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The Era of the Jet and the B-52: Vietnam at the USAF Musuem

Written by on Friday, March 30th, 2012

The United States was still attempting to reestablish peace and stability in South Korea when the Vietnam War broke out. Much like the previous war, the war pitted southern capitalist-friendly forces against Communist aggressors from the north. Though the conflict took a brutal toll on US troops and our allies, this war was extremely important for the history of the USAF because of how fully the US military committed to aerial superiority.

The previous success of the US Air Force during the Korean War, paired with the fact that Vietnam consisted of densely forested, inhospitable land persuaded military officials to focus heavily on controlling the skies. The US and its allies followed an aggressive bombing campaign, dropping explosives, napalm, and herbicides over Vietnam.

The wide array of new, highly advanced aircraft made such an assault possible. The center of the Vietnam War exhibit at the National Museum of the USAF is completely dominated by the utterly massive B-52D Stratofortress, a younger but hulking descendant of WWII’s Flying Fortress. Several B-52s were modified to accommodate especially large quantities of bombs for carpet bombing missions.

Aircraft powered by jet engine were truly beginning to take over the skies. Aircraft such as the tactical order antibiotics bomber B-57 Canberra and the F-105 Thunderchief sported high-powered jet engines. The latter was capable of achieving Mach 2 speeds, and it still holds the record as the largest single-seat, single-engine military aircraft in history.

Still, the transition to jet engines and turbines was not yet complete. The C-123 Provider, a propeller aircraft, saw service during Vietnam. Much smaller propeller-powered aircraft such as the A-1E Skyraider and the T-28 Trojan performed assault and counter-insurgency missions.

Helicopters also played an important role in the Vietnam conflict. The Sikorsky CH-3E provided anti-submarine support, while the HH-43B Huskie offered rescue and firefighting aid.

Even as advancements in aerial technology put stronger and faster aircraft in the sky, US enemies were developing powerful anti-aircraft weapons. The SA-2 missile, or SAM, was built by Soviet engineers and used against US aerial forces. SAM missiles were virtually unstoppable, prompting USAF officials to create a highly-specialized group of pilots to destroy SAM bases. These new tactics eventually dropped the Vietnams’ missiles fired-to-kill ratio to an unimpressive 40:1.

Unfortunately, USAF superiority was not sufficient to stop the spread of Communism in Vietnam, and US troops were forced to withdraw from the region.


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