Air Force Birthday: Celebrating Those Who Aim High
For as long as human beings have been able to travel through the sky, members of the US military have utilized aeronautical technology to fight and win. From the days of simple hot air balloons with wicker baskets dangling below them, courageous men and women have taken to the air for their country. But it was not until after WWII that America had a military branch dedicated solely to aerial warfare. On September 18th, 1947 the United States Air Force took off into the “wild blue yonder.” And in honor of the Air Force birthday, we’ll dive into the history of the branch and the undaunted military aviators who came before.
Air Force History
America’s Civil War Aeronauts
The first Americans to take to the air in warfare did so during the Civil War, decades before airplanes were ever invented. The Union Army Balloon Corps utilized seven specially built hot air balloons to provide reconnaissance and observation posts far above the smoke-filled battlefields. Led by civilian scientist Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the Corps’ aeronauts served at several major battles, including Antietam and Fredericksburg, and built what could technically be considered an early aircraft carrier until the unit was disbanded in 1863. The US military would not employ aerial devices again until 1893 when the US Army Signal Corps established a War Balloon Company equipped with a single balloon they used briefly during the Spanish American War.
The Invention of the Airplane
After the Wright Brothers’ momentous achievement of heavier-than-air flight in 1903, the US military decided to establish a unit dedicated to employing aircraft. The Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps was the first military unit in history to utilize airplanes. Though founded in 1907, they did not actually have their first plane until 1909 (a customized Wright Model A). The early days were difficult, as the men learned to control these new, dangerous machines. Crashes were frequent, including one that severely injured Orville Wright and killed 1st Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, the first person to die in an airplane crash. Despite these early difficulties, the unit continued to train, grow, and purchase and develop more and newer airplanes.
Dawn of Military Aviation
In 1914, the Aeronautical Division was replaced by the Signal Corps’ expanded Aviation Section. The pilots of this force became the first American aviators to truly fly in combat when 1st Lieutenant Thomas Milling and 2nd Lieutenant Byron Jones came under fire in 1915 during the lead-up to the Pancho Villa Expedition. During that same expedition, the Aviation Section flew numerous missions but struggled to deal with problematic and inferior planes and equipment. The aviation personnel also began to resent being overseen and controlled by the Signal Corps and momentum began to build towards creating a separate branch within the army for aviation. Or, perhaps, a new branch of the military all together. But with America’s entry into WWI in April of 1917, the Aviation Section’s priorities shifted to training new pilots within the states and fighting overseas.
Aerial Combat in WWI
Despite issues procuring better aircraft and an initial shortage of pilots, American military aviators served courageously in the skies over WWI. 71 pilots achieved the status of “ace” (meaning they downed at least 5 enemy aircraft), including Medal of Honor and eight-time Distinguished Service Cross winner Eddie Rickenbacker who downed 26 enemy aircraft between April and October of 1918. And in May of 1918, during the final year of the war, the United States Army Air Service was created and separated from the Signal Corps. Much of the service was disbanded after the war, but in 1920 it was officially designated a combatant line of the Army. But since the British had created their own separate aerial warfare branch, the Royal Air Force, 1918, some Air Service personnel hoped the US would do the same.
The Army Air Forces and WWII
The Air Service was renamed the United States Army Air Corps in 1926 and again in June 1941 as the United States Army Air Forces. But it remained part of the Army that the high command saw as auxiliary to the ground forces with no need for autonomy or the capacity to conduct missions on their own. That thinking began to change after America’s entry into WWII in December of 1941. Led by General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the Army Air Forces fought in the skies over every theater of the war. From the aviators piloting fighters and bombers to the ground personnel who kept them flying, the Army Air Forces were essential to the allied victory. Among their numbers were roughly 40,000 women serving in the Women’s Army Corps and the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-Americans to fly planes for the US military.
Birth of the United States Air Force
With the importance of independent air forces proven by WWII, the United States saw fit to finally create the Air Force as a separate branch. On September 18th, 1947 President Harry Truman signed a National Security Act as part of a major reorganization of the military, including the establishment of the United States Air Force. General Carl Spaatz was the branch’s first Chief of Staff. Since then, the Air Force has been a vital component to all US military operations, from its key role in nuclear deterrence dating to the earliest days of the Cold War to the modern drones they fly over battlefields in every corner of the globe.
When Is the Air Force Birthday?
The Air Force Birthday is September 18th. As with the other branches, the active duty and reserve components have the same birthday. The Air National Guard celebrates their creation on this day as well, unlike the Army National Guard who celebrate their birthday separately from the regular Army’s.
Air Force Facts
We know how much you, our readers, love the handfuls of interesting and entertaining facts we always put into these history and holiday articles. So we’re happy to share some of our favorite tidbits and fun facts about the United States Air Force.
- The second American in space, Gus Grissom, and the second person to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, were both US Air Force fighter pilots. (Click to Tweet this)
- Air Force fighter ace Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 19th, 1947. (Click to Tweet this)
- Since 1955, the United States Air Force has tracked Santa Claus on his rounds every Christmas Eve. (Click to Tweet this)
- Every year, the Air Force holds Mustache March, a month where airmen are encouraged to grow mustaches to honor legendary triple ace Brigadier General Robin Olds and his amazing mustache. (Click to Tweet this)
- Army Air Forces major and Medal of Honor winner Richard Bong is America’s top all-time ace with a confirmed 40 downed enemy aircraft during WWII. (Click to Tweet this)
- Captain Joseph McConnell is America’s highest scoring jet-on-jet ace with 16 confirmed kills during the Korean War. (Click to Tweet this)
- Many celebrities have served in the Air Force, including Johnny Cash, George Carlin, Chuck Norris, Bob Ross, Morgan Freeman, Willie Nelson, and Brigadier General James “Jimmy” Steward. (Click to Tweet this)
- While several presidents have served as aviators in other branches, only George W. Bush served as a pilot in the Air Force (first the National Guard, then the Reserves). (Click to Tweet this)
- The Air Force has its own special operations units and personnel who fill extremely vital roles such as Tactical Air Control Parties, Pararescuemen, and Weather Technicians. (Click to Tweet this)
- “The U.S. Air Force” is the official song of the branch. Originally written in 1939 by Robert MacArthur Crawford and titled “Army Air Corps,” the name and lyrics were changed in 1947 to reflect the new branch’s creation. (Click to Tweet this)
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For over seventy years, the men and women of the United States Air Force have flown, fought, and innovated in the skies and on the ground all across the Earth and beyond. So this September 18th, let’s all take some time to acknowledge and honor the brave Airmen who take to the “wild blue yonder” in defense of freedom.
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