A history of US military aircraft from WWI to today

Written by:
November 11, 2020
SDASM // Wikimedia Commons

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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Matthew Brady // Wikimedia Commons

Observation balloons

- 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.]

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

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.]

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U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

Aeromarine 39

- 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.]

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U.S. Air Force

Martin MB-1

- 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.]

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U.S. Air Force

Kettering Bug

- 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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SDASM Archives // Flickr

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.]

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U.S. Air Force

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.]

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SDASM Archives // Wikimedia Commons

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.]

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SDASM Archives // Flickr

Kellett KD-1

- 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.]

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

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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USAAF // Wikimedia Commons

North American T-6 Texan

- First flight: 1935
- Manufacturer: North American Aviation

North American Aviation’s single-engine training aircraft became popular during WWII among not only U.S. Air and Naval forces, but also among those of the U.K. Over 15,000 of these planes were manufactured, and several iterations followed in the ensuing decades. The T-6 was retired in the 1990s, but it remains a known participant in airshows.

[Pictured: Two U.S. Army Air Forces North American AT-6C-NT Texan trainers in flight near Luke Field, Arizona, 1943.]

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U.S. Navy

Vought OS2U Kingfisher

- First flight: 1938
- Manufacturer: Vought

A few decades after the first observation aircraft of WWI, the OS2U Kingfisher emerged as the key player during WWII. It's a floatplane whose takeoff was initiated via carrier catapult, and the Kingfisher's was first lifted off in 1938 before over 1,500 were produced. The floatplane was retired just 21 years later after serving the U.S. Navy, Royal Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, and Soviet Navy.

[Pictured: Vought OS2U Kingfisher is launched from repair mat at Attu, Aleutian Islands, 1943.]

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U.S. Air Force

L-4 Grasshopper

- First flight: 1938
- Manufacturer: Piper Aircraft

Piper Aircraft’s J-3 Cub also made its maiden flight in 1938, before a later model was mass-produced and entered WWII as the L-4 Grasshopper. Its lightweight, simple design allowed it to handle at low speeds and over a variety of terrain (as a trainer or observation craft), and its relatively low cost of production increased popularity and drew comparisons to the philosophy behind the Model T.

[Pictured: Piper L-4 Grasshopper at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.]

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U.S. Air Force

North American P-51 Mustang

- First flight: 1940
- Manufacturer: North American Aviation

Another North American Aviation commodity (see: T-6 Texan earlier), this long-range bomber escort and fighter plane seated one and saw enormous action in several WWII theaters and later the Korean War. The P-51 Mustang went through several engine transformations to achieve optimal flying altitude and efficiency to rival German air forces. They carried up to six machine guns and successfully shot down thousands of enemy aircraft during WWII alone.

[Pictured: North American P-51D prototype in flight.]

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USN // Wikipedia

Vought F4U Corsair

- First flight: 1940
- Manufacturer: Vought

Like the P-51 Mustang, Vought’s F4U Corsair fighter populated the aerial battles of WWII and the Korean War, though it was a carrier-based plane. First made for the Navy in 1940, its production didn’t cease until 1953, and it was flown by the U.S. Marines, the Royal Navy, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

[Pictured: U.S. Navy Vought F4U-2 Corsair night fighters from Night Fighting Squadron VFN-101 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid (CV-11) during the Marshall Islands campaign in early 1944.]

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

- First flight: 1941
- Manufacturer: Republic Aviation Corporation

Long Island, New York-based Republic Aviation’s most famous WWII contribution, the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter was capable of carrying 2,500 pounds of bombs to complement its eight machine guns—including an armed cockpit. Also used by Allied air forces like those of the U.K. and France, the P-47 contributed mightily to both aerial combat and ground attack (aka airstrikes) in the Pacific and European theaters.

[Pictured: Republic P-47N Thunderbolt flies its first combat mission—a sweep over the Pacific.]

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USCG Photo #: 232-8 // Wikimedia Commons

Sikorsky R-4

- First flight: 1942
- Manufacturer: Sikorsky Aircraft

Sikorsky produced the first helicopter flown by the United States Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Royal Navy and Air Force in the early 1940s. Known as the R-4 in America and the Hoverfly in the U.K., the single-occupant invention of Russian-American Igor Sikorsky flew up to 75 mph, as high as 8,000 feet, and as far as 130 miles.

