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US Air Force at 75: These Are the Aircraft It's Flown

Here are its high-flying craft, from the venerable B-52 and C-130 to today's cutting-edge F-35 and the upcoming B-21.

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Jon Skillings
Four F-16 aircraft of the Air Force Thunderbirds flying in tight formation
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US Air Force Thunderbirds

The wild blue yonder has been the domain of the US Air Force for decades. In this slideshow, we're taking a 75th anniversary tour of the aircraft that Air Force pilots have flown, from the late 1940s to the present day. 

Pictured here are F-16 Fighting Falcons flying in tight formation for the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's demonstration squadron.

It was in 1947 that the USAF became an independent military branch, breaking away from the US Army at the dawn of jet planes and the atomic age.

There are actually two dates from that year to consider. On July 25, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, which decreed that the Air Force should be its own separate branch. Then on Sept. 18, the act took effect -- and that's the date the Air Force celebrates.

This year is also the 115th anniversary of the first US military service dedicated to flying aircraft in the national defense: the Aeronautical Division of the US Signal Corps, which came into being on Aug. 1, 1907. We're taking a look at that era in a separate slideshow, spanning from biplanes to jet prototypes.

This was originally published July 27, 2017, to mark the 70th anniversary of the US Air Force.

Douglas VC-54C aircraft on the ground, with a row of vintage cars in the foreground
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Douglas VC-54C Sacred Cow

Fittingly, Truman signed the National Security Act aboard this aircraft, the one-of-a-kind Douglas VC-54C known as the "Sacred Cow." In the early 1950s, the propeller-driven plane would become the first to take on the designation Air Force One.

Flying together: a North American F-82 Twin Mustang, a Lockheed F-94 Starfire, a Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and a North American F-86 Sabre.
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USAF aircraft, June 1950

In its first decade, the US Air Force was still flying a good number of vintage propeller-driven planes even as jet aircraft were taking over. Pictured here, at top right, is the North American F-82 Twin Mustang, which entered service shortly after World War II ended and which saw action in the early months of the Korean War. Bottom right is the jet-powered Lockheed F-94 Starfire that replaced the F-82 in 1951. Top left is the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and bottom left, the North American F-86 Sabre.

F-86E Sabre aircraft lined up at an airfield for service
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North American F-86E Sabre

The F-86 was born at almost the very same moment as the US Air Force. Its first test flight was in October 1947, and it went into production the next year. Various models of the F-86 would see a good deal of combat in the Korean War, notably including aerial matchups against MiG-15 aircraft flown by Soviet pilots. Some models served in a ground attack role.

Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis"
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Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1

October 1947 also brought an incredible achievement by Air Force pilot Capt. Chuck Yeager. Midway through that month, he became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound, a feat he accomplished in the Air Force's Bell-built X-1. The achievement was classified as top secret -- the Air Force didn't confirm the supersonic flight until March 1948.

Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft lined up at Berlin Tempelhof Airfield during the Berlin Airlift
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Douglas C-47 Skytrain

For more than 15 months from 1948 into 1949, the Air Force ferried supplies in the Berlin Airlift, one of the first big confrontations of the Cold War. Lined up for unloading at Tempelhof Airfield in Berlin are Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft, derived from the civilian DC-3. They were later superseded by the larger, faster, four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymaster.

Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar aircraft dropping supplies
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Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar

A few years later, this is a Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar -- what a great name! -- on a supply mission to drop rations and gasoline to UN troops on a battlefield near Chungju, Korea. Look close, and you can see a second Boxcar in the far background. The C-119 entered service late in 1949.

Boeing B-50A Superfortress called the Lucky Lady II, in flight
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Lucky Lady II

Cold War muscle-flexing often involved bombers and the ability to project force a long way from home. In 1949 this Boeing B-50A Superfortress, known as the Lucky Lady II, carried out the first-ever nonstop round-the-world flight. The circumnavigation by the Air Force aircraft took 94 hours, 1 minute -- 2 hours less than four full days -- from Feb. 26 to March 2, and required the assistance of four pairs of KB-29M tankers, which carried out an unspecified number of refuelings.

Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw hoisting someone in a sling
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Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw

Think of the Air Force, and you think of things with wings. But helicopters have always been part of its inventory, too. The Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw started flying missions for the Air Force in 1950.

Convair B-36 Peacemaker in flight
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Convair B-36 Peacemaker

This was one of the more intimidating aircraft of the 1950s, the Convair B-36 Peacemaker. Throughout that decade, it was the Strategic Air Command's primary delivery system for nuclear weapons, and it was said to have the range to reach any target and return without refueling. It was huge, too -- 163 feet long, with a 230-foot wingspan and a bomb bay the size of four railroad freight cars.

The distinctive look came from the B-36's rear-facing pusher propellers (an echo of the very earliest planes from the likes of the Wright brothers). Beginning with the D model, this brute added a pair of jet engines toward the outer reaches of the wings, to provide bursts of speed. After this point, all new designs for strategic bombers would be just jet-powered.

Douglas C-124C on the tarmac
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Douglas C-124C Globemaster

Just like bombers, cargo aircraft were getting bigger, too. This is a Douglas C-124C Globemaster at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Back in the day -- the C-124 went into service around the start of the Korean War -- this 48-foot-tall aircraft could carry tanks, bulldozers and artillery pieces, 200 fully equipped soldiers, or 127 wounded on stretchers (along with medical personnel). Its nickname of "Old Shaky" makes you wonder how comfortable, or queasy, a ride it was.

Boeing B-47B taking off with plumes of dark, smoky exhaust
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Boeing B-47B Stratojet

But size wasn't the only sign of progress. So too were speed and power. This is a Boeing B-47B Stratojet, in a rocket-assisted take-off in April 1954. (This aircraft needed the rocket boost to supplement the jet engines to get off the ground when fully loaded.) Besides serving as a bomber, the B-47 -- which had a maximum speed of about 600 mph -- also pulled duty as a reconnaissance aircraft.

Drawings of the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger from front, side and above
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Convair F-102A Delta Dagger

Now we're getting supersonic. The Convair F-102, an interceptor, served as the Air Force's first operational delta-wing aircraft -- see the shape of the wings in the overhead view -- hence the name Delta Dagger. The F-102 flew for the first time in 1953, became operational in 1956 and was a mainstay of the Air Force into the 1960s.

Lockheed F-104 Starfighter on a runway at the National Museum of the US Air Force
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Lockheed F-104C Starfighter

Faster still was the Lockheed-built F-104 Starfighter, also an interceptor, which became operational in the mid-1950s. In May 1958 an F-104A set a world speed record for the time of 1,404 mph, and in December 1959 an F-104C set an altitude record of 103,395 feet. The F-104C seen here is at the National Museum of the US Air Force.

Strategic Air Command B-52 combat crew races to aircraft
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Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

If there's one Air Force aircraft that pretty much everyone knows, it's the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, one of the most potent symbols of American military might for more than six decades. The first production model made its maiden flight on Aug. 5, 1954, and although the Air Force took its final delivery of the heavy bomber in 1962, more than 70 of the H model aircraft -- all regularly updated -- are still in active service or on reserve duty.

Attached to this Strategic Air Command B-52 is a Hound Dog cruise missile. It's the long cylindrical element at left center, with "U.S. Air Force" on the side.

An X-15 launching from a B-52 in flight
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B-52 and North American X-15

The B-52 hasn't just carried and dropped bombs. It's also served as a mothership for other aircraft, as in this 1959 photo showing an X-15 just after its release from a wing mount. These airborne launches took place at about 45,000 feet with the planes moving at 500 miles per hour or better. The X-15 typically was propelled by its rocket engine for about 1 to 2 minutes, then flew for 8 to 12 minutes without power before coming to Earth in a 200-mph glide landing.

