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The Cold War legacy of the F-102A

  • Published
  • By Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett
  • JBER Public Affairs
From 1956 to 1970, F-102A Delta Daggers were America's premier fighter interceptor, and the first serious air defense weapon in Alaska. An F-102 static display stands in Heritage Park at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson as a reminder of its service here. Aircraft like F-35 Lightning IIs and F-22 Raptors are just part of the ongoing evolution of air superiority. The Air Force has been upgrading to bigger, faster and better aircraft throughout its history.

The F-102A was considered a high-tech upgrade over the fighter jet it replaced, the F-89 Scorpion. F-102s were the only airplane on alert in the U.S. at that time.

"While the F-89s looked cool, they were not very fast," said Joe Orr, 3rd Wing historian. "[The F-102A] was a weapons system upgrade in every sense of the word. At the time, it was the top fighter interceptor in the U.S. arsenal."

On Oct. 27, 1962, two pilots, Bruce Gordon and Dean Rands, flew west from Eielson Air Force Base in F-102As to train in enemy interceptions. During the training, Rands declared an emergency because of a low oil pressure warning light.

"The radar controller directed us toward an emergency civilian airfield which had 7,300 feet of hard-surface runway," Gordon said. "I didn't remember any airport of that size in [the Galena area], but we headed for it. The controller then corrected himself - it wasn't 7,300 feet of hard surface runway, it was 3,700 feet of gravel!"

Rands' engine suddenly died, and he prepared to bail out.

"We descended toward a solid layer of clouds," Gordon said. "Just before entering the clouds, Rands ejected. I saw his parachute open just as he descended into the clouds. I penetrated down through the clouds and broke out just in time to see a ball of fire as Dean's plane crashed in some low, forested hills. I looked around, but couldn't see Dean's parachute. I was running low on fuel, so I had to return to Elmendorf alone."

Rands had landed out of sight in a forest, from which he was rescued shortly thereafter.

"The F-102 was a very stable aircraft with large delta wings but it only had one engine and for some reason a large number of F-102s crashed because of engine failure," Orr said. "The F-102 could also hold its own in head-to-head meetings with the other fighters and was a very stable plane outside of the cases of engine failure."

"One pilot's engine stalled 150 miles from Galena, so he shut it down and actually glided the plane to within 15 miles of Galena," the historian said. "If you could get the right angle on your plane, you could glide for a long time."

The F-102A had a maximum speed of 825 miles per hour, with a service ceiling of 53,400 feet. The aircraft boasted a 38 foot, 1.5 inch wingspan, and a length of 68 feet, 4.5 inches. It was capable of flying with six air-to-air guided missiles and 24 guided rockets. The F-102A was replaced by the F-4 Phantom in 1970.

Elmendorf Air Force Base had F-102As from 1957 to 1969. The U.S. Air Force Museum accessioned the F-102A now in Heritage Park in 1987 at the request of Air Force Col. William Povilus, 21st Tactical Fighter Wing commander, who wanted it for display at the Boniface Gate. Maintenance personnel restored it with the Arctic markings of the 317th Fighter Interceptor Squadron F-102A and mounted it near the Boniface Gate.

The fighter was repositioned in Heritage Park in June 1999, where it stands as a powerful reminder of the speed and capability it provided the Air Force during the Cold War.