US Air Force hits 70 years of flying the wild blue yonder

Or is it 110? The roots of today's Air Force stretch back to the biplane era, but the service really got going as we know it at the dawn of jet aircraft.

An F-22 Raptor, part of the US Air Force's modern inventory, flies in 2016 with a trio of F-86 Sabres, Korean War-vintage aircraft.
Senior Airman Chris Massey/US Air Force

The US Air Force was a thing long before we knew it by that name.

For 40 years, from the do-it-yourself days of the Wright Brothers through the hellish aerial combat of World War II, the American military flew scores of different aircraft and thousands upon thousands of missions. But in large part those flyers served as members of the US Army. (No disrespect, of course, to the many pilots of the US Navy. Here, though, we're focusing on the branch dedicated to air superiority.)

Then, two years after the end of World War II, came the National Security Act of 1947. That act, which President Harry Truman signed on July 25 of that year, decreed the Air Force should be its own separate branch of the US military, effective two months later, on Sept. 18.

Thus the US Air Force was born, at the dawn of the era of jet planes, nuclear weapons and supersonic flight.

It had barely begun its new bureaucratic existence when it recorded a remarkable aerial achievement: Capt. Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in the X-1 aircraft, in October 1947. But more workaday designs were the norm, like the older C-47 Skytrain, an emissary of hope and rations for those bottled up in a divided city during the Berlin Airlift, and soon the B-36 and B-52 bombers, avatars of the Cold War doctrines of massive retaliation and mutually assured destruction.

In more recent decades, the Air Force has been at the cutting edge of aviation with stealth aircraft including the F-117 Nighthawk and B-2 Spirit, with the Predator and Reaper drones, and with the mysterious X-37B space plane.

The first slideshow here takes a look back through 70 years of US Air Force aircraft. The second, below, features the 40 years of aircraft that came first.

Before 1947, the precursors to the US AIr Force went by many names. It all began with, of all things, the Army Signal Corps.  In the earliest years of powered, heavier-than-air aircraft after the Wrights flew at Kitty Hawk, people looked to flying machines -- balloons and dirigibles included -- as observation platforms more than as weapons.

Here's how the organization's naming went over the years before Washington created the US Air Force:  the Aeronautical Division (1907-14) and the Aviation Section (1914-18) of the Signal Corps, the Army Air Service (1918-26), the Army Air Corps (1926-41) and the Army Air Forces (1941-47).

The Aeronautical Division began its operations on Aug. 1, 1907. Two years later, the US government formally accepted a Wright Flyer at a price of $30,000 and designated it Signal Corps Airplane No. 1.

And the new aircraft just keep on coming. The Air Force is now looking ahead to the B-21 Raider, a next-generation bomber that on paper bears a strong resemblance to the existing B-2 Spirit bomber. The service is trying to think 50 years into the future.

"Right now it's manned, with the option to do unmanned in the future," Randall Walden, program executive officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said at a conference last year.

The Air Force is eyeballing a minimum of 100 of those planes as a starting point whenever the B-21 becomes a reality.

"You have to look at the total existing bomber fleet we have now," Gen. Robin Rand, the Air Force Global Strike Command commander, said at that conference. "We have 158 total bombers -- B-52s, B-1s and B-2s -- and I just, again, for the life of me can't imagine our United States Air Force and our nation can have one less bomber than it currently has today."

While the generals and the bureaucrats and the politicians sort that out, the pilots will be out there doing their thing: flying.

Here's Yeager, on the nature of the hot-shot pilot. It was 1954, and he'd just gotten to test a high-performance Soviet MiG-15 delivered by a defector, which he was comparing to the Air Force's F-86 Sabre.

"Yeager had to chuckle. Some things never changed," Tom Wolfe wrote in "The Right Stuff." "You let any fighter jock talk about the enemy aircraft and he'll tell you it's the hottest thing that ever left the ground. After all, it made him look just that much better when he waxed the bandit's tail."

Originally published July 26 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update, July 27:  Added details about the aviation operations before 1947, along with a second gallery.
Update, Sept. 18 at 5 a.m. PT:  Added information about the B-21 Raider and about Chuck Yeager's experience.

The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you, and the things around you, smarter.

Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech's role in providing new kinds of accessibility.