Moving into the Jet Age in the 1950s

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing / History Office

The 1950s was a time of tremendous development in aviation, with many new aircraft capabilities as the transition from propeller to jet combat aircraft was completed.  It was matched with changes in performance, weapons improvement of base facilities, and creation of new technical specialties and training to go with ever-more secure/sophisticated aerial weapon systems.

The Oregon Air National Guard’s 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron flew at the cusp of these changes.  As the decade began, the squadron flew the famed North American F-51D Mustang; several 123rd pilots deployed individually and flew combat in Korea with the F-51D as part of the Korean War callup of the ANG. 

Back at Portland Air Force Base the squadron initially traded it its Mustangs in late 1952 for its first jet fighter aircraft, the North American F-86E/F Sabre while on active duty during the Korean War callup.  But when the callup ended, the USAF took the late-model Sabre jets back.  So, the 123rd squadron went back to the tried and true but aging Mustangs for a while, until getting back into jets in the A-model F-86 in late 1953.

The F-86A was a good day-fighter, proven in combat in Korea, and served the squadron well.  But it didn’t last for long as Oregon and other Pacific Northwest ANG units were formally tasked with the air defense mission with the Air Defense Command and received a night, all-weather capable fighter-interceptor to go along with it. 

For Oregon, this was the Lockheed F-94B, received in late 1955.  It was a two-seat, armed, radar-equipped adaptation of the famous T-33 jet trainer.  It was Oregon’s first fighter jet with an afterburner for enhanced engine performance.  The F-94B was combat proven in Korea, and was also the first two-place combat aircraft Oregon operated, with a pilot in front and a radar observer in the back seat.

The F-94B however, soon gave way in 1957 to the Northrop F-89 Scorpion, a larger, two-seat twin-engine jet aircraft and the first fighter Oregon operated without a gun armament, as the F-89D’s initially received were equipped with an armament of 2.75-inch “Mighty Mouse” folding-fin aerial rockets (FFAR). 

The squadron soon upgraded to the F-89H, which featured the first guided-missiles the unit employed, the GAR-1/GAR-2 (later AIM-4) semi-active radar and infrared homing versions of the Falcon missile, and a reduced number of rockets. 

By the end of the decade the squadron received the ultimate version of the Scorpion, the F-89J, which used the Falcon missiles and featured another new weapon, the MB-1 (later AIR-2) Genie air-to-air rocket, which was capable of employing a nuclear warhead. 

Altogether the pace of change was accelerating, literally, with the aircraft and technological progress of the 1950s.  The Oregon ANG mastered these changes and gained valuable experience which helped the organization attain a high readiness level and which prepared it smartly for more growth in the 1960s.