U.S. Air Force history from the year you were born

Written by:
March 11, 2021
Tech. Sgt. Paul Villanueva II/USAF // Flickr

U.S. Air Force history from the year you were born

A great deal has changed in the United States Air Force in the last century.

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.

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 and minorities into its forces and its experience in theatres of combat, from Europe to Southeast Asia to the Middle East.

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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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

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.”

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

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, Virginia—not far from the site of the future Central Intelligence Agency.

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U.S. Army // Wikimedia Commons

1923: A special bond in the sky

In 1923, Air Force pilots helped each other out by refueling in the sky for the first time. At an altitude of about 500 feet above San Diego, one airplane refueled anther via a hose link with about 75 gallons of gasoline.

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U.S. Air Force

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.

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Library of Congress // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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U.S. Government // Wikimedia Commons

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 forever changed United States air combat.

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United States Army Air Forces // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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U.S. Air Force

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.

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Ray Wagner Collection Image/SDASM // Wikimedia Commons

1930: A new world record

In 1930, 19 pilots in the 95th Pursuit Squadron set a world record, albeit an unofficial one, for altitude formation flying. The pilots reached 30,000 feet, smashing the previous record of 17,000 feet.

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Frank S. "Luke" Luqueer Collection/SDASM // Flickr

1931: Betsy Ross Air Corps is born

The Betsy Ross Air Corps was founded in 1931 as a group of female pilots whose purpose was to support the Air Corps and serve in the case of an emergency. Although the group was short-lived, disbanding by 1933, it was named after Betsy Ross, whose name is associated with folklore surrounding the development of American flag.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1932: The P-26 Peashooter debuts

The all-metal P-26 Peashooter made its flight debut in 1932. It was the last open-cockpit plane manufactured for the Air Corps and was the first American aircraft to shoot down Japanese airplanes during World War II.

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United States Army Air Corps // Wikimedia Commons

1933: Depression-era budgetary maneuvering

In response to the Great Depression, the Air Corps made a number of budget cuts to keep its planes in the sky. Two of the most notable cuts were the cessation of printing the Air Corps Newsletter and doing away with the Air Corps Band.

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National Postal Museum, Curatorial Photographic Collection // Wikimedia Commons

1934: The Air Corps takes over airmail service

In response to a scandal involving kickbacks and the Hoover Administration, President Franklin Roosevelt canceled all airmail contracts and handed responsibility for delivering airmail over to the Air Corps. The transfer was not a success, as Air Corps planes were very different than airmail planes; 66 crashes or forced landings were reported in the first three weeks alone.

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U.S. Air Force

1935: Establishing GHQ Air Force

By 1935, both pilots and certain segments of the public were clamoring for a separate military branch devoted to aviation. In a sign that a separate branch would soon become a reality, General Headquarters Air Force (GHQ) was established that year, with Air Corps tactical units taken away from field commands and sent to GHQ.

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NASA // Wikimedia Commons

1936: Arguing for a base in Puerto Rico

With tensions in Europe beginning to boil, the Air Corps began looking at sites that might have strategic importance in another world war. Coupled with its proximity to the Panama Canal, Air Corps officials began arguing in 1936 that an Air Corps base in Puerto Rico was essential to national security. Just three years later, the base was built.

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Devon S A(Flt Lt), Royal Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1937: The first jet engine

In an engineering development that would have vast implications for the future of the Air Corps, the first jet engine was tested in 1937. The bench tests were run by engineer Frank Whittle at Cambridge University in England.

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San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive // Flickr

1938: Oscar Westover dies in an airplane crash

In 1938, Maj. Gen. Oscar Westover was killed in a crash near Lockheed headquarters in Burbank, California when his plane burst into flames upon his landing. Westover had been instrumental in expanding the Air Corps into what eventually became a separate branch of the service.

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U.S. Air Force

1939: Ramping up for war

Although President Roosevelt proclaimed that the United States would stay out of World War II, the Air Corps rushing to train pilots told another story. Lacking the resources to train a targeted 4,500 pilots over the course of two years, the Corps had to reach out to civilian air academies to ramp up preparations for a potential war.

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U.S. Government // Wikimedia Commons

1940: Selective Training and Service Act of 1940

Although the United States was still technically uninvolved in World War II, President Roosevelt passed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. The act was the United States' first peacetime draft and required men between 21 and 36 to register with their local draft boards for service across branches of the armed forces, including the Air Corps.

