A century of the best of the U.S. Air Force (pictures)
From B-52s to B-2s to the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb that ended World War II, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force has it all. CNET's Daniel Terdiman visited as part of Road Trip 2013.
B-2 Spirit stealth bomber
DAYTON, Ohio -- For fans of the history of aerial warfare, there is probably no better place to visit than the National Museum of the United States Air Force, based here at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
As part of Road Trip 2013, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman stopped at the museum and saw many of the most important aircraft in American history.
Perhaps the most striking of all the planes in the museum is the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, which first emerged from its Palmdale, Calif., hangar on November 22, 1988. According to the museum, "B-2 Spirit merged the high aerodynamic efficiency of the "flying wing" design with composite materials, special coatings and classified stealth technologies. As a result, the B-2 became virtually invisible to even the most sophisticated air defense radar systems....Based at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., the B-2 soon demonstrated its combat capabilities in Operation Allied Force over Serbia in 1999, Operation Enduring Freedom over Afghanistan in 2001, and Operation Iraqi Freedom over Iraq in 2003.
"With a crew of only two -- the pilot in the left seat and the mission commander in the right -- a typical combat mission consisted of a non-stop flight from Whiteman Air Force Base to the target and back. During these missions, normally lasting more than 30 hours and requiring numerous aerial refuelings, each B-2 delivered up to 40,000 pounds of precision weapons."
This is Bockscar, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped Fat Man -- the second atomic bomb ever used in warfare -- on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, effectively ending World War II. The Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. has Enola Gay, which dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima three days earlier.
This is an SR-71 Blackbird, seen at the Strategic Air Museum in Ashland, Neb. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force also has a Blackbird, of which there were 32 built. According to the Air Force museum, the SR-71 was "a long-range, advanced, strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed from the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A aircraft. The first flight of an SR-71 took place on December 22, 1964, and the first SR-71 to enter service was delivered to the 4200th (later 9th) Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in January 1966.
"The U.S. Air Force retired its fleet of SR-71s on Jan. 26, 1990, because of a decreasing defense budget and high costs of operation.
"Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the SR-71 remained the world's fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. From 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth's surface per hour. On July 28, 1976, an SR-71 set two world records for its class -- an absolute speed record of 2,193.167 mph and an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997 feet."
This Caquot Type R observation balloon from World War I, allowed American military personnel to see up to 40 miles behind enemy lines in a bid to see troop movements or other activity. It was a hydrogen-filled balloon with a gas capacity of 32,200 cubic feet, a length of 92 feet, and a diameter of 32 feet.
It could "lift two passengers in its basket, along with charting and communications equipment," according to the Air Force museum, "plus the weight of its mooring cable, to a height of [up to] 4,000 feet....During WWI, American balloon observers directed artillery fire and targets such as troop concentrations and supply dumps. They noted more than 11,000 enemy airplane sightings, 1,000 instances of military traffic on railroads and roads, and 400 artillery batteries."
A great deal of the Caquot balloons were produced for WWI.
The airplane became "the first military heavier-than-air flying machine," according to the museum. "Upon purchase by the Signal Corps for $30,000 on Aug. 2, 1909, the U.S. Army designated the Wright 1909 Military Flyer as Signal Corps Airplane No. 1, and it remained the only Army airplane for nearly two years."
This 1918 wind tunnel was built at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio. "Using a 24-blade fan of 60 inches diameter," according to the Air Force museum, "the tunnel developed a maximum air speed of 453 miles per hour at its 14-inch diameter choke-throat test area.
"It was used for calibrating airspeed instruments and testing airfoils. The item to be evaluated was placed in the choke-throat and viewed through the glass door. During operation, the air was drawn into the small end of the tunnel and exhausted from the large end where the fan was located."
With the Germans threatening to win World War I on the strength of their new fighter planes, the American military turned to the French Spad XIII, a small plane with a 220-horsepower engine that, according to the Air Force museum, had a top speed of 135 miles an hour, about ten miles an hour faster than the German fighters. "It carried two .303-cal. Vickers machine guns mounted above the engine," according to the museum. "Each gun had 400 rounds of ammunition, and the pilot could fire the guns separately or together. Technical problems hampered production until late 1917, but nine different companies built a total of 8,472 Spad XIIIs by the time production ceased in 1919.
"Since the United States entered World War I without a combat-ready fighter of its own, the U.S. Army Air Service obtained fighters built by the Allies. After the Nieuport 28 proved unsuitable, the Air Service adopted the Spad XIII as its primary fighter. By the war's end, the Air Service had accepted 893 Spad XIIIs from the French, and these aircraft equipped 15 of the 16 American fighter squadrons."
This is the famous British Sopwith F-1 Camel, which was used to shoot down more enemy planes than any other World War I fighter. The plane went into action for the first time in June 1917, with the British Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, and two U.S. Army Air Service squadrons also flew the Camel in combat, according to the Air Force museum.
The plane was also used, according to legend, to shoot down the ace pilot Red Baron.
This is the Kettering Aerial Torpedo, otherwise known as the "Bug," the earliest-ever cruise missile.
According to the museum, it was "launched from a four-wheeled dolly that ran down a portable track [and its] system of internal pre-set pneumatic and electrical controls stabilized and guided it toward a target. After a predetermined length of time, a control closed an electrical circuit, which shut off the engine. Then, the wings were released, causing the Bug to plunge to earth -- where its 180 pounds of explosive detonated on impact."
