American Warplanes – Pre-Second World War Naval Aircraft

The early years of US naval aviation were marked by rapid changes in technology and extremely limited budgets in the post-First World War era. That meant the US Navy bought small lots of aircraft from numerous manufacturers, always seeking the best in performance while it transitioned from biplane to monoplane, and tested tactics and doctrine for its new aircraft and carriers. Aircraft did not last long in frontline service as they rapidly were superseded by newer, more advanced designs.

The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made their first powered flight on 17 December 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They did not stand on their laurels and continued to refine the design of their aircraft to improve its performance. The US Navy was not that interested, but did have the foresight to send military observers to aerial demonstrations within the United States and overseas to monitor the progress of aviation technology.

The continuing advancement in aircraft designs following the Wright Brothers’ demonstration in 1903 was becoming harder for the US Navy’s senior leadership to ignore as the years went on. In response, the Secretary of the US Navy (a civilian-appointed position) placed Captain Washington I. Chambers in charge of all aviation matters.

To show off the potential offered by aircraft, Captain Chambers had a short temporary wooden platform built on the bow of the US Navy cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-2). On 14 November 1910, civilian pilot Eugene B. Ely successfully flew off the ship, in a civilian wheeled airplane built by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, founded by Glen H. Curtiss. Approximately two weeks later, Curtiss offered to train a single US Navy officer how to fly, and was taken up on his offer.

In the meantime, Captain Chambers arranged to have a longer temporary wooden platform constructed on the stern of the US Navy cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4). It was intended to provide the room needed for Eugene B. Ely to land and then take off from the ship (then moored in San Francisco Bay) a feat that he accomplished on 18 January 1911. It was also the first use of arresting gear, to slow down and stop the aircraft after landing.

Glen H. Curtiss made the first successful floatplane flight, taking off from San Diego Bay on 26 January 1911, in an aircraft he designed and his firm built. The following month, Captain Chambers arranged to have Curtiss taxi his floatplane out to the USS Pennsylvania, now moored in San Diego Bay. Once adjacent to the ship it was hoisted aboard by a crane and then lowered back into the water. This test was conceived by Chambers and Curtiss to prove the ability of floatplanes to operate from US Navy ships.

Development Continues

The publicity tests put together by Chambers and Curtiss had the desired effect on the US Navy’s senior leadership, and on 4 March 1911 the first funds for naval aviation were appropriated. It was at this point in time the Wright Brothers offered to train a single US Navy officer how to fly, if, in exchange, the service would purchase one of their aircraft for the sum of $5,000.

On 8 May 1911, Chambers prepared the necessary paperwork for the US Navy to acquire three aircraft. Of the three planes, the first two to enter service were Curtiss-designed and built aircraft. The first of these two Curtiss airplanes to arrive was nicknamed the A-1. The initial flight of the A-1, in its wheeled configuration, took place on 1 July 1911. The ability of the aircraft to land and take-off from the water as a floatplane was demonstrated ten days later. A few days later the second Curtiss aircraft ordered was delivered to the US Navy and was designated the A-2.

The US Navy also took into service the first of a small number of Wright Brothers-designed and built aircraft in July 1911. The first plane to arrive was designated the B-1. It, and the other airplanes acquired from the Wright Company (formed in 1909 by the Wright Brothers) were eventually configured as training floatplanes.

Pre-First World War Floatplanes and Flying Boats

The US Navy took into service the first of five Curtiss flying boats in 1912, which the company labelled the Model F. They were initially numbered in sequence from C-1 through C-5 by the US Navy. They received a two-letter prefix code of ‘AB’ in March 1914. The ‘A’ stood for heavier-than-air-craft and the ‘B’ for flying boat. AB-2 was the first US Navy aircraft launched by catapult from a ship while underway, an event that took place on 5 November 1915.

In January 1916, the Curtiss Aeroplane Company became the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. By 1917, Curtiss Model F flying boats had become the US Navy’s standard training aircraft, with 150 built between 1916 and 1917.

Unlike floatplanes that depend on under-fuselage pontoons for buoyancy on the water, flying boats depend on their boat-shaped fuselages for buoyancy. Flying boats often employed outrigger pontoons on the end of their wings for added stability in the water. At the time, flying boats were known as hydro-aeroplanes. Floatplanes and flying boats both fall under the umbrella term of seaplanes.

In October 1913, the US Navy’s second Curtiss-built aircraft, designated the A-2, had its original float pontoon replaced by a flying boat fuselage containing a three-wheeled landing gear. This provided the aircraft the ability to land and takeoff from airfields, or the water. With this added feature, the airplane became an amphibian flying boat. Floatplanes can also be fitted with wheels to become amphibians.

Naval Aviation in Action

The largest contribution made by naval aviation during the First World War proved to be the establishment of a number of shore bases along the French, Irish, and Italian coasts. From these bases, US Navy pilots and air crews primarily flew anti-submarine patrols in flying boats, such as the Curtiss-designed twin engine H-16. The H-16 was eventually superseded in production by the F-5L, a US-modified version of a British-designed flying boat.

When the First World War came to an end on 11 November 1918, naval aviation had 2,107 aircraft, with many of them being floatplanes of foreign design. By 1919, the bulk of the naval aviation assets acquired during the First World War were gone; scrapped or placed into storage. The thousands of men who had manned and serviced these craft were demobilized. As the First World War was also known as ‘The War to End All Wars’, few politicians or their civilian constituents foresaw any need for retaining the men and their equipment.

A Vision is formulated

Looking forward it was clear to the senior leadership of the US Navy that the future of naval aviation lay in having a suitable array of aircraft to perform a variety of tasks. As a result, on 13 March 1919, the Chief of Naval Operations issued a preliminary program for post-First World War development. That program called for a number of specialized aircraft for service with the fleet on its battleships and cruisers, as well as the newly-envisioned inventory of aircraft carriers, typically shortened to just carrier.

In addition to those aircraft planned for use with the fleet when at sea, the US Navy also saw a requirement for land-based patrol planes that could protect convoys from enemy submarine attacks. A hitch in that requirement occurred in 1931 when the US Navy and US Army Air Corps agreed that only the latter could operate shore-based multi-engine aircraft. This restricted the US Navy to employing shore-based seaplanes and ship-based aircraft.

Catapult-Launched Aircraft

Beginning in 1926, catapult-launched single-engine floatplanes, officially classified as scouting and observation planes, began serving on US Navy battleships and cruisers. Their main job eventually became spotting for naval gunfire, the scouting role being taken over by wheeled carrier aircraft. They also had a backup role as utility aircraft and occasionally performed in the search and rescue role. All of the catapult-launched single-engine floatplanes could be fitted with wheels in place of their large under-fuselage float if required.

The first generation of scouting and observation floatplanes launched by catapult from US Navy battleships and cruisers all came from Chance Vought, with the initial production model designated the O2U-1 Corsair. Progressively improved models were labelled the O2U-2 through O2U-4 Corsair. By 1930, another variant was referred to as the O3U Corsair, evolving from the O3U-1 through O3U-4 Corsair.

When the O3U Corsair series was assigned to carriers in the wheeled observation-only configuration, they were relabelled SU-1 through SU-4. The later production models of the planes lasted in service up to early 1942. Rather than US Navy squadrons, the Corsair observation series planes assigned to carriers where flown by Marine pilots, the first to fly from US Navy carriers. In total, 580 units of the Corsair series were built by Vought.

The letter ‘U’ in the designation code for the various versions of the Corsair observation planes stood for Chance-Vought. Over the decades to follow, the firm would pass through numerous iterations of corporate ownership, as did many aircraft builders. To simplify, the name Vought will be retained hereafter to identify all aircraft from the various corporate entities that owned the firm.

The eventual replacement for the early generation Vought catapult-launched single-engine floatplanes was the Curtiss SOC Seagull, of which 323 were acquired in various models. Like the floatplanes that came before, it was a biplane. It entered into US Navy service in 1935 and was eventually superseded in service by the Vought OS2U Kingfisher, beginning in August 1940. Unlike all the catapult-launched single-engine floatplanes that came before it, the Kingfisher was a monoplane. The US Navy took in 1,159 units of the Kingfisher series.

Patrol Flying Boats

To replace its aging inventory of First World War-era patrol flying boats, the Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF) decided to upgrade the design of the F5L patrol flying boat. The resulting aircraft appeared in US Navy service in 1924 as the PN-7. It was followed into service by small numbers of successively improved versions, designated the PN-8 through PN-12, with the latter being the definitive design. The letter ‘P’ stood for patrol and the letter ‘N’ for the first letter in the builder’s name, in this case the government-owned NAF.

The US Navy eventually decided they wanted an improved version of the PN-12. As the NAF could not build as many improved units of the PN-12 as the US Navy desired, it contracted with various civilian firms in 1929 to build an upgraded version. The first to enter service was the Douglas PD-1. It was later joined in service by the Martin PM-1, the Keystone PK-1, and the Hall Aluminum Company’s PH-1. All were basically the same aircraft with minor differences between the various companies’ products.

In the late 1920s, the US Navy was looking for the next generation of flying boats. First acquired was the twin-engine Martin P3M, which was a Consolidated Aircraft-designed aircraft for which Martin had won the production contract. However, only nine units of the Martin P3M series were built. The Martin P3M was quickly superseded by the US Navy’s adoption of the superior Consolidated P2Y flying boat ordered in 1931. There were three models of the P2Y. Both the Martin P3M and the Consolidated P2Y were pulled from frontline US Navy service in late 1941.

The frontline replacement for the Consolidated P2Y and the Martin P3M was the twin-engine Consolidated PBY Catalina, which entered into US Navy service in 1936. The letter ‘B’ in the designation prefix code stood for ‘bomber’ and the letter ‘Y’ for Consolidated. The number of Catalina series aircraft completed by 1945 ranges from a low of 2,300 to a high of 3,100 units, depending on the reference sources quoted. Many of the Catalina series aircraft would serve into the early postwar years.

Martin delivered to the US Navy a twin-engine amphibian seaplane beginning in 1940, designated the PBM-1 Mariner. It was built in numerous models, up through the PBM-5, which served during the Second World War up through the early postwar years, including the Korean War. There were at least 1,000 units of the Mariner constructed by 1945.

1920 Fighters

During the First World War, the US Navy had borrowed some foreign-designed and built fighters from the US Army, but never employed them in combat. Immediately after the conflict, the US Navy continued to acquire US Army aircraft, one of these being the Vought VE-7 two-seat trainer. The US Navy thought so highly of the aircraft that they brought a single seat variant into service in 1920 as a fighter, designated the VE-7S.

The VE-7S was the first aircraft launched from the flight deck of the then still experimental USS Langley (CV-1) on 17 October 1922. In 1925, the first US Navy squadron assigned to the USS Langley (now in fleet service) was equipped with eighteen of the VE-7S. The fighter remained in US Navy use until 1927. For a single year in 1923, the US Navy referred to its fighters as pursuit planes, which is how the US Army Air Corps identified their fighter planes.

Carrier-Capable Fighters

The first purpose-built fighter actually ordered by the US Navy and intended for carrier use was the TS-1 that appeared in service in 1922. It was designed by a civilian working for the Bureau of Aeronautics, which had been established the year before. The new bureau had brought almost all the once divergent responsibilities for US Navy aircraft under one roof. Curtiss won the contract to build thirty-four units of the TS-1 fighter, with the government-owned NAF assigned to build five of them. The aircraft lasted in US Navy service until 1930.

Boeing soon jumped into the competition for supplying the US Navy with the fighter planes it needed. In 1925, the US Navy took into service ten of the land-based Boeing FB-1 fighters. It was followed into service by approximately thirty FB-2 through FB-5 fighters, the latter version entering service in 1927. The Boeing FB-2, FB-3, and FB-5 had been designed for carrier use, while the FB-4 was a seaplane fighter, only one being built. The letter ‘F’ in the designation codes stood for fighter and the letter ‘B’ for Boeing.

Boeing also began building for the US Navy another series of fighters, with a different type of engine. These aircraft were all intended for carrier use and labelled F4B-1 through F4B-4, with the first delivery of the F4B-1 in 1929 and the last, the F4B-4 in 1932. The latter was the last Boeing fighter built for the US Navy before the Second World War. In total, 186 units of the Boeing F4B-1 through F4B-4 were built, and they would continue to fly with the US Navy until 1939.

Curtiss also wanted in on the US Navy contracts for fighters and achieved success in 1925 when he made his first delivery of an aircraft, designated the F6C-1 Hawk, of which the US Navy ordered nine units for carrier use. Of the nine F6C-1 Hawks ordered, four were eventually completed as the F6C-2 Hawk. Two years later he began delivery of thirty-five units of a carrier fighter referred to as the F6C-3. The aircraft could be configured as a seaplane if the need arose by the replacement of its wheels with floats. Following the F6C-3 into service were thirty-one units designated the F6C-4. The letter ‘C’ in the aircraft designation stood for Curtiss.

1930 Fighters

In 1929, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company merged with the Wright Aeronautical Corporation to become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, hereafter referred to as Curtiss-Wright for the sake of brevity. The following year, Curtiss-Wright was awarded a contract by the US Navy for five examples of a multi-role carrier-based twin-seat fighter-bomber/observation plane designated the F8C-1 Falcon to be employed by the Marine Corps.

Service use quickly demonstrated the Falcon was much slower than existing single-seat fighters and it was pulled from frontline US Navy carrier use in 1931. The US Marine Corps continued to employ the aircraft as a land-based observation plane. Reflecting its new job, the F8C-1 was re-designated the OC-1, with the letter ‘O’ standing for observation plane. Twenty-one units of an improved model built by Curtiss-Wright were labelled the F8C-3 Falcon and re-designated the OC-2 Falcon.

A follow-on version, the F8C-4, was nicknamed the Helldiver instead of the Falcon, and twenty-five were delivered to the US Navy beginning in 1930. They were quickly turned over to naval reserve units and the US Marine Corps the following year. It was then designated as the O2C Helldiver. A follow-on F8C-5 variant, primarily employed by the US Marine Corps, was labelled as the O2C-1 Helldiver, and remained in service until 1936. The US Marine Corps saw the O2C and O2C-1 as having a secondary role as dive-bombers.

In 1932, Curtiss-Wright began delivery of twenty-eight units of another carrier fighter-bomber, designated the F11C-2 Goshawk, which was re-designated as the BFC-2 Goshawk in early 1934. The re-designation better reflected the aircraft’s dual-purpose role as both a fighter and as a dive bomber. The letter ‘B’ in the new designation stood for bomber and the ‘F’ for fighter. The original Goshawk was followed into service in 1934 by another twenty-seven units of an improved version, designated BF2C-1 Goshawk. The two-letter prefix code ‘BF’ was a short-lived US Navy designation.

The Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation entered the contest for supplying fighters for the US Navy at the request of the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1931. The US Navy liked what they saw and took into service the first of twenty-seven units of a two-man aircraft in 1933, labelled the FF-1. The second ‘F’ in the designation code stood for Grumman. The FF-1 lasted in US Navy frontline service until approximately 1935. In a secondary role as a trainer the aircraft survived in use until 1942. In its two-seat scout configuration it was designated SF-1 and thirty-three were purchased by the US Navy.

Unlike the fighter designs of its competitors, the FF-1 had an enclosed cockpit and retractable undercarriage, which led to an increase in maximum speed as the airplane’s fuselage was more streamlined. These design features led to the Grumman aircraft out-performing the fighter designs from both Curtiss and Boeing.

The FF-1 from Grumman was superseded in US Navy service in 1935 by the delivery of fifty-four units of an improved one-man version of the aircraft, designated the F2F-1. It remained in use on carriers until 1940. The F2F was then overtaken on the production line by the F3F-1 in 1936, and then through the F3F-3. The latter entered service in 1938, and remained in the inventory until 1940. A total of 162 units of the F3F series were built.

On the Eve of War Fighters

In late 1935, the US Navy opened a competition for the next generation of carrier fighters. Three companies vied for the contract. In the end, a fighter, designated the F2A-1, was chosen. The letter ‘A’ in the designation code stood for the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation.

The F2A-1 was the first monoplane fighter in US Navy service; all those that had come before were biplanes. The US Navy ordered fifty-four of the aircraft in 1938. However when completed, forty-three went to the Finnish Government and only eleven were taken into US Navy service at the end of 1939.

At the same time as the US Navy ordered the F2A-1 into production, it asked Grumman, one of the competing firms for the contract, to keep working on improving their own aircraft design, which was a biplane and greatly impressed the US Navy. This was done as a backup plan in case the F2A-1 did not live up to the US Navy’s expectations.

The delivery of forty-two units of an improved version of the F2A-1 to the US Navy, referred to as the F2A-2, occurred in late 1940. Unfortunately, combat reports from the Royal Air Force (RAF) indicated that the F2A-2 was badly outclassed by German front-line fighters. It was the RAF that officially named the F2A-2 the ‘Buffalo’, a name then adopted by the US Navy for the entire series. A small number of Buffalos would go on to serve with the Royal Navy (RN).

A request for more armor protection on the F2A-2 by the US Navy and foreign users of the plane resulted in the production of the next version, designated the F2A-3. It was delivered to the US Navy a few months before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. However, the plane’s added weight made it difficult to fly. Service use of the heavier F2A-3 demonstrated that its landing gear system was not tough enough to withstand the repeated shock of landings upon carrier flight decks and it was quickly pulled from frontline service by the US Navy, although it saw service with the US Marine Corps during the Battle of Midway

The Brewster Buffalo Replacement

The various design issues with the Buffalo prompted the US Navy to go back to Grumman. By this time the firm had come up with a suitable monoplane fighter design, the first prototype of which had flown in September 1937 and easily outperformed the Brewster monoplane fighter. The US Navy wasted no time and ordered seventy-three units of the new Grumman fighter design in August 1939, for testing, and designated it the F4F-3.

Delivery of the F4F-3 to the US Navy began in February 1940. It had a supercharged 1,200 hp engine that gave the single-seat fighter a maximum speed of 331 mph. In March 1941, the first of ninety-five units of an improved model, labelled the F4F-3A, was delivered to the US Navy. It featured a slightly different 1,200 hp engine than the first model of the aircraft. It was also fitted with a simpler single-stage supercharger because there was a shortage of the two-stage supercharger found in the initial version of the aircraft.

Based on early British combat experience with the F4F-3, a new up-gunned and armored version was placed into production by Grumman in early 1942. The US Navy designated it the F4F-4 and named it the Wildcat. A total of 1,169 units were built. By the middle of 1942, it had replaced the majority of the earlier variants of the plane on US Navy carriers.

To allow Grumman to concentrate on building the next-generation fighter to replace the Wildcat, the US Navy assigned production of F4F aircraft to the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors, hereafter referred to as General Motors for the sake of brevity.

The General Motors near-copy of the Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat was labelled the FM-1. The General Motors FM-2 model of the Wildcat was based on two Grumman prototypes labelled the XF4F-8, powered by 1,350 hp engines. According to one reputable source, General Motors built 1,600 units of the FM-1 and 4,777 units of the FM-2, by 1945. Other sources quote different numbers of the FM-1 and FM-2 built.

Biplane Dive Bombers

Dive bombing, an RAF invention from the First World War, had been taken up by the US Marine Corps following the conflict and adopted by the US Navy in 1928. Dive bombing involved aiming an aircraft at an enemy ship while in a steep dive and releasing the bomb at a relatively low altitude for maximum accuracy. The steep angle of attack made it very hard for enemy ship-board anti-aircraft guns to engage attacking dive bombers.

The first dedicated biplane dive bomber for the US Navy was a Martin-designed single-engine biplane, referred to as the BM, with twenty-eight being ordered in 1931. It came in two models, the BM-1 and the BM-2. The letter ‘B’ in the aircraft prefix code stood for bomber and the ‘M’ for Martin. There was a swing-out ordnance cradle underneath the plane’s fuselages for a 1,000 lb bomb. Both versions of the BM dive bomber were pulled from US Navy frontline service in 1937.