[Pictured: "Comdr. Frank A. Erickson, USCG & Dr. Igor Sikorsky, Sikorsky Helicopter HNS-1 C.G. #39040." in 1944.]

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U.S. Army Signal Corps // Wikimedia Commons

Waco CG-4

- First flight: 1942
- Manufacturer: designed by Waco Aircraft Company, manufactured by multiple companies

Waco’s CG-4 glider employed two pilots, held up to 13 personnel, and could take off comfortably under the weight of 7,500 pounds, all contributing to its legacy as WWII’s most prolific cargo/troop glider (nearly 14,000 produced). The Royal Airforce and Royal Canadian Air Force found the CG-4’s plethora of benefits; for reference, instead of the 13 crew members, the glider could transport about half of them plus a jeep, or a half-dozen litters (rescue baskets/stretchers).

[Pictured: U.S. Airborne Infantry troops loading a transport glider (Waco CG-4) which will be used in maneuvers in the southwestern United States, 1942.]

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber

- First flight: 1942
- Manufacturer: The Boeing Company

One of Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress bombers, the Enola Gay, is etched in world history for dropping an atomic bomb—the first aircraft to do so—and one of the very few aircraft known by a nickname. On Aug. 6, 1945, Paul Tibbets flew a crew of 12 and the bomb named Little Boy from the Northern Mariana Islands to the airspace over Hiroshima, which took a few hours, before their B-29 Superfortress released the nuclear weapon which took 43 seconds to reach the ground. The resulting blast decimated the city; three days later, a similar attack was carried out over Nagasaki, and the two events killed over 100,000. The massive 99-foot-long, 141-foot-wide bomber weighed over 70,000 pounds when empty and cruised at 220 mph.

[Pictured: 468th Bombardment Group Boeing B-29-30-BW Superfortress 42-24494 "Mary Ann" attacking Hatto, Formosa, with high-explosive bombs, 1944.]

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NASA Langley Research Center Website // Wikimedia Commons

Bell X-1

- First flight: 1946
- Manufacturer: Bell Aircraft

The rocket engine-powered Bell X-1 became the first manned aircraft to break the speed of sound. Part of a joint experiment between the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the U.S. Army Air Forces, and the U.S. Air Force, the X-1 was eventually piloted by Chuck Yeager on Oct. 14, 1947, when it achieved supersonic speed in the California desert.

[Pictured: The #46-062 Bell X-1 rocket-powered experimental aircraft photographed during a test flight, 1947.]

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U.S. Air Force

O-1 Bird Dog

- First flight: 1949
- Manufacturer: Cessna Aircraft Company

After becoming a separate unit from the Air Force in 1947, the U.S. Army lacked its own air support. Cessna ultimately produced the post-WWII all-metal O-1 Bird Dog for the Army, and the plane immediately went into service in Korea. Over 3,000 of the 25-foot-long observation and liaison craft came into use over a near-decade of production and were active into the 1970s in Vietnam.

[Pictured: Cessna O-1 Bird Dog.]

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U.S. Air Force

B-52 Stratofortress

- First flight: 1952
- Manufacturer: The Boeing Company

Boeing’s strategic bomber has serviced the Air Force since the 1950s. The long-range, jet-powered B-52 Stratofortress can engage in combat up to a radius of 4,000 miles (without refueling) and carry 70,000 pounds of weaponry. According to Military Factory, the B-52 served “throughout the heightened periods of the Cold War as a nuclear deterrent... a dedicated bomber and reconnaissance platform in the Vietnam War,” and recently in Afghanistan (2001) and Iran (2003).

[Pictured: A B-52 Stratofortress flies over the Pacific Ocean after an air refueling in support of exercise Rim of the Pacific.]

