The US Air Force was born at the dawn of a new era of aviation that brought jets, nuclear weapons and supersonic flight, and this Sunday, September 18, marks its 75th anniversary. But the Air Force existed long before we knew its name.
For four years, the U.S. military has flown dozens of different aircraft and missions, and the list goes on, from the days when everything was new for the Wright Brothers to the hellish aerial combat of World War II. For the most part, these flyers are members of the U.S. Army.
Then, two years after World War II, the National Security Act was enacted in 1947. The bill, signed by President Harry Truman on July 25 of that year, stipulated that the Air Force should become its own independent branch of the U.S. military, and went into effect two months later, on September 18.
USAF just turned 75: these are the planes taking off
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The Air Force has just started its new bureaucracy and has recorded a remarkable aerial achievement: In October 1947, Captain Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier of the X-1 aircraft. But more workday designs are the norm, like the old C-47 light rail, messengers of hope and rations for people trapped in divided cities during the Berlin airlift, and soon the B-36 and B-52 bombers , the incarnation of the Cold War doctrine of mass retaliation and mutually assured destruction.
In recent decades, the Air Force has relied on stealth aircraft including the F-117 Nighthawk and B-2 Spirit, Predator and Reaper drones, and Secret X-37B space plane . The separation of the U.S. Space Force from the Air Force in late 2019 showed how important missions beyond the atmosphere have become.
The first slide above looks back at 75 years of US Air Force aircraft. The second below shows the first aircraft in 40 years. (Of course, no disrespect to the many pilots of the US Navy . Here, though, we focus on the branch dedicated to air superiority.)
These bold aircraft designs paved the way for the USAF
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Before 1947, the predecessors of the USAF had many names. It all started with the Army Signal Corps. In the first few years of the heavier-than-air aircraft after the Wrights flew to the Kitty Hawk, flying vehicles, including balloons and airships, were viewed as observation platforms rather than weapons.
Prior to the creation of the United States Air Force in Washington, the organization was named as follows: Army Signal Corps Aviation Division (1907-14) and Aviation Section (1914-18) Air Service (1918-26), Army Air Corps (1926-41) and Army Air Force (1941-47).
The Department of Aviation commenced operations on August 1, 1907. Two years later, the US government officially accepted the Wright Flyer for $30,000 and designated it as Signal Corps No. 1 aircraft.
forward and up to B-21 Raider
New aircraft are constantly appearing. The Air Force is now looking ahead to the B-21 Raider, a next-generation bomber that, on paper, is very similar to the existing B-2 Spirit bomber. The service is trying to think about the future, saying the B-21 will be “the backbone of the Air Force’s bomber force in the future.” It will work with the latest version of the long-serving B-52, while the B-1B is being phased out.
The B-21 is currently under development at Northrop Grumman. In May, the defense contractor completed the first round of testing, calibrating instruments and verifying structural integrity for the first B-21 as part of ground testing before the final maiden flight. The company said it has six aircraft in various stages of production and testing.
The Air Force expects the first flight of the B-21 Raider to take place in 2023, with the first aircraft expected to enter service in the mid-2020s. It expects to spend about $20 billion on the production of the B-21 over the next five years, plus $12 billion on research and development, but it did not specify how many planes the equivalent would be.
Back in 2016, the Air Force was already eyeing at least 100 B-21s once production reached full speed.
While the generals, bureaucrats, and politicians solve problems, the pilots will be there to do their thing: fly.
Here’s Yeager on the essence of hot pilots. It was 1954, and he had just started testing the high-performance Soviet MiG-15 delivered by defectors, which he compared to the Air Force’s F-86 Sabre.
“Yeager had to chuckle. Some things never changed,” wrote Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. “You ask any fighter athlete to talk about the bandit and he’ll tell you it’s the hottest thing ever. After all, when he waxes the bandit’s tail, it makes him look so much better.”