The follow-on to the Martin BM-1 and BM-2 dive-bombers was the Great Lakes BG-1 dive bomber. The letter ‘B’ in the aircraft prefix code stood for bomber and the ‘G’ for Great Lakes Aircraft Company. Like the Martin product, the Great Lakes dive bomber was a single-engine biplane with a crew of two. The US Navy ordered the first batch in 1933 and the last in 1935. The order encompassed sixty units of the aircraft. It served in frontline US Navy carrier service from 1934 to 1938. The US Marine Corps employed the aircraft as a dive bomber until 1940.

Next in line were the Curtiss-Wright F11C-2 Goshawk and the F11C-3 Goshawk, in 1934 (already described in the text) that were considered both fighters and dive bombers. Employing fighters in a secondary role as dive bombers was eventually seen as comprising their primary job, so it was decided in 1934 to go back to employing dedicated dive bombers once again.

When the US Navy made the decision to field dedicated dive bombers in 1934, it also decided to assign these new specialized dive bombers a secondary role as scout planes. These two combined roles were now defined by assigning the letter prefix code ‘SB’ for scout-bomber. Hereafter in the text the term dive-bombers will be referred to as scout-bombers.

Biplane Scout-Bombers

A dedicated scout-bomber taken into service pre-war by the US Navy was the Vought SBU-1, which entered service in late 1935, with eighty-four units ordered. It had originally been designed for the US Navy as a two seat fighter, but as the service then wanted only single-seat fighters it was rejected. Forty units of an improved dedicated scout-bomber model designated the SBU-2 were delivered by Vought to the US Navy in 1937. Both aircraft were also referred to by the company as the Corsair, a name they would also use for many other aircraft.

The US Navy also sought out other firms to build dedicated scout-bombers. This included Curtiss-Wright who delivered in 1937 eighty-three units of an aircraft designated SBC-3. The last pre-war Curtiss-Wright dedicated scout-bomber delivered to the US Navy in early 1939 were eighty-nine units labelled the SBC-4, with fifty units being transferred to the French Government in June 1940. All the various models of the Curtiss-Wright-designed and built dedicated scout-bombers were referred to as ‘Helldivers’.

Monoplane Dive Bombers

The Northrop Company product came up with a monoplane scout-bomber designated the BT-1 in 1935. The ‘T’ in the letter designation code stood for Northrop, which became a division of the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1939. The BT-1 was not perfect, but the US Navy believed the design had potential and ordered fifty-four in 1936. A labour dispute delayed delivery to the US Navy until 1938. Once in service it proved unsuitable for carrier service and was pulled from use.

Fifty-seven units of an improved Northrop BT-1 design, initially referred to as the BT-2 and fitted with a more powerful engine, were delivered by Douglas to the US Navy in mid-1940. Once in production it was then labelled the SBD-1, with the letter ‘D’ in the designation code standing for Douglas. This first version of the aircraft was supplied to US Marine Corps squadrons. It was quickly followed by eighty-seven units of an improved SBD-2 model that same year that went to US Navy squadrons. The aircraft was nicknamed the ‘Dauntless’, as were follow-on versions.

In early 1941, the US Navy ordered 174 units of the SBD-3, with deliveries starting in March 1941. US entry into the Second World War in December 1941 resulted in the US Navy quickly ordering 500 additional units of the aircraft. In October 1942, the US Navy received the first of 780 units of the latest version of the Dauntless, designated the SDB-4.

Vought, not wanting to miss out on a business opportunity, wasted no time in providing the prewar US Navy with a series of new monoplane scout-bombers, beginning with fifty-four units of the SB2U-1, with the first delivered in mid-1937. It was followed by the delivery in 1938 of another model, labelled the SB2U-2, of which the US Navy ordered fifty-eight units. The final version of the aircraft ordered by the US Navy late in 1939 was the SB2U-3, and assigned the name ‘Vindicator’, the first of fifty-seven ordered being delivered in mid-1941.

Biplane Torpedo Bombers

The US Navy’s original post-First World War dedicated torpedo bomber was the twin-engine, shore-based Martin TM-1 of which they ordered ten units. The letter ‘T’ stood for torpedo and the ‘M’ for Martin. The aircraft had its initial flight in January 1920, and was also referred to as the MTB. Again, the ‘M’ being for Martin and the ‘TB’ for torpedo bomber.

The Philadelphia Naval Yard took it upon themselves in 1922 to modify an unsuccessful Curtiss twin-engine torpedo bomber design, referred to as the R-6-L, with a more powerful engine. This resulted in a new aircraft designated the PT-1, of which fifteen were built. It was superseded the following year by an improved version, designated PT-2, of which eighteen were constructed. The letter ‘P’ stood for Philadelphia Naval Yard, and the ‘T’ for torpedo.

To come up with a more modern shore-based torpedo bomber, the US Navy in 1922 arranged for a competition between four civilian firms. The winner of the contest was a single-engine Douglas design, designated by the US Navy as the DT-2, the letter ‘D’ standing for Douglas and the ‘T’ for torpedo.

The US Navy ordered ninety-three units of the DT-2, with the building of the aircraft divided among four entities; Douglas along with two other civilian firms and the NAF, the latter building five units of an improved version in 1923, known as the DT-4.

The Douglas DT-2 and DT-4 were followed by six prototypes of the Curtiss designed CS-1 and two of the CS-2 shore-based reconnaissance plane and torpedo-bomber. However, Martin underbid Curtiss for the construction of additional planes for the US Navy. Their copies were labelled the SC-1 and SC-2, with seventy-five units built, all of which were delivered in 1925.

Douglas managed to interest the US Navy in twelve units of another shore-based torpedo-bomber, designated the T2D-1 that were delivered in 1928. The US Navy ordered eighteen additional units of another version of the T2D-1 that came with folding wings and was intended for carrier duty. That never happened, and the aircraft was confined to shore bases.

The first carrier-based torpedo-bomber for the US Navy was twenty-four units of the Martin T3M-1; deliveries started in 1926. It was followed in 1927 by 100 units of an improved version, designated the T3M-2. The Martin T3M-1 and T3M-2 were replaced onboard US Navy carriers in 1930 by another Martin aircraft designated the T4M-1, of which 102 were acquired. However, at that point, the Martin factory had been acquired by the Great Lakes Aircraft Corporation, and the aircraft designation was changed to TG-1. It was followed by an improved version in 1931 referred to as the TG-2. In total, fifty units of the TG-1 and TG-2 were built for the US Navy.

Monoplane Torpedo-Bombers

As the Great Lake TG-1 and TG-2s were beginning to show their age in 1934, the US Navy began looking for a more advanced monoplane torpedo bomber. After testing the products of three different firms, they decided a Douglas product best met their needs. That aircraft first entered service in July 1937 and was designated the TBD-1. The letters ‘TB’ were the new designation code for torpedo bombers and the letter ‘D’ obviously for Douglas. One hundred and thirty units of the TBD-1 were acquired by the US Navy between 1937 and 1939.

The TBD-1 was named the ‘Devastator’ in late 1941 and was assigned to all the pre-Second World War US Navy fleet carriers. In the May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, the Devastators performed well and helped to sink a Japanese light aircraft carrier. However, during the Battle of Midway the following month, their slow attack speed and lack of manoeuvrability made them easy targets for enemy shipboard anti-aircraft defenses, as well as defending fighters. The US Navy pulled all the remaining Devastators off its carriers shortly afterwards and confined them to secondary duties, until the last were pulled from service in 1944.

American Warplanes – Second World War Naval Aircraft

Because of the sometimes long lead time between development of an aircraft and its successful acceptance into service, the US Navy has always been forced to begin thinking about the next generation of aircraft as soon as possible. Reflecting this need, the US Navy contracted with Grumman in June 1941 to begin work on a replacement for their Wildcat fighter only a few months after the first model of that plane began showing up on US Navy carriers.

The Grumman replacement for the Wildcat was the F6F-3 Hellcat. It was for all intents a much improved and larger Wildcat. Both aircraft had the short and stubby appearance that was the hallmark of the Grumman pre-Second World War fighters. The Hellcat design benefited from user input provided both by American pilots, as well as foreign users of the Wildcat who had seen combat against the Axis overseas.

The Hellcat first entered into US Navy service in January 1943, but did not see action until August that year. As the tempo of Hellcat production increased, the plane soon displaced the Wildcat with both US Navy and US Marine Corps squadrons on US Navy fleet carriers, but it was too big for the escort carriers where the Wildcat remained. The Hellcat was armed with six .50 caliber machine guns. Once engaged in combat the plane quickly demonstrated its superiority over existing Japanese fighters.

Grumman did not stop trying to improve the original F6F-3 Hellcat and a second model, designated the F6F-5, began appearing on US Navy carriers in the summer of 1944. Both types of Hellcat could carry either bombs or rockets, the latter being a late-war addition equally useful against seaborne or land targets. In total, over 12,000 units of the Hellcat series were built by the time production ended in 1945. It also saw wartime srvice with the Royal Navy, and post-war with the French and Uruguayan Navies.

The Bent Wing Fighter

A plane whose genesis began with a US Navy contract awarded in June 1938 for the building of a single prototype fighter eventually evolved into the famous Vought F4U Corsair. The first prototype of the aircraft flew in May 1940, with its trademark inverted gull wings, and reflected the company’s designers bringing together a streamlined airframe with the most powerful engine then available.

During a demonstration flight in October 1940, the prototype Corsair attained the unheard-of top speed of 404 mph for a single-engine aircraft in level flight. This did not result in the quick awarding of a production contract, as overseas combat reports indicated that any new fighter being considered had to be both armored and up-gunned, as well as having self-sealing fuel tanks. This forced a redesign of the plane that pushed back the awarding of a production contract to Vought for the Corsair until June 1941.

The first production Corsair flew in June 1942 and was designated the F4U-1. However, early problems adapting it to US Navy carrier use resulted in the aircraft being confined to operating from shore bases by the US Marine Corps. Those US Navy squadrons initially equipped with the F4U-1 and intended to serve on carriers were re-equipped with Hellcats prior to being sent into combat. Despite the aircraft initially being restricted to land bases, it racked up an impressive kill rate over its Japanese counterparts, second only to the carrier-based Hellcat.

Following the F4U-1 model, Vought also came up with other versions of the Corsair. These included the F4U-1A (not an official US Navy designation), the F4U-1C, and the F4U-1D. The ‘C’ model of the Corsair was armed with four 20mm automatic cannons for ground attack, two in each wing, rather than the six .50 caliber machine guns, three in either wing, fitted to the original F4U-1 and the improved F4U-1A model. With the ‘D’ model of the Corsair, the aircraft reverted to six .50 caliber machine guns.

The introduction of the F4U-1D model into US Navy service marked the addition of under-fuselage and under-wing attachment points to the aircraft, known as ‘hard points’ (a term that will be used hereafter in the text). These hard points could carry either ordnance (bombs and rockets), or extra fuel tanks, and were eventually fitted to previous models of the Corsair.

A night-fighter variant of the F4U-D1, designated the F4U-2 equipped with only five machine guns and a radar in its starboard wing, was first delivered to the US Navy in January 1943. It was the night fighter models of the Corsair that were the first to be approved for carrier use in early 1944 by the US Navy.

The final version of the Corsair series to see combat in the Second World War (in very small numbers) was designated the F4U-4. It was armed with six .50 caliber machine guns. Like its predecessors it came in a number of variants including the F4U-4C armed with four 20mm automatic cannon. There was also an F4U-4N night fighter, and an F4U-4P photo-reconnaissance model.

Due to high production demands for the Corsair series, the US Navy brought in both Goodyear and Brewster to build near-identical copies. The Goodyear-built version of the Vought F4U-1A was referred to as the FG-1A and the Goodyear-built version of the Vought F4U-1D was labelled the FG-1D.

There had been plans for Goodyear to build a copy of the Vought F4U-4 as the FG-4, but the end of the Second World War resulted in the cancellation of that production run. The Brewster built copy of the Vought F4U-1 was labelled the F3-A1, but never saw front-line service due to poor manufacturing and quality control.

Carrier-Based Daytime Corsairs

Due to a shortage of US Navy Hellcat fighter squadrons in late 1942, the senior leadership of the US Navy decided to rescind their ban on flying the Corsair fighter series off carriers during daylight hours. By this time, a number of design fixes had been applied to the aircraft to increase its suitability for carrier operations.

The first Corsair equipped fighter squadrons to be assigned to a US Navy carrier were not US Navy but US Marine Corps—VMF-124 was assigned to the USS Essex (CV-9) on 28 December 1944. Eventually, US Navy Corsair fighter squadrons were assigned to carriers in the last year of the war. However, the majority of US Navy fighter squadrons flew the Hellcat in 1945.

Postwar Production

By the time the Second World War had ended, American factories had built approximately 12,000 units of the Corsair in a variety of models. The usefulness of the Corsair ensured that production continued into the early postwar years for the US Navy, where it remained a frontline carrier close-air support aircraft through the Korean War. In total, 750 units of the Corsair series would be built postwar, with production finally concluded in 1953.

The first postwar built model of the Corsair series was the F4U-5, with a night fighter version designated the F4U-5N. Another slower, but more heavily armored version of the aircraft, intended strictly for the ground attack role for the US Marine Corps, was referred to as the AU-1. All three saw action during the Korean War and accounted for a small number of enemy prop-driven planes, as well as a single jet-powered enemy fighter.

Too Late for Combat

As already mentioned, the US Navy always tried to look as far into the future as possible to figure out what types of carrier aircraft it would need. Reflecting this train of thought, two additional fighters went into production at the end of the Second World War. These included the single-engine Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat, optimized for the interceptor role, and the twin-engine Grumman F7F-1 Tigercat

The Bearcat was intended as the replacement for the Hellcat on US Navy carriers, with the first delivery of the aircraft taking place in February 1945. However, squadrons equipped with the Bearcat would not see combat with the US Navy or US Marine Corps during the Second World War.

Despite the impressive performance of the Bearcat, prop-driven fighters were quickly being replaced by jet-powered aircraft in the immediate postwar era, and it was pulled from both the US Navy and US Marine Corps frontline inventory before the Korean War. A total of 1,265 units of the Bearcat were constructed out of an original order in October 1944 for 2,023 units, the rest having been cancelled.

The first production units of the F7F-1 Tigercat were handed over to the US Navy in April 1944. A two-seat night-fighting model of the Tigercat was designated as the F7F-2N and was delivered in October 1944. It was followed by the delivery of another single-seat model, labelled the F7F-3, beginning in March 1945.

Testing conducted by the US Navy in April 1945 showed that the Tigercat was unsuitable for carrier use due to a number of design issues. The US Navy therefore transferred all of them to the US Marine Corps for the land-based close-air support role, however, it showed up in squadron service too late to see combat during the Second World War. The aircraft saw action during the early part of the Korean War with the US Marine Corps. The enemy introduction of jet-powered fighters resulted in the Tigercat being withdrawn from combat use in Korea in 1952. It lasted in US Marine Corps service until 1954. A total of 364 units of the Tigercat series were built.

The Last Scout-Bombers

Ordered by the US Navy in November 1940 from Curtiss-Wright was a monoplane scout-bomber, designated the SB2C-1, which the company named ‘Helldiver’. It was intended to replace their earlier Curtiss SBC-3 and SBC-4 scout-bombers, both being biplanes, also named Helldivers. The SB2C-1 was also ordered by the US Army Air Forces, who had been very impressed by the German Air Force employment of dive bombers during their attack on Poland in September 1939.

The SB2C-1 Helldiver did not enter into production until mid-1942 due a number of design problems and production bottlenecks. Only 200 units of the SB2C-1 were built for the US Navy and none saw combat. An improved version, labelled the SB2C-1C, first saw combat with the US Navy in late 1943, with a total of 778 units built. The SB2C-3 variant had a more powerful engine fitted and 1,112 units were constructed. Fitted with a radar, the SB2C-3 was designated the SB2C-3E. The letter ‘E’ in the aircraft’s designation stood for electronics.

Also assembled were 2,045 units of a modified version of the SB2C-1, known as the SB2C-4. It was fitted with underwing hard points for air-to-surface rockets or bombs. Equipped with a radar unit the plane became the SB2C-4E. An upgraded version of the SB2C-4 without a radar was designated the SB2C-5; a total of 970 units of the SB2C-5 were built, with another 2,500 units cancelled due to the end of the Second World War. In total, Curtiss-Wright built 5,516 units of the SB2C series.

Two Canadian firms built copies of the Curtiss-Wright SB2C-1, SB2C-3, and SB2C-4E Helldivers. These included Fairchild-Canada and Canadian Car and Foundry. The 300 copies of the SB2C-1, SB2C-3, and SB2C-4E constructed by Fairchild-Canada were respectively labelled the SBF-1, SBF-3, and SBF-4E. The 860 copies built by Canadian Car and Foundry were respectively labelled the SBW-1, SBW-1B, SBW-3, and SBW-4E. Canadian Car and Foundry also built a version of the SB2C-5 that was referred to as the SBW-5.

Wartime Impressions

Combat service of the SB2C series of Helldivers with the US Navy was extremely mixed, with many feeling that it was a badly-designed aircraft that reflected poorly on its designer and builder. The issues, both real and perceived, that bedeviled the SB2C series badly sullied the reputation of Curtiss-Wright and contributed to it being the last aircraft acquired by the US Navy from the firm.

Most of those in the US Navy who had to deal with the SB2C series during the Second World War felt that its predecessor, the Douglas SBD Dauntless, was a better aircraft, despite the Curtiss-Wright SB2-C being superior in its operational parameters, except in range. A total of thirty US Navy and twenty-five US Marine Corps squadrons flew the aircraft during the Second World War. The US Marine Corps inventory of SB2C series aircraft were primarily land-based.

Another scout-bomber that was approved for production by the US Navy prior to Pearl Harbor, but which did not begin coming off the factory floor until 1943, was the Brewster SB2A Buccaneer. It was the Brewster replacement for their earlier SBN-1. It was not a success in the scout-bomber role and was quickly transferred to training duties. The Royal Navy, which received the SB2A under Lend-Lease, also concluded that it was unfit for combat, and confined it to secondary duties. Brewster built a total of 771 units of the SB2A.

The US Navy’s Last Torpedo-Bomber

The US Navy’s wartime-built torpedo bomber was the Grumman TBF-1 Avenger. It was the intended replacement for the pre-war designed Douglas TBD-1 Devastator. The origins of the TBF-1 began in early 1940, when the US Navy asked both Vought and Grumman for a state-of-the-art torpedo bomber. Vought won the competition, but their plane, designated the TBY Sea Wolf by the US Navy, was besieged by a host of design and production problems that resulted in it showing up in service late in the Second World War, and never seeing frontline combat service.

By default, the TBF-1 torpedo bomber filled in for the TBY during the conflict, with the first delivery taking place in January 1942. A follow-on model, designated the TBF-1C, had larger fuel tanks to increase the aircraft range, and two wing-mounted, forward-firing .50 caliber machine guns, in place of the single forward-firing fuselage-mounted .30 caliber in the original model of the aircraft. The aircraft was powered by a 1,700 hp engine.

There were additional versions of the TBF-1 converted for roles other than torpedo-bomber, with a letter or letters added to the end of their aircraft designation to identify their new jobs. These new assignments included radar equipped units labelled the TBF-1D and TBF-1CD. Those modified for photo-reconnaissance work were referred to as TBF-1P and TBF-1CP. A model specially equipped for poor weather conditions was designated the TBF-1J. In total, Grumman built 1,526 units of the TBF-1 series, of which 465 units went to America’s wartime Allies.

Due to the high wartime demand for the TBF series, it was decided to have General Motors build copies of the aircraft. The US Navy designated the General Motors copy of the Grumman TBF-1 model as the TBM-1 and the Grumman TBF-1C model as the TBM-1C. These aircraft started coming off the assembly line in September 1942. In total, General Motors constructed 7,546 units of the Grumman designed TBF-1 and TBF-1C, which, like the Grumman-built product, was also modified for other roles and assigned additional letter designations to define their purpose.

