First flight of the McDonnell Voodoo

It was a revolutionary and versatile aeroplane that could fly faster than the sun and low enough to get hit by a Soviet volleyball. September 29 celebrates the anniversary of the first flight of the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo

Originally, it was designed with the purpose of simply flying escort missions with Strategic Air Command’s bomber force. But, following its first flight, it became increasingly apparent that there seemed to be nothing that the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo couldn’t do. In its time serving for the United States Air Force, it was used as everything from a supersonic jet fighter to an all-weather interceptor, as well as a photo reconnaissance aircraft over Cuba at the height of the Cold War.  

In 1952, aircraft company McDonnell received a development contract for the F-101 Voodoo. It was to be based on the all-weather interceptor XF-88 used by the US Air Force. The XF-88 project had been cancelled at the start of the Korean war, making way for a new and improved jet fighter development contract. The higher spec F-101s were designed to be long-range twinjet fighters to escort bombers, attack distant targets and provide close support for ground troops. However, the United States’ fleet would go on to do much more. 

Voodoo
A US Air Force Voodoo. Source: DVIDS

Most notable in its time serving for the United Air Force was the F-101 Voodoo’s involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The 101s amassed a total of 82 missions over Cuba, using the technique of flying low to avoid being hit by Soviet surface-to-air missiles. Its speedy abilities and delicate manoeuvre control meant that the 101 was seen as an intimidating force to be reckoned with, even by Soviet standards. During its time performing missions over Cuba, one pilot claimed that he flew so low, a Soviet almost hit his Voodoo with a volleyball. As a result of the Voodoo’s reconnaissance missions over the island, the United States were able to confirm that the Soviet Cuban missile sites were in the process of being dismantled. The 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing pilots who made the flights were recognised by President John F. Kennedy, who said, “You gentlemen have contributed as much to the security of the United States as any group of men in our history.” 

Much like the earlier XF-88, the Voodoo was designed and constructed to employ supersonic and sleek, aerodynamic characteristics for an unstinted performance. However, the F-101 would differ slightly from its older cousin. It would see changes to its wings, which would be thinner than those of the XF-88. The new, smaller wing area would give the Voodoo one of the highest wing loadings of any aircraft in jet history: 115 lbs per square foot. The shape and position of its tail would be altered, moving the horizontal tail up and employing a T-tail design.  

The two newly released Pratt and Whitney J57 engines with afterburners would be placed further forward on a larger overall fuselage than the XF-88. The improved specifications of the Voodoo resulted in a ground-breaking piece of aviation technology, demonstrating an aeroplane to be capable of speeds never seen before as it reached up to 1,134mph. In Operation ‘Sun Run’ in November 1957, the Voodoo set a transcontinental speed record. It raced from Los Angeles, California to New York and back in just six hours and 46 minutes. Just a month after in December 1957, the F-101 Voodoo set yet another new speed record over the Mojave Desert in California, reaching a mind blowing 1,207mph. These records earned it the nickname amongst its pilots and admirers of the ‘One-oh-Wonder’. Not only this, but Operation ‘Sun Run’ confirmed that the Voodoo, intimidating in both name and now nature, could move faster than the sun across the sky.  

McDonnell F-101
The McDonnell F-101 Voodoo in flight. Source: WikiMedia Commons

Despite its superiority in the air, the United States Air Force retired their total fleet of 807 F-101 Voodoos in 1972 for various logistical reasons. The aeroplane would not be completely retired until 1986, however, when the Royal Canadian Air Force made the decision to ground the last of its fleet. The Voodoo presented itself as a ground-breaking speed demon of the Cold War era and was a certain success in its relatively short time serving in the world’s air forces.