Thrown in at the Deep End
The F-101 Voodoo, widely considered to be one of the most formidable western interceptor aircraft of the 1960s and early 1970s, had its design origins in the McDonnell F-88, a failed bomber escort fighter prototype.
High losses of bombers during the Korean War caused the United States Air Force to rethink its presumption that the new generation of jet powered bombers, like the B-47 and B-52, would have such high performance that escort fighters would not be required for them. In 1951, USAF issued a requirement for a long range fighter that would be able to protect bombers on intercontinental missions.
Five companies, including McDonnell, submitted proposals to fill the requirement. McDonnell used the opportunity to revisit the F-88 and redesign it to fit the new requirement, making it larger and with more powerful engines. The redesigned F-88 won the competition for the new long range interceptor and was re-designated as the F-101A. As the F-101A was seen as simply a branch of the existing F-88 design by the USAF, it was ordered into production without a prototype. This resulted in the aircraft spending the mid 1950s in testing squadrons ironing out a multitude of problems before finally reaching front line operational units in 1957.
Changing Shape and Changing Roles
By the time it had reached active service, the USAF had lost interest in the F-101A as a bomber escort. However, the aircraft did get a reprieve and was re-tasked as a fighter bomber with nuclear strike abilities. While certain variants of the aircraft would retain the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon, this ability would become secondary as the F-101 was developed into an interceptor and reconnaissance platform; these latter two roles would come to define the aircraft historically.
Many F-101A were refitted for reconnaissance work and designated as RF-101A or RF-101G depending on the camera packages installed in them. The F-101C, which was a strengthened version of the A variant, received similar conversion treatment; resulting in the RF-101C and RF-101H. It would be through the RF-101C and its missions in the Vietnam conflict that the F-101 family would see its only combat.
Numerically, the two seat F-101B interceptor variation was the most significant member of the F-101 line. For over a quarter of a century, the F-101B played a significant role in the air defense of North America. Canadian and American F-101 units, under the combined North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), stood ready to intercept any unidentified aircraft approaching the continent at short notice until the last Voodoos were retired in the 1980s.
The Voodoo in Canadian Service
The Voodoo family was not widely exported; beyond a handful of reconnaissance variants provided to Taiwan, Canada was the only other foreign user of the type.
Canada took on their first Voodoos in 1961 as a replacement for the very capable, but subsonic, Avro CF-100 interceptor. Initially, the CF-100 was to be replaced by Avro’s CF-105 Arrow interceptor; however, in the wake of the Arrow’s cancellation, Canada was left looking further afield to fill the gap. The Voodoo’s high speed, long range and immediate availability from existing USAF stocks made it a very attractive gap filler indeed.
The Voodoo served the Royal Canadian Air Force and subsequent Canadian Armed Forces from 1961 until 1987 and equipped a total of five squadrons. Canada took a total of 66 Voodoos, 56 F-101B interceptors and 10 F-101F trainers, from American stocks in 1961; ten years later, these aircraft were returned to the U.S. in exchange for updated machines.
While Canadian Voodoos relinquished the interceptor role in 1984 to the new CF-18 Hornet, Canada continued to fly the unique EF-101B electronic warfare variant until 1987.
The Voodoo and Me
As a Canadian born in the early 1970s and just old enough to remember newscasts when it was still the Voodoo that went up to escort the Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” aircraft the Soviets occasionally sent back out of Canadian airspace, I have a special place in my heart for the Voodoo.
I remember Voodoos from the first airshow I ever attended. It was in 1982 at Canadian Forces Base Edmonton; Edmonton, Alberta is my hometown and for the years I was growing up the base was under Air Command jurisdiction and hosted a very large biannual airshow.
1982 was the year when the F-18 Hornet, the Voodoo’s replacement in Canadian service, was introduced. Much was being made of the Hornet by the commentators and all eyes were upon the pair of factory fresh machines going through their paces and doing all manner of jaw droppingly impressive maneuvers above the crowd. Very impressive they were and the Hornet has spent the last three decades being a very worthy heir to the Voodoo in Canadian skies.
However, for all their acrobatics and nimbleness, there was one thing the Voodoo could do on that 1982 day that the Hornet simply could not touch:
Sometime after the pair of Hornets had done their demonstration, four Voodoos took to the air and did their thing. They finished their routine with a low, slow fly past of the crowd line with everything hanging. The noise and vibration were almost beyond description. Almost as if the Voodoos were looking down at the Hornets and saying “Take that, kid!”
As a 9 or 10 year old, I was speechless at the sight of it. As an adult, I am still in awe of the imposing presence that a Voodoo sitting idle in a museum and never to fly again still possesses.
A very good book which focuses primarily on the Voodoo’s early service and reconnaissance roles is “Voodoo Warriors: The Story of the McDonnell Voodoo Fast-jets”:
The Author, Nigel Walpole, is a retired RAF jet pilot who spent part of his career flying the RF-101C reconnaissance variant of the F-101 Voodoo jet while on assignment to the USAF. As such, he has a direct connection to the F-101 aircraft and many fellow pilots who flew it as well as a career spent flying a variety of other fast jets. Certainly a very qualified voice to speak on the subject.
As online sources go, “The Fighter Writer” blog gives a good overview of the Voodoo’s history, development and service: