September 18 marked a landmark date for both military aviation and the aviation community at large, for it was the sixty-seventh anniversary of the United States Air Force. While much has changed during those years, the mission of the USAF remains that of preserving peace. During this blog, we will review the decisive missions of the USAF since its inception in 1947.
The United States Air Force became an independent armed service on September 18, 1947, as a result of the National Security Act Of 1947. Previously, military aviation functions were divided between the United States Army Air Forces (land based) and the United States Navy (sea based). While the Army Air Forces operated as a de facto separate military branch during World War ll, they remained organizationally a part of the U.S. Army. The success of large scale ground support and strategic bombing efforts during the war gained momentum for a separate air force, co-equal to the army and navy. By the end of the war, a number of military leaders, such as Douglas MacArthur, favored the creation of an independent air force.
Less than a scant year after its creation, the newly formed United States Air Force faced its first major test in the Berlin Airlift. After World War II, the German capital was divided into four occupation zones, as was the German nation as a whole. The Soviets believed if they could deny the Western Allies rail, canal and road access to the city, West Berliners would be forced to accept food, fuel and other material aid from the Soviet Zone, forcing the western powers out of the city. In June 1948, all land access to Berlin from the western zones was blockaded. While there was no formal agreement establishing land routes to Berlin, there was a written agreement in 1945 which guaranteed three 20 mile wide air corridors providing free access to Berlin. Supplying the city’s food and fuel needs was a daunting task, with approximately 1,500 tons of food and 3,500 tons of fuel required daily. However, the USAF and the RAF pooled their resources and were able to dedicate a force of 1,000 planes to the effort. In command of the airlift was Maj. Gen. William Tunner, who had reorganized the airlift between India and China during World War ll, doubling the tonnage and hours flown. Although the lift only provided 90 tons a day the first week, it had reached a 1,000 tons the second week. By January 1949 over 5,000 tons of cargo were delivered each day – exceeding pre-blockade levels. In May 1949, the Soviets reopened land routes to Berlin from the west.
When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Fifth Air Force fighters were first responders to provide ground support to the beleaguered South Korean forces. These missions were initially flown from bases in Japan, but once the ground situation stabilized a number of bases were established in South Korea for both ground support and offensive air patrols. The USAF began the war with the piston engine P-51 Mustang of World War ll. The P-51 was ideally suited for the close air support role in Korea, as it was an agile aircraft and could operate from the short, temporary airfields near the frontlines, unlike the jets of the era. Speaking of jets, Korea was the first war in which air to air combat was conducted by jets. The early jets, such as the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and the Republic F-84 Thunderjet were adequate in the ground support role, as well as dogfighting the Yak piston engine fighters flown by the North Koreans. However, this changed in late 1950 with the introduction of the Soviet built Mig-15. The Mig-15 was a swept wing jet interceptor (unlike the straight winged F-80 and F-84) and a generation ahead of both planes in design and performance. In order to address the imbalance, North American F-86 Sabres were sent to Korea. The F-86 had a 35 degree swept wing and was developed from captured German designs at the end of World War ll. Although the MIg was slightly faster and had a higher service ceiling, the Sabre was an overall better aircraft, equipped with innovations such as a radar gun sight. F-86 pilots were also better trained than their Chinese and North Korean counterparts, ending the war with an eight to one kill ratio. Transport aircraft, such as the twin-boomed Fairchild C-119 Boxcar were used extensively not only to supply ground forces, but also to evacuate civilians from the frontal areas.