The official Air Force Birthday is recognized as September 18, 1947, which is the date of the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. That legislation created what would later become to known as the United States Department of Defense. This established the United States Air Force as a separate branch of military service.
The 74th Air Force Day will be celebrated on Saturday, September 18, 2021.
Before the creation of the Air Force, the military’s flying operations were handled by the U.S. Army on land and the Navy by sea. The history of this branch of service is an important part of the history of air power in the United States. Naturally, the Air Force birthday owes a great deal to Orville and Wilbur Wright who pioneered mechanized flight with their successful mission in 1903.
But the Air Force also owes a great deal to Army pioneers who, roughly four years after the Wright Brothers’ triumph at Kitty Hawk, began experimenting with using air superiority to gain tactical advantages in combat.
Balloons had long been used for observation of various kinds. When the U.S. Civil War began, ballooning was adopted as a reconnaissance tool. One example took place in 1862, the Union Balloon Corps kept watch over the Battle of Gaines’ Mill and telegraphed information to the ground as the battle unfolded.
The prospect of air power was so compelling even then that President Abraham Lincoln called a meeting with Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, an early pioneer of aeronautics to discuss how the Union Army could further its cause from the air. Lowe was later the head of the U.S. Army Balloon Corps.
The Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk
In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first mechanical, heavier-than-air flight using a gas-powered, propeller aircraft. Their first successful plane flight in history flew for 12 seconds and 120 feet before returning to land . Orville piloted the aircraft on its inaugural flight. The plane would fly 852 feet in 59 seconds later the same day. The Wright Brothers had discovered how to defy gravity. They had previously designed gliders, but this mechanized flight transformed aviation history.
Enter the U.S. Army Signal Corps
When Thaddeus S. C. Lowe was named chief of the Union Army Balloon Corps, the long march to a separate Air Force began. The Army had several units dedicated to military flying over from the year 1907 to 1914. The timeline of Army aviation includes the following pre-Air Force organizations:
- Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps (August 1907 – July 1914)
- Aviation Section, Signal Corps (July 1914 – May 1918)
- Division of Military Aeronautics (May 1918 – May 1918)
- Air Service, U.S. Army (May 1918 – July 1926)
- U.S. Army Air Corps (July 1926 – June 1941)
- U.S. Army Air Forces (June 1941 – September 1947)
World War One and The Court-Martial of General Billy Mitchell
The World War One era saw the creation of the U.S. Army Air Service, which would prove to be a crucial turn for the future United States Air Force. The Deputy Commander of the Air Service was Brigadier General Billy Mitchell who went on record as an extremely vocal supporter of military airpower. Mitchell became embroiled in a power struggle to assign coastal defense over to airpower rather than Navy protection.
In 1925, Mitchell went too far by publicly accusing Navy officials of criminal negligence and incompetent behavior. This resulted with the six week court-martial proceedings against Billy Mitchell as a pulpit to extol the virtues of military airpower.
Mitchell argued that a separate and equal branch of military service responsible for air operations was a crucial for complete national defense.
Billy Mitchell was convicted as a result of his court-martial and resigned from military service. He remained a champion of air power until his death in 1936. Mitchell would never see the creation of a separate and equal Air Force, but his actions were quite important in the history of the American military.
Air Superiority in World War Two
The U.S Army Air Forces would prove Billy Mitchell was correct about a number of things. American air power was put to the test in World War Two in the following ways: as a method of intelligence gathering, as a way to deliver troops to the battlefield, and ultimately as a way to deliver atomic weaponry that would bring the war to its final end with the surrender of Japan following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Army Air Forces were said to operate almost independently from the rest of the U.S. Army at this time. This created a separate branch of service that would be more than a symbolic move to more formally address the issue of American military air power. It recognized that combat in the air, from the air, and from surface to air required a whole separate type of planning and organization.
From 1941 to 1947, the Army was setting the stage for the birthday of the Air Force. The Navy would object to the creation of an Air Force, but would not succeed in stopping it.
In 1945, General Dwight Eisenhower was promoted to Chief of Staff and General Carl Spaatz became the new commander of the Army Air Forces. Soon after, plans were made to reorganize the Army so that a separate Air Force might be created without the need for legislation. In 1946, it was agreed that a separate Air Force could be made up of a variety of commands:
- Strategic Air Command
- Air Defense Command
- Tactical Air Command
- Air Transport Command
- Air Technical Service Command
- Air Training Command
- Air University
- Air Force Center
On September 18, 1947, Stuart Symington became the first Secretary of the Air Force. Army Air Bases were re-designated as Air Force Bases. New uniforms and insignia were rolled out and a new command structure was put in place to recognize the specialized training and experience of Air Force pilots and commanders.
Air Force Commander Carl Spaatz created a new policy that kept tactical commanders from being interfered with by military leadership with no flight experience. The tactical commander would not be permitted to be subordinate to a station commander. Later, a “provisional wing plan” would place a wing commander above the base commander.
The United States Air Force Today
Today, the Air Force has over 300,000 active duty troops, with some 20,000 pilots. The total “end strength” of the Air Force, including Guard and Reserve troops, is just over half a million people.
In the fiscal year 2019, the Air Force hoped to recruit just under thirty thousand new troops. Modernization is a concern for Air Force budgets in recent years, but there is also money earmarked for nuclear deterrence.
That spending would include upgrades to the Air Force’s B-52 fleet and development of “long range standoff missiles” plus replacement of the old Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile.
According to the Air Force official site, in fiscal year 2019 one and a half million flying hours were projected to be funded, costing $8.7 billion. That budget also sought to shore up Air Force munitions inventories, requesting more than fifty thousand “preferred munitions” which would cost $1.8 billion.
The Air Force Birthday
Celebrating the Air Force birthday isn’t the same as celebrations for Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, etc. September 18 is not a national holiday, but military members observe the occasion with events and activities in local communities, in individual units and squadrons, and most notably with the Air Force Ball.
The Air Force Ball is not always held to coincide with the Air Force birthday, but has in the past be scheduled with September 18 in mind in notable “milestone years” such as the Air Force’s 70th anniversary. The traditions of the ball honor the same concepts as the Air Force birthday: the creation of air power, the fellowship of airmen across the service, and the future of the force.
Celebrating the Air Force Birthday
If you’re wondering how the military celebrates the Air Force birthday, you may not need to do more than look up at the sky, depending on the time of day and location. Air Force celebrations include air demonstrations by the Thunderbirds precision combat air demonstration squadron, military “tattoo” airshow events that feature a variety of aircraft in the air and on the ground.
There are also parties with promotion and retirement ceremonies that coincide with the Air Force birthday. In milestone years, there may even be parades and local events celebrating Air Force contributions to the local community.
Celebrating the Air Force birthday on a personal level can be as simple as thanking an Airman for his or her service, flying the U.S. flag outside a residence or local business, or giving to an Air Force-specific charity or Veteran Service Organization (VSO) such as:
- Air Commando Association
- Air Force Association
- Air Force Sergeants Association
- Association of Air Force Missileers
- Society of Air Force Flight Surgeons
You can also volunteer time at Air Force base organizations and charities that operate on military bases such as the Red Cross or Air Force Aid Society. Consider donating time or money to the Air Force Assistance Fund or the nearest base with an Airman Family Readiness Center.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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