The United States’ position as the sole remaining superpower on Earth is in large part thanks to its air force. That organization—the United States Air Force, or USAF—turns 70 years old today, and since we know there are plenty of plane spotters and aviation geeks here at Ars, we thought we’d assemble a gallery of some of our favorite USAF planes to celebrate.
Of course, the US military had access to air power before September 18, 1947. The Army started playing around with planes a few short years after the Wright brothers took to the skies and proved heavier-than-air flight was possible, getting its first airplane—a Wright Flyer, naturally—in 1909. Around the same time, the US Navy also started getting into the flying business, but since today isn’t the Navy’s birthday, that’s the last we’ll say about naval aviation here.
By World War II, the US Army had its Army Air Forces, which flew combat missions in the European and Pacific theaters. The USAAF even brought the war to a close when a pair of B-29s dropped atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In the aftermath of WWII, Congress decided that the country required a dedicated air force and created a new branch of the military with the National Security Act of 1947. The United States Air Force was born.
The Cold War was good business for the aerospace industry that supplied the USAF. Constant fears of being one-upped by the design bureaus of the USSR meant a steady stream of new fighters, bombers, cargo planes, and other equipment was always on order.
Its first big action was the Berlin Airlift, an almost year-long operation to bring food and other vital supplies into Allied-controlled parts of the city after the Soviet Union decided to block ground transport links. Just two years later, the USAF was deployed on the Korean Peninsula. There, in the skies above the Yalu River, dogfights between USAF F-86 Sabres and Soviet MiG-15s showed the world that we were truly in the Jet Age.
Back at home, General Curtis LeMay was busy building up Strategic Air Command, the bomber side of the USAF. LeMay was a hard taskmaster and kept SAC on a hair-trigger alert ready to strike targets in the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. SAC’s workhorse was the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, which entered service in 1955—nearly 80 of which are still in service today. Thankfully for all of us, it was never given the order. But the USAF saw plenty of action in Vietnam, where it learned hard lessons about the efficacy of surface-to-air missiles.
Post-Vietnam, the USAF geared up for what many thought was an inevitable war with the USSR. To do so, it needed faster and more capable planes, leading to designs like the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and everyone’s favorite warthog, the A-10 Thunderbolt II. These never did end up dicing with MiGs and Sukhois over the skies of Western Europe, but they did find action in the Middle East, most commonly dropping bombs in support of ground troops.
Today, the USAF is all about stealth. Those lessons from Vietnam about the dangers of radar-guided missiles drove investment into a new area of research, one that could make planes invisible—to radar, if not the naked eye. The results have been spectacularly effective and spectacularly expensive. Plans for a large force of B-2 Spirit bombers eventually got scaled back to just 21 airframes. The F-22 Raptor was also too expensive for Congress to stomach, and it cut the order in half to 187 examples. Even the F-35 Lightning II orders have been scaled back a little.
Some also wonder if the F-35 will be the last new manned fighter in the line-up. The USAF was keen on drones and autonomous vehicles decades before they became a hot item at CES, and unmanned aircraft are progressing past the prop-driven MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper into more capable machines. It’s even believed that the B-21 Raider—due to enter service some time in the mid-2020s—will be capable of unmanned flight.
Happy birthday, United States Air Force!