McDonnell RF-101 Voodoo
Supersonic Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft
The McDonnell RF-101 Voodoo became the first supersonic photographic-reconnaissance aircraft in the world when it arrived in 1957.
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The inherently versatile nature of the original McDonnell Aircraft F-101 "Voodoo" (the single-seat, supersonic jet-powered "One-oh-Wonder") meant that the airframe lent itself well to several roles beyond that of fighter - twin-seat dedicated interceptor, advanced jet training, low-level fighter-bomber, and tactical reconnaissance roles. This proved the case when authorities of the United States Air Force (USAF) came calling in October of 1953, formally requesting a tactical reconnaissance version of the respected fighter. Before the end, over 800 Voodoos would be completed to which 286 (including developmental airframes) would emerge in the reconnaissance guise.
The original Voodoo airframe flew for the first time on September 29th, 1954 so development work on the reconnaissance form was not started until 1956 and, to expedite the program, no prototypes were ordered. Instead, a pair of developmental vehicles, designated "YRF-101A", were commissioned. The design was formally adopted and subsequently arrived in the USAF inventory in July of 1958. What followed were 35 "RF-101A" production models based in the now-proven YRF-101A design and these were used to succeed an aging stock of Martin RF-57 "Canberra" reconnaissance mounts in same over-battlefield role.
While most of the form and function of the original aircraft was retained, the RF-101 lost its ordnance-carrying capabilities, radar fit, and internal guns leaving its mission payload to be squarely centered on cameras and accompanying recording equipment (the fuselage centerline remained plumbed for fuel tanks or special mission-related installations). This resulted in a new, reshaped nose assembly which gave the RF-101 its distinct appearance when compared to the original F-101 fighter. Qualities carried over included the single-seat cockpit, triangular-shaped side-mounted intakes, twin side-by-side engine arrangement, and low-set sweptback wing mainplanes. The tail unit continued use of the T-plane arrangement and the horizontal members were slightly angled upwards. The tricycle undercarriage, wholly retractable under the aircraft, served in ground-running actions.
Despite its designation, the "RF-101B" aircraft would arrived later that other marks and were formed from twenty-two ex-Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fighters now modified for the tactical reconnaissance role. These came online during the early part of the 1970s and were based highly in the Canadian CF-101B - again losing their weapons capability as well as radar fit while gaining cameras and an in-flight refueling boom. Their operating costs ensured a short service life in the end - the lot retired as soon as 1975.
From the F-101C production fighter emerged the definitive RF-101C "Long Bird" which took to the air for the first time on July 12th, 1957 and was adopted for operational service the following year. Unlike the A-models, the C-models retained the ordnance-carrying qualities of the F-101C fighter-bomber. Some 96 F-101C airframes were completed as RF-101C tactical reconnaissance performers and total production yielded 166 units before the end. These mounts were used during the tumultuous Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) period and flew dangerous sorties in the Vietnam War (1955-1975), in the latter until replaced by the McDonnell RF-4C "Phantom II" supersonic jet conversions of the excellent Phantom II fighter. C-models were active until 1979 and proved the only Voodoo variant to ever see wartime service.
The RF-101C held a running length of 69.2 feet with a span of 39.7 feet and a height of 18 feet. Maximum weight reached 51,100lb and power was from 2 x Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojet engines developing 15,000lb of thrust with afterburner. Performance specs included a maximum speed of 1,000 mph, a cruising speed near 550 mph, a range out to 2,060 miles, and a service ceiling up to 45,800 feet. This gave the aircraft excellent escape speeds as well as some defense by operating at high altitudes.
F-101A models continued to contribute to the Voodoo story for another twenty-nine of their kind were converted for reconnaissance use for the Air National Guard (ANG) under the designation of RF-101G. These were actively operated until 1972. F-101C models also lent some of their number to form the RF-101H variant to, again, stock the inventory of the ANG. Similarly, these were given up in 1972.
Beyond their service in Southeast Asia and stateside, RF-101 aircraft were also stationed in critical zones across Europe during the Cold War period.