Air Force from the 1960s through 1988, being the last dedicated interceptor in the U.S. Air Force.

However, this flight encountered several issues: it had to be cut short due to fluctuations in the air turbine motor frequency, and the speed brakes, once opened, refused to close. As a result, the aircraft did not achieve supersonic speed during this flight.

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The subsequent aircraft, with the serial number 56-0452, had its first flight on February 26, 1957. Both were equipped with the YJ75-P-1 engine.

F-106A’s Inaugural Flight

The aircraft with serial number 56-0451, the first F-102B/F-106 (YF-106A) constructed by Convair in San Diego, CA, was transported from Convair to AFFTC Edwards AFB, CA on December 14, 1956. It underwent taxi tests starting December 22, 1956.

During its maiden flight on December 26, 1956, it had to abort due to issues with the air turbine motor and malfunctioning speed brakes.

Early Technical Issues: The early operational life of the F-106 was plagued by several technical problems, including generator defects and fuel-flow problems, which were largely rectified by the start of 1961.

The initial take-off, which lasted for 20 minutes and reached altitudes of 30,000 feet and speeds of 0.8 Mach, was done without afterburner and was comparable to an F-102 Delta Dagger’s take-off with afterburner.

F-106B’s Inaugural Flight

The first F-106B, serial number 57-2507, also constructed by Convair, underwent taxi tests at AFFTC Edwards AFB, CA, completing them on April 8, 1958. Its first flight occurred on April 10, 1958, piloted by Fitzpatrick.

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This flight was notable for lasting 50 minutes—almost double the duration of the F-106A’s first flight—and reaching higher altitudes and faster supersonic speeds than are typical for inaugural flights.

The author surmises that this was primarily because the F-106A had already proven its reliability and the ‘B’ models were very similar.

F-106 Delta Dart World Speed record

On December 15, 1959, Major Joseph W. Rogers achieved a world speed record in a Delta Dart, reaching speeds of 1,525.96 mph (2,455.79 km/h) at an altitude of 40,500 ft (12,300 m).

In the same year, Charles E. Myers piloted the identical model of aircraft, achieving speeds of 1,544 mph (2,484 km/h).

The F-106A aircraft, with the serial number 56-0459, was initially selected for the record attempt, and numerous historical accounts erroneously document it as the aircraft that executed the record-breaking speed run.

Interceptor Role: The Convair F-106 Delta Dart was designed as a supersonic, all-weather interceptor to defend the United States from aerial threats, primarily serving the United States Air Force’s Air Defense Command.

This aircraft had an engine finely tuned specifically for the attempt. However, it encountered engine compressor stall issues, causing severe yaw oscillations and had complications with the variable engine air intake controls mere hours before takeoff, leading to its grounding.

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The standby aircraft, 56-0467, hadn’t undergone any specialized preparations except for adjustments to the Limit Screws on both Engine and Afterburner Fuel Controls to permit over-limit operation by the pilot.

Major Rogers piloted this backup, establishing a new record. He reported that he actually navigated through the traps at Mach 2.43 and was continuing to accelerate at the course’s conclusion.

Claims by the Soviets

This unparalleled record remained intact until November 22, 1961, when it was surpassed by a McDonald F-4H-1F twin-engine Phantom. This new record was set by Lieutenant Colonel R. B. Robertson, a fellow member of the United States Air Force Flight Test Center.

Although records maintain that the F-106 still possesses the world speed record for single-engine aircraft, there have been claims by the Soviets asserting that they surpassed this record, along with the world absolute speed record, on July 7, 1962.

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The aircraft involved was a single-engine Mikoyan Gurevich Ye-166 (a designation adopted solely for this record attempt, originally a variant of a Ye-152), piloted once more by Colonel Georgi Mosolov of the USSR, achieving a purported speed of 1,665.98 mph (2,680.92 km/h). However, there has never been any verification to substantiate this claim.

F-106 Delta Dart Operational History

The early operations of the F-106 were marred by numerous technical complications including defects in the generator, issues with fuel flow especially in cold weather, and malfunctions in the combustor-starter.

In December 1959, all F-106s were temporarily grounded due to an incident where the canopy was accidentally jettisoned mid-flight on one of the aircraft.

Ground crewmen remove wing tanks from F-106 Delta Dart aircraft from 102nd Fighter Interceptor Wing, Massachusetts Air National Guard. The aircraft are at the base to compete in the air-to-air weapons meet WILLIAM TELL ’84. The F-106s at the end of the row are from the 87th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.

