The word “dart,” whether used as a verb or as a noun, implies something speedy and aerodynamic. In the automotive industry, the 21st-century edition of the Dodge Dart – which had originally been produced from 1959 to 1976 – didn’t exactly live up to the name, being plagued with a host of reliability issues. By contrast, the Convair F-106 Delta Dart jet fighter-interceptor aircraft did indeed prove itself worthy of the name, earning the sobriquet of “Ultimate Interceptor” (even though it never actually ended up being used in combat). Let’s now take a deeper dive into the dossier of the dynamic Delta Dart (aaahhh, sexntuple alliteration).
F-106: A Convair Creation
Built by the now-defunct Convair Division of General Dynamics, the Delta Dart made her maiden flight on December 26, 1956, and was officially introduced into U.S. Air Force service in June 1959. The plane was built as an improvement upon the same manufacturer’s F-102 Delta Dagger, which my 19FortyFive colleague Peter Suciu bluntly and unflatteringly rates as one of the 4 worst jet fighters ever:
“If looks could kill, this interceptor with its delta wing design would have been a truly deadly weapon. However, a capable and effective aircraft needs to do more than just look good, yet the F-102 Delta Dagger couldn’t accomplish its primary role of intercepting invading Soviet bombers. With its original Westinghouse J40 turbojet engine, the Delta Dagger was barely able to reach Mach 1, and attempts to refine the aircraft eventually led to the development of a new – and finally improved – Convair F-106 Delta Dart.”
For the sake of being fair and balanced (please, Fox News, don’t sue me for the reference), it should be noted that the Delta Dart, improvements over its predecessor notwithstanding, went through some initial teething problems as well: a faulty ejection seat killed the first 12 pilots to eject from the aircraft! Fortunately, the bugs were worked out of the system before the plane developed a “flying coffin” reputation, and the Delta Dart grew to be loved by the men who flew it, lovingly nicknaming her simply “The Six.”
Another motivating factor behind the creation of, and upgrade to, the F-106, was the fear of Soviet strategic heavy bombers, particularly the Tupolev Tu-4 “Bull,” a reverse-engineered copy (dare I say “knockoff” or ripoff?”) of the legendary B-29 Superfortress that had spelled the doom of Imperial Japan in WWII. The Air Force needed a warbird capable of countering this threat rain or shine, hell or high water, and the end result was considered by many to be the best all-weather interceptor airframe ever built.
As the plane’s moniker implies, it was built with a delta-type wing. Owing to its intended role as a pure interceptor, i.e. not intended to dogfight enemy fighters, it was not equipped with either a gun – shades of the early versions of the F-4 Phantom(!) – nor with the ability to carry bombs.
Indeed, the F-106 Delta Dart was able to carry a total of four air-to-air missiles and single air-to-air, nuclear-tipped rockets – an impressive feat for sure. Also, Rather than carrying its mutinous externally, however, the F-106 carried its munitions internally in order to preserve its streamlined design.
Laying a Claim to Fame
The F-106 made quite an impression early on. On December 15, 1959, then-U.S. Air Force Major Joe Rogers, at the stick and rudder of F-106A Serial Number 56-0467 set a measured world absolute speed record of Mach 2.39 (1,525.95 mph/2455.77kph). Though that speed record has been topped by multiple jet aircraft since then, the Delta Dart still holds the world record as the fastest single-engine fighter after 62 years!
Then there was the story of a Delta Dart that became a true “ghost rider” (with all due respect to Tom Cruise in the original Top Gun). On February 2, 1970, a F-106 flown by then-1st Lt. Gary Foust on a training mission out of Maelstrom AFB, Montana went into a flat spin, compelling Lt. Foust to eject. By some miracle, the now-unmanned plane managed to gently land on its belly with relatively little damage in a snow-laden Montana cornfield! For the amazing full story, click on this hyperlink.
Missing Out on the Action
The Cold War never flared up into WWIII, so the Delta Dart never got to shoot down a Soviet bomber. For that matter, even though later editions were armed with a rotary cannon, and in spite of the fact that it – unlike the Phantom – also had good maneuverability to go with its impressive speed, it was also never sent to Vietnam to tangle with Communist MiG-21s or MiG-17s. Former “Six” pilot Bruce Gordon explains why:
“Two basic reasons the F-106 wasn’t used in Vietnam: 1. It didn’t carry bombs, and most of our missions were bombing. 2. MiGs wouldn’t come up to fight if the odds weren’t in their favor. The F-106 was best at high altitudes, about 40,000 feet. We could have flown over North Vietnam all day and the MiGs wouldn’t have come up to fight…The F-106s were few in number and were needed for defense of the USA and South Korea. We didn’t have enough of them to be practical for Vietnam.”
F-106: Where Are They Now?
A total of 342 Delta Darts were built. The Air Force and Air National Guard incrementally retired them between 1983 and 1988, converting them to target drone status, thus enabling them to go out in some semblance of a proverbial “blaze of glory” even though they never saw real-world combat. NASA, meanwhile, kept six “Sixes” (bad pun intended) as a research and test aircraft until 1998.
Surviving “Sixes” are on display at roughly 25 aviation museums around the U.S. The most famous example is that aforementioned self-landing “ghost plane,” officially dubbed the “Cornfield Bomber,” which now sits at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).