However, although the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company (founded by the Wright Brothers) made nearly 50 of these weapons, they never saw combat. This is a replica.
The Martin MB-2 "was the first U.S.-designed bomber produced in large numbers," according to the museum. It was ordered in 1920 and replaced British- and Italian-made bombers made in the U.S. under license during the first World War.
The Martin B-10 was known to be America's best fighter plane. It was a big leap forward for the military because it had a retractable landing gear and variable pitch propellers. It also had enclosed gun turrets, an enclosed bomb bay, and was faster than any production fighter in the world. This is the last B-10 in the world.
The Curtiss P-36A "Hawk" "was first procured for the Air Corps in 1938," according to the museum. The Army Air Corps purchased a total of 243 P-36s, but by the time World War II began, the plane was outmoded, and was eventually used mainly for training and courier duties at home. This is the Air Corps' first-ever P-36A.
"In January, 1942, Gen. Henry 'Hap' Arnold selected Lt. Col. James Doolittle to lead Special Aviation Project No. 1, the bombing of Japan," according to the Air Force Museum. "Although the Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942, caused only minor damage, it forced the Japanese to recall combat forces for home defense, raised fears among the Japanese civilians, and boosted morale among Americans and our Allies abroad."
In December 1946, Doolittle and the other Raiders met to celebrate his birthday, in the process starting an annual tradition. These 80 silver goblets were presented to the Raiders in 1959 by the city of Tucson, Ariz., each representing one of the men. At the reunions, the surviving men turn their deceased comrades' goblets over, and as of July 2013, there are just three remaining unturned goblets. When only two remain, the final two Raiders will drink a last toast.
When the Americans formed their first radar-equipped night fighter squadron in January 1943, they did not have an effective night fighter, according to the museum, so they relied instead on the British Bristol Beaufighter until a plane could be produced at home.
This is a B-24 Liberator, the most-produced military bomber in history. At its peak, a B-24 came off the assembly line every 56 minutes, and in total 18,000 were built. It was a mainstay for the American in World World II, which used the plane in every combat theater.
The B-17 Flying Fortress, from World War II, "is one of the most famous airplanes ever built," according to the Air Force museum. It first flew in July 1935 and eventually flew in every World War II combat zone. "It is best known for the daylight strategic bombing of German industrial targets." All told, 12,726 of the planes were built.
This is the German ME-262A, the first operational jet fighter in world history. However, though it could fly very fast, its engines were temperamental and it was slow to accelerate, so the Allies would simply fly large numbers of fighters over German airfields and attack the planes on takeoff. The ME-262A was not destined to help the Germans win the war.
This is an actual Fat Man atomic bomb, found in the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The American military produced several Fat Mans, although just one was dropped, on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.
This is an F-86A Sabre, which was the U.S. Air Force's first swept-wing jet fighter. It made its initial flight in October 1947, and the first production model flew in May, 1948, according to the Air Force museum. In September of that year, it set a world speed record of 670.9 miles an hour.
The Sabre was a day fighter and was used in the Korean War, battling Russian-made MiG-15s, eventually shooting down 792 MiGs with a kill ratio of 8:1, according to the museum.
This is a B-52 Stratofortress. According to the Air Force museum, the B-52 became operational in 1955 and for years was the Air Force's main long-range heavy bomber, especially during the Cold War. Indeed, the plane is still operational today with some potentially flying until 2040. Nearly 750 were built, with production ending in 1962. A B-52 dropped the first airborne hydrogen bomb on May 21, 1956, over Bikini Atoll, and in 1965, the planes entered combat in Southeast Asia. "By August 1973, they had flown 126,615 combat sorties with 17 B-52s lost to enemy action," according to the museum.
This is "Patches," a UC-123 Ranch Hand. The planes were used in Southeast Asia, and according to the museum, Ranch Hand crews denied the enemy the ability to ambush vehicles and boats in the jungle by spraying herbicides and defoliating the jungle. "To accomplish the mission, Ranch Hand crews flew [the planes] on straight runs at very low altitude over a well-armed enemy," according to the museum, and the planes were hit regularly, leading to a reputation as the most shot-at Air Force plane in Southeast Asia.
The F-111A was developed to meet the Air Force's need for a new air superiority fighter. The plane had variable-geometry wings, which could be swept forward on takeoff or landing, or during slow-speed flight, according to the Air Force museum.
The B-36J was known as the Peacemaker. It was designed during World War II, and the plane went operational with Strategic Air Command in 1948. Some of the planes "served as photographic reconnaissance aircraft, and others were adapted to launch and retrieve specially modified RF-84F/K reconnaissance planes."
This is an RF-84K Thunderflash, which would have been dropped from a B-36J. The Thunderflash was a reconnaissance and nuclear strike fighter. It had a short range and could not be fueled in mid-air, so being dropped from a B-36J was a way to extend the plane's range, according to the museum.
This is a B-1B Lancer, a multi-role, heavy bomber that first flew in 1984. "The B-1B's blended wing body configuration, variable-geometry design, and turbofan engines combined to provide greater range and high-speed (Mach 1.2) at sea level," according to the museum. "The B1-B employed forward-looking radar and terrain-following radar. it also had an indicator for moving ground targets. Its extremely accurate [GPS], inertial navigation system, Doppler radar, and radar altimeter enabled aircrews to navigate accurately around the world without ground-based navigation aids." The plane was used in combat in 1998, and was also used in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and in 2002, the Air Force began cutting the number of B-1Bs as a cost-saving measure.