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U.S. Air Force

1941: United States Air Force gets its name

The Air Corps was renamed the United States Air Force as the U.S. entered World War II following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. The name has endured to this day.

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United States Army Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1942: Air Force on equal footing with Army and Navy

In 1942, the armed forces went through a major reorganization in War Department Circular 59. With the Air Force playing an increasingly important role in World War II, the Air Force's leadership gained an equal footing with the Army and the Navy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1943: Bombing munitions factories in Germany

One of the most significant uses of the Air Force in World War II was the bombing of German munitions factories. Among its major offensives was the bombing of the German city of Schweinfurt, the epicenter of the German ball bearing industry. The attacks proved that daylight bombing raids on industrial targets could be a deciding factor in the theatre of modern warfare.

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Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/U.S. Air Force // Flickr

1944: Andersen Air Force Base is born

Andersen Air Force base in the Pacific traces its origins to 1944 when plans were drawn up to establish a base on the island of Guam. These were designed to provide the Air Force with what would become essential air bases for future attacks against Japan.

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George Carson/Charles Levy/U.S. Federal Government // Wikimedia Commons

1945: Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The Air Force played a pivotal role in one of the most infamous acts of contemporary warfare in the history of mankind: the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The attacks killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and led directly to Emperor Hirohito's surrender.

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1946: Demobilizing old aircraft

- Air force strength: 455,515 people (0.32% of U.S. population)

With World War II over, the Air Force began the process of demobilizing old aircraft. The Air Force abandoned old B-17, A-26, and P-47 planes in Germany along with deserted German aircraft in order to make way for newer planes with more modern capabilities.

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Airman 1st Class Jonathan McElderry // U.S. Air Force

1947: The Air Force becomes a separate service

- Air force strength: 305,827 people (0.21% of U.S. population)

1947 was a major year for the Air Force. As a part of the National Security Act of 1947, the Air Force was officially recognized as a separate branch of service. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz became the first chief of staff of the Air Force.

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Department of Defense // Wikimedia Commons

1948: The Key West Agreement

- Air force strength: 387,730 people (0.26% of U.S. population)

The 1948 Key West Agreement was a major compromise between the Army and the Air Force on a number of contentious issues that had been simmering for years. The agreement stipulated that the Air Force would be responsible for air combat and air transfers, but would still provide close air support to the Army.

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Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

1949: Desegregation comes to the Air Force

- Air force strength: 419,347 people (0.28% of U.S. population)

Desegregation finally came to the Air Force in 1949. Segregated squadrons were abolished by Executive Order 9981, signed by President Harry Truman the previous year, which stipulated that there could be no separation within the armed forces “on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1950: Deployments over South Korea

- Air force strength: 411,277 people (0.27% of U.S. population)

The decade after World War II began with a run of Air Force deployments over South Korea. What would become the first year of the Korean War saw the Air Force strike targets throughout the country.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1951: An uptick in recruitment

- Air force strength: 788,381 people (0.51% of U.S. population)

With the conflict in Korea ramping up in 1951, the Air Force saw a jump in recruitment in 1951. Young men saw what had happened with the draft in World War II, and wanted to position themselves to serve in the branch they preferred. For many would-be soldiers, that was the Air Force.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1952: Operation Christmas Drop is born

- Air force strength: 983,261 people (0.62% of U.S. population)

The longest-running Air Force humanitarian airlift operation began in 1952. Dubbed Operation Christmas Drop, the airlifts transported essential food and medical items to countries in need. The 1952 drop was to citizens of an island 3,500 southwest of Hawaii.

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1953: The last US ground soldier is killed by an enemy airstrike

- Air force strength: 977,593 people (0.61% of U.S. population)

Today, the Air Force is proud to say that an American ground soldier hasn't been killed by an enemy airstrike in more than 50 years. The last American ground troops to be killed by enemy air power were in 1953 when two soldiers were killed by North Korean aircraft.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1954: Creation of the US Air Force Academy

- Air force strength: 947,918 people (0.58% of U.S. population)

The U.S. Air Force Academy was created in 1954. Pilot Charles Lindbergh helped select the final location in Colorado by flying over the proposed site and declaring its wind patterns suitable for training purposes.