By the beginning of 1961, many, albeit not all, of these issues were resolved, thanks in part to two significant modification and retrofit programs carried out during this period.

Once the initial problems were overcome – notably an ejection seat issue that resulted in the fatalities of the first 12 pilots to eject from the aircraft – the outstanding performance of the F-106 made it quite favored among pilots.

The F-106 was deployed in the contiguous United States, Alaska, and Iceland, and it also had brief stints in Germany and South Korea.

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It held the position of the second-highest sequentially numbered P/F- aircraft to enter service under the old numbering sequence, with the F-111 being the highest, before the implementation of the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system.

While in service, the F-106’s official moniker, “Delta Dart,” was seldom used; it was universally referred to as “The Six.” The substantial induction of the F-106 led to the rapid retirement of several older aircraft from the interceptor role, including the North American F-86 Sabre and the Northrop F-89 Scorpion.

Vietnam War

Though there were considerations for deploying the F-106 in the Vietnam War, it ultimately did not participate in combat, and there were no exports of this model to foreign entities.

The Canadian government briefly contemplated acquiring the F-106C/D after the discontinuation of their Avro Arrow project.

Personnel of the Air Defense Weapons Center carry an AIM-4G Super Falcon missile that will be loaded aboard an F-106 Delta Dart aircraft during the 1978 North American Air Defense Command Weapons Loading Competition.

In an effort to standardize aircraft models, the USAF executed Operation Highspeed. This involved a flyoff competition between the USAF F-106A and the U.S. Navy F4H-1 (F-4B) Phantom.

The Phantom, not only matching the capabilities of the F-106 as a missile-equipped interceptor but also able to carry a bomb load equivalent to the Republic F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber, emerged victorious.

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Initially, the Phantom served to escort and eventually substitute the F-105 fighter-bomber in the late 1960s, before replacing older interceptors in the Air Defense Command in the 1970s.

F-4 Phantom II Was Better

Throughout its service, the F-106 underwent continuous upgrades, including enhancements in avionics, modifications to the wing which featured a distinctive conical camber, the integration of an infrared search and track system, and the addition of streamlined supersonic wing tanks that minimally impacted the aircraft’s overall performance.

An F-4E Phantom II aircraft of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing launches an AGM-45 Shrike missile.
An F-4E Phantom II aircraft of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing launches an AGM-45 Shrike missile.

It was also equipped with advanced instrumentation, features like an in-flight refueling receptacle, and an arrestor hook for landing emergencies.

Air-to-air combat assessments indicated that “The Six” could fairly compete with the F-4 Phantom II in a dogfight, demonstrating superior high-altitude turning capabilities and overall agility, which was facilitated by the aircraft’s lower wing loading.

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The Phantom, however, boasted advanced radar—operated by an additional crew member—and had the capacity to carry up to four radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow and four infrared AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

In contrast, the AIM-4 Falcon missiles that the F-106 was armed with fell short of expectations in dogfighting scenarios over Vietnam.

The F-4 also exhibited a higher thrust-to-weight ratio, superior climbing capabilities, better high-speed/low-altitude maneuverability, and could be employed as a fighter-bomber.

Combat experiences in Vietnam underscored the importance of enhanced pilot visibility and the efficacy of an integrated gun, features incorporated into the “E” variant of USAF Phantoms.

Much Needed Upgrades

In 1972, under Project Six Shooter, several F-106As underwent upgrades which included the installation of a new canopy, devoid of metal bracing, significantly enhancing pilot visibility.

Low angle left side view of an F-106 Delta Dart aircraft of the 102nd Fighter Interceptor Wing firing an AIR-2A Genie air-to-air missile over the Tyndall Air Force Base range.

Additionally, an optical gunsight was integrated, along with provisions for a M61 Vulcan 20 mm cannon. The M61 Vulcan, housed in the central weapons bay, was supplied with 650 rounds of ammunition, replacing the AIM-26 Super Falcon or Genie.

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The transition to the F-15A Eagle commenced in 1981, with “The Sixes” generally being allocated to Air National Guard units. The F-106 continued to serve in different USAF and ANG units up until 1988.

Retirement

From June 1, 1983, to August 1, 1988, the Delta Darts were progressively retired and relocated to the Military Storage and Disposition Center in Arizona.