A Lockheed C-130 Hercules racing along a dirt runway
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Lockheed C-130 Hercules

An amazingly versatile aircraft, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules continues to serve more than 60 years after its debut flight. A cargo aircraft in its primary role, it has variants that work as gunship or aerial tanker or in jobs ranging from weather reconnaissance to electronic warfare. This one is dropping supplies somewhere in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Lockheed U-2 in flight
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Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady

From the late 1950s onward, the Lockheed U-2 flew high-altitude reconnaissance missions. In October 1962, US Air Force pilots flying U-2 aircraft (commandeered from the CIA) featured in significant moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the tensest standoffs in the long confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union. One U-2 took photos that revealed the presence of Soviet missile bases in Cuba; just over a week later, a pilot on a similar mission died when his U-2 was shot down.

Convair B-58 at rest at the National Museum of the US Air Force
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Convair B-58 Hustler

When the delta-winged Convair B-58 Hustler came into service in 1960, it was the first operational supersonic bomber for the Air Force. This one, parked at the National Museum of the US Air Force, set speed records in 1962, flying from Los Angeles to New York in 2 hours, 57 seconds, at an average speed of 1,214 mph, and then again for the return trip and the round trip.

The Mercury Seven astronauts standing in front of an F-106 Delta Dart
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Mercury Seven astronauts

In the early 1960s, the Mercury Seven astronauts were the first Americans to venture into space Three members of the group were Air Force pilots: Gordon Cooper (second from left), Gus Grissom (fourth from left) and Deke Slayton (at right). Because of a health issue, Slayton didn't fly in those Mercury missions, but he did get to orbit in the 1970s in the Apollo-Soyuz project. The seven are posing here in front of an F-106 Delta Dart.

Joe Kittinger in high-altitude parachute gear next to the capsule he'll jump out of
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Joe Kittinger ca. 1960

This Air Force officer, Joe Kittinger, took a balloon way up into the stratosphere -- and jumped. Researchers wanted to know how astronauts and high-flying aircraft pilots would deal with ejecting from their vehicles at extreme altitudes. On Aug. 16, 1960, at an altitude of 102,800 feet (19.5 miles), he jumped from the gondola of his balloon -- the plaque on the threshold says, "This is the highest step in the world" -- and on the way down reached a speed of 614 mph. Kittinger's achievement remained unmatched until Felix Baumgartner's much more publicized jump in October 2012.

Four Republic F-105 Thunderchiefs dropping bombs
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Operation Rolling Thunder

The Vietnam War entered a heavier phase in 1965 when the Air Force began striking targets in North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder, which would last three years. The aircraft dropping bombs here are Republic F-105 Thunderchiefs.

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II as seen from a a KC-135 Stratotanker during refueling
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McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

The Air Force took delivery of its first McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighters in late 1963. This one is being refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker somewhere over Southeast Asia in 1967.

KC-135 Stratotanker and Douglas EB-66 during refueling
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KC-135 Stratotanker and Douglas EB-66

Here you see all of a KC-135 Stratotanker as it fuels a Douglas EB-66 in an undated photo. The KC-135, built on the same design as the Boeing 707 commercial aircraft, entered service in 1957, and even though the Air Force last took delivery of this tanker in the mid-1960s, dozens are still in service today. The Douglas EB-66 was an electronic warfare variant of the B-66 Destroyer bomber, which itself was derived from the Navy's A-3 Skywarrior and which flew for the Air Force from 1954 to 1973. The first electronic warfare B-66s went to Southeast Asia in the spring of 1965, according to the National Museum of the US Air Force.

Lockheed SR-71 in flight
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Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

A long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft, the Lockheed SR-71 began its Air Force career in 1966. In July 1976, an SR-71 set two world records -- for speed (2,193 mph) and for altitude (85,069 feet).

Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy on the ground, with its nose open to offload supplies
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Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy

That's a big mouth on a big plane: The Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy, the largest "airlifter" in the US Air Force inventory, is one of the largest aircraft in the world, period. It has five sets of landing gear, with a total of 28 wheels, which helps when you can pack in up to 270,000 pounds (122,470 kilograms) of cargo. It also holds up to 51,150 gallons of fuel, which itself weighs 332,500 pounds. The first operational C-5 flew for the Air Force in 1970. This one is being loaded with cargo for troops in the desert in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm.

