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1954 interceptor

From PlaneSpottingWorld, for aviation fans everywhere

The 1954 interceptor, formally WS-201A, was a US Air Force project to develop a dedicated interceptor aircraft that would enter service in 1954. Several aircraft were developed as part of the project, leading to the F-102 Delta Dagger, F-106 Delta Dart, XF-103 Thunderwarrior and, indirectly, the F-104 Starfighter. The electronics and weapons were also destined to become common, including the AIM-4 Falcon missile and a variety of Hughes Electronics supplied radar and fire control systems. The project also led, eventually, to the upgrading of the SAGE battle control computers to directly control the interceptors for much of their flight. Although greatly delayed, the resulting systems operated for about 20 years, into the 1980s.


The "1954 interceptor" concept first appeared shortly after the creation of the Air Force from the former US Army Air Force in the post-WWII era. With the re-arrangement of command, several new organizations within the Air Force were created, including Tactical Air Command (TAC) and Air Defense Command (ADC), who shared an interest in fighter aircraft. TAC was primarily tasked with offensive duties, but required capable fighters in order to protect their offensive capability. ADC was tasked solely with the defense of the US from enemy attack, in particular long-distance bombers. Soon after their formation, TAC and ADC started moving away from each other in terms of requirements.

In early 1949 ADC started a Request for Proposals (RFP) for an advanced interceptor capable of attacking Soviet bombers that were expected to enter service in the early 1950s. Several interceptors were already under development at that point, typically adaptations of existing fighters like the F-86 Sabre (the D model), the F-94 Starfire (adapted from the P-80 Shooting Star), with the exception being the all-new F-89 Scorpion. However these were all subsonic aircraft, and it was felt they would have insufficient performance to effectively intercept high-speed jet bombers known to be under development in the Soviet Union.

To counter these threats, ADC prepared a request for an entirely new aircraft expected to perform "hot war" interceptions at supersonic speeds, and to be able to do so effectively with automated radar and weapons and a single pilot/weapons operator. This would require an autopilot system that was integrated with the fire control system to lower pilot workload. Given the perceived threat, the new designs were expected to enter service in 1954.


The Air Force had already realized that the complexity of these newer systems would make integration difficult. In the past, aircraft airframes, engines and weapons were fairly common in size and general layout, allowing existing designs to be modified to change any one component with relative ease. For the 1954 interceptor new equipment such as missiles and radar systems would be radically different between designs, there was little expectation that one missile could be swapped for another, for instance, both due to different electronic requirements as well as very different mechanical layout.

To deal with this problem, the Air Force introduced the "Weapons Systems" concept, where an entire aircraft (or other system) would be ordered as a complete working assembly. Although the parts going into it would be ordered under separate contracts, the requirements of the system as a whole would be known to all of the participants in advance, and one of the companies would be considered "prime" on ensuring all the parts would fit when they were delivered. The 1954 interceptor was the first fighter aircraft ordered under the Weapon System concept, and became the WS-201A. Contracts for the various parts making up 201A were sent out as soon as they were completed, the electronics suite, missile, and finally airframe and engine.

Studies of the electronics suite had already started in February 1949, and were folded into WS-201A. In January 1950 they sent out the MX-1179 contract tender to eighteen electronics contractors, but only Bendix, General Electric, Hughes Electronics, North American Aviation, Sperry, and Westinghouse responded. Hughes was announced the winnder in July 1950, with what would become the MA-1. The original contract specified that MX-1179 would "direct some type of air-to-air guided missile." Hughes had already won the MX-904 contract for a missile already known as the GAR-1 Falcon, and this was later selected for WS-201A mainly because it seemed to be the only one that could be ready in time to meet the 1954 operational date.

The airframe and engine contract was issued as MX-1554 on 18 June 1950, with a January 1951 deadline for submissions. MX-1554 also stated that the winner of the airframe contract would also be named the lead "integrator" of the overall Weapon System. When the deadline was reached, nine different proposals were submitted; Republic Aircraft entered three designs, North American two, and Chance-Vought, Convair, Douglas, and Lockheed each submitted a single design. On 2 July 1951 the Air Force announced that Convair, Lockheed, and Republic had been selected to continue development through the mockup stage, and a winner would be selected at that point.

A short while later, the Air Force decided that it also needed a day fighter to combat the new MiG-15's that were being encountered over Korea. The Lockheed effort was redirected toward a day fighter role, becoming the F-104, while Convair and Republic continued on the original MX-1179. It quickly became clear that the Republic design was far too advanced for the 1954 operational entry, and on 11 September 1951 the Convair design was selected as the MX-1554 airframe and was designated F-102. Republic was to continue development of their much more powerful design at a lower priority, becoming the F-103. With the introduction of these programs, work on the Republic XF-91A, originally slated as an interim interceptor, ended in October 1951 in favor of the new designs.

Although the F-102 had been selected as the "low tech" solution in order to meet the 1954 deadline, practically every part of the WS-201 system ran into delays. The aircraft itself proved to have considerably lower performance than originally estimated, and was a transonic design at best. While work continued to improve its aerodynamics, including the first deliberate application of the area rule, an upgraded design as the F-102B 'Ultimate Interceptor' was started. This work would eventually be spun off as the F-106 Delta Dart. Meanwhile the MX-1179 fire control system also ran into problems, forcing a downgrade to a "universal computer fire control system", originally the MG-3 and later the MG-10. Even the Falcon missile ran into delays, although shorter ones.

Meanwhile practically every part of the F-103 program was going wrong. Construction of the airframe required extensive use of titanium in order to handle the high heat loads of extended Mach 3+ flight speeds, and this proved much more difficult to work with than originally expected. The engine, a combination of a Wright-modified version of the Bristol Olympus and a "combined cycle" ramjet from Marquardt, also ran into extensive problems and the J67 eventually ended in failure. Nevertheless the expected performance was so high the program was allowed to soldier on.

Interim measures

The delays seriously upset the original timetable, and it was clear by 1952 that even the "downgraded" F-102 would not be able to meet the 1954 deadline. Although it was expected the F-102B would be an excellent long-term solution, something was needed quickly to fill the performance gap between the existing subsonic designs and the continuing delays in the existing F-102 design. ADC argued that having a second design would also guarantee that problems in either program would be less likely to effect the defense as a whole.

The only design with the needed performance at that point in time was the McDonnell F-88. This design had originally been ordered by Strategic Air Command (TAC) as a long-range "penetration fighter" to escort their heavy bombers. When newer bomber designs offered performance so great the F-88 would not be useful, TAC then took over the work and started modifying it as a low-level nuclear-armed strike fighter, renaming it as the F-101 Voodoo in 26 November 1951.

ADC also became interested in the Voodoo in October 1952, but funding from higher headquarters was difficult to find. They rejected modifying the F-101, mainly due to its high cost, and suggested attempting solving the problem by increasing the numbers of F-86Ds and increasing work on the F-102. In April ADC once again asked for the F-101, this time as a longer-range counterpart for use in areas not widely covered by radar. It appears this suggestion was also rejected.

However, in August 1953 the Soviets detonated their first hydrogen bomb, and ADC's concerns became considerably more urgent. The Air Force Council issued proposals to industry for a new design to work alongside the F-102 that would help fill the gap between the F-89 and F-106. After a short selection process that also included an updated F-89, and an interceptor version of F-100, the F-101 was finally selected for development. The new F-101B would also be equipped with the MG-3/Falcon suite from the F-102, but these were operated by a weapons officer instead of the pilot, thereby greatly simplifying the complexity of the system as a whole.

Service Entry


  • Titanium Titan: the story of the XF-103, Airpower, January 2004