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1955: A dishonorable discharge

- Air force strength: 959,946 people (0.58% of U.S. population)

Airman 2nd Class Helen James was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force in 1955. The reason? Her sexuality. In 2018, James was given a notice from the Air Force that her discharge had been upgraded to “honorable.”

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U.S. Air Force

1956: A crash to live in infamy

- Air force strength: 909,958 people (0.54% of U.S. population)

Lt. Barty Ray Brooks in 1956 was involved in one of the most infamous crashes in military aviation history. While trying to land on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Brooks’ Super Sabre's wings stalled and lost their lift. The plane crashed into the runway and was captured on film as it exploded.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1957: A new headquarters for the Pacific Air Forces

- Air force strength: 919,835 people (0.53% of U.S. population)

The opening of the new Pacific Air Forces headquarters in 1957 accomplished an essential strategic goal of the Air Force. For the first time in Air Force history, all fighters in the Pacific and Far East could operate under a single commander, which streamlined operations and clarified the chain of command.

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U.S. Library of Congress // Wikimedia Commons

1958: The Lebanon Crisis of 1958

- Air force strength: 871,156 people (0.5% of U.S. population)

Air Force squadrons were key participants in the American intervention in Lebanon in 1958. The U.S. believed Lebanese President Camille Chamoun's pro-Western government was under threat from Egyptian and Syrian forces and sent in troops to secure Beirut's airport, along with the city's ports and roads.

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U.S. Air Force

1959: The First Air Force Academy graduation

- Air force strength: 840,435 people (0.47% of U.S. population)

In 1959, the first class of cadets graduated from the Air Force Academy. Walter Cronkite anchored a broadcast of the graduation on live television. Among the ranks were future Rhodes Scholars, four-star generals, and even a Nixon White House aide.

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Maureen Stewart // U.S. Air Force

1960: The first female chief master sergeant

- Air force strength: 814,752 people (0.45% of U.S. population)

At the dawn of a new decade, Grace Peterson became the Air Force's first female chief master sergeant in 1960. She entered the service soon after the Pearl Harbor attacks of 1941, and nearly two decades later was rewarded for her service with this historic promotion.

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USAMHI // Wikimedia Commons

1961: Mobilization over the Berlin crisis

- Air force strength: 821,151 people (0.45% of U.S. population)

Tensions with the Soviet Union were reaching a fever pitch in 1961, with American concerns mounting that the Soviet Union intended to cut off western access to Berlin. The Air Force served a pivotal role in the Berlin Crisis of 1961. In response to the brewing crisis, President John F. Kennedy called up multiple ANG fighter-interceptor squadrons in Europe.

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U.S. Air Force

1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis

- Air force strength: 884,025 people (0.47% of U.S. population)

In 1962, the Air Force played a pivotal role in another tense confrontation with the Soviet Union, this time over Cuba. Air Force planes photographed Soviet missiles on the island—only 90 miles from American shores—which precipitated the crisis. The Air Force patrolled the island during the ensuing naval blockade.

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Cecil Stoughton/NARA // Wikimedia Commons

1963: President Kennedy's final transport

- Air force strength: 869,431 people (0.46% of U.S. population)

One of the Air Force's most tragic moments occurred in 1963, the day of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. In the hours after the president's death, Air Force One transported Kennedy's coffin, along with the First Lady and incoming President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson took the oath of office onboard the flight.

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James Coburn // U.S. Air Force

1964: The 1 millionth recruit

- Air force strength: 856,798 people (0.45% of U.S. population)

John L. Jankas Jr. became the 1 millionth recruit enlisted by the Air Force since it had become its own service, a major milestone in Air Force history. That same year, basic military training became a six-week course that could be completed in a single phase.

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STF/AFP // Getty Images

1965: First planes over South Vietnam

- Air force strength: 824,662 people (0.42% of U.S. population)

The first Air Force planes flew over South Vietnam in 1965. The Air Force became particularly interested in developing airborne detection equipment that would help them locate Vietcong radio transmitters on the ground.

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AFP // Getty Images

1966: Last forces leave France

- Air force strength: 887,353 people (0.45% of U.S. population)

The Air Force had been part of a NATO deployment in France since 1951 designed to counter the potential for Soviet influence in Europe. In 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle told all NATO troops to leave France, including Air Force soldiers stationed at bases throughout the country.