The last model of the Grumman designed TBF series of torpedo-bombers was a General Motors development of the aircraft, with a more powerful 1,900 hp engine and strengthened wings to carry more ordnance, and electronics, such as radar units. It was designated the TBM-3 and the initial delivery of the model began in April 1944. Of the 4,011 units of the TBM-3 built, many served in a variety of roles, like earlier models of the aircraft, and were labelled with additional letter designations. Two hundred and twenty-two units went to the Royal Navy.

Scout-Bomber and Torpedo-Bomber Demise

With the introduction of the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair into service, the US Navy now had carrier fighters that were capable of hauling into combat an ordnance load that almost equalled what the existing scout-bombers and torpedo-bombers could tote. Unlike the bombers that were vulnerable to enemy fighters both before and after delivering their ordnance, the new fighters could defend themselves. This was another reason for the growing numbers of fighters on late-war US Navy carriers taking the place of scout-bombers and torpedo-bombers.

Seaplane Patrol Bombers

Besides the very capable twin-engine pre-Second World War Consolidated PBY series and the Martin PBM series, built in large numbers during the Second World War, the US Navy ordered from Consolidated in 1939 six test units of a four-engine seaplane designated the PB2Y-2. Testing went well and an improved production version labelled the PB2Y-3 began showing up in US Navy service in early 1942. Eventually, Martin built 210 units of the PBY-3 Coronado series. Most were upgraded in wartime to the PBY-5 standard.

The Martin Company came up with a very large four-engine seaplane ordered by the US Navy in August 1938. However, the first flight of the prototype, designated the XPB2M-1 Mars, did not take place until July 1942. By that time, the US Navy realized the aircraft’s design was not up to wartime standards as a patrol bomber. However, in January 1945, it ordered twenty transport versions of the plane, labelled the JRM Mars, with the first being delivered in June 1945. With the war ending in September 1945, the order was cut back to only five units.

Land-Based Patrol Bombers

Due to the high demand for maritime patrol bombers during the Second World War, the US Navy took into service a number of land-based multi-engine aircraft. This upended the 1931 agreement between the US Army Air Corps and the US Navy, restricting the latter to employing only seaplanes and ship-based aircraft.

A twin-engine aircraft originally designed as a pre-war passenger plane by Lockheed and modified into a maritime patrol bomber was designated the PBO-1. Twenty were acquired by the US Navy and a squadron based in Newfoundland sank a single German submarine in March 1942.

The PBO-1 was followed into service by 1,600 units of a similar model, also built by Lockheed, designated the PV-1 Ventura. A large number of the units of the PV-1 went to America’s wartime allies. A follow-on model for the US Navy was referred to as the PV-2 Harpoon, with 535 units built, with delivery beginning in March 1944. Most saw service in the Pacific Theater of Operation (PTO) during the Second World War.

For long-range maritime patrol bomber duties the US Navy decided that land-based four-engine aircraft were superior to four-engine seaplanes. This came about due to the successful use of the Consolidated four-engine B-24 Liberator heavy bomber in that role by the RAF Coastal Command. The US Navy’s request for an allotment of modified Liberators was approved in July 1942, and the aircraft was labelled the PB4Y-1

A few PB4Y-1s were later configured for the long-range reconnaissance role and received the designation PB4Y-1P. Approximately 1,000 units of the PB4Y-1 were taken into US Navy service during the Second World War. Its usefulness resulted in it being employed in the immediate postwar era.

In May 1943, the US Navy ordered from Consolidated 739 units of a version of the Liberator designed specifically for naval use, which they designated the PB4-Y Privateer. However, very few made it into service before the Second World War ended. The aircraft remained in US Navy service until 1954. In March 1943, Consolidated had merged with the Vultee Aircraft Company and eventually became known as Convair.

Miscellaneous Aircraft

Other aircraft originally intended for use by the US Army Air Forces during the Second World War were acquired by the US Navy during the conflict to perform different jobs. These included various models of the twin-engine North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, of which initial delivery began in January 1943.

The US Navy assigned its inventory of 706 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers the designation code PBJ-1, and kept the US Army Air Forces model letter prefixes, as the planes were not modified in any way. Rather than being employed as maritime patrol bombers, they were all transferred to the US Marine Corps. They employed them as rocket-equipped attack aircraft in the PTO, generally going after Japanese shipping, beginning in March 1944.

Another US Army Air Forces medium bomber adopted by the US Navy during the Second World War was an early version of the Martin B-26 Marauder that had been modified in 1943 as an unarmed target tug, and eventually designated the TB-26B. In US Navy service it became the JM-1. Another unarmed target tug version of a later production B-26 was labelled the TB-26G. It became the JM-2 in US Navy service. Both aircraft were employed as target tugs and utility planes by the US Navy, with a total of 272 units being taken into the inventory.

Also picked up for service by the US Navy during the Second World War were several pre-war designed multi-engine aircraft originally designed for the civilian passenger plane industry, the best known being the militarized version of the twin-engine Douglas DC-3. It was designated the C-47 Skytrain by the US Army Air Forces and in US Navy service the aircraft was referred to as the R4D.

Another militarized prewar designed twin-engine passenger plane acquired by the US Navy was the Curtiss C-46A Commando, designated as the R5C1, all of which went to the US Marine Corps. A four-engine pre-war-designed passenger plane acquired by the US Navy from the US Army Air Forces during the Second World War was the Douglas C-54 Skymaster. In US Navy service it was labelled the R5D series and a total of 183 units of various versions were taken into the inventory.


The helicopter, which appeared at the tail end of the Second World War, was of little interest to the US Navy at that time. Rather than be bothered with it, they assigned helicopter development to the US Coast Guard, which was attached to the US Navy during the Second World War. Sikorsky provided the US Coast Guard several helicopter models, designated by the US Navy as the HNS-1, the HOS-1, and the HO2S-1. It was only after the Second World War, as helicopter technology progressed, that the US Navy began to see the usefulness of this new flying machine and took over its development.

American Warplanes – Cold War Naval Aircraft

With the beginnings of the Cold War in 1948, nobody could conceive of any future wars between the two new super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, which did not involve the use of nuclear weapons. This left the US Navy as a service that had no way of participating in the next global conflict, as it then lacked any long-range carrier aircraft capable of delivering the 10,000 lbs nuclear bombs of the day. The largest ordnance payload for a Second World War single-engine US Navy carrier-based aircraft was only 2,000 lbs.

As a stop-gap measure to prove that a long-range, multi-engine, nuclear-capable aircraft could be launched from a carrier, the US Navy pulled twelve of its brand-new Lockheed P2V-2 land-based Neptune maritime patrol planes from service and modified them into one-way, long-range, nuclear-capable, carrier takeoff bombers that could attack the Soviet Union. They were powered by two prop-driven engines, supplemented by two jet pods for help when being launched from land bases. In their new role they became the P2V-3C.

Dedicated Nuclear-Capable Bombers

Even as the first squadron of nuclear-capable Neptune bombers was being formed, the US Navy had a replacement aircraft ready to come off the production line. That plane was the North American AJ Savage. The letter ‘A’ in the aircraft prefix designation code stood for ‘attack’, a term introduced in 1946, replacing the pre-Second World War and wartime use of the letter ‘T’ for torpedo, and the letter ‘B’ for bomber. The letter ‘J’ in the aircraft prefix code was the builder’s letter code.

The various versions of the nuclear-capable Savage, the AJ-1 and AJ-2, were in service with the US Navy from 1950 until 1958, with 140 units built. There was also a photo-reconnaissance version of the aircraft designated the AJ-2P, which the AJ-2 model was based on. Like the nuclear-capable Neptune, the nuclear-capable Savage had two large prop-driven engines, but supplemented by a small jet engine to aid in launching it from a carrier flight deck and providing it with dash speed when being chased by enemy aircraft.

The Savage’s successor was the nuclear-capable, jet-engine-powered Douglas A-3A Skywarrior bomber that entered US Navy service in 1956. It was at the time the largest and heaviest aircraft to operate off a carrier. The initial production model, the A3D-1 was soon superseded by an improved version, designated the A3D-2 that first reached the fleet in 1957. A total of 283 units of the Skywarrior were built. The aircraft was relabelled the A-3 Skywarrior in 1962 as part of the Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System mandate.

For the sake of brevity, it will be assumed in the remainder of the text that the reader will understand that all US Navy and US Marine Corps aircraft were relabelled in 1962 with new designations to conform to the Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System mandate imposed by the US Congress.

The Skywarrior was replaced in 1961 by another jet-powered, nuclear-capable bomber, the North American A3J Vigilante. A total of 156 units were built. Less than a year after the Vigilante entered service it was relabelled the A-5 Vigilante. At the same time, its role of delivering nuclear ordnance to the Soviet Union was transferred to the US Navy’s new inventory of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) equipped with the long-range, nuclear-armed, Polaris missile system.

Nuclear bombs did not disappear from the arsenal of possible weapons carried by carrier aircraft in 1962. Rather they had progressively gotten small enough to be carried by existing attack aircraft. This did away with the need for large specialized bombers such as the Savage, Skywarrior, and Vigilante.

New Roles

Not wanting to waste perfectly fine aircraft upon passing the long-range nuclear strike role against the Soviet Union to its submarines, the US Navy converted all of its existing, and yet to be delivered A-5 Vigilante nuclear-capable bombers into photo-reconnaissance aircraft and assigned them the designation RA-5C. The letter ‘R’ in the aircraft’s prefix designation code represented reconnaissance. In US Navy service in this latter role the Vigilante lasted until 1979.

The Skywarrior was converted into a photo-reconnaissance aircraft, designated the RA-3B or an inflight tanker designated the KA-3B. The letter ‘K’ in the aircraft designation code represented tanker. During the early part of the Vietnam War the Skywarrior was pushed into new roles, such as performing conventional bombing missions, as well as being configured as an electronic reconnaissance plane (EA-3B), with the letter ‘E’ standing for special electronics installation. The aircraft was phased out of US Navy service in 1991.

First-Generation Fighters

The first of the postwar carrier-capable jet fighters was the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom. A total of sixty-two were built and they served from 1947 until 1954 with both the US Navy and US Marine Corps. At the same time the Phantom entered service, the North American FJ-1 Fury showed up. Only thirty-one were built and it served with the US Navy until 1953.

On the heels of the Phantom and the Fury came other first-generation jet fighters, such as the McDonnell F2H Banshee, a larger improved fighter based on the design of their earlier Phantom. A total of 895 were built and it was in service with the US Navy and US Marine Corps from 1948 until 1961. In the same time frame, the Vought F6U Pirate began undergoing testing in 1946, however it failed to meet expectations and was cancelled in 1950, after only thirty-three were built.

Other first-generation carrier jet fighters included the Grumman F9F Panther, the Douglas F3D Skynight (intended as an all-weather dedicated night fighter) and the Vought F7U-1 Cutlass. A total of 1,382 units of the Panther were built and it served from 1949 until 1958 with the US Navy and Marine Corps. It would be numerically the most important US Navy jet during the Korean War. Two hundred and sixty-five units of the Skynight were built and it served from 1950 until 1970 with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. In 1962, the Skynight was re-labelled the F-10. Three hundred and twenty units of the Vought F7U-1 Cutlass were constructed. The plane itself was considered difficult to fly and underpowered, which resulted in a great many crashes. It would last in service only from 1951 until 1959.

The Banshee, Panther, and Skynight saw combat during the Korean War, the first two as ground attack aircraft, and the latter in its intended role as a night fighter. The Skynight also saw action during the Vietnam War as an electronic warfare bird in its EF-10 guise, the only US Navy fighter to see service in both conflicts. The other first-generation fighters were not employed during the Korean War or Vietnam War for a number of different reasons, including design faults and operational performance limitations.

Second-Generation Fighters

Key design features of the second-generation carrier jet fighters were their supersonic speed, new radar, air-to-air missiles, and swept wings. The swept wing design was based on German jet aircraft research during the Second World War. All the first-generation carrier jet fighters were sub-sonic and had straight wings, except the Cutlass that had a unique swept-wing design.

Second-generation carrier fighter jets included various models of the McDonnell F3H Demon, the Douglass F4D Skyray, and the Grumman F9F Cougar, which was a swept-wing version of the first-generation Grumman F9F Panther, with a more powerful engine.

The Demon, of which 559 units were built, saw service between 1956 and 1964. The Skyray, of which 422 units were built, entered service in 1956 and it lasted until 1964. A total of 1,392 units of the Cougar were constructed and it served from 1952 until 1974 with the US Navy and US Marine Corps mainly as a ground-attack aircraft.

In 1962, the Demon was re-labelled the F-3, the Skyray the F-6, and the F9F-6 the F-9. Of the three aircraft, only four training versions of the latter, designated the TF9J Cougar, saw action during the Vietnam War, as command and control aircraft for the US Marine Corps. The letter ‘T’ in the aircraft’s designation stood for trainer.

Another second-generation US Navy jet was the North American FJ-2/3 Fury series, a navalized version of the North American F-86 Sabre fighter series, employed by the US Air Force with great success during the Korean War. The US Navy and US Marine Corps took 741 units of the Fury into service, starting in 1954. It lasted in US Navy service until 1956 and with the US Marine Corps until 1962.

A second-generation design failure was the Grumman F-11F Tiger that entered the US Navy inventory in 1954; 199 were constructed. However, it lasted only four years on carriers, due to unsurmounted design problems, before being relegated to training duties between 1961 and 1967. It served with the US Navy’s demonstration team, the Blue Angels, until 1969. In 1962, the F-11F Tiger became the F-11 Tiger.

In the late 1950s, the last of the second-generation jet fighters appeared in US Navy and also US Marine Corps service. The first was the Vought F-8U Crusader in 1957, which became the F-8 Crusader in 1962. The aircraft saw combat during the Vietnam War as both a fighter and as a light attack aircraft. It lasted in US Navy service until 1987 in the photo-reconnaissance variant, the fighter models being retired from US Navy and US Marine Corps service by 1976. A total of 1,219 units of the Crusader were built.

Third-Generation Fighters

The replacement for the F-8 Crusader in US Navy and US Marine Corps service was the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II series that first appeared on carriers in 1960. In 1962, the plane was designated the F-4B Phantom II. The US Air Force was so impressed by the F-4B Phantom II that they adopted a land-based version for their own use in 1964 and designated it the F-4C Phantom II.

In 1967, the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation acquired Douglas Aircraft, and the combined firms became known as the McDonnell Douglas Corporation. As their business faded in the 1990s with the end of the Cold War in 1991 and a dramatic cut in defense funding, the firm was acquired by the Boeing Corporation in 1997, and the corporate name McDonnell Douglas disappeared.

Like all the first- and second-generation jet fighters that preceded it into service, the Phantom II was originally intended solely for the role of interceptor, but was later pressed into other roles, such as ground attack during the Vietnam War, and photo reconnaissance and suppression of enemy air defenses. There were countless models of the Phantom II placed into service during its long service career. By the time the production run of the Phantom II ended in 1981, a total of 1,264 units had been acquired by the US Navy and the US Marine Corps, with hundreds more exported to US allies.

A Design Dead End

Prior to the entry of the Phantom II into service, the US Navy began exploring concept development of a more capable Fleet Air Defense fighter to protect carrier battle groups from long-range Soviet bombers. The USAF, at the same time, desired a new deep strike aircraft. Secretary of Defense McNamara forced both services to study purchasing a common aircraft as a way to save money, calling the program the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX). In the end, the services failed to reconcile their requirements.

The US Navy version of the TFX program was the General Dynamics F-111B. General Dynamics (GD) had entered into the military aircraft field in 1953 by acquiring ownership of Convair, which then became the Convair Division of GD. In 1994, GD sold its Convair Division to Lockheed. The corporate name Convair disappeared in 1996.

The first test flight of the F-111B took place in 1965. Additional testing of the aircraft was a disappointment to many in the US Navy, who felt it was too heavy and underpowered for operating off carriers. The project was cancelled in 1968 with just eight of the aircraft being built, however key elements of the TFX were used in the next generation US Navy fighter. The US Air Force did take a different version into service as the F-111 Aardvark in 1967 and employed it as a deep strike, electronic warfare, and tactical nuclear delivery aircraft until 1998.

Fourth-Generation Fighters

The fourth generation of supersonic jet fighters acquired by the US Navy began with the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The twin-engine, two-seat aircraft entered US Navy service in 1974 and was the replacement for the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. It came in two major versions during the Cold War; the ‘A’ and ‘B’ variants. The US Navy took into service 478 F-14A Tomcats beginning in 1970. The improved F- 14B Tomcat appeared in 1987 and consisted of thirty-eight new-built aircraft and forty-eight A-model Tomcats brought up to the B-model standard.

The Tomcat was not adopted by the US Marine Corps because it had not been configured in the original model for a secondary ground attack role. Instead, the US Marine Corps acquired the McDonnell Douglas/British Aerospace AV-8A Harrier. A handful of F-14As still serve in the Iranian Air Force.

The second of the fourth-generation fighters was the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The prefix ‘F/A’ reflects the Hornet’s dual role as both a fighter and a strike aircraft. The term ‘strike’ is employed by the US Navy to describe a multi-mission aircraft and was adopted by the US Navy for the Hornet, in lieu of the older term ‘attack’, which had been adopted in 1946 and was meant for specially-designed aircraft intended primarily for the ground attack role.

In 1983, the US Navy renamed its existing Hornet-equipped units as ‘strike fighter squadrons’, the previous name being ‘fighter attack squadrons’. A somewhat older, now generic term, for fighters capable of a ground attack role is ‘fighter-bomber’.

The F/A-18 Hornet appeared in US Navy and US Marine Corps squadron service in 1983. It was the replacement for a number of aircraft including the A-6 Intruder, the A-7 Corsair, and the F-4 Phantom. The Hornet first flew combat missions during the 1986 attack on Libya. It also saw action during America’s two wars with Iraq, known as Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. It also flew combat missions over Afghanistan.

The F/A-18 originally came in a single-seat model, designated the F/A-18A and a two-seat model designated the F/A-18B. Approximately 400 units of the F/A-18A and F/A-18B entered into US Navy and US Marine Corps service. Beginning In 1987, the A and B models of the Hornet were progressively replaced by the much more capable C and D versions. Today, besides being employed as a training aircraft, the two-seat versions of the Hornet retains the ability to perform combat roles; in particular, the US Marine Corps uses the two-seat F/A-18D for the demanding night attack mission. Production of the F/A-18C model ended in 1999 and the D-model in 2000.

Due to a shortage of the F/A-18C Hornet version, a least one US Navy squadron flew the F/A-18A model into the early part of the twenty-first century. To keep the ‘A’ model of the Hornet a viable combat aircraft, sixty-one units were upgraded. Positive results achieved with the upgrading process resulted in fifty-four units being subsequently upgraded to an even more capable standard, which brought them up to the same operational capabilities as the F/A-18C model.

As of 2014, the US Navy and Marine Corps inventory of the A, B, C and D models of the Hornet consists of approximately 600 units. Current plans call for twenty-five units of the F/A-18C to be upgraded to a version referred to as the F/A-18C plus that will replace twenty-five aging units of the upgraded F/A-18A. Due to delays in the operational deployment of the post-Cold War replacement for the A, B, C and D model Hornets, it is envisioned that 150 upgraded units of the aircraft will remain in service for a number of years.

Attack Planes

Before the Hornet appeared on US Navy carriers, there were a number of aircraft dedicated to the attack role that flew from carriers during the postwar years. The first of these was the Douglas Skyraider that came in numerous models, AD-1 through AD-7, with sub-variants of each model, not all being employed by the US Navy and US Marine Corps. In 1962, the last three models of the Skyraider built were re-labelled. The AD-5 became the A-1E, the AD-6 became the A-1H, and the last model, originally designated the AD-7, was re-labelled as the A-1J.

