Early Interceptors

Text by Divan Muller
When thinking about interceptors, Britain’s English Electric Lightning, the Soviet MiG-25 and American Century Series fighters immediately come to mind, but what about the early jet-powered interceptors? What about pioneering subsonic aircraft which, although ground-breaking at the time, are often forgotten? Let us remember and take a brief look at some of those early Cold War interceptors.
The USA’s Northrop F-89 Scorpion

Originally intended to replace the Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter, the Northrop F-89 Scorpion served exclusively as an all-weather interceptor. The aircraft had the capability to carry bombs or unguided rockets for ground attack missions, but it was never used in that capacity. The F-89 completed its maiden flight on 16 August 1948 and entered service with the US Air Force (USAF) two years later. It was one of the USA’s first aircraft to carry guided air-to-air missiles and was the first to be equipped with nuclear air-to-air rockets, intended to destroy entire formations of enemy bombers. Although no Scorpion has been used in combat, an F-89J bears the distinction of being the only aircraft to fire a live AIR-2 Genie nuclear air-to-air rocket. The rocket exploded at an altitude of about 19 000 ft and proved that it could be used over civilian populations. More than 1 000 Scorpions were built and the aircraft type remained in service until the late 1960s.
Canada’s Avro CF-100 Canuck

Avro Canada developed the CF-100 Canuck in response to a requirement for an all-weather interceptor, announced by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1945. The aircraft completed its first flight on 19 January 1950, with Squadron Leader Bill Waterton at the controls. Waterton had previously flown Hawker Hurricanes in the Battle of France in 1940, before becoming a respected test pilot. Aerodynamicist Jim Chamberlin, who would later play a significant role in the Gemini and Apollo space programmes, helped develop the CF-100’s fuselage. Another well-known aviation personality, test pilot Janusz Żurakowski, reached Mach 1 during a test flight. It was an impressive feat for a straight-winged aircraft. At the 1955 Farnborough Airshow, Zurakowski’s CF-100 aerobatic display included a ‘falling leaf’ manoeuvre, which made news headlines and convinced Belgium to purchase examples of the aircraft type. In the end, about 700 Canucks were built. These aircraft remained in service until the early 1980s.
Britain’s Gloster Javelin

The Gloster Javelin took to the skies on 26 November 1951. As with the CF-100, Bill Waterton was at the controls with the Javelin’s maiden flight. When it entered service in 1956, the Javelin became the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) first purpose-built all-weather interceptor, armed with locally developed Firestreak air-to-air missiles. During the 1960s, Javelins were deployed to various geopolitical ‘hot spots’, such as Malaysia, Hong Kong and Zambia, but the aircraft never fired a shot in anger. RAF Javelins were retired in the late 1960s, but one aircraft remained in service as a test platform until 1975. In total, more than 400 examples were built.
The Soviet Union’s Yakovlev Yak-25

Development of the Yak-25 began in August 1951. The resulting prototype completed its maiden flight less than one year later, on 19 June 1952. Unlike the previous aircraft mentioned in this article, Yak-25s never carried missiles operationally, although they were used as test platforms to test-fire missiles for other aircraft types. In fact, Yak-25s were perhaps most valuable to the Soviet Air Force as test aircraft, especially if one considers the aircraft type’s surprisingly large number of prototypes and variants, which ranged from prototype nuclear bombers to radio-controlled target drones. In a conventional interceptor role, Yak-25s relied on two 37 mm cannons, with 50 rounds available for each cannon. By the late 1960s, when the Soviet Union’s Yak-25s were retired, about 480 examples had been produced.