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U.S. Air Force

1967: Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam

- Air force strength: 897,494 people (0.45% of U.S. population)

The Air Force played a decisive role in a major 1967 American military offensive in Vietnam: Operation Rolling Thunder. The Air Force's mission was called Operation Bolo and saw American planes luring North Vietnamese planes into an ambush. The tactic proved successful, destroying half of the North Vietnamese fighter planes.

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Frank Wolfe/Official White House Photograph // Wikimedia Commons

1968: Mobilizing reserves for combat in Southeast Asia

- Air force strength: 904,850 people (0.45% of U.S. population)

The escalating conflict in Southeast Asia resulted in the mobilization of reserves across branches of the service in 1968, including the Air Force. The ferocity of North Vietnamese and Vietcong offensives in Vietnam led Gen. William Westmoreland to call for the mobilization of 200,000 troops.

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Tech. Sgt. Howard Blair/U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1969: A daring theft

- Air force strength: 862,353 people (0.43% of U.S. population)

One of the biggest heists in American military history occurred in 1969 when Sgt. Paul Meyer stole a four-engine Hercules C-130 from an air force base in England. Meyer's destination was Virginia, but he didn't make it nearly that far—his plane was downed over the English Channel fewer than 50 miles from where he took off.

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U.S. Air Force

1970: A glamorous portrait of life in the Air Force

- Air force strength: 791,349 people (0.39% of U.S. population)

In a bid to increase recruitment numbers, the Air Force debuted a commercial in 1970 that painted a glamorous picture of life in the Air Force. Featuring narration by singer Dionne Warwick, a happy family frolicking in a field, and clean-cut cast members, the spot made serving in the Air Force look far less like its reality of flying bombers over the Mekong Delta.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1971: A terrible mistake at Cheyenne Mountain Complex

- Air force strength: 755,300 people (0.36% of U.S. population)

The Air Force base at Cheyenne Mountain Complex near Colorado Springs had the dubious honor of serving as the National Warning Center in the case of a nuclear attack during much of the Cold War. In 1971, an operator at Cheyenne made the catastrophic mistake of sticking the wrong tape in the system, resulting in broadcasts across the country declaring a national emergency, and leading citizens to believe the nuclear apocalypse was at hand.

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U.S. Air Force

1972: The Easter offensive

- Air force strength: 725,838 people (0.35% of U.S. population)

In 1972, the Air Force played a pivotal role in ending American involvement in the Vietnam War. During Operation Linebacker II, 153 bombers and more than 12,000 airmen deployed from Andersen Air Force Base to bomb North Vietnam, leading the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table with the Americans.

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U.S. Air Force

1973: Operation Homecoming

- Air force strength: 691,182 people (0.33% of U.S. population)

The Air Force was instrumental in 1973’s Operation Homecoming, which repatriated hundreds prisoners of war and thousands of civilians from Southeast Asia. In February and March of 1973 alone, 591 former prisoners of war were transported to Clark Air Force base in Pennsylvania, where they received medical treatment before returning home.

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National Archives and Records Administration // Wikimedia Commons

1974: A high wire meeting over Damascus

- Air force strength: 643,970 people (0.3% of U.S. population)

When President Richard Nixon decided to travel to Syria to potentially broker a detente with Syrian leader Hafez al Assad in 1974, Air Force One was greeted with an unwelcome surprise. Several MiG fighter jets appeared alongside Air Force One, and all aboard, including the president and the pilot, assumed Air Force One might be under attack. It turned out the Syrian Air Force was trying to provide an armed escort, but no one had bothered to inform Air Force One.

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U.S. Air Force

1975: Operation Babylift

- Air force strength: 612,751 people (0.28% of U.S. population)

A 1975 American military effort called Operation Babylift sought to airlift orphaned Vietnamese children from the country. Tragically, a plane carrying more than 200 children crashed. The pilot and many other passengers survived, but 78 children were killed, along with 50 others, including Air Force personnel.

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U.S. Air Force/Justine Rho // Wikimedia Commons

1976: Two tragic crashes

- Air force strength: 585,416 people (0.27% of U.S. population)

Two more Air Force crashes occurred in 1976 when two separate Air Force flights crashed on the same day. The planes, bound for Great Britain and Greenland, crashed and killed 18 and 21 American military personnel, respectively.

