The U.S. Air Force celebrates its 72nd birthday today. But this birthday hardly represents the birth of aviation in the U.S. military. That actually began during the Civil War, when both sides used hot air balloons for aerial reconnaissance.
It instead recognizes the day the Air Force became its own branch, free of control of the U.S. Army, and over the objections of the U.S. Navy. Its independence was inevitable, as the importance of air power became apparent during World War I, and grew into a vital component of the military, from attack aircraft to surveillance, logistics, and transport.
The Navy and Marines recognized the value of military aircraft as early as 1911, and the first plane took off from a ship that year. But the American aviation industry developed slowly. Known in its infancy as the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, units provided tactical support to the Army and were under its direction. British, French, and German planes mostly dominated the unfriendly skies over Europe in the so-called “War to End All Wars.”
Between the world wars, the U.S. Navy converted a ship into the USS Langley, America’s first carrier, in 1920, and later redesigned the battlecruisers USS Saratoga and USS Lexington into carriers in 1927. And the U.S. Army Air Corps became a force to be reckoned with.
Aviation played such a huge role during World War II that the Armys Air Corps basically worked independently of the Army. On June 20, 1941, it became the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) to signify greater autonomy from the Army’s command structure. At the war’s end, Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Carl Spaatz began the process of formally separating the USAAF from the Army: including the Strategic Air Command, the Air Defense Command, the Tactical Air Command, the Air Transport Command, the Air Training Command (a redesignation of Army Air Forces Training Command), the Air University, and the Air Force Center.
The U.S. Air Force officially became the fourth military branch on September 18, 1947, after President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947. Air fields became Air Force Bases. The Air Force adopted its own theme song, titled “Wild Blue Yonder (The Air Force Song),” known for its opening line, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder.” The branch now boasts of nearly 800 bases worldwide, with more than 321,000 active air personnel, 69,000 reserves, 106,000 Air National Guard members, and employs 142,000 civilians. The branch has 5,000 manned aircraft, 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 170 satellites.