A history of US military aircraft from WWI to today
Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the world’s first airplane operated by a motor and, in 1903, the brothers successfully took flight in their aircraft. It is no surprise that just before World War I, their 1909 Model A flyer became the world’s first military airplane. Sold to the U.S. Army Signal Corps for $30,000, it sported a wooden frame, pedestrian 30- to 40-horsepower engine, and skids instead of wheels. That less than a decade separated the Wright brothers’ creation from the first plane capable of landing on a moving carrier speaks to the rapid evolution that permeates the rest of U.S. military aircraft history.
Many people have gazed awestruck at fighter-jet flyovers before kickoff or have stopped dead in their tracks at the powerful sound of military helicopters passing over their homes. But how we got here precedes even the famous pair of Dayton aviators. Dating to the Civil War, military aviation traces its lineage to observation balloons—the revolutionary idea of battlefield advantage gained via surveillance from the air above.
While the leap from World War I ballooning to 21st-century drones, for example, tracks from a technological-advancement perspective, the following list fills crucial gaps in evolution grounded in the battles, military branches, and geography that caused their use. Readers will get a sense of the logistical and tactical impetus for everything from famous bombers to massive cargo transports to groundbreaking stealth fighters developed in secret.
Stacker compiled this history of U.S. military aircraft from government sites, military news reporting, and manufacturing company data. Stacker’s gallery touches on the conflicts in which these products saw combat and the notable specifications that make these flying machines unique.
Read on to find out which aircraft were produced by commercial jet manufacturer Boeing, which 30-ton helicopter folds its rotors for storage, and which unmanned apparatus can defeat improvised explosive devices.
[Pictured: Piasecki AIRGEEP II (Army), first flight on Feb. 15, 1962.]
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- First flight: pre-WWI
- Manufacturer: multiple companies
The origins of aerial reconnaissance and intelligence date to pre-World War I combat with the use of observation balloons. In the Civil War, the Union Army Balloon Corps began surveying battlefields from above, and by the first World War, ballooning had reached its apex; over 100 balloon companies existed, and the other Allies and Germany incorporated their own.
[Pictured: View of balloon ascension. Prof. Thaddeus Lowe observing the Battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks from his balloon "Intrepid" on the north side of the Chickahominy River in Virginia.]
Model A Military Flyer
- First flight: 1909
- Manufacturer: Wright Company
The Wright brothers won a competition to sell the first military airplane in the world—a two-seat observation aircraft—to the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The military purchased their Model A Military Flyer for $30,000. The wooden plane contained a 30–40 horsepower engine and used skids instead of wheels for its landing gear.
[Pictured: The Wright Military Flyer arrives at Fort Myer, Virginia, aboard a wagon, 1908.]
- First flight: 1917
- Manufacturer: Aeromarine Plane and Motor Company
New Jersey-based Aeromarine Plane and Motor created the first military plane to land on a moving carrier company and contracted to the Navy beginning in 1917. The 100-horsepower two-seater was used as a water- and land-based trainer.
[Pictured: A U.S. Navy Aeromarine 39B spotted on the aft section of the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV-1) steaming near Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.]
- First flight: 1918
- Manufacturer: Glenn L. Martin Company
Also known as the Glenn Martin Bomber, the Martin MB-1 was a two-engine bomber, of which just nine were ever created. The MB-1, which was the first American-designed heavy bomber aircraft to be purchased in quantity, carried up to 2,000 pounds of ordnance, fit three to four crew members and at least five machine guns, and generated 400 horsepower.
[Pictured: Martin MB-1 in flight over Washington D.C.]
- First flight: 1918
- Manufacturer: Dayton-Wright Airplane Company
Modern-day cruise missiles trace their lineage to Charles Kettering’s Bug. Developed during WWI as an unmanned aerial torpedo, its cruising speed was just 50 mph and maxed out at around 75 miles. After a shoddy two successful test flights out of six trials, the Bug never reached the battlefield despite hundreds of thousands of dollars sunk into 45 aircraft.
[Pictured: Kettering Aerial Torpedo Bug being launched from a four-wheeled dolly that ran down a portable track.]
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Roma Airship (T-34)
- First flight: 1920
- Manufacturer: Stabilimento Costruzioni Aeronautiche
In 1921 the United States purchased the Roma from Italian manufacturer Stabilimento Costruzioni Aeronautiche for $250,000, though it only served in the American military until 1922. The final airship to be filled with hydrogen, the 410-foot-long T-34 struck high-voltage lines during a test flight in Virginia and caught fire, killing 34.
[Pictured: Roma Airship.]
Witteman-Lewis XNBL-1 (Barling Bomber)
- First flight: 1923
- Manufacturer: Wittemann-Lewis Aircraft Company
The trail-blazing “Barling Bomber” was an ambitious undertaking whose success lies more in its influence on future designs than in its own creation. Wittemann-Lewis Aircraft Company constructed just one prototype of what was the largest aircraft in existence at that time. It suffered from insufficient power for its massive six-engine, tri-wing, 65-foot-long body that could fit up to nine people.
[Pictured: Witteman-Lewis XNBL-1.]
Curtiss F6C HAWK
- First flight: 1924
- Manufacturer: Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company
The metal outer body of the 1924 Curtiss F6C HAWK was a forebear of 1930s aircraft evolution. The naval biplane, single-occupant, single-engine craft stemmed from an earlier Army product and inspired numerous Curtiss iterations. Its speed, power, and tapered design made it a staple on aircraft carriers.
[Pictured: Curtiss F6C-1 photographed by JL Highfill, who was a photographer for the Navy.]
- First flight: 1934
- Manufacturer: Kellett Autogiro Company
The Army’s first practical rotary-wing aircraft made its inaugural flight in 1934, and it made the first-ever air-mail service trip for Eastern Airlines in 1939. Serving the Air Force primarily in the years leading up to World War II, the autogyros differed from helicopters in how they generated rotor power. “Instead, an ‘autorotation’ effect was used to develop vertical lift while an engine-driven propellor provided the needed forward push/pull,” according to Military Factory.
[Pictured: Kellett KD-1.]
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
- First flight: 1935
- Manufacturer: The Boeing Company
Boeing’s B-17 played a critical role during World War II strategic bombing against German forces. Originally developed for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the 1930s, these four-engined aircraft—the third-most produced bomber—were employed in the 1940s by the England-based U.S. Eighth Air Force and Italy-based Fifteenth, popping up as well in Pacific raids against Japanese targets.
[Pictured: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress levels off for a run over target.]
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