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U.S. Air Force

1977: Deactivating the 76th Airlift Division

- Air force strength: 570,695 people (0.26% of U.S. population)

The Air Force's 76th Airlift Division was deactivated in 1977. Tasked with providing the president, vice president, cabinet members, and military dignitaries of the United States and foreign governments with transportation, the 76th Airlift Division's services were particularly important in times of national emergency when it would serve as a means of emergency evacuation for government officials.

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U.S. Air Force

1978: A secret unit flies captured Soviet pilots

- Air force strength: 569,712 people (0.26% of U.S. population)

A secret Air Force program launched in 1978 that flew captured Soviet MiGs with the goal of teaching American Air Force members how to defeat them in battle. The operation would fly 15,000 sorties and train more than 6,000 pilots over its decade-long run.

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Scapler // Wikimedia Commons

1979: Intrigue in East Germany

- Air force strength: 559,455 people (0.25% of U.S. population)

In 1979, a Cold War cloak and dagger conflict involving the Air Force erupted in East Germany. After Lt. Col. Bill Burhans lost control of his car and crashed it into a bus, Burhans and another Air Force lieutenant colonel were accused of drunk driving, fired, and sent home. The two maintained their innocence. Recently declassified documents from the East German secret police show that the duo was drugged by the Soviets in order to be discredited.

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U.S. Navy

1980: Operation Eagle Claw

- Air force strength: 557,969 people (0.25% of U.S. population)

One of the United States' most spectacular military failures, Operation Eagle Claw was an attempt to rescue hostages inside the United States Embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1980. The Air Force provided support for the mission, which culminated in the downing of one aircraft and the destruction of another. The hostages were not rescued.

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U.S. Air Force

1981: Bombs at Ramstein Air Base

- Air force strength: 570,302 people (0.25% of U.S. population)

When multiple bombs exploded at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, it was Air Force dentists who came to the rescue. Within seconds of the blasts detonating, the dentists ran out of their offices and into a burning building to move victims to safety. The bombs were set off by an anti-American terrorist organization.

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Sarah Corrice // U.S. Air Force

1982: The birth of Air Space Command

- Air force strength: 582,845 people (0.25% of U.S. population)

The Air Force Air Space Command was created in 1982. The Command's mission includes satellite communications, missile warnings, and space control.

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U.S. Air Force

1983: Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada

- Air force strength: 592,044 people (0.25% of U.S. population)

In 1983, the Air Force provided attack, airlift, and combat support during Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada. The operation was meant to rescue American medical students who were attending medical school on the island after a coup overthrew the elected government. The Air Force ultimately airlifted 700 medical students out of the country.

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Staff Sgt. Jerry Morrison/U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1984: The KC-10 opens to women

- Air force strength: 597,125 people (0.25% of U.S. population)

In 1984, a ban was still in place on women serving in combat roles within the U.S. military. In the Air Force, however, certain classes of aircraft were gradually allowing women to serve in these roles, despite their designations as combat aircraft. In 1984, the KC-10, a refueling jet, became one such aircraft, paving the way for the eventual mandate that women be allowed to serve in combat roles.

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Mike Kaplan // U.S. Air Force

1985: A winning football season

- Air force strength: 601,515 people (0.25% of U.S. population)

The Air Force football team the Falcons had such a successful season in 1985 that it was later inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. The team had a record 12 wins, with only one loss the entire season. Of particular note that season, the team notched a record fourth consecutive win over Notre Dame.

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SSGT Woodward/U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1986: Operation El Dorado Canyon

- Air force strength: 608,199 people (0.25% of U.S. population)

In 1986, the Air Force engaged against in airstrikes against Libya in retaliation for the bombing of a West German dance hall known to be a favorite of American servicemen, as well as the country's support for terrorism against United States citizens and military personnel. The strikes hit the major cities of Tripoli and Baghdad, and Moammar Gadhafi's young adopted daughter was rumored to have been killed in the strikes.

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Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton // U.S. Air Force

1987: Air Force demo goes awry

- Air force strength: 607,035 people (0.25% of U.S. population)

In March of 1987, an Air Force plane was involved in a tragic accident during preparations for an air show near Fairchild Air Base in Spokane County, Wash. The Air Force plane hit turbulence left behind by a B-52, crashed into an open runway, and went up in flames. Congress would go on to investigate the crash, prompting questions about the necessity and propriety of running military maneuvers at civilian airshows.

