11 Things You Might Not Know About the U.S. Air Force

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Between now and Veterans Day, D.B. Grady will be covering each of the five branches of the U.S. military.

When most people think of the Air Force, they think of fighter jets and Adam Baldwin’s character from Independence Day. From its inception however, the Air Force has “aimed higher” than the stratosphere. Here are a few things you might not have known about the Air Force.

1. If you’re a weatherman in the Air Force, you’re probably a battle-hardened commando.

Before the Air Force sends squadrons of $150 million aircraft into areas, it likes to know what kind of environmental conditions are waiting for them. But the kinds of places where it sends such aircraft aren’t exactly friendly or hospitable to U.S. military operations. To gather meteorological and geological intelligence, the Air Force sends in Special Operations Weather Teams—commando forces with special training to read the environment and report back. To join such an elite fighting force, these men endure a punishing training pipeline that tests their mental and physical limits. The airmen who make it through earn the coveted gray beret and crest, and are trained to jump out of airplanes, climb mountains, snake through jungles, blow things up, and use small unit tactics in hostile territory.

2. For a while there, North Dakota could have annihilated all human life.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the vast majority of nuclear weapons in the United States were located in North Dakota. Minot Air Force Base was a major Strategic Air Command facility, hosting intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and refueling planes. (In other words, everything you need to start the apocalypse.) Accordingly, had North Dakota seceded from the United States it would have become the third-largest nuclear power in the world.

3. George Bailey was a one-star general.

When the Army drafted Jimmy Stewart, he failed to meet the height and weight requirements and was turned away. Undaunted, he later tried enlisting in the Army Air Corps, but again missed the weight mark. He had to persuade his recruiter to run more agreeable tests, which he somehow passed. Once in uniform, the Army wanted to use him to make promotional films, but he balked and worked to get an assignment to a combat unit. (Indeed, he spent his entire career shunning publicity, preferring to serve as an Air Force officer and not as a celebrity recruitment tool.) By 1943, he was flying bombing runs over Germany, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. (The first of two.) By the end of the war, he was a full-bird colonel, and joined the Air Force Reserve, eventually retiring as a Brigadier General.

4. Air Force One isn’t the name of the plane.

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When the president isn’t on board one of the planes we think of as Air Force One—yes, there are two of them—the Boeing VC-25s are simply known as 28000 or 29000. “Air Force One” is the air traffic control designation for any plane on which the president is a passenger. (To wit, when President Nixon resigned, his plane took off as Air Force One, and by the time it landed, was called SAM 27000.) Air Force One is considered a “protection level one” asset—the security equivalent of a nuclear weapon—and airmen are permitted to use deadly force on unauthorized personnel. So don’t try to charge it.

5. The Air Force shares a birthday with the CIA.

The National Security Act of 1947 completely reorganized the national security apparatus of the United States. It separated the Army Air Forces from the Army, and made it an equal branch of the military—the U.S. Air Force. The bill also created the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Notably, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 into law on what would become the first plane to be designated as Air Force One.

6. You’ve heard of a few former airmen.

• Super-stud pilot and octogenarian brawler Buzz Aldrin flew 86 combat missions (including the shooting down of two enemy aircraft) while serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He earned a Doctor of Science—considered a “higher doctorate”—in 1963. He was not only the second man on the moon, but the first to perform a sacred rite on a heavenly body—he took communion in the lunar module.

• George Carlin was an Air Force radar technician. He was thus possessed of the same training as Morgan Freeman, who actually turned down a drama scholarship from Jackson State University to serve as an Air Force radar tech.

• In 1932, Ray Cash and Carrie Cloveree couldn’t think of a name for their son, so they named him “J.R.” When J.R. tried to enlist in the Air Force, the recruiters wouldn’t allow initials to be used as a proper name. J.R. thus adopted a new name—John R. Cash—but would become better known in the music industry as Johnny Cash.

Star Trek is largely informed by Air Force culture. Gene Roddenberry, its creator and the “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” flew combat missions in the Pacific during World War II. By the time he left the Air Force, he’d flown eighty-nine missions and had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. He would also have outranked Airman DeForest Kelley, who served in the Air Force before later serving in Starfleet.

• Airman First Class Hunter S. Thompson’s superiors recommended him for an early, honorable discharge. “Airman Thompson possesses outstanding talent in writing. He has imagination, good use of English, and can express his thoughts in a manner that makes interesting reading.” That said, “This Airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy or personal advice and guidance. Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members. He has little consideration for military bearing or dress and seems to dislike the service and want out as soon as possible... Consequently, it is requested that Airman Thompson be assigned to other duties immediately, and it is recommended that he be earnestly considered under the early release program.”

7. The Air Force will buy cyber weapons from you.

The present mission of the U.S. Air Force is to “fly, fight, and win” in “air, space, and cyberspace.” It has plenty of planes and plenty of rockets and missiles; what it needs are a few good cyber weapons. Earlier this year, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center put out a request for “Cyberspace Warfare Operations” technology designed for the “employment of cyberspace capabilities to destroy, deny, degrade, disrupt, deceive, corrupt, or usurp the adversaries ability to use the cyberspace domain for his advantage.” The likely model for such weapons is Operation OLYMPIC GAMES, the joint U.S.-Israel cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

8. The top fighter jet ace in the U.S. Air Force is Joseph C. McConnell.

An “ace” is a pilot who has shot down five or more enemy aircraft. The top jet ace in U.S. Air Force history is Joseph C. McConnell, a “triple ace” who shot down sixteen MiG fighters during the Korean War. He did this over a four-month period in 1953—including downing three MiGs on his last mission before returning to the United States. For his actions in combat, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star. In 1954, he was killed while test piloting an F-86H fighter-bomber. His record as top jet ace still stands.

9. Chuck Norris didn’t join the Air Force. The Air Force joined Chuck Norris.

Carlos Ray Norris enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1958 and served in South Korea as an Air Policeman. There, he developed an interest in martial arts, and earned the nickname Chuck.

Today, the Air Police career field of which he was a part is known as Security Forces, and qualified airmen are trained in both military policing and airbase ground defense. Their pipeline is held at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and the U.S. Army’s Camp Bullis in Bexar County, Texas. 22% of Air Force casualties in Iraq were Security Forces airmen.

10. The U.S. Air Force has two presidents to its credit.

In 1937, Ronald Reagan enlisted as a reservist in the Army, and soon earned a commission as a second lieutenant. In 1942, he transferred to the 18th Army Air Force Base Unit of the Army Air Forces. (This unit is better known as the First Motion Picture Unit.) He left active duty at the rank of captain on December 9, 1945.

In 1968, George W. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard of the U.S. Air Force and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He trained as a fighter pilot, and flew Convair F-102 Delta Daggers with the 147th Reconnaissance Wing. In 1973 he transferred to the Air Force Reserve, and was honorably discharged at the rank of first lieutenant the following year.

11. The future of the Air Force will involve “counterspace operations,” which is just what it sounds like: X-Wing fighters and Death Stars.

According to Air Force Doctrine Document 3-14.1, we must “be prepared to deprive an adversary of the benefits of space capabilities when American interests and lives are at stake. Space superiority ensures the freedom to operate in the space medium while denying the same to an adversary and, like air superiority, cannot be taken for granted... Counterspace operations have defensive and offensive elements, both of which depend on robust space situation awareness.” Phrases like “space control” and “space force projection” sound a lot like something Wedge Antilles would be familiar with. Here’s hoping.

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November 8, 2012 - 5:48pm
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