A-10 Thunderbolt II in flight
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Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II

The Air Force took delivery of its first A-10 Thunderbolt II in late 1975, and the ground-attack planes -- better known as "Warthogs" -- are still in service. How much longer, though, remains in question. The Air Force has long talked of axing the budget for them and retiring the fleet, with limited success. Stay tuned to discussions in Congress over the annual defense bill.

General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon landing on a runway
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General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon

The F-16 Fighting Falcon multirole fighter jet has been flying for the Air Force since the late 1970s. This one is landing at Paya Lebar Air Base in Singapore in June 2004. If you've ever seen the Air Force's demonstration squadron, the Thunderbirds, it's F-16 aircraft that have the starring role.

Boeing E-3 Sentry in flight, from above
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Boeing E-3 Sentry

The E-3 Sentry also goes by the name of AWACS, for airborne warning and control system. Think of it as the Air Force's eye in the sky. Its distinguishing feature is the rotating radar dome on top, but the aircraft -- a modified Boeing 707 -- is packed with sensors, computers and communications systems that provide detailed information on the terrain below and the other aircraft in the area. E-3 aircraft have been in service since the late 1970s.

General Dynamics EF-111A Raven in flight
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General Dynamics EF-111A Raven

This looks like a fighter but it's actually a specialist in electronic warfare. The supersonic EF-111A Raven packed high-powered transmitter antennas (in that black bulge on the bottom of the fuselage) that could jam enemy signals, along with receiver antennas (in the pod on top of the tail structure) for picking up on incoming radar waves. All that gear required a dedicated electronic warfare officer on board. EF-111A aircraft served through the 1980s and 1990s. And you weren't wrong to think of it as a fighter -- it was a modification of the F-111 Aardvark, a long-range strike aircraft (which also served as a bomber) that had been around since the late 1960s.

Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk preparing to land in Afghanistan
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Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk

An Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter lands near its cousin, a US Army UH-60 Blackhawk on a medevac pickup in Afghanistan in 2006. The Pave Hawk's main mission is combat search and rescue. This helicopter entered the Air Force inventory in 1982.

Boeing B-1B Lancer on a runway
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Boeing B-1B Lancer

You probably don't think about the tires on an airplane, except when you bump down onto the runway for a landing. You would if you were a crew chief like the ones here dealing with a blown tire on a Boeing B-1B Lancer.  This supersonic long-range heavy bomber joined the Air Force in the mid-1980s, and now, down to 45 planes in the active inventory, is being phased out in expectation of the B-21 raider entering service later this decade.

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk in flight
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Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk

When it came along in the mid-1980s -- and finally was revealed to the public in 1988 -- the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk was unlike anything we'd ever seen in the skies. The fuselage looked like a geometry exercise. Those angles, though, helped make the Nighthawk hard to detect by radar -- and thus the world's first operational stealth aircraft. That aerodynamically unstable design also required constant course corrections by flight control systems.

Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit in flight
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Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit

The B-2 Spirit bomber, a sleeker stealth aircraft also revealed in 1988, used a flying-wing design, combined with a body made of composite materials, special coatings and other technologies, to hide from radar. With aerial refueling, the B-2 can reach just about anyplace on the planet from the US. Over the years, these stealth bombers have flown missions out of Missouri to places as far away as Kosovo, Afghanistan and South Korea, and back. They're also incredibly expensive to build and maintain, and there are only 20 in the Air Force inventory.

F-15E Strike Eagle in flight
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McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle

The F-15E Strike Eagle became operational at the tail end of the 1980s, with the main mission of providing close air support for ground troops. The US aircraft here are flying in an exercise with the Saudi Air Force on Sept. 5, 2022, in the US Central Command area of responsibility, which includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf States and neighboring countries.