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San Diego Air and Space Museum // Flickr

Ryan X-13 Vertijet

- First flight: 1955
- Manufacturer: Ryan Aeronautical Company

In the 1950s, the Air Force wanted to test the viability of vertical takeoff and landing and horizontal flight. The turbojet-powered Ryan X-13 Vertijet became a successful prototype for the technology, but with no real military or financial impetus. The first and its successor had already retired to a pair of museums by the end of the decade.

[Pictured: Ryan X-13 Vertijet.]

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U.S. Air Force

Lockheed U-2

- First flight: 1955
- Manufacturer: Lockheed Corporation

Designed in secret during the height of the Cold War, Lockheed’s U-2 spy plane performed crucial reconnaissance missions. Military Factory describes their integral role in “photographing key installations for the safety of the American homeland and interests abroad,” and how the “U-2 system was largely responsible for the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles on the Cuban mainland during the Cuban Missile Crisis.” The aircraft remains in service today.

[Pictured: An Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady flies a training mission. ]

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Sgt. Angelique Perez // Wikimedia Commons

Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker

- First flight: 1956
- Manufacturer: The Boeing Company

The midway point of this list of aircraft—many of which have been praised for their flight range—is the perfect opportunity to highlight a vital logistical-support/refueling plane. Boeing produced its KC-135 Stratotanker from 1955 to 1965 to offer the Air Force “unparalleled war-planning capabilities and logistics support through in-flight refueling and transportation,” per Military Factory.

[Pictured: F-15C Eagles from the 67th Fighter Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, are refueled by a KC-135R Stratotanker from the 909th Air Refueling Squadron during joint bilateral training with other U.S. forces and the Japan Air Self Defense Force on Feb. 25, 2010.]

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U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

E-1 Tracer

- First flight: 1958
- Manufacturer: Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation (later Grumman Aerospace Corporation)

Grumman designed this “airborne early warning” aircraft for the Navy in at-sea use, the first of its kind. The E-1 Tracer’s radar system contributed to its pivotal role—particularly in Vietnam—in surveillance, arranging ground strikes, relaying enemy position, and directing fighters.

[Pictured: A U.S. Navy Grumman E-1B Tracer (BuNo 148126) from Carrier Airborne Eary Warning Squadron 111 (VAW-111) Det.12 "Hunters" in flight. VAW-111 Det.12 was assigned to Carrier Anti-Submarine Air Group 57 (CVSG-57) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CVS-12) for a deployment to the Western Pacific and Vietnam from May 28 to Oct. 28, 1967.]

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U.S. National Archives

KC-130 Hercules

- First flight: 1962
- Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics and Boeing Defense, Space & Security

The second refueling plane on this list, Lockheed Martin’s KC-130 Hercules, can simultaneously fuel two aircraft and offload up to 57,500 pounds. The Marine Corps initially purchased the KC-130 to assist in several duties: delivering ground troops, providing air support and resupply to battle areas, and executing medevac operations.

[Pictured: An air-to-air view of a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter during refueling operations with a KC-130 Hercules aircraft.]

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U.S. Army // Wikimedia Commons

Boeing CH-47 Chinook

- First flight: 1962
- Manufacturer: Boeing Defense, Space & Security

Still in service today, the recognizable CH-47 Chinook is powered by two engines and two rotors at either end of its 98-foot body. Boeing’s large cargo/transport helicopter can carry between three and six dozen troops with a 24,000-pound capacity. It originally saw action in Vietnam in the 1960s, then in Iran and Libya in the 1970s, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.

[Pictured: CH47 Chinook helicopter lowers a water trailer to the hilltop camp of the 81mm Mortar Section, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Brigade, 1967.]

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U.S. National Archives

SR-71 Blackbird

- First flight: 1964
- Manufacturer: Lockheed Corporation (now Lockheed Martin Aeronautics), Skunk Works division

Less than 60 years after the Wright Brothers’ Model A observation plane, Lockheed developed the SR-71 Blackbird—the fruits of a highly classified defense project to produce an innovative aerial reconnaissance craft. The high-altitude (80,000 feet), long-range (3,250 miles) Blackbird served the Air Force for over 30 years (1964–98), revolutionizing the ability to outmaneuver both radar and missiles, traveling up to 2,200 mph.

