Happy 75th Birthday to the United States Air Force
The United States Air Force (USAF) turns seventy-five years old on Sunday. On September 18, 1947, Chief Justice Fred Vinson swore in Stuart Symington as the first secretary of the air force, officially founding a new branch of the U.S. military. General Carl A. Spaatz became the USAF’s first chief of staff eight days later on September 26, 1947.
The origins of the USAF lie in a decision made just four years after the Wright Brothers conducted the world’s first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps created an Aeronautical Division and put it in “charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines and all kindred subjects.” As aviation technology improved, the army’s air force grew bigger. An independent military arm became virtually inevitable after the Army Air Forces became an autonomous U.S. Army Command in 1942 and then grew substantially throughout the remainder of World War II. On July 26, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 on board the presidential aircraft, the Sacred Cow, and set the creation of the USAF in motion.
As technology developed so too did the air force’s reach. On September 1, 1982, it established Air Force Space Command (AFSC) to oversee military operations in space. That responsibility included not only monitoring ballistic missile launches around the world and placing military assets in space for all the services, but also developing and operating an array of satellite-based communications systems. As space grew in importance as a military domain, so too did calls to make the air force’s space assets its own service, much as the air force itself grew out of the army. That vision was realized on December 20, 2019, when the United States Space Force (USSF) was established. Twenty-three air force units around the country were merged to create it, and air force General John W. “Jay” Raymond was made the first chief of space operations. The air force’s influence over the much smaller USSF continues—it handles 75 percent of the new branch’s logistics work.
The U.S. Air Force has 329,476 active duty personnel, 69,200 reserve personnel, 106,700 air national guard personnel, and 149,482 civilian personnel. The service flies more than 5,100 manned aircraft. These planes come in the form of some forty different airframes, ranging from the B-2 stealth bomber to the F-35 jet fighter to the VC-25, which is better known as Air Force One. Nineteen airmen have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
I asked Colonel Erin Staine-Pyne, an air force officer spending a year as a visiting military fellow in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Program, to recommend some reading for people looking to learn more about the air force. Here’s what she suggests:
Winston Groom, The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Dolitte, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight (2013). Groom expertly interweaves the incredible stories of three air force legends during the great age of flight. Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Jimmy Doolittle are extraordinary heroes who each faced harrowing challenges and displayed unmistakable bravery to achieve incredible aviation feats.
Keith O'Brien, Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History (2018). You might think that the history of aviation is strictly male, but you'd be very wrong. O’Brien tells the fascinating stories of five remarkable female aviators: Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden, who fought sexism for the chance to race airplanes. Earhart once explained: “If and when you knock at the door, it might be well to bring an ax along; you may have to chop your way through.”
Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002). Coram argues that Colonel John Boyd may be the most unsung hero in all of American military history. Boyd wrote the manual on fighter tactics and changed how aircraft were designed and flown. He has been credited by some with America's decisive victory in the Gulf War. As an airman he was difficult and offensive but also a patriot who loved his country and sacrificed his own personal success for the good of the nation.
Ben Rich and Leo Janos, Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed (1994). Rich headed Lockheed Martin’s advanced projects division, called “Skunk Works,” during the last sixteen years of the Cold War. One of his signature achievements was the development of the F-117 stealth fighter. Skunk Works is his intriguing behind-the-scenes memoir about the development of the air force’s most secretive technologies. It highlights impressive engineering achievements, the thrilling and dangerous world of test pilots, and gives a glimpse into the military-industrial complex.
Colonel Staine-Pyne also recommended two films to watch:
Transformers (2007). Transformers is a Hollywood blockbuster about two races of robots who flee their doomed planet and come to earth in search of a power source. But the best part of the film is that it showcases the incredible U.S. Air Force Special Operations community. Air Force Combat Controllers are battlefield airmen who specialize in fire support, air traffic control, and communications in a covert or austere location. They are unsung heroes from both the Iraq and Afghan wars and deserve recognition for their service and sacrifices. Plus, the movie is action packed, has just the right amount of humor, and fantastic special effects.
The Last Full Measure (2019). The Last Full Measure chronicles the efforts of Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman and numerous veterans to see the Medal of Honor bestowed on William H. Pitsenbarger. Pitsenbarger was an air force pararescuer who saved more than sixty downed soldiers and pilots during the Vietnam War. On April 11, 1966, he chose to leave his rescue helicopter to help wounded soldiers on the ground under heavy fire when others wouldn’t go. After saving many lives, he was ordered to leave on the last helicopter out. He refused and sacrificed his own life in what became one of the bloodiest battles in the war. “Pits” is the ideal American airman and a true hero.
If you’d like to learn more about the U.S. Air Force, Colonel Staine-Pyne also offered a museum recommendation:
The National Museum of the United States Air Force. If you are in Dayton, Ohio, take some time to visit the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The museum is the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world with more than 360 aircraft and missiles on display, including the Memphis Belle, a Boeing B-17 famous for the number of bombing missions it flew during World War II. You can also see the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. My favorite exhibit is the Space Gallery, which includes the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft.
Sinet Adous and Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.