RF-84 Thunderflash The Predator of the 1950's

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot
  • 185 ARW Wing Public Affairs

The 1950's era Republic RF-84 photo reconnaissance aircraft that is on static display at the Sioux City, Iowa Air Guard Base recently went through a significant make over. The aircraft spent several months in the fabrication shop and as time permitted it was cleaned and restored. The final step was to give the old jet new paint at the Air National Guard paint facility before putting it back on display. Seeing the plane restored to its former glory prompted a renewed interest in the mission of the RF-84 while it was assigned to the Iowa National Guard in the late 1950's and early 1960's.

The 174th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) flew the RF-84 photo mission from April 1958 to May 1961. An older sibling of today's A-10 Thunderbolt, the RF-84 "Thunderflash" was the first of the modern jets to be specifically designed for photo-reconnaissance. One of over a dozen variations of the F-84 the RF-84 was specifically designed to hold a variety of large cameras in its nose. The biggest difference in the appearance of the RF-84 was that the air intakes were moved to the wings and straddled the fuselage. The nose, where the intake had been, was honeycombed with glass to accommodate a variety of aerial photo equipment.

The "tactical" part of RF-84 mission meant pilots would typically find themselves over hostile airspace, flying low and slow and usually alone. It was a precarious time to fly photo reconnaissance. The Korean War had just ended in a stalemate but America's continued cold war with the Soviet Union demanded quick reliable intelligence, even more so with both the U.S. and Russian fingers on the nuclear trigger.

Throughout the history of war, armies have sought to have the advantage of being able to see the battlefield from above. As early as the American Civil War, intelligence gatherers used aviation support like the Balloon Corps, in order to get a bird's eye view of enemy encampments, troop movements and capabilities, and to direct activities on the ground.

With the advent of powered flight the first application used by British Army Aviation in the early 1900's was as photo reconnaissance. By the middle of the century units like the 174th could fly near the speed of sound and higher than mountain peaks, all while taking photos, where objects as small a golf ball, could be identified. After a hundred years the main application of each new advance in military aviation, like unmanned flight, still remains the same: that is, to watch the enemy and provide images of battle areas to commanders on the ground.

Prior to converting to the RF-84 the 174th had already been flying the F-84 fighter, so while there was little difference in piloting the aircraft, the mission was quite different. Rather than shooting targets with bombs and bullets, 174th pilots were shooting targets with cameras. While much of the photographic equipment had been in use since the end of the Second World War, significant improvements had been made through the years.

The RF-84 was specifically developed for application during the Korean War so when the Air Guard in Sioux City received the RF-84 after the war, in 1958 the aircraft was still relatively new. The aircraft was the first to allow the pilot the ability to use a view finder in conjunction with camera controls in order to focus on specific targets. It was also equipped with a voice recorder to allow the pilot to describe what was in the photo he was capturing. The aircraft was also the first that could be configured to allow nighttime photography.

Retired Master Sgt. Duane "Mac" McCallum worked in the photo lab at Sioux City where film from the RF-84 was developed. According to McCallum, after the National Guard picked up the mission, units like the 174th TRS quickly found ways to improve the process. "Camera repair people got a salvage truck and put a darkroom on it, so that while they are driving to the hanger, they can take the film out, put it in the can, so that by the time they reach the hanger they are ready to bring it up to the photo lab" said McCallum. This change in procedure while a seemingly small improvement, cut significant time off the developing process in training exercises but more importantly during a time of war this process would get the images to the war fighters who needed them much more quickly. This is part of how the 174th became the Air Guard's top reconnaissance unit in 1961.

As part of the 185th Air Refueling Wing, in Sioux City, Iowa, the 174th Air Refueling Squadron is still active unit in the Iowa Air Guard. The mission and aircraft flown by the Air Wing in Sioux City has changed numerous times through the years and the unit has proven through history the kind of tenacity it takes to cope with mission change. While the mission and aircraft have changed through the years the rich heritage, pride and ingenuity that has served the National Guard so well has survived the test of time and continues to serve the Air Refueling Wing well.

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