[Pictured: A front view of an SR-71 Blackbird aircraft being prepared for takeoff. The SR-71 is flown by Det. 4, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, 3rd Air Force, RAF Mildenhall.]

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SDASM Archives // Flickr

Hawker Siddeley Harrier

- First flight: 1967
- Manufacturer: Hawker Siddeley

The first practical vertical take-off and landing aircraft, British manufacturer Hawker Siddeley’s Harrier saw combat action in the Falklands War (1982). Military Factory explains that “the Harrier family line of aircraft has gone down as further proof of the ingenuity and innovation of British aircraft engineers.” Developed in the 1960s, the Harrier was intended to achieve flight in the shortest time possible, and provided reconnaissance and attacking capabilities—including for the U.S. Marine Corps.

[Pictured: Hawker Siddeley Harrier.]

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U.S. Air Force

C-12F Huron

- First flight: 1974
- Manufacturer: Beechcraft

Beechcraft, since acquired by Raytheon, introduced the C-12F Huron in 1974 as a short-range cargo/personnel aircraft that serviced the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Two turboprop engines power this compact, low-wing aircraft that can reach altitudes of 35,000 feet.

[Pictured: A C-12F Huron assigned to the 517th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, waits for passengers to arrive before taking off at Tatalina Air Force Station near McGrath, Alaska, Feb. 23, 2016.]

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U.S. Air Force

F-16 Fighting Falcon

- First flight: 1974
- Manufacturer: General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin

The recognizable F-16 fighter was developed for the Air Force, made its maiden flight in 1974, and notably engaged in combat in Operation Desert Storm (1991) and served in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). Still in active duty today, the Fighting Falcon has been produced over 4,000 times.

[Pictured: Col. Bruce “Baghdad” Cox, 307th Bomb Wing commander, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, flies his F-16 Fighting Falcon in formation with two other jets in Southwest Asia during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.]

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U.S. Air Force // Wikimedia Commons

A-10C Thunderbolt II

- First flight: 1977
- Manufacturer: Fairchild Republic

Developed for close-air support, the A-10C Thunderbolt II is a “legend” in military aviation. Capable of attacking tanks and providing swift ground support, Fairchild Republic’s creation has served since the 1970s and, most recently, in the Middle East in the last decade. The raised cockpit allows the pilot excellent sight and is protected by titanium carbon.

[Pictured: A-10C Thunderbolt II.]

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U.S. National Archives

Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk

- First flight: 1979
- Manufacturer: Sikorsky Aircraft

A key aerial player in numerous nations, the UH-60 Black Hawk is a twin-engine, four-blade helicopter that has seen action for several decades. It debuted in combat for the U.S. in the Invasion of Grenada, and two of them were infamously gunned down in the Battle of Mogadishu. The Black Hawk has continued to serve in the Middle East.

[Pictured: A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter lands at the Racetrack Landing Zone during Operation Urgent Fury.]

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U.S. Department of Defense // Wikimedia Commons

F-117 Nighthawk

- First flight: 1983
- Manufacturer: Lockheed Corporation (now Lockheed Martin Aeronautics)

No longer in use, Lockheed’s F-117 Nighthawk was a secret-project stealth attack aircraft designed for the Air Force in the early 1980s—the first developed around stealth technology for operational flight. Most well known for its use in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the ground-attack plane was retired by the U.S. in 2008.

[Pictured: The Department of Defense announced the deployment of U.S. Air Force F-117A Nighthawk aircraft, shown in this file photograph, to the Persian Gulf area of operations, September 11, 1996.]

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U.S. Army // Wikimedia Commons

AH-64 Apache Longbow, Guardian

- First flight: 1986
- Manufacturer: Hughes Helicopters (1975–1984); McDonnell Douglas (1984–1997); Boeing Defense, Space & Security (1997–present)

This versatile two-seat attack helicopter, according to Military.com, is “designed to endure front-line environments and to operate during the day or night and in adverse weather via its avionics and onboard sensor suites.” Originally manufactured by Hughes, and today by Boeing, the AH-64 Apache first entered American service in 1986 and has been produced 2,000 times.

[Pictured: An AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter from 1st Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, based at Forward Operating Base Speicher, Iraq.]