The Skyraider was a prop-driven aircraft originally designed during the Second World War, but did not begin appearing on US Navy carriers until 1949. It saw service in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before being retired by the US Navy in 1968. Total production of the Skyraider numbered 3,180 units, with many being employed by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, but not the Korean War.

The Skyraider was not the only prop-driven specialized ground attack aircraft adopted by the US Navy in the early postwar years. There was the Martin AM-1 Mauler, but it did not live up to expectations and was in service only from 1948 until 1953, before the US Navy withdrew it in favor of the better performing Skyraider. Only 151 units of the Mauler were built.

The jet-powered follow-on to the Skyraider in the light attack aircraft category was the subsonic Douglas Skyhawk series that first showed up in US Navy and US Marine Corps service in 1956. It eventually served in a variety of versions. The pre-1962 designation system labelled them the A4D-1, the A4D-2, A4D-2N, and the A4D-5. In 1962, they became respectively the A4-A, the A-4B, A-4C, and the A-4E.

Appearing in US Navy and US Marine Corps service after 1967 was the A-4F model of the Skyhawk that can be easily identified by the upper fuselage hump pod that contained additional avionics. One hundred units of the A-4C were later rebuilt to the A-4F model standard and designated the A-4L. They served only with US Navy Reserve squadrons. The US Marine Corps employed 158 units of the aircraft designated A-4M Skyhawk, that had a more powerful engine and improved avionics.

The last production unit of the A-4M was delivered to the US Marine Corps in 1979, with the Skyhawk series being withdrawn from US Marine Corps service in 1998, and US Navy use in 2003. A total of 2,960 units of the aircraft were built, with over 550 being two-seat trainers.

The eventual replacement for the Skyhawk on US Navy carriers in 1966 was the Vought A-7 Corsair II. It saw combat in the Vietnam War and remained in service long enough to be employed during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. It was retired soon after that Middle Eastern conflict. In total, the US Navy acquired 997 units of the Corsair II, with 60 being two-seat trainers, designated the TA-7C. The Corsair II was not adopted by the US Marine Corps, which preferred to stay with the Skyhawk, until it could be replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet. The Corsair II also served with the USAF and several US allies.

Supplementing the light attack Skyhawk and Corsair II, beginning in 1963, and eventually replacing them on US Navy carriers was the Grumman A-6 Intruder, classified as a medium attack aircraft. The Intruder was an all-weather aircraft that could also operate at night. Its baptism in combat was the Vietnam War, with the initial model labelled the A-6A. Later versions included the A-6B, A-6C, and the final model, the A-6E that entered service in 1970.

Over 700 units of the Intruder eventually entered service with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. The latter retired their Intruder inventory in 1993 and the US Navy in 1996. It was the last dedicated attack aircraft in US Navy and US Marine Corps service.

A variant of the Intruder still in service is the EA-6B Prowler, which is an electronic-warfare (EW) aircraft intended to degrade enemy air-defense systems by jamming their electronic signals or killing them with anti-radiation missiles. The aircraft first entered service in 1971 with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. It will be retired from US Navy service in 2015, but retained by the US Marine Corps until 2019.

There was also an aerial refuelling version of the A-6 Intruder, designated the KA-6D. It could carry over 3,200 gallons of jet fuel that was transferred to other aircraft by hose-and-drogue pods. In total, ninety units of the KA-6D were placed into service by converting older model Intruders to the new role. Due to age-related fatigue problems, the aircraft is no longer in service with the US Navy.


With the cancellation in 1949 of the first planned super carrier, the USS United States (CVA-58), the US Navy feared that it would have no way to deliver nuclear weapons onto targets in the Soviet Union. It quickly looked at a number of options, one of them a long-range, nuclear-capable seaplane bomber. What eventually resulted from this concept was the four-engine, jet-powered Martin P6M-2 Seamaster that appeared in early 1959. However, serious design problems plagued the aircraft and it was cancelled in late 1959, after only eight were built.

In 1948, there was an unfounded concern that supersonic jet aircraft might not be able to operate off the US Navy’s carriers. This led the US Navy to believe that a supersonic seaplane fighter might fill the void. Convair provided the US Navy with an aircraft they thought would meet their needs, labelled the XF2Y-1 Sea Dart.

The first prototype of the Sea Dart flew in January 1953, with unimpressive results. The following year, a test model of the Sea Dart disintegrated in flight, killing the pilot. At the same time it was shown that supersonic aircraft could fly off carriers and the Sea Dart program was quickly cancelled.

A number of pre-war and wartime seaplanes saw early Cold War service with the US Navy before being retired. The only Cold War-era seaplanes acquired by the US Navy were both twin-engine, prop-driven aircraft; the Grumman JR2F-1 Albatross in 1949, and the Martin P5M Marlin in 1951. Whereas the Albatross was primarily a search and rescue aircraft, the Marlin was a maritime patrol aircraft, with a secondary ASW (Anti-submarine warfare) role. The Marlin was derived from the pre-war Martin PBM Mariner employed by the US Navy during the Second World War.

In 1962, the Albatross was re-designated as the HU-16 and the Marlin became the P-5. The last flight of a US Navy Albatross occurred in 1976 when it was flown to a museum for display. In Coast Guard service, the Albatross lasted until 1983 before being replaced by more modern aircraft. The latter remained in US Navy service until 1967 and did see action during the early part of the Vietnam War. A total of 449 units of the Albatross were built, with 285 units of the Marlin constructed.

Land-Based Maritime Patrol Aircraft

In the immediate postwar years, the Soviet Navy began to greatly expand its inventory of submarines, initially diesel-electric and then nuclear-powered. Their job was the destruction of NATO resupply convoys, US Navy carriers and their supporting ships, in the case of a third World War. To counter this very serious threat, the US Navy looked at two different land-based maritime patrol aircraft capable of an ASW role during the Cold War.

The land-based maritime patrol aircraft that the US Navy initially chose in 1947 was the Lockheed P2V Neptune. Power for the aircraft was provided by two prop-driven engines. It was built in seven major models, labelled P2V-1 through P2V-7. New designations appeared in 1962, with the P2V-4 through P2V-7 becoming respectively the P-2D, P-2E, P-2F, and the P-2H. Beginning with the P-2E version, the aircraft was fitted with two jet engine pods to assist in takeoffs.

The Neptune remained in US Navy service until 1984 and came in a wide range of models, including a version configured as a nuclear-capable bomber as previously mentioned in the text. In total, 1,181 units of the Neptune were constructed. The Neptune was also used by the US Army in small numbers during the Vietnam War for the electronic surveillance role.

The US Navy replacement for the P-2 Neptune series was the Lockheed P-3 Orion series that first appeared in 1962, and has appeared in a large number of models over the years, with 734 units completed. It is a four-engine prop-driven aircraft still in service with the US Navy. The P-3 Orion was based on the design of the Lockheed L-188 passenger plane. There is also an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) version of the aircraft in US Navy service, labelled the EP-3E ARIES (Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System).

Carrier ASW Aircraft

Reflecting the serious threat posed to US Navy carriers by Soviet Navy submarines during the Cold War, a number of aircraft configured for the ASW role operated off US Navy carriers during that time period. These included wartime and early postwar prop-driven aircraft modified for the role, followed later by specially-designed aircraft configured for the job.

Following the wartime aircraft modified for the ASW role came the postwar, prop-driven, Grumman AF Guardian. Originally intended as a torpedo-bomber it was decided to configure it for the ASW role. It worked in pairs, with the plane equipped with the detection gear labelled the AF-2W, and the second Guardian armed with weapons labelled the AF-2S. These aircraft entered service in 1950 and remained in carrier use until 1955.

The two-aircraft ASW combination was far from the optimum arrangement for carriers, which were always hard-pressed for space. The solution arrived in the form of a new prop-driven, twin-engine aircraft especially designed for the ASW role, which combined the detection gear and weapons needed to destroy enemy submarines in a single airframe. That aircraft was the Grumman S2F Tracker, which appeared in service in 1954, as the replacement for the Guardian.

The original production version of the Tracker was designated the S2F-1 and the last model constructed the S2F-3. A total of 1,284 units of the aircraft were built. The plane was re-designated in 1962, with the S2F-1 becoming the S-2A and the S2F-3 becoming the S-2D. All the various models of the Tracker were withdrawn from US Navy service by 1976.

The replacement for the Tracker was the Lockheed S-3A Viking that began appearing on carriers in 1974. A total of 186 were built. Between 1987 and 1994 a total of 119 units of the S-3A were upgraded to prolong their useful service life and became the S-3B.

Unlike the Tracker that was prop-driven, the Viking was powered by two jet engines. With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the pressing need for ASW aircraft on US Navy carriers diminished. The Viking was re-configured for the surface warfare role and as a carrier-onboard-delivery (COD) plane. With the arrival of newer aircraft to fulfill those roles, the Viking was retired from service in 2009.

Carrier and Land-Based AEW Aircraft

The need for an airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft was brought home to the US Navy during the last few months of the Second World War in the Pacific when large numbers of kamikazes began overwhelming the fleet’s existing air-defense system. To rectify this problem, a number of options were explored. One involved mounting a radar system in a suitable aircraft that once aloft, could provide over-the-horizon radar coverage. The aircraft chosen for that role was the Grumman-designed TBM Avenger torpedo-bomber, re-designated in its new role as the TBM-3W.

The TBM-3W showed up too late to see action in the Second World War, but did lay the groundwork for successor AEW aircraft. Following in the footsteps of the TBM-3W, the US Navy took into service a number of US Army Air Force B-17 four-engine, land-based bombers, configured as AEW aircraft, and designated them as the PB-1W. Besides the radar, they carried aloft a fighter-director team to assist in vectoring US Navy fighters onto threats identified by the plane’s radar system.

The PB-1W was soon replaced in the AEW role by the conversion in 1954 of the four-engine, prop-driven, land-based Lockheed Constellation passenger plane. In its new role, it became the PO-1W Warning Star and in 1962 the EC-121 Warning Star, with the last Constellation variant remaining in US Navy service until 1982. The US Navy also employed fifty units of a cargo/passenger version of the Super Constellation originally labelled the R7V-1. It became the C-121G in 1962 and lasted in service until the 1970s.

Still, the US Navy needed a newer generation dedicated carrier-launched AEW aircraft. For a time, they employed a version of the Skyraider in that role, designated the AD-4W. One hundred and sixty-eight were built, with the US Navy eventually transferring fifty to the Royal Navy. As more capable AEW aircraft entered the US Navy inventory, the AD-4W was assigned to ASW duties and remained in service until 1965.

The US Navy replacement for the AD-4W Skyraider was the twin-engine, prop-driven Grumman WF-2 Tracer, which entered service in 1958. It was a variant of the Grumman S-2 Tracker ASW aircraft. The WF-2 Tracer became the E-1B Tracer in 1962. A total of eighty-eight units of the Tracer were built with the last retired from service in 1976. From the Tracer was derived the Grumman C-1 Trader COD aircraft that was in service between 1958 and 1988. The Trader became the TF-1 in 1962.

The Tracer was replaced by the Grumman twin-engine, prop-driven, E-2 Hawkeye series that initially entered service in 1964. Beset by early design problems, the aircraft has been continuously upgraded over the decades to improve its effectiveness and remains today an important part of every US Navy carrier. One hundred and thirty-three units of the Hawkeye have been built, in three versions; labelled E-2A, E-2B, and E-2C. All of the ‘A’ models of the aircraft were retired in 1967. With the miniaturization of electronics, the E-2 evolved from its early role as AEW, to include battle management and command and control.


The first helicopter in immediate postwar use by the US Navy was the wartime-built Sikorsky HNS-1 and the very similar Sikorsky HOS-1, developed by the US Coast Guard. In total, Sikorsky built 131 units of the HNS-1 and HOS-1 for a variety of customers, not just the US Navy. Some served with the Royal Navy.

Positive feedback from the testing of the wartime-built Sikorsky helicopters, as well as postwar Piasecki helicopter designs such as the HRP-1 Rescuer, of which the US Navy acquired twenty, resulted in improved models being acquired by the US Navy, designated the HUP-1 and HUP-2 Retrievers. Piasecki built a total of 339 units of the Retrievers for several customers, including the US Navy.

In US Navy service, the Retrievers served in both the utility and search and rescue (SAR) roles, as well as performing an ASW role. They remained in US Navy service until 1964. In 1962, the HUP-1 and HUP-2 respectively became the UH-25B and the UH-25C.

The first Sikorsky Cold War-era helicopter acquired by the US Navy and the US Marine Corps were eighty-eight units designated the HO3S-1 that lasted in service until 1957. It was followed by the HO4S utility helicopter, which the US Marine Corps designated the HRS. All HO4S variants in American military service became the H-19 series in 1962 with 1,000 units built for the American military.

The Sikorsky H-19 series was replaced in US Navy service in 1953 by a lengthened and more powerful version of the helicopter that was designated the HSS Seabat. It was configured for the ASW role. Another version that went to the US Marine Corps was labelled the HSS Seahorse and served in the utility and troop transport role. In 1962, the HSS Seabat became the SH-34 series with 382 units being built for the US Navy while the HSS Seahorse became the UH-34 series.

The early 1970s replacement for the HSS Seabat in the ASW role was the Kaman twin-engine SH-2 Seasprite. The helicopter started its service life with the US Navy as a single-engine utility helicopter in 1962, and was then designated UH-2. However, the demand for an ASW helicopter that could fly off the US Navy’s non-carrier ships resulted in the service having the UH-2 rebuilt for the new role. One hundred and eighty-four units of the Seasprite, in various models, were built and the ASW version lasted in US Navy service until 2001. Kaman also supplied the US Navy twenty-four units of a utility helicopter designated the HUK-1 in the late 1950s.

The first-generation Sikorsky helicopters would be gone from US Navy use by the early 1970s. In their place came the Sikorsky twin-engine helicopter named the Sea King. Entering service with the US Navy in 1964, it was primarily an ASW helicopter that could also perform a variety of other roles such as surface warfare, SAR, aerial mine-sweeping, transport, and general utility duties. This is reflected in the various models of the helicopter built that would remain in US Navy service until 2006.

Entering into service the same year as the Sikorsky Sea King with the US Navy was the Vertol Sea Knight transport helicopter. Piasecki had become Vertol in 1955. Like the previous helicopters the US Navy had acquired from Piasecki, the Sea Knight was a tandem rotor helicopter. However, unlike its earlier cousins it was powered by two engines and not one.

The initial version of the Sea Knight acquired by the US Navy was designated the UH-46A. It remained in US Navy service until 2004. The bulk of the over 500 units of the Sea Knight constructed went to the US Marine Corps, with the last planned to be retired in 2015.

Initially acquired by the US Marine Corps as a twin-engine heavy transport helicopter was the Sikorsky Sea Stallion, designated the CH-53A. The US Navy acquired fifteen from the US Marine Corps in 1971 for the aerial mine-sweeping role and labelled them the RH-53A. In 1973, the US Navy took into its inventory thirty units of a more advanced version of the twin-engine Sea Stallion, configured as an aerial minesweeper and designated the RH-53D.

Because the services wanted a more powerful version of the Sea Stallion, Sikorsky came up with an enlarged version with three engines instead of two, which the US Navy and US Marine Corps took into service in 1980 as the CH-53E Super Stallion. A total of 177 units of the Super Stallion were built. In 1986, the US Navy acquired the first of forty-six units of a specialized aerial mine-sweeping model of the Super Stallion, referred to as the MH-53E Sea Dragon.

Since the early 1980s, the bulk of the US Navy’s helicopter inventory has been made up of a large variety of different models of the Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk series, which was based on the US Army’s UH-60 Blackhawk series helicopter also designed and built by Sikorsky.

The first of the SH-60 Seahawk series to enter US Navy service in 1984 was the SH-60B configured for the ASW and anti-surface role. It flew off frigates, destroyers, and cruisers. It replaced the Kaman Seasprite SH-2 ASW helicopter. A version of the Seahawk, labelled the HH-60H, was optimized for combat search and rescue (CSAR) and naval special warfare (NSW) missions and also appeared in the early 1980s.

Another version of the Seahawk was designated the SH-60F and intended for operation off carriers with the same job description as the SH-60B. It was the replacement for the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King.

US welcomes China’s peacekeepers in Africa but wary of Beijing’s military inroads.

Chinese PLA personnel attend the opening ceremony of China’s military base in Djibouti.

Jevans Nyabiage

US Senate Armed Services Committee was told China’s newly completed naval pier in Djibouti would accommodate an aircraft carrier

China’s peacekeeping deployments in Africa perceived as possible excuse to build up military bases in Africa, says analyst

With a population of under 1 million, Djibouti on the Horn of Africa is one of the smallest countries on the continent.

But what it lacks in size, it makes up for with its strategic location, overlooking the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a choke point between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

It is that location that has made it a hub for foreign militaries. Before 2017, the United States, France, Japan and Italy had established bases for their armed forces in the country. Then China arrived, setting up what it described as a logistics facility for resupplying Chinese vessels on peacekeeping and humanitarian missions

That facility houses between 1,000 and 2,000 Chinese navy personnel, according to various reports.

About 12km away, the US’ Camp Lemonnier military base houses 3,400 personnel.

Analysts say that while the US has always welcomed China’s support for UN peacekeeping operations and anti-piracy efforts in Africa, it is concerned China plans to expand its rights to set up bases, using them to extend its military reach and grow arms sales to African countries.

Luke Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, said whether in Africa or the Arctic, the US did not want to see a challenger upset its dominant global military presence.

“Chinese participating in peacekeeping missions may not turn too many heads at the Pentagon, but China’s Djibouti base has military capabilities that extend far beyond the logistical needs of any peace or humanitarian mission,” Patey said.

US Army General Stephen Townsend, leader of US Africa Command, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee on April 20 that China “continues to expand their base in Djibouti into a platform to project power across the continent and its waters – completing a large naval pier this year”.

He said the recently completed pier at the Chinese naval base in Djibouti was large enough to support an aircraft carrier.

Townsend said Beijing sought to open more bases, tying their commercial seaport investments in East, West and Southern Africa closely with involvement by Chinese military forces to further their geostrategic interests.

Reflecting those concerns, US Senator Robert Menendez has sponsored a bill proposing to deny help to governments that allow China’s People’s Liberation Army to host a military installation.

China has not responded to Washington’s latest claims. But last year, when the US Department of Defence alleged in its annual report to Congress that Beijing was planning to set up more military bases in Africa, China’s foreign ministry denied the reports and urged the US to “abandon the outdated Cold War mentality and zero-sum game mindset, stop issuing irresponsible reports year after year”.

Jeffrey Becker, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Programme at the Centre for Naval Analyses, said that for China establishing a second African base was certainly a possibility as China’s interests in Africa and the surrounding regions continued to grow.

“Places such as Kenya and Tanzania on Africa’s east coast, or Namibia along the Atlantic, have been mentioned as possible locations,” Becker said.

“A second base in Africa would improve China’s ability to conduct a range of operations, including evacuating Chinese citizens in times of crisis and protecting China’s access to key maritime chokepoints in the region, which are critical to China’s trade and energy imports.”

Even if China were to open bases in those countries, Patey said “these plans may still pale in comparison to the hundreds of bases operated by the United States, but if enacted they would still extend China’s military reach far from its mainland and near waters”.

But US concern about China’s security presence in Africa was not especially grounded in national security rationale, according to Samuel Ramani, a tutor in politics and international relations at the University of Oxford in Britain.

Ramani said China and the US broadly supported a stable continental order and neither saw insurgencies or terrorism to their advantage. But Townsend’s comments reflected the US geopolitical rivalry with China and concerns about losing influence to China, Ramani said.

“It is about losing access to oil and mining resources, further erosion of US leverage in the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] and China gaining more influence, perhaps in concert with Russia, on Indian Ocean security,” Ramani said.

He said Beijing had been cautious about its next moves concerning naval bases in Africa.