Subsequently, when a high-performance Full-Scale Aerial Target Drone was necessitated, the USAF initiated the withdrawal of Delta Darts from storage.

Beginning in 1986, 194 of the remaining surplus aircraft underwent conversion into target drones, receiving the designation QF-106As.

An air-to-air left rear view of two F-106 Delta Dart aircraft of the 102nd Fighter
An air-to-air left rear view of two F-106 Delta Dart aircraft of the 102nd Fighter Interceptor Group participating in Exercise Amalgham Chief ’87-1, an air defense training exercise.

Under the Pacer Six Program, they were utilized as target practice vehicles by the Aerial Targets Squadron. The final one was destroyed in January 1998.

These drones retained the capability to be flown as manned aircraft for purposes such as ferrying to a test, but were operated unmanned during the tests.

The QF-106 took over from the QF-100 Super Sabre drone. The last QF-106 (57-2524) was shot down at Holloman AFB on February 20, 1997, after which it was replaced by the QF-4S and QF-4E Phantom II drones.

And we can’t leave the story without mentioning the Cornfield Bomber

The Convair F-106 Delta Dart operated by the 71st Fighter-Interceptor Squadron of the United States Air Force earned the moniker “Cornfield Bomber” in 1970 when, during a training exercise, it landed unmanned in a Montana farmer’s field and incurred only minimal damage after the pilot had ejected.

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The plane was subsequently retrieved and restored, re-entering service. It now resides as an exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

On February 2, 1970, during a routine training flight involving aerial combat maneuvers, the aircraft went into a flat spin.

First Lieutenant Gary Foust, the pilot, endeavored to regain control, even deploying the aircraft’s drag chute as a final measure; however, all recovery attempts failed. Foust was compelled to eject at an altitude of 15,000 feet (4,600 m).

“you’d better get back in it!”

The ejection of the pilot led to a reduction in weight and a shift in the center of gravity of the aircraft, combined with the propulsive force from the ejection of the seat pushing the aircraft’s nose downward, this allowed the aircraft, which had been trimmed by Foust for takeoff and idle throttle, to recover from the spin.

Nickname: The “Cornfield Bomber” is the nickname given to a specific Convair F-106 Delta Dart, due to its unusual landing in a farmer’s field.

Another pilot in the mission reportedly radioed to Foust, who was descending by parachute, that “you’d better get back in it!” Foust, in disbelief, observed the unmanned aircraft descend and slide to a stop in a farmer’s field near Big Sandy, Montana, from his parachute.

Foust eventually landed in nearby mountains and was later rescued by locals on snowmobiles.

Subsequently, the local sheriff and residents approached the crash site, where the still-idling jet engine was causing the plane to drift slowly across a field.

After contacting the air base, the sheriff was advised to let the jet exhaust its fuel.

It happened an hour and forty-five minutes later without any more problems.

A recovery crew from McClellan Air Force Base then dismantled the minimally damaged aircraft for transportation.

It is said that an officer from the recovery crew commented that had there been even less damage, he would have flown the aircraft out of the field himself.

Retired to a Museum

After its unintended landing, the “Cornfield Bomber” was restored and reinstated into service, joining the 49th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the last Air Force unit to deploy the F-106.

The aircraft at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in 2005

Foust had the opportunity to pilot the aircraft again in 1979 during training at Tyndall Air Force Base. When it was eventually retired, the aircraft was donated to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in August 1986, where it continues to be showcased.

Incident Date: The incident involving the “Cornfield Bomber” occurred on February 2, 1970.
Reduction in Weight: The ejection of the pilot led to a reduction in weight and a shift in the center of gravity, allowing the aircraft to recover from its spin and land safely.

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Rescue: After ejecting, First Lieutenant Gary Foust landed in the nearby mountains and was subsequently rescued by local residents using snowmobiles.
Remarkably, the aircraft suffered minimal damage during its unplanned landing and was recovered, repaired, and returned to service.

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Back in Service: After the incident and subsequent repairs, the “Cornfield Bomber” was operated by the 49th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron.
No Human Control: The “Cornfield Bomber” is notable for landing safely with no pilot at the controls, skidding to a halt in a field, and remaining relatively intact, making it a unique incident in aviation history.
The underside of 58-0787, showing the damage it received during its belly landing
The underside of 58-0787, showing the damage it received during its belly landing