How the U.S. Air Force Works

History of the Air Force

US Signal Corps logo.
Photo courtesy of Unites States Social Security Administration
Logo of the United States Signal Corps.
Although Union forces operated the U.S. Balloon Corps during the Civil War, using hot-air balloons to spot Confederate troop movements and numbers, a permanent military aeronautical service was not instituted until 1907. That year, the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Signal Corps was created and given the task of studying and implementing the use of military aircraft. Not long after, the entire air fleet of the U.S. was lost when their only plane crashed [Source: Yenne]. By 1916, the First Aero Squadron had eight planes built by the Curtiss company -- they were first used in action against Mexican rebel Pancho Villa. All but two of the aircraft were lost due to weather and mechanical problems.

During World War I, the Aeronautical Division was separated from the Signal Corps and became the U.S. Army Air Service. Because U.S. aircraft manufacturers were behind their European counterparts in the design and production of military planes, most U.S. pilots at the time flew British and French planes, some of which were manufactured in the U.S. under license. Peak wartime strength for the Air Service was 7,889 planes [Source: Yenne]. While the size of the Air Service dropped drastically in the interwar period, military air tactics, strategy and design were modernized. Production was ramped up again in 1939 as conflict was rekindled in Europe. The Air Service was given greater autonomy (while remaining a part of the U.S. Army) in 1941, when it was restructured into the U.S. Army Air Forces. The Air Force played an enormous role in WWII -- its exploits were crucial to Allied victory in every theater of the war. In 1944, Army Forces reached a historic peak unit strength of 78,757 aircraft with 2,372, 292 men [Source: Yenne].

The United States Army Air Force used these posters to recruit men during World War II.

The United States Army Air Force used these posters to recruit men during World War II.

Public Domain
The United States Army Air Force used these posters to recruit men during World War II.

An overall reorganization of the U.S. military in 1947 lead to the creation of the U.S. Air Force, finally making it an independent and equal branch of the military within the Department of Defense.

B-52 Stratofortress
Photo courtesy of the United States Air Force
The B-52 Stratofortress carried nuclear bombs on long-range missions during the Cold War.

U.S. space logo.
Photo courtesy of the United States Air Force

Throughout the Cold War, the Air Force was a vital part of the United States’ nuclear arsenal. While the Navy was in charge of submarine-based nuclear weapons, the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) had control of both ground-launched Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear bombs carried on long-range bombers like the B-52 Stratofortress.

The Air Force's area of responsibility was extended into space in 1982, when the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) was created. For the most part, AFSPC launches, operates and protects satellites for military use, including weather, communications and GPS satellites. In the future, AFSPC may utilize combat craft capable of entering space – for now, NASA's space shuttle is occasionally used to launch military payloads.

Major Kim Campbell and her plane
Public Domain
SAF Pilot Kim Campbell looks at her damaged A-10 Warthog.
In 1993, U.S. military policy was changed to allow women to serve in certain combat roles. These roles included flying fighter jets into combat. In 1994, Lt. Jeannie Flynn became the first female fighter pilot in the United States Air Force upon successful completion of her training in the F-15E Eagle [source: Air Force History and Museums Program].

As of 2006, the Air Force has about 6,000 aircraft, with about 350,000 active personnel and another 250,000 in the Air National Guard and Reserve [source: 2006 USAF Almanac]. In 2003, there were just over 100 female fighter pilots in the Air Force; about two percent of the force's total fighter pilots.

One notable example is Major Kim Campbell, pilot of an A-10 Thunderbolt II under the Air Force call sign "Killer Chick." During a 2003 close air support mission over Baghdad, her plane suffered damage from a ground-based attack. Despite the loss of both redundant hydraulic control systems and damage to one engine, Campbell flew for one hour, returning to her base and landing safely using only mechanical control systems [source: Warbird Forum].