The F-84 and the Jet Age
The F-84 and the Jet Age
Find an aircraft on static display in any aviation history museum, and you’ll usually find an interesting story about the life of the plane. Sometimes, that story is made even more fascinating by the places it's been and by the museums - or people - who have cared for it.
Such is the case of the F-84F Thunderstreak at the Aviation History and Technology Center in Marietta Georgia.
The History of the F-84
Let's begin by reviewing the purpose and role of the F-84. Designed by the famous Republic Aviation Corporation engineer and Georgia-native Alexander Kartveli during the end of World War Two - at a time when the jet engine was replacing propellers and pistons - the first F-84 actually started its life in 1945 as the XP-84 Thunderjet. First flown on February 28, 1946, the aircraft was fast for its time and took on the dual roles as an air superiority and ground attack fighter. However, once in production, the P-84 required a great deal of maintenance and proved unstable in flight due to its under-engineered wing spars for its thick wings and heavy wingtip fuel tanks. The Air Force nearly canceled the jet until Republic remedied these deficiencies in subsequent versions.
By 1948, Republic’s deliveries of Thunderjets reached one-a-day and was re-designated as the F-84 as the Air Force changed its nomenclature from “pursuit” to “fighter”. While its sister aircraft, the North American F-86 had - up to this point - exceeded the F-84’s performance capabilities, the F-84E variation initially bettered the swept-wing F-86.
Pilots described the Thunderjet as a “heavy-feeling” aircraft with high takeoff and landing speeds. Although requiring over 5,000 feet of runway for takeoff, the jet had many important attributes. It could fly over 600 mph, had a range of 800 miles, and was well armed with six .50 caliber machine guns. And once the before-mentioned flaws were corrected, it was a much easier aircraft to fly and maintain. Ultimately these straight-wing versions proved a valuable asset in the Korean War, flying over 85,000 missions.
Starting in 1950, the F-84E version saw action during the Korean War. Initially its primary role was to provide air support to B-29 bombers targeting enemy positions along the Chinese border. The faster and more agile MiG-15s however started attacking the bombers and their F-84 escorts with such success that the Air Force abandoned its strategic use of daytime bombing, subsequently switching to less-accurate night raids.
Where the F-84 had great success indeed was in its role as a ground attack fighter. With its machine guns and its lethal bomb payload, the F-84E was effective not only in supporting frontline troops, but also attacking enemy depots, artillery batteries, and key infrastructure targets like dams. By the time the Korean War had ended, Thunderjets had dropped 61,000 tons of ordinance accounting for 60 percent of ground targets destroyed by the Air Force. However this action came at a cost. Some 335 F-84 were lost to flak, aerial combat, and ground forces.
In 1949 and just prior to the war, a swept-wing prototype - the YF-84 - was designed and was first flown in 1950. Karteveli’s initial design used traditional straight rather than swept wings. This left the Thunderjet less agile than the swept-wing F-86 Sabre and the MiG-15. Deliveries of the F-84F Thunderstreak version began in 1954 after the Korean War with 2,112 being built by Republic and 599 being built by General Motors. In 1955, an F-84F set a transcontinental speed record of 3 hours and 33 minutes from Los Angeles to New York.
While the F-84F saw no wartime action while in service of the US, the Thunderstreak played a very important nuclear deterrent role. The aircraft was modified to carry the Mk. 6 nuclear bomb under its port wing. To deliver the weapon and to escape a nuclear blast, the Thunderstreak needed to perform an unusual maneuver. The aircraft would deliver the weapon by a low-altitude bombing system, or LABS. Once near the target, the F-84F would begin a climb into a loop. The LABS would select the right moment to release the bomb during the loop, after which the aircraft performed a hard turn and departed the blast area. To visualize this maneuver, think about how a softball pitcher lobs a ball towards the catcher in a high arc!
Later in 1952, the Air Force found a new role for the F-84F as a fast photo-reconnaissance aircraft to replace the aging RF-80s. Camera’s were mounted in the F-84F’s wing root air intakes. This version became known as the Thunderflash.
After serving in Europe and the United States, our F-84 was retired in 1972 and for many years was part of the former World Aircraft Museum in Calhoun, GA.
Two years later, the Mercer Airfield was built and opened in 1974 by Ervin Mercer for his own private airplane on land he had purchased for his trucking company. Located at the airfield, his World Aircraft Museum had up to 20 retired warbirds on static display, including our F-84F, a C-47, and an F-86.
Over the years the aircraft located at the field were no longer cared-for and maintained. At some point, our F-84F lost its canopy, was flooded with rainwater and had weeds growing around its wings and landing gear. Mr. Mercer's health deteriorated and he began to sell the aircraft. Some also went to other museums. For example, the F-86 was sent to the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, GA. Others were returned to the U.S. military, and still others were eventually scrapped. Interestingly, the C-47 - while in a state of disrepair - was privately purchased and incredibly flown from the airfield! However, engine troubles forced the pilot to conduct an emergency landing only a few minutes after it took off.
As a result of Mr. Mercer's death in 2010, the land was sold to the state to construct a new off ramp on Interstate 75.
For more information about the history of Mercer Field click here http://www.airfields-freeman.com/GA/Airfields_GA_N.htm#mercer. Special thanks to Paul Freeman for permission to use the content from this page.
The Aviation History and Technology’s aircraft on display was delivered to the USAF in September, 1954 and was initially based in England with the USAF Third Air Force. It was later based at Luke AFB, AZ. Beginning in 1958 it saw service with the Indiana and Ohio Air National Guard units until being retired in 1972 to the Mercer Museum. The Aviation History and Technology Museum restored the aircraft in 2011 and 2012 and is painted to represent an F-84F serving with the Georgia Air National Guard.
A Long Strange Trip it's Been
For 69 years, the Museum’s F-84F has traveled the world. From the UK to Arizona, Ohio, and the Mercer Museum, then eventually to Marietta Georgia, the life of this Thunderstreak was shaped by national vigilance and eventual neglect. Yet through it all, the aircraft was saved and restored by a number of caring volunteers at the Aviation History and Technology Center who, with a great deal of pride and patriotism, brought an important piece of aviation history back to life.