The F-102 was a supersonic second generation fighter designed in the early 1950s for the US Air Force. The primary mission of the aircraft was to intercept columns of Soviet nuclear bombers attempting to reach targets in the US and destroy them with air-to-air missiles. The technologies incorporated into the aircraft were state-of-the-art for the day. The F-102 set many firsts, including the first all-weather delta-winged combat aircraft, the first fighter capable of maintaining supersonic speed in level flight, and the first interceptor to have an armament entirely of missiles. Among the many innovations incorporated into the design were the use of the area rule to reduce aerodynamic drag and an advanced electronic fire control system capable of guiding the aircraft to a target and automatically launching its missiles.
The F-102 made its first flight in 1953 and entered service with the Air Defense Command (ADC) in 1956. About 1,000 Delta Daggers were built making the type one of the most widely built fighters of its era. Even when supplemented by the related and improved F-106 Delta Dart, the F-102 remained one of the most important aircraft in the ADC through the mid-1960s. At its peak, the Deuce made up over half of the interceptors operated by the ADC and equipped 32 squadrons across the continental US. Additional squadrons were based in western Europe, the Pacific, and Alaska.
As the 1960s continued, many of these aircraft were transferred from the US Air Force to Air National Guard (ANG) units. More than 500 Delta Daggers would eventually serve with 23 ANG units across the US, including squadrons in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. Because of thier critical role in defending North America, these ANG units came under direct authority of the ADC itself and were considered a vital component of the Air Force's strategy to defend the US.
One of the primary ANG units to receive the F-102 was the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS) at Ellington Air National Guard Station, which operated the aircraft from 1960 through 1974. These planes were given responsibility for patrolling the Texas Gulf Coast and intercepting Soviet aircraft based in Cuba that regularly flew off the US shore to test American defenses. The 111th was and still is part of the 147th Fighter Wing in Houston, Texas. It was here that George W. Bush was stationed following his enlistment in May 1968.
The Air National Guard has often been ridiculed as a safe place for military duty during the Vietnam War. However, pilots from the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, as it was called at the time, were actually conducting combat missions in Vietnam when Bush enlisted. Air Force F-102 squadrons had been stationed in Thailand since 1961 and South Vietnam since March 1962. It was during this time that the Kennedy administration began building up a large US military presence in the region as a deterrent against North Vietnamese invasion.
USAF F-102 squadrons continued to be stationed in both nations throughout most of the Vietnam War. The Delta Dagger was based at Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa, and Da Nang in South Vietnam and also stood alert at Don Muang and Udorn in Thailand. The planes were typically used for fighter defense patrols and as escorts for B-52 bomber raids. The F-102 was considered one of the most useful air defense aircraft in theater because it had the fastest response time of any fighter stationed in South Vietnam.
Since North Vietnamese pilots generally avoided combat with their American counterparts, the F-102 had few opportunities to engage in its primary role of air combat. However, the Deuce was adapted for close air support starting in 1965. Delta Daggers armed with unguided rockets made attacks on Viet Cong encampments to harass enemy soldiers, and the aircraft's heat-seeking air-to-air missiles were even used to lock onto enemy campfires at night. Though the F-102 had not been designed for this type of combat, the plane was surprisingly effective and pilots often reported secondary explosions coming from their targets. An Aviation Week article of the period credited the 509th FIS, an F-102 squadron stationed in Vietnam, with destroying 106 buildings, damaging 59 more, sinking 16 sampans, and destroying one bridge during 199 sorties over the course of 45 days. The manufacturer Convair proposed a series of upgrades to build upon these promising results and further improve the design's ground attack capabilities, but the concept was dropped due to Air Force funding constraints.
These close air support missions were also quite dangerous since they required low-level flight over armed ground troops. A total of 15 F-102 fighters were lost in Vietnam. Three were shot down by anti-aircraft or small arms fire, one was lost in air-to-air combat with a MiG-21, four were destroyed on the ground during Viet Cong mortar attacks, and the remainder succumbed to accidents.
Such accidents were commonplace even under peacetime conditions given the inherent risk to a pilot's life during any flight aboard a high-performance military jet. ANG members of the period who we've been able to locate indicate that only highly qualified pilot candidates were accepted for Delta Dagger training because it was such a challenging aircraft to fly and left little room for mistakes. According to the Air Force Safety Center, the lifetime Class A accident rate for the F-102 was 13.69 mishaps per 100,000 flight hours, and the rate was especially high during the early years of the plane's service.
This poor safety record may have been due in part to a deadly flaw in the aircraft's design that caused an engine stall and loss of control under a certain combination of angle of attack and airspeed frequently encountered during takeoff. According to a former F-102 pilot we've interviewed, this problem caused the plane to roll inverted and resulted in several fatal crashes. Numerous accidents were also encountered during landing because of the plane's steep angle of attack and high airspeed that reduced the pilot's visibility and reaction time. These factors have traditionally been two of the primary disadvantages of delta wing aircraft and explain why the pure delta wing design was later abandoned. Today's delta wing aircraft are typically equipped with leading edge extensions or canards and fly-by-wire control systems that improve safety and performance. Luckily, F-102 operators overcame these deficiencies thanks to good pilot training and control lockouts that prevented the plane from reaching extreme conditions, and the F-102 went on to become one of the safer fighters of its day.
Regardless, the F-102 was still far more dangerous to fly than today's combat aircraft. Compared to the F-102's lifetime accident rate of 13.69, today's planes generally average around 4 mishaps per 100,000 hours. For example, compare the F-16 at 4.14, the F-15 at 2.47, the F-117 at 4.07, the S-3 at 2.6, and the F-18 at 4.9. Even the Marine Corps' AV-8B, regarded as the most dangerous aircraft in US service today, has a lifetime accident rate of only 11.44 mishaps per 100,000 flight hours. The F-102 claimed the lives of many pilots, including a number stationed at Ellington during Bush's tenure. Of the 875 F-102A production models that entered service, 259 were lost in accidents that killed 70 Air Force and ANG pilots.
While these accidents occurred during routine patrol and training flights, F-102 pilots endured further risk while serving under combat conditions in Vietnam. Some of these were Air National Guard pilots from the 147th FIG, where Bush was stationed. These ANG pilots served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 through a volunteer program called "Palace Alert." Palace Alert was an Air Force program that sent qualified F-102 pilots from the ANG to bases in Europe or southeast Asia for three to six months of frontline service. This program was instituted because the Air Force lacked sufficient pilots of its own for duty in Vietnam but was unable to activate ANG units since Presidents Johnson and Nixon had decided not to do so for political reasons. Thanks to Palace Alert, the Air Force was able to transfer much-needed National Guard pilots to Vietnam on a voluntary basis while not actually calling up their squadrons.
Fred Bradley, a friend of Bush's who was also serving in the Texas ANG, reported that he and Bush inquired about participating in Palace Alert. However, the two were told by their flight instructor, Maj. Maurice Udell, that they were not yet qualified since they were still in training and did not have the 500 hours of flight experience required. Furthermore, ANG veteran Col. William Campenni, who was a fellow pilot in the 111th FIS at the time, told the Washington Times that Palace Alert had stopped accepting new applicants before Bush would have been eligible.
After being accepted into the ANG, Airman Basic Bush was selected to attend pilot training even though his test scores were the lowest acceptable for that position. His six weeks of basic training was completed at Lackland AFB in Texas during July and August of 1968. Upon its completion, Bush was promoted to the officer's rank of second lieutenant required for pilot candidates. He spent the next year in flight school at Moody AFB in Georgia from November 1968 to November 1969. The aircraft Lt. Bush trained aboard were the T-41 Mescelero propeller-driven basic trainer, T-37 Tweet primary jet trainer, and the T-38 Talon advanced jet trainer. Bush ranked 22 out of 53 students in his flight school class with a grade of 88 on total airmanship. His scores included 100 for flying without navigational instruments, 89 in flight planning, and 98 in aviation physiology. Bush also completed two weeks of survival training during this period.
Bush then returned to Ellington in Texas to complete seven months of combat crew training on the F-102 from December 1969 to June 1970. This period included five weeks of training on the T-33 Shooting Star and 16 weeks aboard the TF-102 Delta Dagger two-seat trainer and finally the single-seat F-102A. Bush graduated from the training program in June 1970. When interviewed by the Associated Press in February 2004, flight instructor Maj. Udell recalled that Lt. Bush was one of his best students saying that, "I'd rank him in the top five percent."