“Sao Tome and Principe was rumoured as a naval base in 2018 and there are persistent rumours about Namibia being the site of an army base. Overall though, I see China treading cautiously and not proceeding to establish a base in the near future,” Ramani said.

How tiny Djibouti became the linchpin in China’s belt and road plan.

David Shinn, a former US diplomat and a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said the US had always been concerned about the global expansion of the PLA Navy, including its base in Djibouti.

“Over the short and medium term, I expect China will pursue dual-use port facilities in African waters rather than new military bases,” Shinn said. “That is one reason why China is pursuing so many equity investments in African ports.”

John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia Project, said the US had been encouraging China’s participation in peacekeeping as a means of showing that it was indeed a “responsible stakeholder”. But he said potential concerns included the proliferation of weapons and the possible acquisition of basing rights.

Calabrese said China’s sudden need to evacuate thousands of expatriate workers from Libya during the Arab spring drove home the need for China to develop the capacity to protect its far-flung overseas interests and assets.

Further, Calabrese said the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative extended and deepened Chinese commercial activities in the zone around the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa domain in East Africa, justifying the need for a military presence in and around critical waterways and choke points at the Western extremity of the Maritime Silk Road.

Besides making baby steps as a blue-water navy, China is a key player in the UN-led peacekeeping missions in Africa, known as the blue helmets.

The number of Chinese peacekeepers in Africa peaked at 2,620 in 2015 and then declined to about 2,100.

Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, said “there is a longer-term worry that Beijing could use its peacekeeping deployments as an excuse for building up military bases in Africa, ostensibly to support the blue helmets”.

However, he said Western fears about China’s peacekeeping ambitions were overstated and that “China has adopted a fairly cautious approach to UN deployments since 2017 when it suffered fatalities in Mali and South Sudan”.

“China’s single biggest UN deployment is in South Sudan, where it has an infantry battalion. This is, of course, in part linked to China’s energy interests there,” Gowan said.

American Warplanes – Interwar Aircraft (1919–1938)

Upon the conclusion of the First World War in November 1918, the Air Service had in its possession approximately 7,900 aircraft, of which less than 1,000 had seen operational service in France. The majority of the wartime-acquired planes would be sold as surplus, with some placed into storage. All existing factory contracts for new aircraft were cancelled.

In June 1920 the Air Service was established as a combat arm of the US army, on a par with the other branches of the service. In July 1926 the US Army Air Service was re-designated as the ‘US Army Air Corps’ and authorized 1,800 aircraft.

We need bombers

The leadership of the Air Service had been very impressed by the wartime development of foreign multi-engine bombers intended for the strategic bombing role, so much so that it had arranged to have modified examples of both an Italian three-engine bomber named the Standard Caproni and a twin-engine British bomber named the Handley Page built in the United States by the New Standard Aircraft Company. Due to a number of delays and the ending of the First World War, only five units of the Italian bomber entered service with the Air Service post-war.

The Air Service also sought out a native-designed multi-engine bomber. This prompted them to order from the Glenn L. Martin Company a twin-engine biplane bomber designated the MB-1 in late 1918. None would be completed in time to see combat in France, and after the initial ten units were completed, further production was cancelled.

The Air Service contracted with Martin in 1921 to produce twenty units of an updated version of their MB-1 bomber, to be known as the MB-2. The first five built retained the company designation MB-2, with the following fifteen being referred to as the Night Bomber, Short Range (NBS-1). It was felt that the slow speed of these bombers would make them easy targets for enemy fighters during daylight hours.

This initial order for the MB-2/NBS-1 was followed by another from the War Department for an additional 110 units of the aircraft. As the War Department competitively bid this order, Martin was underbid by other companies for the building of the aircraft which remained in use until the late 1920s.

Post-war military aircraft designation codes

Prior to 1920, American military planes typically retained their builder’s designations. Beginning in 1920, the letter/s acronyms at the start of an aircraft’s designation indicated the aircraft type and size. The trailing number/s would denote the chronological sequence in which the plane was taken into service. Suffix letters in alphabetical order following the designation number/s of an aircraft would identify variations to the plane.

In 1923 the Air Service acquired a single-engine biplane light bomber designed and built by the Huff-Daland Company. It was designated the Light Bomber No. 1 (LB-1). As the Air Corps had decided in 1926 that it only wanted twin-engine bombers, only nine units were taken into service.

The Huff-Daland Company soon came up with a new twin-engine biplane bomber design. The Air Corps liked what they saw and ordered ten units in 1927 from the Keystone Aircraft Corporation, successor to the Huff-Daland Company.

The new Keystone bomber was labelled the Light Bomber No. 5 (LB-5). Upgraded versions were designated the LB-5A, LB-6, LB-7 and LB-10. They would serve until 1934. From 1930 onwards, all bombers were identified only by the letter ‘B’.

Next-generation bombers

The Keystone twin-engine biplane bombers were merely minor updates of the First World War designs, built mostly of wood and fabric. They also had open cockpits, fixed landing gear, and their bombs were carried below their wings as they had no internal bomb bays.

The first somewhat modern bomber tested by the Air Corps in 1931 was the Boeing Company twin-engine Y1B-9. The ‘Y1’ stood for service test aircraft. It was an all-metal monoplane (single-wing), with retractable wheels. The metal construction of the Y1B-9 produced an aircraft with a significant improvement in strength and durability compared to its wood and fabric biplane predecessors.

The streamlined shape of the Y1B-9 monoplane bomber reduced drag and thereby increased aircraft speed. However, it did retain some old-fashioned design features such as an open cockpit and bombs carried under the wings as it still lacked an internal bomb bay. Only seven were built, remaining in service until 1935.

A game of one-upmanship

The Boeing Y1B-9 series was superseded by the Martin Company-designed and built twin-engine B-10 monoplane bomber, which entered into operational service in 1935. It was also of all-metal construction but unlike the Boeing Y1B-9, it had an internal bomb bay. In addition, it had retractable landing gear, a machine-gun armed turret for self-defence and an enclosed cockpit.

Reflecting the technological leap that the B-10 represented in design and in turn operational capabilities when it rolled off the Martin assembly line, the Air Corps ordered 121 units of the aircraft, the largest order of bombers ever made by the US army’s aviation element up to that point.

Alas, the Martin B-10 series’ time at the forefront of bomber design did not last long. It was replaced by the even more capable Douglas Aircraft Company B-18 twin-engine all-metal monoplane bomber. The B-18 was based on the firm’s twin-engine DC-2 all-metal monoplane commercial transport. In January 1936 the Air Corps ordered 133 units of the B-18, quickly followed by another order for 217 units of a modified version labelled the B-18A.

The future is here

The selection of the twin-engine monoplane Douglas B-18 bomber was not favoured by many in the Air Corps who felt that it was already obsolete compared to Boeing’s new prototype all-metal four-engine monoplane bomber designated the Model 299.

The Boeing 299 was the forerunner of the firm’s B-17 bomber series of Second World War fame. Boeing had designed and built the prototype in response to a 1934 Air Corps requirement for a bomber that could reach faraway American military bases in Hawaii, Alaska and Panama.

The Air Corps selected the twin-engine Douglas B-18 bomber in lieu of the far superior Boeing 299 four-engine bomber prototype for two reasons. First it was less costly, and secondly the Boeing aircraft was destroyed in an accident before the competition was completed. At that time funding for new planes was in short supply and the Air Corps had to stretch its limited budget as far as possible.

Despite its funding shortfalls, the Air Corps was well aware of the operational potential represented by the Boeing 299 four-engine bomber prototype. It therefore went ahead and scraped together sufficient funding to order thirteen upgraded preproduction units of the aircraft for testing in 1935. These pre-production models were designated the Y1B-17.

The first four-engine bomber enters service

Despite being intended solely for testing, the Air Corps went ahead and formed an operational squadron with twelve of its Y1B-17s in 1937. They had been redesignated as the B-17 in 1936 and officially named the ‘Flying Fortress’ in 1938. The sole remaining Y1B-17 was employed by the Air Corps as a test-bed for evaluating different types of power plants for the plane. It was later designated as the B-17A.

The initial production batch of thirty-nine B-17s was designated B-17B with the first examples delivered in June 1939, only three months before the official beginning of the Second World War. However, due to a number of design issues the B-17B was not considered fit for combat employment and all were relegated to noncombat secondary missions in October 1942.

The post-war-designed pursuit planes

The designs of the first two pursuit biplanes acquired by the aviation element of the US army following the First World War had been commissioned during the last year of that conflict. However, neither had been placed into production before the war ended. These were the Orenco Company Model D and the Thomas-Morse MB-3, with fifty units of each aircraft ordered by the War Department.

Unfortunately for both firms, the War Department owned the rights to the designs and they competitively bid further orders, a practice that continued till 1925. Other companies were allowed to underbid them and were awarded the contracts to build the respective aircraft. The building of the Orenco Company Model D went to the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, and the Thomas-Morse MB-3 to Boeing. Production units of both aircraft were tested with the Air Service in 1919.

Following in the footsteps of the Orenco Company Model D and the Thomas-Morse MB-3 came new biplane fighters. The first post-war-designed model was the Curtiss PW-8, of which the Air Service ordered twenty-five units in 1923. This was followed the next year by the Air Service ordering thirty units of a Boeing pursuit plane designated the PW-9.

Pursuit planes of the 1920s

The Curtiss CW-8 was the starting-point for the company’s famous Hawk series of pursuit biplanes. The name ‘Hawk’ was strictly a company marketing title. The next production model of the Curtiss aircraft taken into service with the aviation element of the US army was the P-6, eighteen of which were ordered in 1928. There were also seventy-one upgraded units, divided across three versions referred to as the P-6A, P-6D and P-6E, which served until 1937.

Fighter plane designation changes

The generic name ‘fighter’ did not come into official use with the aviation element of the US army until it became the United States Air Force (USAF) following the Second World War in 1947. Up to that point, fighters were officially referred to as ‘pursuit planes’. Unofficially, fighters became the accepted term for pursuit planes during the Second World War

Between 1920 and 1924, pursuit planes were designated by the acronym ‘P’ followed by another letter that might describe its engine type or mission. For example, ‘PN’ stood for ‘Pursuit, Night’. In May 1924 the second letters were dropped and only the letter ‘P’ for pursuit plane was used thereafter.

The number/s following the acronym ‘P’ are the acquisition sequence of the aircraft. The gaps between the acquisition sequence of serious production combat aircraft reflect those plane designs that were cancelled.

The Air Service ordered thirteen units of the Boeing P-1 in 1925. This was followed by orders for eighty-three units of progressively improved models, labelled P-1A, P-1B and P-1C. Boeing was also keen on winning additional contracts from the Air Corps for pursuit biplanes. However, their second attempt, a modified version of their PW-8 designated the XP-8 which had a different engine, did not meet the Air Corps’ specifications. The prefix letter ‘X’ stood for experimental.

On their third attempt, Boeing came up with a winning design so impressive in its performance compared to previous pursuit biplanes that both the Air Corps and the US navy ordered it in 1928. The Air Corps’ version was designated the P-12 and the US navy version the F4B-1. Eventually the Air Corps would take into service 365 units of the P-12 series, which encompassed a P-12B through P-12E model ordered in 1931.

Despite their positive attributes, the Boeing P-12 series of pursuit biplanes as well as the Curtiss series had wings made of wood and fabric with open cockpits and fixed landing gear. The only truly modern element in their designs, which had not been seen in the First World War, was their metal fuselages.

All-metal pursuit monoplanes appear

With the advent of the Boeing Y1B-9 twin-engine all-metal bomber in 1931, the Air Corps realized that the next generation of multi-engine all-metal monoplane bombers would be faster than its existing fleet of pursuit biplanes. This pushed the Air Corps to begin considering the acquisition of all-metal pursuit monoplanes.

As the Air Corps lacked the funding required to purchase a new generation of such aircraft, it went to Boeing and asked them to design an all-metal pursuit monoplane that would be less costly than the firm’s existing models. Boeing responded to the Air Corps’ needs and came up with the P-26 series of pursuit monoplanes.

A total of 136 units of the P-26 series was ordered in early 1933, divided between the P-26A and P-26B versions, with delivery beginning later that same year. Curtiss also came up with a pursuit monoplane design at the same time but the Boeing model was judged to be superior.

Despite being all-metal, the P-26A and P-26B still retained a number of First World War design features. These included such things as fixed landing gear, open cockpits and externally-braced wings. Reflecting the higher landing speed that came with a monoplane design, the P-26 series had landing flaps, the latter being a British invention.

Transitional pursuit planes

By the end of the 1930s, it was clear to the Air Corps that the P-26 series was completely outclassed by foreign-designed monoplane fighters. To cope with this growing disparity in operational capabilities between its existing fighter inventory and those of potential foreign opponents, the Air Corps sought out newer-generation monoplane pursuit aircraft.

The Air Corps would replace the P-26 series with two new pursuit planes between 1938 and 1940. These were the almost all-metal Curtiss P-36A (the landing flaps were fabric-covered), and the all-metal Seversky P-35. Both fighters were the first in the Air Corps’ inventory to feature such modern design features as retractable landing gear and enclosed cockpits. There were 178 P-36As built and 77 units of the P-35.

The problem with the P-36A and the P-35 was that they were already obsolete when placed into service. They were both under-armed and lacked self-sealing fuel tanks. The Air Corps was not unaware of these issues and before America’s entry into the Second World War they authorized the design and manufacture of newer pursuit planes superior to the foreign fighters that were then dominating the skies overseas.

Despite its design limitations, the P-36A would remain in service with the Air Corps long enough to see combat during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, it soon disappeared from front-line service, being replaced by more capable aircraft. The P-35 had already been pulled from front-line service prior to Pearl Harbor.

Ground-attack aircraft

In the early post-war years, the Air Service tried to come up with a dedicated plane for the ground-attack role. Unfortunately, engine technology had not yet developed enough capability to carry the weight of the weapons and armour required of a successful ground-attack aircraft. The Air Service/Air Corps had to make do with modernized units of the First World War era DH-4s in this role until a suitable upgrade could be found.

As a stopgap ground-attack aircraft, the Air Corps took into service in 1927 the first of 143 units of the single-engine Curtiss A-3 biplane, the letter prefix ‘A’ standing for attack. Besides being armed with a number of machine guns, the A-3 also had underwing fittings for carrying bombs. It would survive in service until the early 1930s.

The first dedicated ground-attack aircraft

In 1932 the Air Corps took into service for test purposes thirteen units of a dedicated ground-attack aircraft from Curtiss that was originally designated the YA-8. This new single-engine monoplane had an enclosed cockpit, and wing slots and flaps to assist in reducing landing speed.

Positive feedback from testing the YA-8 led to it being re-designated as the A-8. An improved version was designated the A-12, with forty-six taken into service between 1933 and 1934. It would remain in service until 1941.

At the same time as the order was placed for the Curtiss A-12, the Air Corps ordered five units of a Consolidated Aircraft Corporation single-engine monoplane designated the A-11. Consolidated was formed in 1923. In 1943 it became the Convair Corporation, which also included the Vultee Aircraft Division of the Cord Corporation.

The Consolidated A-11 and the Curtiss A-12 were followed into Air Corps’ service by a ground-attack aircraft designated the A-17. It was designed and built by the Northrop Aircraft Company, formed in 1932. Like the ground-attack aircraft that preceded it, this was a single-engine, all-metal twin-seat monoplane.

The original production run of the A-17 consisted of 110 units. They had enclosed cockpits but fixed landing gear. The follow-on A-17As had retractable landing gear; these were delivered between 1937 and 1938. By the time the A-17A was delivered, Northrop had been acquired by the Douglas Aircraft Company.

In 1938, the Air Corps decided that it wanted only multi-engine attack planes. This meant that the entire A-17 series was surplus to requirements. The majority were therefore passed on to other countries, with those few remaining in the inventory reassigned to non-combat roles.

American Warplanes – Second World War (1939–1945)

The rise to power of various totalitarian nations in the 1930s, such as Japan, Italy and Germany, convinced the senior political and military leadership of the United States that the nation would eventually be drawn again into overseas conflicts. They therefore sought to prepare the country’s military forces for that undertaking.

In the forefront of building up the strength of the United States armed forces was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A former Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt initially favoured the funding of the US navy, long considered the guardian of America’s shores. However, he also began to seek funding from Congress for increasing the size and strength of the US army and, by default, the Air Corps.

In January 1939, Roosevelt asked Congress to expand the Air Corps from its existing inventory of 800 aircraft to a force of 5,500 planes. By way of comparison, the German Air Force had 4,100 planes in service in January 1939. In April 1939, Roosevelt signed the National Defense Act to increase military spending the following year, authorizing 6,000 aircraft for the Air Corps.

When a senior Air Corps general asked Congress in June 1940 for 18,000 planes by April 1942, Roosevelt quickly approved the request. In May 1940, Roosevelt called for 50,000 aircraft per year to be built by American industry. The US Army Air Corps was renamed the ‘US Army Air Forces’ (USAAF) in June 1941.

The B-17 bomber at war

Although originally sold to Congress as a defensive coastal patrol bomber, the Air Corps classified the B-17 as an offensive ‘heavy bomber’ at the beginning of the Second World War on the basis of its weight. It was meant for the strategic bombing role. All aircraft listed as heavy bombers were intended to accurately drop bombs from high altitudes, classified as 15,000 feet and above at the time.

The first model of the four-engine B-17 to see combat was the B-17C but with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and not the USAAF. Thirty-eight had been originally ordered by the latter but due to the desperate straits faced by England at the time, twenty slightly modified units were given to the RAF. The RAF designated them the Fortress Mk. I but did not think much of them.

Boeing soon upgraded the eighteen units of the B-17C delivered to the Air Corps to the improved B-17D configuration. The firm also built forty-two brand-new units of the B-17D for the USAAF. Lessons learned from the B-17D resulted in the building of 512 units of an up-gunned variant referred to as the B-17E, of which the RAF received forty-five. The latter labelled them as the ‘Fortress IIA’.

The B-17 Flying Fortress, including the ‘D’ and ‘E’ versions, first saw combat with the USAAF in the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) following Pearl Harbor. It was envisioned that they would be employed in attacking enemy ships. However, they did not have much success in that role and were withdrawn from that theatre in September 1943.

It was while flying over Western Europe during daylight hours in the strategic bombing role that the B-17 Flying Fortress found its true calling. The first combat mission flown over Western Europe by the USAAF occurred in August 1942 with the B-17E version.

The ‘E’ model of the B-17 Flying Fortress was replaced in turn by progressively improved models labelled the ‘F’ and ‘G’ variants. A total of 3,405 units of the ‘F’ model were built and 8,680 units of the ‘G’ model.

By the time production of the B-17 Flying Fortress was completed, 12,276 units had rolled off a number of different companies’ assembly lines as Boeing could not build all those ordered by the USAAF. Wartime losses of B-17 Flying Fortress to all causes, combat and non-combat, are listed as 4,754 aircraft.

Other four-engine bombers

Besides the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the USAAF employed two other four-engine bombers during the Second World War. The first was the Consolidated Aircraft Company’s B-24, labelled as a heavy bomber and named the ‘Liberator’. The other was the Boeing B-29, named the ‘Superfortress’. Due to its weight, the USAAF labelled the B-29 as a ‘very heavy bomber’.

Of these two four-engine bombers, the first to enter service with the USAAF was the B-24 Liberator. Nine units of a model designated the B-24A showed up in service in the summer of 1941. However, these were employed as transport aircraft rather than bombers.

The ‘A’ model of the B-24 Liberator was followed by a long line of progressively improved models, labelled the ‘C’ through ‘M’ variants. The most-produced model of the bomber was the ‘J’, with 6,678 units constructed. In descending numbers there were 3,100 units of the ‘H’ built and 2,593 units of the ‘M’ version.

By the time production of the B-24 Liberator ceased, approximately 18,400 units had rolled off the assembly lines, making it the most numerous American aircraft of all types built during the Second World War. Losses of B-24 Liberators to all wartime causes are listed as 2,112 aircraft.