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Senior Airman Andrew Satran // U.S. Air Force

1988: New uniforms for trainees

- Air force strength: 576,446 people (0.24% of U.S. population)

In 1988, Air Force trainees received a dress code update. Whereas they had previously been relegated to wearing camouflage fatigues—which earned them the nickname “pickles”—their new blue uniforms were crisp and spawned no nicknames.

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Master Sgt. Ken Hammond // U.S. Air Force

1989: Operation Just Cause in Panama

- Air force strength: 570,880 people (0.23% of U.S. population)

The Air Force was engaged in a massive American military effort in 1989 to overthrow Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and restore democracy to the country. The Air Force was responsible for a significant airlift mission, which doubled the number of troops.

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U.S. Air Force

1990: A buildup in Iraq

- Air force strength: 535,233 people (0.21% of U.S. population)

As part of the impending hostilities between Iraq and the United States, the Air Force built bases in the Middle East in the second half of 1990. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August, there were only two Air Force planes in the Arabian Peninsula. Five months later, the number had increased to 1,160—a significant buildup.

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U.S. Air Force

1991: Operation Desert Storm

- Air force strength: 510,432 people (0.2% of U.S. population)

1991's Operation Desert Storm, which liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's regime, was conducted with the help of the largest air campaign since World War II. The airstrikes struck essential military targets and forced Hussein and his leadership underground, reducing their ability to coordinate and mount attacks. One hundred hours after the attack began, President George H.W. Bush declared Iraq liberated.

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Master Sgt. Ken Hammond // U.S. Air Force

1992: A reorganization for a Post-Cold War World

- Air force strength: 470,315 people (0.18% of U.S. population)

The summer of 1992 saw a major reorganization of the Air Force in recognition of tumbling budgets for a post-Cold War budget and evolving national security needs. The Air Force went through significant organizational upheaval, including a push towards decentralization, with general officers leaving headquarters and being replaced with command wings at different bases.

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Tech. Sgt. David McLeod/U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1993: Operation Deny Flight in Bosnia

- Air force strength: 444,351 people (0.17% of U.S. population)

The Air Force played a major role in the NATO-led Operation Deny Flight in Bosnia, which imposed a no-fly zone over the war-torn country of Bosnia-Herzegovina. For more than 1,000 days beginning in 1993, the Air Force helped ensure that Bosnian airspace was not used to wage war.

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1994: The other Black Hawk Down in Iraq

- Air force strength: 426,327 people (0.16% of U.S. population)

In 1994, friendly fire had tragic consequences for the Air Force and the Army in the skies over Iraq. Two Air Force F-15 pilots mistook two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters for Iraqi helicopters and fired on them. All 26 passengers aboard were killed.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1995: Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia

- Air force strength: 400,409 people (0.15% of U.S. population)

The Air Force led airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs in Operation Deliberate Force in 1995. These precision strikes proved decisive in crippling the Bosnian Serbs' communications and were pivotal in bringing the war to a close.

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MASTER SGT. ROSE REYNOLDS/U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

1996: A spate of airstrikes in Iraq

- Air force strength: 389,001 people (0.14% of U.S. population)

When Saddam Hussein moved troops into the northern Kurdish city of Erbil in 1996, the United States responded with airstrikes in retaliation for his defiance of the United Nations. The Air Force fired 13 air-launched cruise missiles and extended the ground covered by the no-fly zone they imposed.

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Staff Sgt. Jason Gamble // U.S. Air Force

1997: Operation Northern Watch

- Air force strength: 377,385 people (0.14% of U.S. population)

In a sign of deepening engagement in Iraq, the Air Force began Operation Northern Watch in 1997, extending its monitoring and enforcement of a no-fly zone—a joint military effort between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Turkey.

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U.S. Air Force

1998: Operation Desert Fox targets Iraq's weapons of mass destruction

- Air force strength: 367,468 people (0.13% of U.S. population)

In a harbinger of the Iraq War that would commence five years later, the Air Force was involved in the 1998 bombing of military and security targets that hobbled Iraq's ability to produce, store, and use weapons of mass destruction. Called Operation Desert Fox, the operation's stated goals were to demonstrate to Iraq the consequences of its failure to abide by international agreements and “to diminish Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war on his neighbors.”