VC-25 Air Force One landing on a runway
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Air Force One

The Air Force lends its name to the aircraft that flies the president of the US. You know it best as Air Force One -- the radio call sign when the commander in chief is aboard -- but it also carries the military designation VC-25. There are just two of these converted Boeing 747-200B aircraft, the first of which took up the role in 1990. Though the Air Force One name dates back to the 1950s, it became well-known during the Kennedy administration, when the presidential aircraft was a Boeing C-137 Stratoliner.

Boeing C-17 Globemaster III on a runway, with ground crew member signaling in the foreground
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Boeing C-17 Globemaster III

The Air Force values the C-17 Globemaster III for its ability to handle any cargo or airlift mission, including operating in and out of "small, austere" airfields. The first squadron of C-17 aircraft became operational in 1995. This one's being guided along the tarmac at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, in 2016.

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor in flight
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Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor became operational at the end of 2005. It features stealth characteristics and "supercruise" capabilities -- that is, the ability to fly supersonic without using an afterburner, which helps it conserve fuel at those hellacious speeds. The F-22 here is taking off from Ämari Air Base, Estonia, in 2015.

Bell Boeing CV-22B Osprey in flight
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Bell Boeing CV-22B Osprey

The Osprey flies like an airplane and like a helicopter, thanks to its tiltrotor design. With the engines in the propeller-forward position, as here, it moves through the air like an airplane. With the engines and propellers rotated up, it can lift off and land vertically, like a helicopter. A tag team creation of Boeing and Bell Aircraft, it began service in 2006 with the Air Force, which uses it on special operations missions. This photo shows a CV-22B from the vantage point of an MC-130 Combat Talon II aircraft that's refueling it off the coast of Greenland in 2013.

MQ-9 Reaper drone in flight over Afghanistan
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General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

The story of the Air Force has been, in large part, the story of its pilots. What happens, though, when planes no longer need a pilot, or at least one in the cockpit and flying in harm's way? That's been an active question for more than a decade as drones became a significant part of the Air Force arsenal. Pictured here is an MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, flying a combat mission over southern Afghanistan but piloted from the US, thousands of miles away. The Reaper came into the picture in 2007, two years after its sibling, the MQ-1 Predator.

X-37B space plane on the ground, with technicians in protective gear
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Boeing X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle

Even more futuristic is the X-37B, the Boeing-built space plane that flies itself. The X-37B rides out of the atmosphere atop a rocket, then cruises in orbit for months at a time before guiding itself back to Earth, gliding home like the larger (and piloted) space shuttles it resembles. Two X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles have alternated months-long missions since 2010. The sixth mission lifted off in May 2020 with several experimental payloads, including a small satellite, and landed in November 2022 after 908 days in orbit. (That's it at rest after touching down at NASA's Kennedy Space Center shuttle landing facility.)

The new Space Force, which was separated from the Air Force in December 2019, has responsibility for launch, on-orbit operations and landing of the X-37B, but the space plane remains an asset of the Department of the Air Force, which took over the project from NASA two decades ago.

Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II soaring into the air
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Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II

The Air Force is still getting to know the F-35A Lightning II, which does need a pilot aboard. Referred to as a fifth-generation fighter, it was declared ready for combat in 2016, has since been deployed to the Middle East and elsewhere, and is meant eventually to replace the Air Force's F-16 and A-10 aircraft. This one is taking off from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, in 2016.

Artist's rendering of a Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider in flight
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Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider

Don't look for this one in the sky just yet. This is an artist's rendering of the upcoming B-21 Raider in flight. In late 2015, the Air Force selected Northrop Grumman as the prime contractor for the future long-range strike bomber. As of December 2022, the company had six aircraft in various stages of production and testing. The Air Force has said it expects a first flight to take place in 2023.

B-21 Raider aircraft, from the front
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B-21 Raider

On Dec. 2, 2022, the Air Force unveiled the B-21 to the public. It expects eventually to have a fleet of at least 100 of the aircraft, with an average procurement unit cost of $692 million (in 2022 dollars). They'll gradually replace the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers now in service.

F-16 pilot in the cockpit, with the canopy raised
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F-16 pilot

An F-16 pilot gets ready for a barnstorming performance in Houston in February 2017.

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