The bigger the better

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress very heavy bomber was based on the firm’s development of the B-17 Flying Fortress, as well as some of its experimental four-engine aircraft. The Air Corps first expressed interest in the Boeing proposal for a state-of-the-art bomber in November 1939. The USAAF saw it as the eventual replacement for the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator series

The first example of the B-29 Superfortress flew in September 1942. Due to the complexity of the aircraft’s design and it being rushed into production, it was saddled with an endless number of both major and minor design issues, the resolution of which delayed the introduction of the aircraft into operational service. One of the biggest design issues was the unreliability of its four large engines, which would plague the aircraft throughout the Second World War.

As Boeing continued to work the bugs out of the Superfortress, the USAAF made the decision in December 1943 that when series production of the aircraft commenced, it would be reserved for service in the PTO where its long range was of key importance.

The Superfortress began flying missions over Japan during the last two months of 1944 and continued to do so until the Japanese surrender in September 1945. It was the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 by B-29 Superfortresses that helped to push the Japanese government to the surrender table.

There were three models of the B-29 Superfortress that saw combat: these included 2,513 units of the original B-29, followed by 1,119 units of the B-29A and 311 units of the B-29B. Wartime losses of the Superfortress to all causes are listed as 414 aircraft.

B-29 back-up

When the B-29 Superfortress was ordered from Boeing, the Air Corps took no chances on the bomber being a failure in service. As a result, they ordered at the same time a similar four-engine very heavy bomber from Consolidated. It was designated the B-32 and named the ‘Dominator’.

Due to numerous design problems, the first fifteen production units of the B-32 Dominator did not enter service with the USAAF until November 1944. They would see some limited combat action during the last few months of the war in the PTO.

In total, 115 units of the Dominator were built before the production contract was cancelled upon the end of the conflict and all those built were soon pulled from service. Following the Second World War, all the B-32 Dominators were quickly scrapped.

Twin-engine medium bombers

The USAAF employed two different types of twin-engine medium bombers during the Second World War, in both strategic and tactical bombing roles. These were the North American B-25 and the Martin B-26. Both entered the Air Corps’ inventory in February 1941. The B-25 was named the ‘Mitchell’ and the B-26 the ‘Marauder’. Both would see their first combat missions with the USAAF in April 1942

The USAAF definition of medium altitude was 7,500 to 15,000 feet. As the war went on, some B-25s were configured as low-level light tactical attack aircraft. In that role they were armed with a variety of forward-firing weapons including cannons and machine guns. These were for strafing Japanese ships and ground facilities. The USAAF defined low altitude as 1,000 to 7,500 feet.

A total of 9,816 units of the B-25 Mitchell were built. Only 5,288 units of the B-26 Marauder rolled off the assembly line as it was the more costly of the two aircraft. Both came in several variants, with the final model of the Mitchell – the B-25J – being the most numerous with 4,318 units completed. With the B-26 Marauder, the most numerous model was the B-26B with 1,883 units being constructed. The last B-25 Mitchell was pulled from USAF service in 1960. All the B-26 Marauders had disappeared from service by 1947.

Ground-attack bombers

Inspired by German and Russian employment of twin-engine light attack bombers during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), in 1938 the Air Corps decided that they wanted the same. The first aircraft that met the Air Corps’ specifications was the Douglas A-20 series, with the initial 143 units entering service in November 1940. This aircraft was named the ‘Havoc’.

By September 1944, a total of 7,098 units of the A-20 Havoc had been built in different versions, the bulk of them being diverted to Lend-Lease. The Air Corps/USAAF employed approximately 1,700 units of the A-20 Havoc series during the Second World War.

At the same time as the Air Corps was testing the prototype A-20 Havoc, it was expressing a great deal of interest in eventually replacing it with a far superior Douglas twin-engine light attack bomber then on the drawing board. That aircraft would eventually enter the USAAF inventory as the A-26 and was named the ‘Invader’.

The USAAF ordered 500 units of the ‘B’ model of the A-26 Invader in October 1941. Unfortunately, production bottlenecks meant that it would not see its first combat until June 1944. The ‘B’ model was followed into service by the ‘C’ model. During its time in service, a total of sixty-seven units of the A-26 Invader were shot down. It is credited with seven aerial victories during the Second World War.

All told, 2,452 units of the Invader were constructed before the production contract was cancelled upon the end of the Second World War. In 1948 the A-26 Invader was relabelled as the B-26 Invader, which has long created confusion with the B-26 Marauder that was pulled from USAF service in 1947. The B-26 Invader would go on to see combat during both the Korean and Vietnam wars.


Lend-Lease, an American armament programme begun while the country was still neutral, provided American goods ranging from food to aircraft to ships at no cost to friendly foreign governments. In return, the United States was granted leases to bases in these foreign countries. President Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act into law on 11 March 1941. The programme ended in September 1945.

The first new fighter

Most of the pursuit monoplanes employed by the USAAF during the Second World War appeared in service prior to America’s official entry into the conflict in December 1941. The first was the Curtiss P-40, assigned the name ‘Warhawk’. Some 524 units were ordered in 1939, making it the largest number of Army Air Corps planes contracted for up to that time. It was developed from the Curtiss P-36 fighter.

The initial delivery of the P-40 Warhawk to the Air Corps took place in 1940. It was followed into service by a number of progressively improved versions, from the P-40B through P-40N. Envisioned as a fighter-bomber and not as an air-superiority fighter, it was somewhat obsolete before it entered service. The Air Corps was forced to use the P-40 Warhawk as an air-superiority fighter in 1942 and into 1943 because it was available in the numbers required when America entered the war.

By the time the P-40 Warhawk production lines came to a halt in 1944, more than 14,000 units of the aircraft had been built, making it the third most-produced American pursuit plane of the Second World War.

At its peak, the USAAF had only 2,499 units of the P-40 Warhawk in service in April 1944. By the time the war ended, only one USAAF squadron was still flying the Warhawk. It did much better when engaging Japanese fighters than German fighters, whose pilots did not think much of the aircraft.

Total combat losses of the P-40 Warhawk flying with the USAAF came in at 533 aircraft. It was credited with 481 kills in the air-to-air arena and the destruction of forty enemy aircraft on the ground. The USAAF’s top-scoring P-40 Warhawk ace during the Second World War was Bruce Keener Holloway, who accounted for thirteen Japanese planes and eventually rose to the rank of general after the war.

Most of the P-40 Warhawk planes built would fly with friendly foreign countries such as the Soviet Union or Great Britain, having been provided under Lend-Lease. In service with the RAF, the Warhawk was assigned the name ‘Tomahawk’ or ‘Kittyhawk’, depending on the version employed.

Not up to the job

The P-40 Warhawk was followed into production by the Bell Aircraft Corporation P-39 Airacobra. The Air Corps placed an initial order for eighty units of the aircraft in October 1939, designated the P-39C, with deliveries commencing in January 1941. Having been subjected to conflicting design requirements by the Air Corps during its development phase, the Airacobra proved poorly suited to the role of air-superiority fighter in the eyes of the USAAF.

As soon as more capable air-superiority aircraft entered the USAAF inventory in sufficient numbers, the P-39 Airacobra was reserved for the fighter-bomber role or for training duties. In service with the USAAF, 107 units of the aircraft were lost in combat during the Second World War.

Reflecting the USAAF’s general disdain for the P-39 Airacobra, the majority of the aircraft’s production run of 9,585 units was assigned to Lend-Lease. The Airacobra disappeared from USAAF service upon the conclusion of the conflict.

Twin-engine fighter

In 1937, the Air Corps had secretly asked a number of American aviation firms to take part in a competition to design a fighter-interceptor aimed at taking on enemy bombers. The winning design for this job was submitted by the Lockheed Aircraft Company, with a twin-engine plane referred to as the P-38 and named the ‘Lightning’.

Initial models of the P-38 Lightning to enter Air Corps’ service included twenty-nine units of the original P-38 version, ordered in September 1939, with deliveries commencing in June 1941. They were followed into the Air Corps’ inventory by thirty-six units of the P-38D beginning in August 1941. In November 1941, the first of 210 units of the P-38E began appearing in front-line service with the Air Corps.

The first three versions of the P-38 Lightning were plagued by unforeseen design issues. The first combat-ready model of the P-38 Lightning was considered the P-38F, which did not begin entering service until March 1942. Follow-on models of the Lightning would include the P-38G through to the P-38L.

However, German fighters proved superior to the P-38 Lightning and resulted in it being replaced by newer-generation USAAF fighters in the European Theatre of Operation (ETO) by 1944. It did much better in the PTO when confronted by less capable Japanese fighters. Major Richard I. Bong of the USAAF downed forty Japanese planes while flying in a P-38 Lightning, becoming America’s top-scoring ace of the Second World War.

When the production lines for the P-38 Lightning were finally closed, a total of over 10,000 units had been assembled. Approximately 1,400 units, either built new or converted from existing fighter models, were configured as photo-reconnaissance aircraft.

Towards the end of the Second World War, seventy-five units of the P-38L Lightning were converted into radar-equipped night-fighters. In this new role they were re-designated as the P-38M Lightning. Deployed in the PTO in the last few months of the war, they never engaged any enemy aircraft in combat.

Combat losses for the P-38 Lightning are listed at 1,758 units. It was responsible for downing 1,771 enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat (mostly Japanese), and destroying another 749 on the ground. The Lightning would continue in American military service until 1949.

Foreign fighters in USAAF service

The initial plans for the first USAAF units deployed to Great Britain in 1942 included fighter groups equipped with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the Bell P-39 Airacobra. A ‘group’ was the primary combat unit of the USAAF and normally comprised three to four squadrons flying the same aircraft.

Because the P-39 Airacobra lacked the performance to go up against German fighters it was decided that the first three USAAF fighter groups to fly from Great Britain in combat were to be equipped with the Spitfire Mk. V. This was a British-designed and built plane from Supermarine Aviation Works, a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong. The first model of the Spitfire entered RAF service in 1938.

Of the three USAAF fighter groups equipped with various versions of the Spitfire, the one that remained in Great Britain converted to a newer American-designed and built fighter in March 1943. The other two groups would continue flying the Spitfire until early 1944. In total, the USAAF would take into service approximately 600 Spitfires during the Second World War.

The most-produced fighter

Successful aircraft often require a certain gestation period before evolving into their most efficient form. Such was the case with the Republic Aviation Corporation’s P-47 pursuit plane, named the ‘Thunderbolt’. Republic had formerly been the Seversky Aircraft Corporation, the designers and builders of the P-35 pursuit plane.

Building on the P-35, Republic came up with the P-43 pursuit plane, named the ‘Lancer’. It did not live up to the Air Corps’ expectations but was ordered anyway to keep the firm’s production line open for the hopefully more successful follow-on, the P-47 Thunderbolt, which would not be ready to enter into production until the spring of 1942.

The first production model of the P-47 Thunderbolt was designated the P-47B. Some 107 of these had been ordered by the Air Corps in September 1940, with deliveries beginning in March 1942. At the same time that the P-47B Thunderbolt model was ordered, another order went out for 602 units of a faster P-47C Thunderbolt variant.

The first units of the P-47C Thunderbolt were delivered to the USAAF in September 1942. On the heels of the ‘C’ model came the ‘D’ and ‘N’ variants. The P-47D Thunderbolt was the most numerous model of the series, with 12,602 units being constructed. The P-47N Thunderbolt was a specially-designed longer-range version intended to escort B-29 bombers in the PTO, with 1,816 units built.

The P-47 Thunderbolt destroyed 3,082 enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat, with another 3,202 on the ground. The top-scoring USAAF ace in the ETO was Colonel Francis S. Gabreski who, flying the P-47 Thunderbolt, is credited with downing twenty-eight enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat and destroying another three on the ground.

Originally intended as a lightweight interceptor of enemy bombers, the P-47 Thunderbolt eventually evolved into one of the largest and heaviest prop-driven fighters ever built. Upon arrival in England, it took on the role of bomber escort until replaced by a more capable and longer-range air-superiority fighter. It then became the main USAAF fighter-bomber in the ETO.

By the time production of the P-47 Thunderbolt was wrapped up at the end of the Second World War, a total of 15,683 units had been built, making it the most numerous pursuit aircraft constructed by American factories during the conflict. The P-47 Thunderbolt combat losses are listed at 3,077 units. It would remain in American military service until 1953 but would not see combat during the Korean War.

The best all-round fighter

The USAAF had decided early on that the main pursuit plane for the war effort was going to be the P-47 Thunderbolt. However, a senior USAAF leader remained flexible enough to consider another aircraft that demonstrated a superior level of performance over the Thunderbolt. That aircraft was the P-51B, named the ‘Mustang’.

The P-51B Mustang was designed and built by North American Aviation. It first flew in May 1943. So superior was it over the P-47 Thunderbolt that it quickly replaced it in the bomber-escort and air-superiority role in the skies over the ETO by the end of 1943. A total of 1,988 units of the ‘B’ model of the P-51 Mustang were constructed.

The P-51B Mustang was joined by the P-51C of which 1,750 were ordered. The ‘C’ model was a near-identical version of the ‘B’ model but built at a different factory. The ‘B’ and ‘C’ versions of the P-51 Mustang were replaced on the production line by the progressively-improved ‘D’ model, of which 7,965 units were built.

Follow-on models of the P-51 Mustang included 555 units of the taller-tailed P-51H, which was a lightened version of the aircraft to boost performance. There were also 1,500 units built of the ‘K’ model, which was a near-identical copy of the P-51D variant but built at a different factory.

By the time production of the P-51 Mustang ceased in 1945, a total of 15,367 units had been delivered to the USAAF. Of that number, 2,520 units were lost in combat, more to enemy ground fire than to air-to-air combat. In return, the P-51 Mustang downed 4,950 enemy planes in air-to-air combat and destroyed another 4,131 on the ground.

The USAAF top P-51 Mustang ace in the Second World War was Major George Preddy who accounted for twenty-six enemy aircraft in the ETO before he was shot down and killed by US army anti-aircraft fire in December 1944 in a friendly-fire incident.

The P-51 Mustang would last in post-war American military service until 1956. In 1948, the letter ‘P’ for pursuit plane was dropped and the P-51 Mustang became the F-51 Mustang, ‘F’ standing for fighter. The F-51D Mustang would see use during the Korean War.

How it came to be

The P-51 Mustang came into service with the USAAF by a very convoluted path. The original model of the aircraft was not ordered by the Air Corps but by the British government from American industry as the NA-73X in 1940. Upon delivery of the first examples in November 1941, which the RAF designated the Mustang IA, the RAF decided it was the best American fighter they had seen but felt it performed poorly at medium and high altitudes due to its underpowered American-designed and built engine.

In October 1942, the RAF had five units of the Mustang IA fitted with the same British-designed and built Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that powered their Spitfire fighter. The USAAF picked up on the merits of this combination of design features and this is what resulted in the production of the P-51B Mustang which was fitted with an American-built copy of the British engine.

Prior to ordering the P-51B, the USAAF had held back fifty planes from a British contract for 150 units of the Mustang II, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In USAAF service, this model of the P-51 Mustang was designated as the P-51A. It first flew in February 1943 and entered operational service with the USAAF the following month.

The P-51A Mustang was employed as a fighter in the China/Burma/India (CBI) Theatre. In the ETO, the American engine made it unsuitable as a high-altitude fighter, so it was employed as a photo-reconnaissance aircraft.

Originally, the USAAF wanted to order 1,200 units of the P-51A but the advent of the far superior ‘B’ model of the aircraft resulted in the order being cut down to 320 units of the ‘A’ model in August 1942. Fifty units were transferred to the RAF in return for those held back by the USAAF from the RAF’s original order.


The only dedicated night-fighter to enter service with the USAAF during the Second World War was designated the P-61 and named the ‘Black Widow’. Designed and built by Northrop Aircraft Inc., the initial version of the twin-engine interceptor, labelled the P-61A, was ordered in September 1941 but the first deliveries were not made until October 1943 due to technical design issues with the aircraft

The radar-equipped P-61A Black Widow was followed into service by 450 units of the P-61B model, with the first showing up in front-line service in August 1944. Prior to the introduction of the P-61 Black Widow, some USAAF units employed the British-designed and built Bristol Beaufighter twin-engine night-fighter. Other USAAF night-fighter units used the Douglas P-70 interim night-fighter, a variant of the Douglas A-20 Havoc light attack bomber.

The final variant of the P-61 Black Widow was the ‘C’ model, of which 517 were ordered but only forty-one entered service before cancellation of production at the conclusion of the Second World War.

Twenty-five of the P-61 Black Widow would be lost to non-combat causes during the Second World War. None were destroyed in combat by enemy action. The aircraft was credited with shooting down fifty-eight enemy planes during the conflict.

The P-61 Black Widow lasted in post-war American military service until 1954. It was one of the first fighter-interceptors tasked with guarding the United States from attack by Soviet long-range bombers upon the beginning of the Cold War in 1947.

The first jet-powered fighter

In the early part of 1943, the USAAF became aware of German development of the Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first subsonic (below the speed of sound) jet fighter. The USAAF quickly tasked American industry to come up with a subsonic air-superiority jet fighter of its own. The end result was the delivery of the first of 563 units of the Lockheed P-80A in February 1945. The aircraft was named the ‘Shooting Star’.

Only four prototypes of the P-80 Shooting Star made it overseas before the conclusion of the Second World War. None of the early production examples of the P-80A Shooting Star made it overseas before the war ended, despite the best efforts of the USAAF.

The only Allied jet fighter to see combat during the Second World War was the RAF subsonic Gloster Meteor I, which entered operational service on 12 July 1944, a few days after the German Me 262 had with the German Air Force.


The successful German employment of a single-engine dive-bomber known as the ‘Ju-87 Stuka’ during the early part of the Second World War (1939–40) caused the Air Corps to seek out such a dedicated ground-attack aircraft. Several were taken into service before it was decided that existing air-superiority fighters could perform that role without the need for specialized dive-bombers.

Among the Air Corps/USAAF dive-bombers taken into service were 875 units of various versions of a Douglas-designed and built US navy dive-bomber named the ‘Dauntless’. In Air Corps/USAAF service the plane was designated the A-24, with only a small number ever seeing combat before being pulled from front-line service.

A cancelled French government contract for 2,330 units of a dive-bomber designed and built by the American firm of Vultee was picked up by the RAF who named the aircraft the ‘Vengeance’. Out of that number the Air Corps/USAAF retained 140 units that they labelled the A-32. None saw combat and all were quickly relegated to non-combat roles.

The only dive-bomber to see extensive combat service with the USAAF was designated the A-36A and named the ‘Apache’. It was an offshoot of the P-51 Mustang fighter originally ordered by the RAF. The USAAF ordered 500 units of the A-36A Apache, with the first aircraft delivered in October 1942. All were pulled from front-line service in 1944. Total combat losses of the A-36 Apache came in at 177 aircraft.

Wartime statistics

Between 1941 and 1945, American industry built 276,000 military aircraft. Those not taken into service by the various aviation elements of the American military services such as the US navy and US Marine Corps were provided to wartime allies. The Soviet Union and Great Britain received the largest number of American-built military planes during the Second World War, totalling approximately 43,000 units.

At its maximum strength in mid-1944, the USAAF had almost 80,000 aircraft. Of those, approximately 40,000 were classified as combat aircraft. By comparison, in December 1941 when the United States officially entered into the Second World War, the USAAF had only 12,300 aircraft including around 4,500 combat types.

The USAAF would lose to all causes 65,164 aircraft during the Second World War. That number breaks down into 43,581 lost overseas and another 21,583 lost in training accidents within the United States, averaging out to forty planes per day.

The human cost to those who served with the USAAF between 1941 and 1945 was immense. A total of 88,119 airmen were killed during America’s time in the Second World War. Of that number, 52,173 were attributed to combat. Approximately 40,000 became prisoners of war (POWs), with another 12,000 listed as missing in action and presumed killed.