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U.S. Air Force // Getty Images

1999: Strikes in Serbia during Kosovo War

- Air force strength: 360,510 people (0.13% of U.S. population)

The Air Force played a leading role in the 1999 NATO-led strikes over Serbia during the Kosovo War. The air campaign, called Operation Allied Force, was meant to bring a quick end to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Kosovo. After 78 days, a ceasefire and international mediation were accepted by all parties.

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Staff Sgt. Lakisha Croley // U.S. Air Force

2000: Adapting to new technologies

- Air force strength: 355,601 people (0.13% of U.S. population)

The Air Force began adapting new technologies as the new millennium began. Its primary objectives were to integrate advances developed during the technology boom of the 1990s into command and control operations. In 2000, the resulting Air Operations Center was declared a weapons system by the Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Ryan.

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U.S. Air Force // Getty Images

2001: Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan

- Air force strength: 363,692 people (0.13% of U.S. population)

After the September 11th attacks, the Air Force was deployed to strike Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Air Force bombers hit Taliban air defense sites, airfields, and military command and control centers, with the goal of “removing the threat from air defenses and Taliban aircraft,” according to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

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Kevin Moloney // Getty Images

2002: The Return of NORAD

- Air force strength: 369,112 people (0.13% of U.S. population)

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, which once monitored American skies for incoming Soviet missiles or nuclear attacks, had gone dormant in the decade since the Cold War ended. But after the September 11th attacks, NORAD jumped back into action, with thousands of Air Force sorties flying over American airspace by 2002.

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Paula Bronstein // Getty Images

2003: Operation Iraqi Freedom

- Air force strength: 375,859 people (0.13% of U.S. population)

The Air Force played a major role in the launch of 2003's Operation Iraqi Freedom, which would come to be known as the Iraq War. Air Force sorties deployed military personnel into Iraqi territory and brought humanitarian relief supplies to the country's civilians.

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2004: Fatal crash at Luke Air Force Base

- Air force strength: 376,813 people (0.13% of U.S. population)

A tragic crash at Luke Air Force Base in 2004 resulted in the death of a pilot from the Singapore Air Force. The pilot's jet went down during a training mission over a bombing range in Arizona.

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Wicker Imaging // Shutterstock

2005: Religious intolerance at Air Force Academy

- Air force strength: 353,696 people (0.12% of U.S. population)

Amid rising complaints of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy, the Air Force appointed a task force in 2005 to examine whether bias was affecting performance. 55 complaints had been filed since 2001, but the panel ultimately found no overt discrimination, merely “insensitivity,” and praised Air Force leadership for the steps it had taken to curtail religious intolerance in recent years.

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Daren Reehl // U.S. Air Force

2006: A harrowing confrontation in Sudan

- Air force strength: 348,953 people (0.12% of U.S. population)

Eleven Air Force airmen had a frightening encounter in 2006 with Sudanese soldiers in the war-torn region of Darfur. The Air Force had been called in on a search and rescue mission for a military liaison. The Sudanese soldiers thought the Air Force was there to collect evidence of war crimes and surrounded the plane, threatening everyone aboard. Several airmen were awarded Medals of Honor for de-escalating the conflict.

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Tech. Sgt. Lee A. Osberry Jr. // U.S. Air Force

2007: A nuclear accident

- Air force strength: 333,495 people (0.11% of U.S. population)

The Minot-Barksdale nuclear incident involved accidentally flying nuclear weapons across the country on a B-52 plane. Although it was a mistake, this was ruled an act of negligence had and those who had allowed the incident to happen were punished.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

2008: A scandal spreads

- Air force strength: 327,382 people (0.11% of U.S. population)

The fallout from the Minot-Barksdale incident continued into 2008, with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ousting two of the Air Force's top officials, citing a pattern of poor management. The Air Force's secretary and chief of staff were forced to resign after the Defense Department concluded that not only had the B-52 been allowed to fly, but that little had been done in the aftermath to ensure it would not happen again.

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

2009: Accidental NYC panic with jet flyover

- Air force strength: 333,408 people (0.11% of U.S. population)

A White House official authorized Air Force One to fly low over New York City in 2009, sparking fears of another terrorist attack. The incident caused many New Yorkers to flee buildings and run for their lives.

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Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) // Wikimedia Commons

2010: Considering the use of neuroweapons

- Air force strength: 334,198 people (0.11% of U.S. population)

A 2010 Wired report exposed the Air Force's interest in developing neuro weapons that could be used to control enemy minds. That year, the Air Force's research arm issued a call for proposals using biotechnology and neuroscience in the theatre of combat.

