From its 1947 inception, the Air Force has been oriented to high technology, expanding the boundaries of human flight and pushing back the aerospace frontier.
In partnership with industry, USAF built scores of prototypes and experimental types, using the knowledge obtained to build operational aircraft, sensors, and munitions to strengthen the nation and fight its wars. Often unseen is the extensive industrial base needed to produce those machines, many of which had no civil application and required extremely specialized materials and manufacturing techniques.
On the following pages are most of the nearly 200 operational aircraft the Air Force has fielded over the last 75 years, ranging from sleek, triple-sonic fighters to utilitarian bush planes operating from unimproved jungle strips. While many were purpose-built for a specific role, many more proved to be versatile enough for a range of missions. Some were built in their thousands, yet were quickly set aside as the pace of technological change made them obsolete, while others built in small numbers proved so adaptable that they have remained in service, if not in production, for decades.
Many aircraft portrayed here were holdovers from World War II, and some of those persisted in service long enough to play an important role in the Korean War, and even the Vietnam conflict. The most explosive periods of Air Force advancement in aircraft were in the late 1950s and 1960s—as the service transitioned to front-line jet aircraft—the 1980s, when computers and innovative materials made leaps in performance possible, and the 2000s, when high-speed computing, the mainstreaming of stealth and sensor fusion, and precision-guided weapons multiplied the power of aircraft many times over relative to those that had come before.
Due to space limitations, this gallery is limited to the aircraft that flew and fought operationally, and in fleets of more than just a few examples, with the exception of types like “Air Force One,” which serve in very small numbers for decades. We have not included prototypes or experimental machines that paved the way for those in operational use (See, “The X-Files,” March 2018), and we have not attempted to portray every variant. Our goal is to recognize the aircraft around which so many Airmen were organized to fly, fight, and win over 75 years.