The USAAF claimed the destruction of 40,259 enemy aircraft between 1941 and 1945, with 29,916 of those belonging to Germany and its allies. In the PTO, the USAAF claimed the destruction of 10,343 Japanese aircraft.

American Warplanes – Early Cold War (1946–1961)

There was a large drawdown of aircraft numbers with the aviation element of the US army following the conclusion of the Second World War. From the wartime high of around 80,000 aircraft, the USAAF was down to approximately 10,000 aircraft by 1946. Only the latest generation of planes remained in front-line service with the USAAF.

In 1947, the USAAF finally managed to separate itself from the US army and became the US Air Force (USAF). The senior leadership of the new service quickly concluded that the most important post-war mission would remain the strategic bombing role, this time with nuclear weapons.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, in order to deliver nuclear weapons the USAF would have to rely on its remaining inventory of B-29 Superfortresses for that mission.

New labels

Post-war, the USAF reclassified the B-29 Superfortress as a medium bomber. This relabelling reflected a new system that defined bombers by their combat radius rather than their weight. Those with a combat radius of below 1,000 miles were considered ‘light bombers’. A combat radius of between 1,000 and 2,500 miles described ‘medium bombers’. Anything with a combat radius of over 2,500 miles was designated as a ‘heavy bomber’.

When the Korean War began in June 1950, the USAF had an inventory of 1,787 units of the B-29 Superfortress with the majority in storage. Approximately 400 would see front-line service, not only in the strategic bombing role but also in the tactical role. Twenty of the B-29 Superfortresses were lost to enemy action and another fourteen to non-combat causes.

Improving the breed

To overcome the design shortcomings of the wartime-built B-29 Superfortresses, especially their unreliable engines, numerous improvements were made to the aircraft starting in 1952. These included modernized more reliable versions of the wartime engines and a cruise-control system to aid the flight crew during long-range strategic bombing missions. However, despite these improvements, the B-29 Superfortresses were pulled from service in 1954.

To supplement the B-29 Superfortresses in the USAF inventory, a Boeing-built, improved model of the aircraft was ordered. Originally designated the B-29D Superfortress, it was soon relabelled as the B-50 Superfortress. This was done to reflect that while it still retained the general configuration of the wartime-built model, it was a much improved aircraft, fitted with new engines.

Some 346 units of the B-50 Superfortress would be built and they would last in USAF service until 1955. Some were later converted into aerial tankers, strategic reconnaissance aircraft and weather reconnaissance aircraft. The strategic and weather reconnaissance roles performed by these aircraft would eventually be performed by satellites, but that was some decades later.

A new bomber enters service

The eventual replacement for the wartime B-29 and the post-war B-50 in the USAF strategic bombing role was the prop-driven Convair B-36, eventually named the ‘Peacemaker’. It would be the largest combat aircraft ever to fly with the USAF.

The B-36 Peacemaker was originally slated for employment during the later stages of the Second World War but a number of factors prevented this from happening. These included design changes, production bottlenecks and the ever-changing level of interest in the aircraft by the USAAF.

The first nuclear-bomb-capable version of the B-36 Peacemaker was designated the B-36B and entered service with the USAF in 1948. The ‘D’ models of the aircraft, which consisted of twenty-two new-built models and sixty-four upgraded ‘B’ models, were fitted with four add-on jet engines to supplement their existing six prop-driven engines. All the follow-on versions of the B-36 Peacemaker were equipped with these add-on jet engines.

A total of 360 units of the B-36 Peacemaker series were constructed in various versions. None would be employed during the Korean War and all would be gone from the USAF inventory by 1959.

The first jet bomber

The first all-jet bomber to enter service with the USAF arrived in 1948 with the introduction of the North American B-45A. It was classified as a light tactical bomber and named the ‘Tornado’. There was also a B-45C model and a photoreconnaissance version labelled the RB-45C.

The B-45 Tornado series would see productive use during the Korean War as both a bomber and a photo-reconnaissance aircraft. Only one was lost in combat during the conflict. As they could carry nuclear weapons, fifty-five were deployed to England in 1952 as a deterrent to possible Soviet aggression in Western Europe.

Due to a number of troublesome design issues and the planned introduction of a new medium bomber, the USAF only took into service 142 units of the B-45 Tornado series out of the original planned order of 190 units of the aircraft. All the various versions of the B-45 Tornado would be removed from USAF service by 1958.

Next in line

The replacement for the B-45 Tornado was the Boeing B-47 medium bomber, named the ‘Stratojet’, which was considered a strategic bomber. It showed up in USAF operational service in 1950 but did not see action during the Korean War. There would eventually be several versions placed into service, labelled the ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘E’ variants. All told, 2,032 units of the B-47 Stratojet were built for the USAF.

The B-47 Stratojet would remain in service as a strategic bomber until 1965. Some would eventually be reconfigured for other roles and remain in USAF service for a few more years. These roles included camera-equipped reconnaissance, electronic intelligence (ELINT) and electronic countermeasure (ECM).

The adoption of a British bomber

Much to the surprise of the American aviation industry, in 1951 the USAF contracted with the Martin Company to build a modified licence-built version of the twin-jet-engine English Electric Company bomber named the ‘Canberra’. It had first flown in Britain in 1949 and entered operational RAF service in 1951. Unlike the previous multi-engine bombers, which were intended as long-range strategic bombers, the Canberra was a short-range light tactical bomber.

In USAF service the American-built version of the British bomber was labelled the B-57 and also named the Canberra. It entered operational service with the USAF in 1953. By the time production ended in 1957, a total of 403 units of the B-57 Canberra had been built in a number of different versions. Some would see service with the USAF during the Vietnam War (1965–75). The last of them would be pulled from use by 1983.

The adoption of a US navy bomber

Another aircraft adopted by the USAF in the role of short-range light tactical bomber was a Douglas twin-jet-engine model originally designed for the US navy. In navy service it would be designated the A3D and named the ‘Skywarrior’. In USAF service seventy-two units were labelled as the B-66B and referred to as the ‘Douglas Destroyer’. It entered service in 1956 and was pulled from use in 1962. This would be the last acquisition of a short-range light tactical bomber by the USAF.

The majority of B-66 Douglas Destroyers were built as photo-reconnaissance aircraft, designated the RB-66B. Some of these were later converted into either electronic warfare (EW) or ELINT aircraft for use during the Vietnam War. With the end of American military involvement in 1973, all were quickly withdrawn from service.

The old warhorse

The staple of the USAF strategic bomber fleet during much of the Cold War was the Boeing B-52 bomber series, named the ‘Stratofortress’. It first appeared in USAF operational service in 1955 as the replacement for the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. The B-52 Stratofortress also replaced the Convair B-36 Peacemaker.

Between 1954 and 1963, a total of 744 units of the B-52 Stratofortress were constructed. As with most long-serving USAF aircraft, it was progressively improved over the years. This resulted in eight different versions labelled ‘A’ through ‘H’ seeing service, with the ‘B’ variant being the first dedicated strategic bomber model and the few ‘A’ models being test aircraft.

Reflecting their very active service lives, the earlier models of the B-52 Stratofortress, the ‘B’ through ‘F’, were phased out between 1966 and 1978. That left the last two models in service, the ‘G’ and ‘H’. These remained in service through to the end of the Cold War. Some 193 units of the ‘G’ model were built between 1959 and 1961, with 102 units of the ‘H’ model completed between 1961 and 1963.

The combat debut of the B-52 Stratofortress occurred during the Vietnam War, with the ‘D’ model being the primary version employed. During that conflict thirty-one were lost to combat and non-combat causes. The B-52 Stratofortress series would also see service during Operation DESERT STORM in 1991 and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in 2003. The B-52 would also play a part in the American military invasion of Afghanistan that took place in 2001, named Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

A new designation system

In 1962, a Congressionally-mandated ‘Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System’ was put into place for the USAF, US navy and US army. With this new designation system the first prefix letter represented an aircraft’s basic mission code. Examples would be ‘B’ for bomber, ‘F’ for fighter or ‘A’ for attack plane.

Any special features of an aircraft were identified by a mission modification letter placed before the basic mission code letter. Examples include ‘E’ for ECM aircraft or ‘R’ for reconnaissance aircraft.

The number/s following the basic mission code letter are based on the plane’s USAF acquisition sequence either before or after 1962. The last USAF aircraft assigned a pre-1962 number designation was the F-111 Aardvark and the first USAF aircraft assigned a post-1962 number designation was the F-4C Phantom II.

The USAF inventory of B-52Gs was destroyed in 1992 as per treaty requirements. Only the B-52H remains in service with the USAF today. Of the 102 units of the B-52H constructed, fifty-eight are in service with another eighteen held in reserve.

Not a success story

As another intended replacement for the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, Convair came up with the B-58 strategic jet bomber. There was only a single model designated the B-58A and it was assigned the name ‘Hustler’. It showed up in the USAF inventory in 1960. Like the B-52 Stratofortress, it was intended to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union from high altitudes. Another fifty-seven units were built as strategic reconnaissance aircraft.

Due to the increasing effectiveness of the Soviet Air Defence System in the early 1960s, the B-58A Hustler was forced into the low-level strategic bomber role. This was a role it was never designed for and, unlike the more flexible design of the B-52 Stratofortress series, the B-58A Hustler was unable to adapt to the new operational requirements. That and its cost, inability to carry conventional weapons, as well as a very high accident rate, caused the USAF to pull it from service by 1970.

The first jet fighter in action

In 1948, the USAF did away with the ‘P’ for pursuit plane and officially adopted the letter ‘F’ for fighter. By 1950, a total of 1,714 units of the Second World War-designed subsonic Lockheed F-80, named the ‘Shooting Star’, had entered into the USAF fleet. The aircraft was built in a number of different versions.

During the Korean War the F-80 Shooting Star would serve mostly as a fighter-bomber because it lacked the performance to be an air-superiority fighter when compared to the Soviet-supplied MiG-15. However, the F-80 Shooting Star is credited with seventeen air-to-air kills, six being MiG-15s, and the destruction of another twenty-four enemy aircraft on the ground during the conflict. Some 227 of the F-80 Shooting Stars would be downed in action during the Korean War. Those remaining would be pulled from USAF service by 1958.

The strangest-looking fighter

In what appeared to be a design throwback, the USAF took into operational service in 1948 the twin-engine, prop-driven North American F-82, referred to as the ‘Twin Mustang’. Some 270 units were eventually acquired by the USAF in two versions: the F-82F and the F-82G.

Originally intended for use during the Second World War as long-range bomber escorts for the B-29 Superfortress, the F-82 Twin Mustang was pushed into the role of interim interceptor in 1947 when it was feared that Soviet-built copies of the B-29 Superfortress might attack the United States. It would eventually be replaced by faster jet-powered interceptors.

With a dearth of suitable aircraft at the outbreak of the Korean War, the F-82 Twin Mustang was sent into the combat zone and was responsible for the downing of the first three enemy aircraft in the conflict on 27 June 1950. Besides acting as an interceptor during the Korean War, the F-82 Twin Mustang also performed the roles of fighter-bomber and night-fighter as it was radar-equipped.

As newer, more capable aircraft began appearing in USAF service during the Korean War, the last of the F-82 Twin Mustangs were pulled from combat in that theatre by 1952. The F-82 Twin Mustang lasted in USAF service until 1958.

The first post-war-built fighter

As jet-engine technology rapidly evolved in the early post-war years, the USAF took into service in quick succession a number of subsonic fighter-bombers, each an improvement over its predecessor. The first of these was the Republic F-84, named the ‘Thunderjet’, that appeared in 1947.

The early versions of the F-84 Thunderjet were so plagued by design problems that the USAF considered them unfit for any mission. It took until 1949 before the aircraft reached operational service.

The F-84 Thunderjet would be the first USAF fighter capable of carrying a tactical nuclear weapon, which had become much smaller and lighter than the approximately 5-ton atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945. The initial model of the Thunderjet was the F-84B, followed by a number of other versions from ‘C’ to ‘F’. The USAF would acquire 4,450 units of the F-84 Thunderjet series.

Aerial combat over the skies of North Korea quickly showed that the straight-wing F-84 series lacked the performance to achieve air superiority over the swept-wing MiG-15. As a result, it was confined to use as a fighter-bomber. The USAF claims that 60 per cent of the ordnance dropped on the enemy during the Korean War was delivered by the F-84 Thunderjet series. A total of 335 units of the plane were lost in combat during the conflict. The last of the F-84 Thunderjets would be retired from USAF service in 1965.

To prolong the service life of the F-84 Thunderjet series, Republic demonstrated a prototype of a swept-wing version of the aircraft in 1950. The USAF was impressed with the prototype’s much improved performance and ordered it into series production in 1954 as the F-84F Thunderjet. Reflecting the dramatic design change that came with the ‘F’ model of the aircraft, it was soon relabelled as the F-84F ‘Thunderstreak’.

In total, Republic would build 2,112 units of the F-84F Thunderstreak, with General Motors constructing an additional 599 units. Of this combined total of 2,711 units, 1,301 went to America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Also assembled would be 718 units of a photo-reconnaissance version designated the RF-84F Thunderstreak. The F-84F Thunderstreak would remain in USAF service until the early 1960s.

The MiG-killer

The replacement for the F-80 Shooting Star in the air-superiority role during the Korean War was the subsonic North American F-86 named the ‘Sabre’. It was derived from the design of a North American US navy prototype fighter designated the Model NA-134, which eventually entered service as the FJ-1 and was later named the ‘Fury’.

In the air-to-air arena, the swept-wing F-86 Sabre would account for 379 MiG-15s during the conflict, losing seventy-eight units in the process. The USAF top-scoring F-86 Sabre ace during the Korean War was Captain Joseph C. McConnell, who accounted for sixteen MiG-15s in aerial combat.

The initial version of the F-86 Sabre was the ‘A’ model, of which 554 were built and delivered to the USAF beginning in 1949. It was at a performance disadvantage when confronting the MiG-15 in combat in 1950, both in its rate of climb and ceiling. These shortcomings were offset by more experienced and better-trained USAF pilots using superior tactics.

The performance disadvantage between the F-86 Sabre and the MiG-15 was corrected somewhat by the USAF acquisition of 426 units of the improved F-86E variant beginning in 1951. The operational performance of the F-86 Sabre would not truly match up to that of the MiG-15 until the introduction of the F-86F in 1953. A total of 2,540 units of the F-86F would be constructed.

There was also a USAF F-86D version of the Sabre, which did not see service during the Korean War. It was intended strictly as an all-weather interceptor of enemy bombers. It was larger and heavier than earlier versions of the aircraft. Directed by radar ground control, the F-86D Sabre relied on unguided rockets to destroy enemy bombers as it lacked machine guns/automatic cannons. The USAF took 2,504 units of the F-86D into service.

Besides the four versions of the F-86 Sabre series already mentioned, there were two other models built for the USAF, labelled the ‘H’ and the ‘L’. The F-86H was classified as a fighter-bomber and appeared in USAF service in 1954. When series production of the aircraft ended the following year, a total of 473 units had entered service with the USAF.

The final F-86 variant was the ‘L’ model, an improved all-weather fighter-interceptor version of the F-86D, of which 981 were taken into service by the USAF. The last of the F-86 Sabre series would be withdrawn from USAF service by 1956.

All-weather subsonic fighter-interceptors

The fear of a Soviet bomber attack on the United States in the immediate post-war years pushed the USAF to search for a jet-powered all-weather interceptor to replace its aging prop-driven interceptors. The term ‘all-weather’ meant that the aircraft was radar-equipped and could therefore fly at night.

The first jet-powered all-weather interceptor selected by the USAF to defend the United States was the Northrop F-89, named the ‘Scorpion’. Unfortunately the first three models, labelled the F-89A, F-89B and F-89C, were so troubled by serious design flaws that the USAF was forced to look for an interim aircraft that could be rushed into service until the F-89 Scorpion series design issues had been resolved.

The interim all-weather jet-powered interceptor adopted by the USAF in 1949 in lieu of the F-89 Scorpion series was the Lockheed F-94, named the ‘Starfire’. A total of 466 units of the F-94 Starfire, in three different versions, were acquired by the USAF. Employed during the Korean War, twelve would be lost to a variety of causes. The F-94 Starfire would remain in the USAF inventory until 1959.

The first model of the F-89 Scorpion series to be considered somewhat satisfactory by the USAF was the F-89D variant, of which 682 would enter operational service beginning in 1954. It was followed into service by 156 units of the F-89H beginning in 1959. The USAF then went back and had 350 units of the F-89D upgraded into a more advanced version designated the F-89J Scorpion.

The F-86 Scorpion series did not see service during the Korean War and all would be pulled from USAF service by 1969.

Supersonic fighters

All the early-generation USAF jet fighters were subsonic. The first supersonic fighter in USAF service was the North American F-100, named the ‘Super Sabre’, which entered service in 1954. It was the intended replacement for the F-86 Sabre in the air-superiority role and was derived from that aircraft. The first supersonic Soviet fighter was the MiG-19, with production beginning in 1955.

By the time production of the F-100 Super Sabre ended in 1959, a total of 2,294 units had been constructed in a number of different versions. The most numerous and advanced model of the aircraft was the ‘D’ version of which 1,294 units were built, starting in 1955. By then the primary role of the aircraft was as a fighter-bomber as it did not compare well with Soviet fighters in the air-superiority role.

The F-100 Super Sabre saw extensive use during the Vietnam War. It first arrived in South-East Asia in 1961. A total of 242 units of the F-100 Super Sabre were lost in combat, with 186 being accounted for by enemy anti-aircraft guns. None were taken out by enemy fighters during the conflict.

As a result of its high losses when confronted by the well-equipped North Vietnamese air defence system, the F-100 Super Sabre was restricted to bombing missions over South Vietnam starting in 1965. The aircraft was withdrawn from South-East Asia in 1971 to be replaced by more capable aircraft. The F-100 Super Sabre would survive in USAF service until 1979.

A problem fighter

The supersonic McDonnell F-101, named the ‘Voodoo’, as with the F-100 Super Sabre was rushed into service by the USAF in 1957. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a long list of unresolved problems, which could have been addressed if a proper test programme had been completed before production was authorized. The initial batch of forty units of the F-101A model was so bedevilled by design shortcomings that it took from 1955 through 1956 to correct most of them.

The F-101A Voodoo was originally intended as a fighter-bomber but became an all-weather interceptor when placed into operational service as the ‘B’ model in 1959. Not completely happy with the F-101 Voodoo as an interceptor, most of the nearly 770 F-101 Voodoos built were later converted or reconfigured as photoreconnaissance aircraft that would see service during the Vietnam War while the fighter version did not. The F-101 Voodoo series would remain in use with the USAF until 1982.

The answer to the enemy bomber threat

The USAF replacement for the troublesome F-89 Scorpion series was the Convair F-102A, named the ‘Delta Dagger’. It entered operational service with the USAF in 1956 and was its first supersonic all-weather interceptor. It also proved to be the first delta-wing aircraft to enter the USAF inventory.

A total of 1,212 units of the F-102 Delta Dagger were built, with 111 of them configured as two-seat trainers. Unfortunately for the USAF, the F-102 Delta Dagger was plagued with as many design issues as the F-89 Scorpion, which took both money and time to resolve.

The F-102A Delta Dagger would be deployed to South-East Asia from 1962 as a bomber escort by the USAF. They would also see some limited activity as a fighter-bomber, without much success. Fourteen of the F-102 Delta Daggers would be lost in combat for a variety of reasons. The Delta Daggers were pulled from service in South-East Asia in 1968 and all were withdrawn from USAF service by 1977.

An updated version of the F-102A was originally designated as the F-102B but reflecting its many structural design changes, it was later designated as the F-106 and named the ‘Delta Dart’. It first entered service in 1959.

The USAF was not too thrilled with the F-106 Delta Dart and this was reflected in the planned order of 1,000 units being reduced to 340, supplied in two different models. The F-106 Delta Dart did not see service during the Vietnam War and all were retired in 1988, making it the last dedicated interceptor-fighter in USAF service.

