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The United States Air Force (USAF) turns 73 years-old today. 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. Gen. 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.
The Air Force has 328,200 active duty personnel, 69,200 reserve personnel, 106,700 air national guard personnel, and 145,700 civilian personnel. The service flies more than 5,300 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 Col. Jon Eberlan, 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 he suggests:
General James P. McCarthy (Ed.), The Air Force (2002). McCarthy’s edited volume “combines photographs, art, and narrative to illustrate key personnel and weapon systems that significantly contributed to the development, growth, and evolution of the Air Force.”
Thomas Alexander Hughes, Overlord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II (1995). Overlord “covers the story of how General Elwood ‘Pete’ Quesada integrated tactical airpower with ground forces during World War II, including its critical role in Operation Overlord and the liberation of Europe. Many of General Quesada’s concepts formed the foundation for modern tactical air-to-ground support.”
Brian D. Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training After Vietnam (2015). Laslie examines “the revolution of pilot instruction and training exercises resulting from the airpower lessons learned in Vietnam. The book also explores and highlights the training revolution’s impacts on airpower’s performance in subsequent operations in Grenada, Panama, Libya, and Iraq.”
John Andreas Olsen (Ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (2015). Olsen “explores the key contributions of airpower theorists Boyd and Warden, provides an analysis of airpower’s history, and offers a conceptual framework for those seeking to better understand airpower’s ability to achieve strategic effects and its impacts on contemporary warfare.”
Col. Eberlan also recommended three films to watch:
The Right Stuff (1983). The Right Stuff is based on the book by Tom Wolfe and “highlights the innovative spirit of the Air Force through the test pilot and space programs. It also depicts the impacts and sacrifices endured by pilots, astronauts, and their families to serve early on in these highly specialized programs.”
Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Twelve O’Clock High tells the story of aircrews serving in the Eighth Air Force early in World War II. The film offers insights “into the importance of a leader setting standards and maintaining accountability to effect overall unit discipline, morale, cohesion, and performance.” This film is based on the book by Beirne Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett
Bat*21 (1988). Set during the Vietnam War, Bat*21 “follows the search and rescue of Air Force navigator and electronic warfare officer, Lieutenant Colonel Iceal ‘Gene’ Hambleton. Named for the aircraft call sign, the movie documents Lieutenant Colonel Hambleton’s survival behind enemy lines and ultimately, rescue, after his aircraft was shot down during the 1972 Easter Offensive.” Bat*21 is based on the book by William C. Anderson.
If you want more information about the Air Force, check out the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Professional Reading List. You can learn even more about the history of the USAF online through the Air Force Historical Support Division.
A tip of the TWE cap to all the men and women who have worn the uniform of the USAF.
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.