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Cpl. Rashaun X. James // Wikimedia Commons

AH-1W Super Cobra

- First flight: 1986
- Manufacturer: Bell Textron Inc.

The AH-1W Super Cobra, the first attack helicopter in the world, has been a central figure for the Marine Corps since 1986. It can hold over a dozen rockets and contains a three-barrelled Gatling cannon. Other armies such as those of Iran, China, and Turkey have flown the Super Cobra.

[Pictured: An AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter approaches for a landing at Forward Operating Base Edinburgh, Afghanistan, July 16, 2011. The AH-1W, assigned to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 267, provides overwatch protection for the U.S. Soldiers assigned to the base.]

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Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III // Wikipedia

B-2 Spirit Bomber

- First flight: 1988
- Manufacturer: Northrop Corporation (now Northrop Grumman Corporation)

Boeing created the first unique-looking B-2 stealth bomber in 1988 and sent it into flight the following year. By 1993 the first Spirit Bomber had joined the Air Force’s fleet, beginning to demonstrate its ability to defeat anti-aircraft defense systems. It can carry out attacks at altitudes of 50,000 feet and house up to 40,000 pounds of nuclear or conventional armament. The expensive B-2 has recently seen action in the Middle East and has been produced just 21 times.

[Pictured: A B-2 Spirit soars after a refueling mission over the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, May 30, 2006.]

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Official U.S. Navy Page // Flickr

V-22 Osprey Tiltrotor

- First flight: 1989
- Manufacturer: Bell Helicopter and Boeing Defense, Space & Security

Boeing notes its V-22 Osprey was the first aircraft developed to serve all four branches of the military. Extremely unique is its combination of vertical takeoff and landing—similar to that of a helicopter—and horizontal turboprop airplane flight at high speeds and altitude. Utilized in search-and-rescue and long-range troop transport, the V-22 is a massive 30 tons with a capacity of 32 troops, and its rotors fold in for storage.

[Pictured: An MV-22 Osprey takes off from USS Kearsarge (LHD 3).]

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Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt // Wikimedia Commons

MQ-1 Predator

- First flight: 1994
- Manufacturer: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

A 1990s offspring of aerial reconnaissance evolution, the MQ-1 Predator, was remotely piloted and contained a series of sensors and cameras. The unmanned aircraft, used by the Air Force and CIA, saw recent action in the War in Afghanistan, the War in North-West Pakistan, the Libyan Civil War, and the intervention in Syria.

[Pictured: An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Lt. Col. Scott Miller on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.]

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U.S. Air Force

BAe QF-4 (McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II)

- First flight: 1997
- Manufacturer: McDonnell Aircraft Corporation

Another advanced unmanned aircraft, the BAe QF-4 drew inspiration from Vietnam-era F-4 fighters and became a reusable target drone. First in action in 1997, the QF-4 is capable of Mach 2 speed and a 1,300-mile range. Military Factory points out, however, that as of 2013, 250 of these drones have been shot down.

[Pictured: QF-4 Landing at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Nov. 19, 2013.]

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Rob Shenk // Wikimedia Commons

F-22 Raptor

- First flight: 1997
- Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics and Boeing Defense, Space & Security

While Lockheed Martin constructed the frame and weapons systems of the F-22, Boeing finished off the wings and fuselage, the two companies sending the first of these stealth tactical fighters into Air Force service in 2005. The Raptor pushed the envelope of 21st-century air combat performance, able to achieve Mach 2.25 (1,500 mph) speed and high-altitude supercruise (sustained supersonic flight) while carrying six air-to-air missiles.

[Pictured: A Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor fighter streaks by at the Joint Services Open House (JSOH) airshow at Andrews AFB, 2008.]

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U.S. Air Force

Beechcraft T-6 Texan II

- First flight: 1998
- Manufacturer: Raytheon Aircraft Company (now called Beechcraft Defense Company)

This military trainer aircraft features “stepped-tandem” cockpit seating for two crew (one in front of the other; trainer and student) and a 1,100-horsepower turboprop engine that pushes it to 18,000 feet in under six minutes. The T-6 Texan II has served in the Junior Primary Pilot Training program since 2000.