New fighter-bomber

The supersonic Republic F-105, named the ‘Thunderchief’, was originally intended as a fighter-bomber for the delivery of nuclear weapons. It was the replacement for the F-84 Thunderjet and the F-100 Super Sabre and entered operational service with the USAF in 1958. Some 833 units of the F-105 Thunderchief were built in several versions before production ceased in 1964.

The F-105B and F-105D versions of the Thunderchief would see extensive combat during the early part of the Vietnam War. Due to the very effective North Vietnamese air defence system, the USAF lost a total of 350 F-105 Thunderchiefs in combat with 312 credited to enemy anti-aircraft guns. In 1970 the USAF pulled the last of its F-105 Thunderchief squadrons from South-East Asia due to its high losses and replaced them with more capable aircraft.

A two-seat trainer version labelled the F-105F was converted to perform the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mission over North Vietnam. It was unofficially labelled the EF-105F and named the ‘Wild Weasel III’. The final upgraded version of that same aircraft was labelled the F-105G. It, like the original EF-105F, carried anti-radiation missiles (ARMs) intended to home in on radar emissions generated by enemy air defence radar and destroy them.

The last of the F-105 series Thunderchiefs were pulled from USAF service by 1988.

Korean War-inspired fighter

Based on input from USAF fighter pilots who had seen aerial combat during the Korean War, a new supersonic jet-powered air-superiority fighter entered operational service with the USAF in 1958. It was the Lockheed F-104, named the ‘Starfighter’. It would see some limited service during the Vietnam War but the North Vietnamese Air Force pilots refused to engage it in air-to-air combat whenever it appeared.

The initial version of the Starfighter was the F-104A and was originally envisioned strictly as an interceptor. It did spend some time as a fighter-interceptor but had a number of design issues that soured the USAF on its use for that purpose and eventually it ended up in other roles. The F-104A later became a daytime-only fighter-bomber, the F-104B was a two-seat trainer and the F-104C an all-weather fighter-bomber.

The ‘Century Series’

An unofficial but popular name for a number of supersonic fighter-interceptors and fighter-bombers that entered USAF service between the 1950s and 1960s was the Century Series. The name is derived from the fighter designation numbers beginning with the F-100 Super Sabre through to the F-106 Delta Dart. In between these fighters were the F-101 Voodoo, the F-102 Delta Dagger, F-104 Starfighter and F-105 Thunderchief. Not included in the Century Series are those fighters that were not placed into series production.

The original plans had called for the USAF to acquire 722 units of the F-104 Starfighter. However, disappointment in its capabilities, despite setting early world records in speed and altitude, led to the USAF capping their orders for the aircraft to only 296. The F-104 Starfighter series would last in service until 1975 with the USAF.

American Warplanes – Late Cold War (1962–1991)

As American military involvement in South-East Asia continued to grow in scope the USAF would eventually deploy every type of combat aircraft in its inventory in order to prevail over its opponents. Despite the loss of more than 2,000 aircraft and the brave men who flew and crewed them, it was not to be and in 1973 America’s senior political leadership decided to withdraw all USAF aircraft from the region.

Aircraft modified for the Vietnam War

The USAF had entered into the Vietnam War without any dedicated ground-attack aircraft optimized for counter-insurgency operations. In response, a number of measures were undertaken to solve the problem. One was the adoption of 242 units of a US navy prop-driven ground-attack aircraft designated the AD-5 and named the ‘Skyraider’. In USAF service, the Douglas-designed and built AD-5 was relabelled as the A-1E Skyraider. All were transferred to the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1973.

Another prop-driven aircraft employed by the USAF during the Vietnam War in the counter-insurgency role was the North American OV-10A, named the ‘Bronco’. The plane was first ordered by the USAF in 1966 and showed up in South Vietnam in 1968 as a Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft. It was eventually armed with machine guns and rockets. The USAF lost sixty-four of the OV-10A Broncos during the Vietnam conflict. It would remain in USAF service until 1991.

A jet-powered attack aircraft that saw limited use with the USAF during the Vietnam War was the supersonic Northrop F-5, named the ‘Freedom Fighter’. Never intended for combat service with the USAF, all those built would be supplied under military aid programmes to friendly foreign countries. However, as a test, a USAF squadron equipped with 12 F-5As, upgraded to a ‘C’ model standard, would see combat during the Vietnam War between 1966 and 1967.

A second lease of life with the USAF

Upon the fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975, the USAF took into operational service seventy-one units of the F-5E, named the ‘Tiger II’ and originally intended for delivery to the now defunct South Vietnamese Air Force. Between 1975 and 1990, the USAF would employ them as dissimilar aggressor training aircraft, intended to mimic the Soviet-designed MiG-21 fighter during mock aerial battles conducted at various training sites in the United States and overseas.

A trainer turned warrior

Another jet-powered aircraft adapted for use during the Vietnam War was the A-37. It was based on the T-37B trainer, which served with the USAF from 1957 until 2009. As an attack plane it came in two models – the A-37A and A-37B – and was named the ‘Dragonfly’.

Only thirty-nine units of the A-37A Dragonfly model were built. Twenty-five of these were sent to South Vietnam in 1967, there to be flown by USAF pilots to evaluate their effectiveness in combat. Positive results from that test pushed the USAF to order 557 units of an improved ‘B’ model of the aircraft.

Some 302 A-37B Dragonfly units were provided to friendly foreign countries under military aid programmes, the majority going to the South Vietnamese Air Force. Almost all would be lost upon the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

In the 1980s, those A-37B Dragonfly aircraft remaining in the USAF inventory were assigned a new role as FAC aircraft. This new job resulted in the designation OA-37B Dragonfly. As an FAC aircraft, it would see service with the USAF during Operation URGENT FURY, the American military invasion of Grenada in 1983. The OA-37B Dragonfly would end its career with the USAF in 1991.

Prop-driven gunships

For use during the Vietnam War the USAF took fifty-three units of the Second World War-era Douglas twin-engine prop-driven C-47 transport planes and armed them with 7.62mm Miniguns. In this configuration they were designated the AC-47, and named the ‘Spooky’. The AC-47 first entered into combat in South-East Asia in 1964 but was pulled from action in 1969. During their time in service nineteen were lost, twelve of these in combat.

The bigger the better

The USAF replacement for the AC-47 and the AC-119G/ACP119K consisted of thirty Lockheed C-130 four-engine transport planes converted for the gunship role, the initial version being designated the AC-130A and named the ‘Spectre’. Reflecting the larger size of the AC-130 gunships, they were armed with a much wider assortment of weapons.

Six of the AC-130 Spectre gunships would be lost during the Vietnam War. Both the AC-130A and upgraded AC-130E gunships, eventually relabelled as the AC-130H Spectres, would go on to serve throughout the Cold War (which ended in 1991), in such conflicts as Operation URGENT FURY, Operation JUST CAUSE in 1989, the American military invasion of Panama, and Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, America’s first war with Iraq.

All the surviving AC-130H Spectre units were retired from the USAF inventory in 2014. Post-Cold War AC-130 gunships include the AC-130U named the ‘Spooky’ and the AC-130J named the ‘Ghostrider’. The newest AC-130 gunship is the AC-130W, referred to as the ‘Stinger II’.

Not as good

The USAF also took twenty-six of its twin-engine Fairchild C-119F transport planes and converted them into gunships. They came in two models: the AC-119G named the ‘Shadow’, and the AC-119K named the ‘Stinger’. The aircraft were not considered as successful as the larger four-engine prop-driven gunships and were not retained in service following the end of the Vietnam War.

The backbone aircraft of the Vietnam War

The USAF was very impressed by the McDonnell F-4A-1 all-weather fleet defence interceptor being tested by the US navy between 1959 and 1961 and named the ‘Phantom II’. The USAF therefore ordered 583 units of a modified version of the aircraft originally labelled as the F-110A and relabelled the F-4C Phantom II in 1962; this entered operational service in 1963 with the last unit being delivered in 1966.

The USAF saw the F-4C Phantom II as a multi-purpose aircraft equally capable as an all-weather fighter-bomber or as an air-superiority fighter. It was followed into service by progressively improved models labelled the ‘D’ and ‘E’ variants. Some 825 units of the F-4D were delivered to the USAF between 1966 and 1968, and 1,469 units of the F-4E between 1967 and 1976.

All three variants of the USAF F-4 Phantom II would see combat during the Vietnam War. As an interceptor it accounted for 107 enemy fighters during the conflict. The first and only USAF Phantom II pilot ace during the Vietnam War was Captain Steve Ritchie, who flew the F-4D and F-4E and accounted for five North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighters.

When the F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber was pulled from USAF service during the Vietnam War in 1970 due to high losses, it was replaced in that position by the various USAF models of the F-4 Phantom II. They would continue in that role until the American military withdrawal from the conflict in 1973.

Of the 445 USAF F-4 Phantom IIs lost in South-East Asia, 370 were destroyed in combat. Of those lost in combat, 33 fell to enemy fighters, 307 were shot down by anti-aircraft guns and 30 by surface-to-air (SAM) missiles. The last of the F-4E models of the F-4 Phantom II would be phased out of USAF service in the late 1980s.

Other F-4 series models

In addition to the fighter-bomber versions of the F-4 Phantom II, the USAF would also take into service 503 units of a photo-reconnaissance model designated the RF-4C, beginning in 1964. It was named the ‘Wild Weasel’. The last unit of the RF-4C was delivered to the USAF in 1974. The aircraft had the ability to employ air-to-air missiles and deliver nuclear weapons if required.

The first action for the RF-4C Phantom II took place during the Vietnam War, during which time eighty-three were lost, seventy-three of them in combat. It would remain in service long enough to be employed by the USAF during Operation DESERT STORM. The last of the RF-4C Phantom IIs would be retired from USAF service by 1994.

As a supplement to the RF-4C Phantom IIs, the USAF took into service beginning in 1978 the ‘G’ version of the aircraft, based on 116 converted ‘E’ models. It served in the SEAD role, was designated as the ‘Wild Weasel V’ and was equipped with ARMs. Like the RF-4C Phantom IIs, it would last in USAF service long enough to see combat during Operation DESERT STORM. It was finally retired in 1995, making it the last F-4 Phantom II variant in USAF service.

Another US navy fighter fills a void

A US navy subsonic fighter adopted by the USAF in a modified version was the Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) A-7D. It entered operational service in 1968 and was named the ‘Corsair II’. The aircraft differed in some details from its US navy counterpart, including a more powerful engine and different avionics

In USAF service the A-7D Corsair II, of which 459 units had been ordered, was primarily a fighter-bomber, hence the ‘A’ for attack in its designation code. It was the replacement in USAF service for the prop-driven A-1E Skyraider, the jet-powered F-100 Super Sabre and the F-105 Thunderchief.

The A-7D Corsair II would see combat during the last few months of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Six were lost in action before the American military withdrew from that conflict in 1973. The aircraft would last in service with the USAF until 1993.

Post-Vietnam War attack aircraft

The eventual replacement for the A-37B in the USAF was the Fairchild Republic A-10, named the ‘Thunderbolt II’. Some 713 units were ordered, with it entering operational service in 1976. Less than half remain in the USAF inventory today, all of which have been upgraded from the original ‘A’ model to the present ‘C’ model. Some of the A-10 Thunderbolt IIs were modified in the late 1980s for the FAC role and assigned the designation OA-10 Thunderbolt II.

In the beginning, the primary role of the A-10 Thunderbolt II was the destruction of Soviet and Eastern Bloc tanks if a Third World War should occur in Western Europe. Reflecting this specialized job, the aircraft was armed with a power-driven seven-barrel 30mm cannon in its forward fuselage. The effectiveness of this gun against tanks was proved in both Operation DESERT STORM and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM during which it destroyed numerous Soviet-era-designed Iraqi tanks.

A fighter in name only

A supersonic aircraft that was in reality a bomber and not a fighter was the General Dynamics F-111, named the ‘Aardvark’. When first envisioned it was seen as a fighter, and when it entered initial operational service in 1967 it had some fighter features such as an internal 20mm automatic cannon (eventually removed), and the provisions for mounting air-to-air missiles. However, these weapons were never employed in the fighter role.

A 1962 USAF order for the aircraft called for eighteen pre-production units and 140 series production aircraft labelled the F-111A Aardvark. Eventually, all the preproduction units were brought up to the ‘A’ standard. Follow-on models of the F-111A included ninety-six units of a ‘D’ model and ninety-six ‘E’ models converted from F-111As. The final model of the F-111 Aardvark was the ‘F’ version, with ninety-four units delivered. They would remain in USAF service until 1996.

The ‘D’ model of the F-111 was the first USAF combat aircraft to have new digital displays in the cockpit, referred to as multi-function displays (MFDs), in lieu of the long-serving analogue cockpit instruments.

In 1968, six F-111A Aardvarks were sent to South-East Asia to see how they would perform in combat. In less than a month three were lost to unknown causes, the test was quickly cancelled and the aircraft withdrawn from that theatre of operation. A subsequent investigation showed that the planes were lost due to a design flaw and not enemy action. The USAF redeployed the F-111A Aardvark to South-East Asia between 1972 and 1973, where they saw productive employment performing missions that no other aircraft in the USAF inventory could undertake.

A number of F-111E and F-111F Aardvarks would also see combat during Operation DESERT STORM. Employing laser-guided bombs, they were credited with the destruction of a large number of Iraqi armoured fighting vehicles during the conflict. The last of the F-111 Aardvark series would be withdrawn from USAF service in 1996.

In 1972, the USAF had forty-two units of the F-111A converted into an electronic warfare (EW) version designated the EF-111A and named the ‘Raven’. Unofficial nicknames for the aircraft included the ‘Electric Fox’ and ‘Spark ’Vark’. These would remain in USAF service until 1998.

Possible B-52 replacements

An evolutionary development of the General Dynamic F-111A Aardvark was the FB-111A model Aardvark. It was intended as a stopgap strategic bomber to replace the Convair B-58 and the earlier models of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses until a new strategic bomber entered the USAF inventory. The FB-111A began operational service in 1969, with 124 units constructed. All were pulled from the inventory in 1992.

The intended replacement for the interim FB-111A Aardvark was the supersonic Rockwell International B-1A, development of which began in 1969. Like the FB-111A Aardvark, the B-1A was a variable-geometry-wing aircraft that was supposed to fly effectively at both low and high altitudes.

The high costs of the B1-A and USAF anticipation that a newer, more capable bomber would soon appear resulted in it being cancelled in 1977, with only four prototypes having been built.

Because the anticipated bomber was delayed due to a host of serious design issues, the USAF began showing a renewed interest in fielding the B-1A. This resulted in an improved model designated the B-1B being authorized in 1981. It was named the ‘Lancer’ and the first of 100 units built entered USAF operational service in 1986. Two of the B-1A Lancer prototypes were also updated to the ‘B’ standard.

Of the 100 units built of the B-1B Lancer, there are sixty-five remaining in USAF service today with two being employed as test aircraft. Ten of them have been lost in accidents. The B-1B Lancer has seen service in a number of different conflicts, including Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. It features many stealth-like features but is not considered a true stealth aircraft.

The first stealth plane

Concerns that the B-1B Lancer would be unable to penetrate Soviet air defence networks eventually resulted in the USAF placing fifty-nine units of the Lockheed F-117A into operational service in 1983. The aircraft was named the ‘Nighthawk’ and was the service’s first stealth plane. Despite the fighter designation, which was given to mislead the Soviet Union, it was strictly a subsonic bomber.

The existence of the F-117A Nighthawk was not declassified by the USAF until 1988. In accordance with the 1962 Congressionally-mandated Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System, it should have been relabelled either ‘B’ for bomber or ‘A’ for attack after its existence was confirmed but that did not happen.

The first combat mission for the F-117A Nighthawk took place during Operation JUST CAUSE, the American military invasion of Panama in 1989. During an American military operation in Yugoslavia in 1999, referred to as Operation NOBLE ANVIL, a single F-117A Nighthawk was shot down.

In the two Gulf Wars, Operations DESERT STORM and IRAQI FREEDOM, no F-117A Nighthawks were lost in action. Due to newer, more capable stealth-type aircraft entering service the USAF decided to pull the F-117A Nighthawk from use in 2008. However, some were placed into storage.

Post-Vietnam War fighters

In the late 1960s, the Soviet Air Force unveiled two new supersonic jet-powered interceptors: the MiG-23 and MiG-25. Both would pose a serious threat to the USAF multi-purpose F-4 Phantom II fighter. In response, the USAF decided that they needed a new clear-weather air-superiority fighter. This would result in the development and the operational fielding in 1976 of the McDonnell Douglas (Boeing as of 1997) F-15, named the ‘Eagle’.

The initial models of the F-15 Eagle acquired by the USAF were the single-seat ‘A’ model and a two-seat trainer version designated the ‘B’ model. The USAF eventually took into the inventory 384 units of the ‘A’ model and sixty-one units of the ‘B’. The F-15A Eagle was considered the replacement for the F-106 Delta Dart dedicated interceptor-fighter.

Beginning in 1979 and continuing until 1985, the USAF took in 483 units of a newer more advanced model designated the F-15C and ninety-two units of the two-seat trainer version of that aircraft known as the F-15D. During Operation DESERT STORM, the USAF deployed the ‘C’ and ‘D’ models of the F-15 Eagle in that theatre of operation. They would account for thirty-six Iraqi fighters in aerial combat during the conflict, with no losses to themselves.

As of 2015, there are a combined total of 470 units of the F-15C and F-15D still in USAF service. The F-15A and F-15B have already been retired by the USAF, with budget cuts threatening the remaining inventory of F-15C and F-15D planes. A major problem with the remaining F-15 Eagles is that due to heavy use they are reaching the end of their useful service lives.

The fighter-bomber version of the F-15 Eagle

The final version of the F-15 Eagle taken into service by the USAF is designated the F-15E and named the ‘Strike Eagle’. Between 1985 and 2001 a total of 236 units were delivered, with 210 still remaining in service. The F-15E Strike Eagle was the replacement for the F-111 Aardvark in the medium-range attack role

Unlike previous versions of the aircraft that are clear-weather interceptors, the F-15E Strike Eagle was designed from the beginning as an all-weather fighter-bomber, with a secondary mission as an air-superiority fighter.

During Operation DESERT STORM two F-15E Strike Eagles were lost to Iraqi antiaircraft fire. A single F-15E Strike Eagle was lost in combat during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in 2003. Present USAF plans call for the F-15E Strike Eagles to remain in service until 2025, at which point a next-generation fighter-bomber will hopefully replace it.

A less costly alternative

Entering operational service with the USAF in 1980 was the General Dynamics-designed and built F-16, named the ‘Fighting Falcon’. It was the simpler, low-cost alternate to the much more complex and costly F-15 Eagle in the clear-weather air-superiority role.

General Dynamics sold its military aircraft division to the Lockheed Corporation in 1993. Two years later, Lockheed merged with Martin Marietta and the two combined corporations became Lockheed Martin.

As with the F-15 Eagle, later models of the F-16 Fighting Falcon have been successfully adapted to perform the all-weather fighter-bomber role. The F-16 Fighting Falcon saw service in Operation DESERT STORM and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, with three lost in the first conflict and five in the latter.

In total, the USAF acquired 2,232 units of the F-16 Fighting Falcon in a number of versions, labelled ‘A’ through to ‘D’. The initial production types included the singleseat F-16A and the F-16B two-seat trainer. Most of these have now been retired from USAF service, with many placed into storage.

At present, the USAF inventory contains approximately 1,000 F-16 Fighting Falcons. These include the single-seat F-16C model and a much smaller number of two-seat trainers referred to as the F-16D. All have been put through a number of upgrade programmes during their time in service.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon is slated to remain in USAF service until 2025, provided the USAF receives enough next-generation replacement fighter aircraft to replace it in the inventory.