As Bush was completing his training and being certified as a qualified pilot, there was always the possibility that the ANG might be mobilized to send F-102 squadrons to Vietnam. However, the F-102 had originally been stationed in that theater to guard against the possibility of air attack from the North, a danger that never materialized since North Vietnamese pilots refused to stray south of the border and outside their own protective SAM barrier. This lack of a threat prompted the Air Force to gradually withdraw the F-102 from southeast Asia beginning in December 1969 and concluding in May 1971. The F-102 was instead returned to its primary role of providing air defense for the United States. This vital mission had been almost entirely transferred to the ANG by that time since the Air Force had become increasingly tasked with its overseas responsibilities in Europe and Asia.
Ellington, where Bush was stationed, has remained a National Guard air defense base until the present day. In the early 1970s, however, the facility also took on an additional duty as the only training base for all ANG F-102 pilots in the United States, including some 15 or so squadrons at the time. Lt. Bush remained in the Texas ANG as a certified F-102 pilot who participated in frequent drills and alerts through April of 1972. It appears that he remained on air defense alert since he did not meet the minimum of 1,000 flying hours needed to become an F-102 pilot instructor. Bush had over 600 flight hours when he left the Guard, and 278 of these were aboard the F-102 and TF-102.
By this time, the 147th Fighter Wing was also beginning to phase out the F-102 in the air defense role in favor of F-101B and F-101F two-seat long-range interceptors. As the Ellington F-102 fleet was transitioned to training or retired from service, the F-101 took its place as the primary air defense fighter for the Texas ANG. The base received its first F-101 in May 1971 and its final F-102 was retired in August 1974. The F-102 remained in use with several other units until 1976 when the 199th FIS of the Hawaii ANG finally concluded the long and proud service of the Deuce.
Bush was honorably discharged from the Air National Guard in October 1973 at the rank of first lieutenant. An ANG physical dated 15 May 1971 indicates that he had logged 625 flight hours by that time, and he ultimately completed 326 hours as pilot and 10 as co-pilot while serving with the 111th FIS in Texas. In the fall of 1973, Bush began coursework at the Harvard Business School where he received an MBA in 1975.
This article has relied on a number of print sources and first-hand accounts. Particularly informative in describing the history and military service of the F-102 Delta Dagger has been the fantastic book Century Jets: USAF Frontline Fighters of the Cold War and its 65 page article entitled "Convair F-102 Delta Dagger" by Robert F. Dorr. Other sources that provided background information as well as interesting details include The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft by David Donald, ed., Convair F-102 Delta Dagger by Wayne Mutza, and David Isby's Jane's Fighter Combat in the Jet Age. Another superb resource is Joe Baugher's American Military Aircraft, particularly the F-102A and Squadron Service sections.
We are also indebted to a number of former pilots and ground crew who flew and maintained the F-102 at Air Force
and National Guard bases around the world from 1958 to 1973. These retired servicemen have provided extensive
details and expertise in documenting the history of the F-102 and providing relevant comparisons to more recent
planes that our staff members have experience flying.
- answer by Greg Alexander
- answer by Joe Yoon, 18 July 2004
"I want to express my gratitude for your excellent discussion of the F-102's service in Vietnam. I was a mechanic with the 509th [Fighter Interceptor Squadron] in the Philippines. We were the primary F-102 unit to deploy to Vietnam, and I was stationed at Da Nang when we were attacked by the [Viet Cong] in 1965...the attached picture shows one of our F-102s destroyed in a VC raid. Many good men died in these raids.
...I am so happy to find a site like yours that looks past politics to tell the truth about our service and contributions to the war effort. I want to thank you on behalf of myself and my squadron mates, especially those who didn't make it home."
- comment from George, 3 August 2004
Thanks to you for the excellent information you have provided to help us improve this article. Furthermore, we are pleased to provide an accurate assessment of the F-102 no matter where or how it served. It is unfortunate that the political opponents of George Bush have chosen to attack him by denigrating the plane he flew and service in the Air National Guard. We have done our best to contact former pilots and ground crew of the F-102 during the course of our research. Most feel that they and their plane have been criticized unfairly, and we are happy to do what we can to educate readers about the true legacy of this aircraft.
- answer by Greg Alexander
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