[Pictured: Beechcraft T-6 Texan II.]

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Gerry Metzler // Wikimedia Commons

Bell AH-1Z Viper

- First flight: 2000
- Manufacturer: Bell Textron Inc.

The AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter represents the best and latest iteration of the 1960s Vietnam-era AH-1 Cobra. Two turboshaft engines drive the main four-blade rotor as well as the one on the tail, and the tandem-seat cockpit positions the weapons officer in the front and the pilot in the rear. The Viper has serviced the Marine Corps since 2010.

[Pictured: Bell AH-1Z Viper.]

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Spc. James B. Smith Jr // Wikimedia Commons

AAI (Textron) RQ-7 Shadow

- First flight: 2002
- Manufacturer: AAI Corporation

The next unmanned aircraft appearing on this list, the AAI RQ-7 Shadow is also unarmed but flew in both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps utilize this reconnaissance vehicle for surveillance, damage assessment, and target acquisition. AAI Corporation has manufactured over 500.

[Pictured: Spc. Jeremy Squirres of Company A, 101st Military Intelligence Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, prepares a Shadow 200 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for launch at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, Iraq.]

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U.S. Air Force

RQ-11 Raven

- First flight: 2003
- Manufacturer: AeroVironment

AeroVironment developed this small (3 by 4.5 feet) unmanned aerial vehicle for American military forces, but nearly a dozen other international armies utilize the RQ-11 Raven. More than 13,000 of the little aircraft have been produced. Military Factory notes that the aircraft “can fulfill various aerial duties for both military and civilian markets but is best known for its military uses where it has been used to visually acquire targets of interest, gather area intelligence, or reconnoiter a location.”

[Pictured: Senior Airman Glenn Gerald prepares to launch an RQ-11 Raven at Kirkuk Regional Air Base, Iraq.]

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3rd Class Kenneth G. Takada // Wikimedia Commons

RQ-16 T-Hawk

- First flight: 2007
- Manufacturer: Honeywell

Honeywell designed this unmanned micro air vehicle as a support drone for the U.S. Army’s platoons, though it also plays a vital role in the Navy’s Explosive Ordinance Division. The RQ-16 T-Hawk debuted in Iraq in 2007 and has since provided service in several areas such as aerial search, damage assessment, road scanning, inspecting and identifying suspicious targets, and defeating IEDs.

[Pictured: The Honeywell RQ-16 T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) flies over a simulated combat area during an operational test flight.]

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Tomás Del Coro // Wikimedia Commons

F-35B Lightning II

- First flight: 2008
- Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics

The B variety of Lockheed’s F-35 stealth fighters employs short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) technology. Military Factory calls the F-35B the “most distinct of the trio” and notes it was the first supersonic-capable vertical-takeoff-and-landing design in the history of aviation. The Marine Corps introduced it into service in 2015.

[Pictured: Lockheed Martin F35B Lightning II at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona.]

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Seaman Anderson W. Branch // Wikimedia Commons

F-35C Lightning II

- First flight: 2009
- Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics

The F-35C Lightning II is one of three variants of a versatile stealth combat fighter; this one has foldable wingtips for maximum compact storage aboard aircraft carriers. The first F-35 (conventional takeoff-and-landing “A” variety) entered flight in 2006 and today is used by not only the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy, but also by the Royal Air Force. The other “B” version is a short takeoff-and-vertical-landing model.

[Pictured: A U.S. Navy Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II carrier variant joint strike fighter assigned to the "Salty Dogs" of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 prepares to launch off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69).]

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Robert Sullivan // Flickr

Sikorsky S-97 Raider

- First flight: 2015
- Manufacturer: Sikorsky Aircraft

Lockheed Martin claims its Sikorsky S-97 Raider prototype “will redefine helicopter flight during the 21st century.” The high-speed, light tactical aircraft took flight in 2015 and remains in testing. Its latest tech allows it to fly at extremely high speeds in high altitude and heat. Lockheed’s plan for the Raider is to have it meet requirements of the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and ultimately serve in Special Ops as well as the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.

[Pictured: Sikorsky S-97 Raider.]

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