North American RF-100A Slick ChickProbably the least known reconnaissance aircraft of the Cold War was the North American RF-100A, nicknamed the ‘Slick Chick’. In the early 1950’s, before the development of the U2, it had become very apparent to CIA and USAF intelligence chiefs that they lacked an aircraft with the capability to make long-range reconnaissance sorties over the Soviet Block. As an interim solution, in late 1953 North American Aviation was asked to make a six-aircraft proposal, which would offer the reconnaissance ability required until the U-2 arrived in service.
The five requirements laid down for the aircraft were relatively straightforward:
With only 3 weeks to respond to this proposal, North American decided see if it would be possible to adapt the F-100A Super Sabre fighter, which was just entering service, to meet the specified requirements. As the aircraft would rely on speed and altitude for defence, all non-essential equipment was removed, including the four M-39E cannons and associated equipment. Finding a neat solution to housing the cameras in the time available was impossible and the solution was provided by adding long fairings either side of the nose undercarriage bay. An additional 12-inch extension was added to each wing tip to meet the altitude requirement. However, to operate safely at high altitude the pilot needed to wear a pressure suit and this resulted in changes to the cockpit and oxygen system. The carriage of 2 additional drop tanks, inboard of the normal drop tanks, resolved the range requirement.
The USAF accepted the North American proposal and awarded a contract which required delivery of the aircraft within 6 months. Six new F-100As, Serial Numbers AF53-1545 to 8, AF53-1551 and AF53-1554 taken straight from the production line and modified. Later on, one further F-100A Serial Number 52-5760, was also modified for reconnaissance duties but with a far ‘tidier’ camera installation. The tight timescale resulted in some fairly basic engineering solutions being used, particularly in the installation of the cameras. Nevertheless, by working almost around the clock, the aircraft were ready on time. Initial tests flights showed that the camera installation had not allowed sufficient clearance for the shock/vibration isolation system, but with insufficient time available to explore a more elegant solution, it was decided to fit solid spacers and hope.
In mid-1955, after successful competition of flight tests, the six aircraft were sent to Europe, using various bases in Germany (Hahn) and Turkey. The over-flight operations these aircraft conducted are still classified, however, one details of one particular flight have leaked out. On this sortie the pilot took off from a base in Turkey (Incirlick?) to photograph a rocket base deep inside Russia (Kapustin Yar?). The RF-100A was quickly picked up by Soviet radar and, as the target was at the extreme range of the aircraft, the pilot had no option but to fly a virtually straight track – as a consequence the Soviets soon determined the intended target. Throughout the mission, the pilot was faced with the unnerving spectacle of a never-ending stream of Russian fighters attempting to bring down the RF-100A by firing a variety of machine-guns, cannons and missiles at the aircraft. To compound the pilots problems, his heavy fuel load and four drop tanks allowed only very limited evasive manoeuvring. Thanks to poor Soviet gunnery, inadequate planning by the Soviet Fighter Controllers and a fair slice of luck, the pilot reached the target and took the required photographs. However, his problems were far from over, as the target was at the extreme limits of the aircraft’s range and no other airfields were available, he had no choice but to reverse course and retrace his route. The pilot made it back to Turkey, but with virtually empty tanks having kept the aircraft in continuous afterburner for over half an hour as he shot past some extremely agitated Russians – as the RF-100A was officially limited to just a few minutes of afterburner, this effectively destroyed the entire aft fuselage!
As far as it can be established, none of the ‘Slick Chicks’ were lost over Russia, however 2 aircraft were lost due to flying accidents. Since it was only a matter of time before a ‘Slick Chick’ was lost on an overflight and the U-2 was not quite ready, a modified version of the British Canberra, the RB-57D/F took over intelligence gathering duties from the RF-100A, before they were eventually replaced by the U-2. In 1958 the four surviving RF-100A’s were transferred to Taiwan where they undertook reconnaissance sorties over mainland China – no details of these sorties have been released. The final resting place of the seven RF-100A ‘Slick Chick’s’ is unknown, however, as the US Government maintained such a close veil of secrecy over these aircraft for so long, it is most likely they were broken up. It is a great pity that at least one aircraft was not preserved as they were unique aircraft with some interesting stories to tell!
The individual aircraft service histories are as follows: