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EXPLAINED: 5 Best Airplanes in the History of the U.S. Military

F-22
F-22 Raptors from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. fly in formation behind a KC-135 Stratotanker from Altus Air Force Base, Okla. after air refueling over New York, Aug. 21, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Kenneth W. Norman)

A 5-Minute Explainer: 5 Best Airplanes in the History of the U.S. Military – Yes, my Editor has given me quite the tough assignment. Just how do you pick the five best historical airplanes in the U.S. Military?

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Well, the way I approached it was to select well-known airplanes that are powerful, dangerous for the enemy, and have a colorful history.

While I will admit many historians and military experts may disagree, let’s take a further look at what makes these specific airplanes so deadly.

5 Best Airplanes in the History of the U.S. Military: B-17 Flying Fortress

It’s hard to believe (maybe it’s not known) just how many missions the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber flew during World War II. This airplane was a feat of U.S. engineering prowess. It went from blueprints to flight testing in just 12 months. Initial combat was conducted in 1941 when the B-17 was sold to the British. The B-17E had nine machine guns and could carry 4,000 pounds of bombs. Boeing built nearly 7,000 B-17s.

They were famed for attacking Germany, but they also over-awed the Japanese in the Pacific. The B-17 had four engines, but it could lose two and still limp back home to safety. The fuselage and wings could take dozens of hits from flak and keep going on the bomb run.

Pilots and crew rarely gave up on the airplane. It is difficult to fathom winning World War II without the B-17.

5 Best Airplanes in the History of the U.S. Military: B-52 Stratofortress

A bomber built to stand the test of time, it’s the only airplane that is truly multi-generational; flown by your grandfather, father, uncle, brother, or cousin. We are talking the B-52 and it has been in service since 1955 and could fly into the 2050s – that’s over 100 years of missions.

B-52 Bomber

Image: Creative Commons.

Talk about ordnance, this nuclear-capable platform has dropped or launched everything from dumb-bombs to precision-guided munitions, cruise missiles, and maybe someday hypersonic weapons. Once airborne it can be refueled in air and make it to anywhere in the world in hours. A workhorse during Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, the Second Gulf War, and Afghanistan, the B-52 just won’t quit.

B-52

B-52 bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

B-52

A B-52 Stratofortress aircraft flies overhead near the Air Force Flight Test Center. The Stratofortress is carrying AGM-86 air-launched cruise missiles.

B-52

A B-52H Stratofortress is prepared for fight at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Oct. 25, 2021. The last B-52H built was delivered in Oct. 1962. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Wright)

5 Best Airplanes in the History of the U.S. Military: F-4 Phantom

Many ground-pounders in Vietnam can tell you stories about the F-4 Phantom. This remarkable fighter saved numerous grunts by offering close air support in dangerous situations with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. Veterans swear the airplane saved their lives.

The F-4 is a record-setting airplane. It carried 18,000 pounds of munitions during Vietnam. The F-4 is still so popular it has been in use with the air forces of several countries. At least 5,000 have been built and it can play multiple roles in air superiority as a dog-fighter or bomber. The engine thrust and aerodynamics were so good that both the Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds flew the F-4 from 1969 to 1973.

F-4 Phantom

Mockup of the proposed U.S. Navy McDonnell F3H-G/H. In 1953, McDonnell Aircraft began work on revising its F3H Demon fighter, seeking expanded capabilities and better performance. The company developed several projects including a variant powered by a Wright J67 engine, and variants powered by two Wright J65 engines, or two General Electric J79 engines. The J79-powered version promised a top speed of Mach 1.97. On 19 September 1953, McDonnell approached the United States Navy with a proposal for the Super Demon. Uniquely, the aircraft was to be modular — it could be fitted with one- or two-seat noses for different missions, with different nose cones to accommodate radar, photo cameras, four 20 mm cannon, or 56 FFAR unguided rockets in addition to the nine hardpoints under the wings and the fuselage. The Navy was sufficiently interested to order a full-scale mock-up of the F3H-G/H. It depicted the different sizes of the Wright J65 and General Electric J79 afterburners, with the J79 on the right side of the mockup and the J65 on the left. The further development led directly to the F4H Phantom II.

F-4 Phantom

5 Best Airplanes in the History of the U.S. Military: F-14 Tomcat

The F-14 Tomcat was meant to protect aircraft carriers from bombers and it did its job with élan and style for many years. The Top Gun fighter just looked great with its variable-sweep wings.

It entered service in 1974 and flew with distinction through many adversarial roles during the Cold War – mainly to intercept Soviet fighters and scare them away from the battlespace.

It could find an enemy warplane with the help of its back-seat radio intercept officer and get missile-lock on bogeys with ease. The Tomcat deployed one of the effective over-the-horizon radar-guided missiles – the Phoenix AIM-54A that had a range of over 100 miles.

F-14 Tomcat

F-14 Tomcat History

Image: Creative Commons.

It also carried a full host of short to medium-range missiles and bombs. It could fly at nights and in all weather, which made it effective off aircraft carriers.

The F-14 was just hard to beat.

5 Best Airplanes in the History of the U.S. Military: F-35 Lightning II

A modern fighter that deserves a mention is the F-35 Lighting II. A product of the Joint Strike Fighter program, this 5th-generation stealthy warplane is top of the heap in many air forces around the world. 15 countries are flying it. There are three versions of the jet depending on the mission – whether taking off from the ground, aircraft carriers, or short-take-off and vertical landing.

The F-35 can intercept, dogfight, bomb, collect intelligence, and support fighters on the ground.

F-35

U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning ll aircraft with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 prepare for takeoff from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, April 8, 2021. VMFA-121 is the first forward deployed Marine F-35B squadron, capable of providing close air support and conducting strike missions in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jackson Ricker)

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U.S. Air Force Maj. Kristin “BEO” Wolfe, F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team commander and pilot, performs an aerial demonstration during the 2021 Thunder and Lightning Over Arizona Air Show and Open House at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, Nov. 5, 2021. The last air show and open house DM held showcasing U.S. military capabilities was in 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kaitlyn Ergish)

U.S. and NATO pilots lick their chops when contemplating all those varied missions that can be executed with just one airplane. As a result, Russia has been forced to speed up its next-generation stealth fighter program. But Moscow better get ready, by 2035, there will be at least 500 F-35s deployed in Europe.

My Favorite

My favorite airplanes may be something of a surprise, but I chose two: the F-14 and the B-17. It sounds cliché, but I love the Tomcat because of the movie Top Gun and the B-17 because of a video game I used to play called 50 Mission Crush. The object of the game was to somehow survive 50 different bombing runs without getting killed in the simulator. But popular culture aside, you can’t go wrong with the B-52, the F-4, or the F-35 either.

F-35 Beast Mode

Image: Creative Commons.

Now serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, Ph.D., is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

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