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Senior Airman Kenny Holston/U.S. Air Force // Flickr

2011: Bombs over Libya

- Air force strength: 333,162 people (0.11% of U.S. population)

In 2011, the Air Force dropped bombs over Libya during its civil war. The campaign was initially intended to prevent dictator Moammar Gadhafi from attacking his own people but grew to encompass a mission to turn the Libyan army against Gadhafi and influence the outcome of the conflict.

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Kemberly Groue // U.S. Air Force

2012: Air Force sex scandal

- Air force strength: 332,834 people (0.11% of U.S. population)

A sex scandal engulfed the Air Force in 2012 when at least 31 women stepped forward to claim sexual assault and abuse during basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. In the wake of the scandal, proposals to bring an end to the culture of abuse included implementing a women-only training program.

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2013: Air Force espionage in Iran

- Air force strength: 330,485 people (0.1% of U.S. population)

Another scandal came to light in 2013, when former Air Force intelligence officer Monica Witt defected to Iran and was charged with espionage. Witt was convicted of revealing details of a classified intelligence collection program to the Iranian government.

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James Varhegy // U.S. Air Force

2014: Budget cuts and reductions

- Air force strength: 316,332 people (0.1% of U.S. population)

The Air Force underwent significant reductions in 2014, as budget cuts caused the elimination of nearly 20,000 positions in just one year. Seventy percent left through voluntary programs.

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U.S. Air Force

2015: Targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

- Air force strength: 311,357 people (0.1% of U.S. population)

The Air Force targeted terrorists who were part of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in 2015 as part of a campaign to dismantle the group. While the Islamic State was famous for its ability to recruit through social media, the Air Force was able to use that same technology as a tracking tool, using their posted positions to locate them during airstrikes.

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Airman 1st Class Javier Alvarez // U.S. Air Force

2016: Most new Air Force recruits since Vietnam

- Air force strength: 317,883 people (0.1% of U.S. population)

As the campaign against the Islamic State engulfed the Middle East and spread internationally in 2016, the Air Force saw its largest number of new recruits since the Vietnam War. The Air Force brought on 33,645 new airmen throughout the year, exceeding its goal of 28,000.

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Senior Airman Devante Williams // U.S. Air Force

2017: A new tattoo policy

- Air force strength: 322,787 people (0.1% of U.S. population)

In 2017, a new tattoo policy was implemented as part of a drive to open the service to those who would otherwise be barred. The major change to the tattoo policy dispensed with the 25% rule, which stipulated that only 25% of the body not covered by uniform could be tattooed. Tattoos were still not permitted on or above the neck.

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2018: Serious questions about coffee cups

- Air force strength: 268,201 people (0.08% of U.S. population)

In 2018, members of Congress questioned Air Force officials over the exorbitantly priced items in its budget. One of the most eyebrow-raising items in question? $1,280 coffee cups. The Air Force promised to stop purchasing the cups and claimed they were looking into 3D printing for more economical replacements.

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Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski // U.S. Air Force

2019: The first F-35 airstrikes

- Air force strength: 270,328 people (0.08% of U.S. population)

The Air Force began its first airstrikes using F-35 planes in 2019. The F-35 is made by Lockheed Martin and is the U.S. military's newest fighter jet. The strikes targeted an Islamic State tunnel network and weapons cache in Iraq.

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Luka Dakskobler/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

2020: Air Force retention reaches 20-year high

- Air force strength: 334,371 people (0.10% of U.S. population)

With the coronavirus destabilizing the U.S. economy in 2020, the Air Force in 2020 enjoyed its highest retention rate of the last two decades. As of October 2020, the service had met its workforce goal with a target date of September 2021. Retention numbers at the end of 2020 were the second-highest ever, but some roles were still understaffed, including pilots. 

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Doug Mills-Pool // Getty Images

2021: Air Force chief of staff pushes ‘accelerate change’ agenda

- Air Force strength: Currently unavailable

The Air Force brought on a new chief of staff, Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, in August 2020. Brown quickly set about outlining ambitious goals in the fall with the first steps to be enacted in 2021. Goals range from updating methods for training airmen to bureaucratic management; Brown said the Air Force is at a crossroads in which it must “accelerate change or lose” in a future war. Diversifying the pilot corps is another primary focus.

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