Back in January of 1953, the USAF had asked McDonnell to develop an unarmed photographic reconnaissance version of the F-101A as a possible replacement for the Republic RF-84F Thunderflash. This work was initiated under Weapons System WS-105L.
While under construction, the 16th and 17th F-101A airframes (54-149 and 54-150) were set aside for conversion to unarmed photographic reconnaissance configuration under the designation YRF-101A. They retained the J57-P-13 engines of the fighter-bomber version but had a redesigned and longer nose housing four cameras designed for low-altitude photography. In addition, two high-altitude cameras were mounted behind the cockpit in place of the ammunition boxes of the fighter variant. The dual-mode inflight refuelling system of the fighter version was retained, but the internal fuel tank arrangement was revised slightly resulting in a slightly reduced fuel capacity of 2250 gallons. The first YRF-101A flew on June 30, 1955.
Thirty-five production versions were built under the designation RF-101A. The RF-101A became the USAF's first supersonic photographic reconnaissance aircraft. The first RF-101A was delivered to the 17th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Shaw AFB in South Carolina on May 6, 1957 as a replacement for the subsonic RF-84F. The last RF-101A machines were delivered in October of 1957. Following the delivery of the 35th RF-101A, production switched over to the RF-101C version, 166 examples of which were built.
The RF-101A was compatible with both types of midair refuelling that were in use at the time. There was a retractable refuelling probe in the nose to engage the probe-and-drogue system carried by the KB-50J, and a receptacle behind the pilot's cockpit to accept the flying boom of the KC-97 and KC-135.
The photographic cameras carried by the RF-101A consisted of a long focal-length Fairchild KA-1 framing camera, one vertical and two side oblique Fairchild KA-2 framing cameras, and one CAI KA-18 strip camera. The nose camera system had a battery-powered elevator to lower the cameras to retrieve the film packs. When the cameras were not installed, the wedge-shaped nose provided excess stowage space for cargo or personal effects.
Since the camera equipment was initially quite scarce or even completely unavailable, many of these early RF-101As were initially delivered without a full set of cameras, which severely limited their picture-taking capability. Gradually, however, this equipment was eventually delivered and installed and the RF-101As were finally made fully capable of carrying out their primary missions.
On November 27, 1957, four RF-101As undertook Operation Sun-Run and set several new transcontinental speed records. They took off from Ontario, California and flew to McGuire AFB in New Jersey, being refuelled in flight by KC-135As. Two of the aircraft landed at McGuire, while the other two flew back to California and landed at March AFB. In the flight, 1st Lieut Gustav Klatt set an new eastbound coast-to-coast record of 3 hours 7 minutes 43 seconds (average speed of 781.7 mph) and Captain Robert Sweet set a new westbound coast-to-coast record of 3 hours 36 minutes, 33 seconds (average speed of 677.7 mph) and set a new Los Angeles->New York->Los Angeles round trip record of 6 hours 46 minutes 36 seconds (average speed of 721.85 mph). In December of 1957, an RF-101A flew from Tachikawa AFB in Japan to Hickham AFB in Hawaii in 6 hours 3 minutes to set a new point-to-point record.
RF-101A/C aircraft of the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing flew vital reconnaissance missions over Cuba during the Missile Crisis of October 1962, confirming and then monitoring the Soviet missile buildup on that island. The first missions over Cuba took place on October 23, 1962, and 15 pilots from the 363rd were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses during that action.
The RF-101A, like its fighter stablemate, logged an excellent safety record with the USAF. The F/RF-101A had the distinction of having the lowest first-year accident of any operational fighter in USAF history.
Beginning in November 1959, ex-USAF RF-101As were operated by the Chinese Nationalist Air Force. A total of eight RF-101As were acquired by the Nationalist Chinese under a project code-named Operation Boom Town and were used for routine photographic reconnaissance work as well as for making covert spy flights over the mainland. The mainland government claims to have shot down two of these aircraft. The ROCAF has admitted to the loss of three RF-101As, two to MiGs and one to AAA. The last CNAF RF-101A was retired in the late 1970s. Three RF-101As are on display in Taiwan.
One RF-101A was transferred to the Air National Guard in 1966. The RF-101A served briefly with the 154th TRS of the Arkansas Air National Guard and with the 127th TRG of the Michigan ANG.
By June of 1970, accidents, cannibalization, and transfers had depleted the active USAF fleet to 14 RF-101As. Six of these were being used exclusively for training. During the following year, all of the remaining RF-101As were retired from USAF service.
54-0149/0150 McDonnell YRF-101A-10-MC Voodoo 54-1494/1496 McDonnell RF-101A-20-MC Voodoo 54-1497/1507 McDonnell RF-101A-25-MC Voodoo 54-1508/1518 McDonnell RF-101A-30-MC Voodoo 54-1519/1521 McDonnell RF-101A-35-MC Voodoo 56-0155/0161 McDonnell RF-101A-35-MC Voodoo
Engines: Two Pratt & Whitney J57-P-13 turbojets, 10,200 lb.s.t. dry and 15,000 lb.s.t. with afterburner. Dimensions: wingspan 39 feet 8 inches, length 69 feet 4 inches, height 18 feet 0 inches, wing area 368 square feet. Performance: Maximum speed 1012 mph at 35,000 feet. Initial climb rate 46,600 feet/min. Service ceiling 55,800 feet, combat ceiling 51,540 feet. Normal range 1100 miles, maximum range 2195 miles. Weights: 25,335 pounds empty, 47,331 pounds gross, 39,495 pounds combat weight, 50,000 pounds maximum takeoff. Maximum internal fuel load was 2250 US gallons. A total of three under-fuselage drop tanks could be carried, bringing maximum fuel load to 3150 US gallons. Armament: The RF-101A was unarmed.