U.S. Air Force history from the year you were born
A great deal has changed in the United States Air Force in the 100 years since 1920.
For one, its name: A century ago, the Air Force was known as the Air Service and was a part of the Army rather than a separate branch as it is today. Other milestones along the Air Force's road towards its place today as the world's premier aerial combat organization include the integration of women (the first female chief master sergeant came on in 1960) and minorities into its forces, and its experience in theatres of combat from Europe to Southeast Asia to the Middle East.
To take a closer look at the varied and fascinating history of the U.S. Air Force, Stacker dug into a variety of primary documents, news reports, studies, and historical accounts. We also sourced Air Force strength numbers for each of the last 100 years from the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC). There are no data for the years 1920 to 1945, as the air corps was a subdivision of the U.S. Army at this time.
Keep reading to find out about how a New York City flyover set off a panic, the dark side of Operation Babylift, and how daylight bombing raids in Schweinfurt, Germany, during World War II helped push Allied forces toward victory.
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1920: Air Service becomes a branch of the Army
The Air Service was made a combatant arm of the Army through the National Defense Act of 1920, which expanded via the 1916 legislation of the same name. The aerial warfare service had actually begun two years prior and ran until 1926 when it was reorganized as the Army Air Corps.
1921: Project B sinks the battleship era
After World War I, branches of the armed forces squabbled over which had the most power. And in 1921, the Air Force's “Project B” scored a series of decisive wins over the Navy. During a series of war games off the Chesapeake Bay, bombers sunk every battleship they targeted, including a captured German battleship that was supposedly “unsinkable.”
1922: Second Bombardment Wing activated
A formidable group of pilots who flew one of the last offensives in World War I, the “1st Day Bombardment Group” underwent a name and location change in 1922. Now going by the moniker “Second Bombardment Wing,” the group was moved from Texas to Langley, Va.—not far from the site of the future Central Intelligence Agency.
1923: A special bond in the sky
In 1923, the first Air Force pilots helped each other out by refueling in the sky. At an altitude of about 500 feet above San Diego, two airplanes linked by hose, and one refueled the other with about 75 gallons of gasoline.
1924: A shield for the First Pursuit Group
The First Pursuit Group—the first air combat group formed by the Air Force—had a special shield designed in 1924. The shield was green and black (the colors of the Air Force) and featured five stripes in recognition of the five original flying squadrons, and five stars in homage to the five largest World War I campaigns in which the group flew.
1925: A very public fight with the Navy
Tensions between the Air Force and the Navy spilled into public discourse in 1925. As part of a fight over which group should defend American coasts, a high-ranking Air Force official issued a press release accusing the Navy of “incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” He was court martialed, and used his trial as an opportunity to argue once more for air power's superiority.
1926: Air Corps Act replaces Air Service with Army Air Corps
A major reorganization of the American armed forces in 1926 found the Air Service becoming a branch of the Army, renamed the Army Air Corps. The group would retain this name until the United States entered World War II in 1941.
1927: The birth of John Boyd
Famed Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd enlisted in the Air Corps while still a junior in high school, to fight in Korea and to serve as a commander in the Vietnam War. His military strategies and the tactical maneuvers he proposed would forever change United States air combat.
1928: A special handoff
Two Air Corps pilots completed a special milestone in 1928: the first airplane-to-train transfer. The duo flew an Air Corps blimp over a train in Illinois, dipped down, and handed a mailbag to a conductor.
1929: A blind flight
Lt. James H. Doolittle made the first “blind” flight in 1929. Doolittle put a hood over his head while landing his flight, relying entirely on mechanical instruments like radio navigation and artificial horizon, and landed safely.2018 All rights reserved.