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Since the very earliest days of powered flight, the U.S. military and aerospace industry have enjoyed a close relationship that has been the cornerstone of America's emergence as a superpower.
Just four years after Orville Wright made history at Kitty Hawk, and a mere two years after the forerunner to the U.S. Air Force was established within the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army, the Wright Brothers sold the world's first military airplane to the Army for US $30,000 in 1909. That same year, the Wright Company was turning out four planes a month, making it the largest airplane manufacturer in the world.
The bond between the fledgling aerospace industry and the keepers of our national security was already forming. That relationship continues to grow hand-in-hand as we mark the founding centennial and 60th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force.
The use of air power for military advantages dates back almost to the discovery of flight. Just 11 years after Orville Wright spent his first bumpy 12 seconds as a successful pilot, the evolving airplane contributed significantly to Allied success in WWI. Aerial reconnaissance increased the effectiveness of artillery fire, while observation aircraft photographed trenches and military positions. Air superiority was fiercely sought after as warring nations fought to protect their own aircraft and deny air space to their enemy.
As airplanes began hunting other airplanes, the men who flew these increasingly sophisticated machines emerged as heroic figures. Flying aces captured the hearts and imaginations of a generation of Americans. Although airplanes were not the decisive weapons in WWI, aviation had begun to change the fundamental strategies of armed conflict.
During WWI, the Europeans made significantly more progress than the U.S. in aviation. Almost every American aviator who fought in the war flew European airplanes. In response, the burgeoning U.S. aviation industry convened in New York City in 1919 to form what is now the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).
Originally known as the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America (ACCA), the group was founded with a charter membership of 100 'to foster, advance, promulgate and promote' aeronautics, and 'generally, to do every act and thing which may be necessary and proper for the advancement' of American aviation. Early members included aviation pioneers like Orville Wright and Glen H. Curtiss, as well as representatives of major aircraft manufacturing units in the United States. In the years leading up to 1938, industry innovations like the 'monoplane revolution resulted in radical changes in design and manufacturing from earlier biplanes.
Buoyed by exports to Britain and France, who were rushing to rearm with American fighters and bombers, aircraft production began ramping up in the late 1930s with President Roosevelt's recognition that airpower would play a major role in the brewing European conflict. By 1941, the United States had both the industrial and technological capability to build the best airplanes in the world.
When U.S. forces entered WWII in 1942, air power played a crucial role in almost every aspect of the war and contributed immensely to our eventual victory. Britain's Royal Air Force had already begun a bombing campaign in German cities that was soon joined by the Eighth Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The great bomber fleets of the Combined Bomber Offensive attacked the Third Reich with Boeing's B-17s and B-24s and RAF Lancasters and Wellingtons, hammering Germany's industrial, transportation and communications infrastructures. In February 1944, the German Luftwaffe attempted to contest the European skies, but the American escort fighters took a heavy toll on the German Air Force - a turning point in the air war over Europe.
WWII: VICTORY IN THE SKIES
Air power had come into its own during WWII, with decisive use in battles and attacks on the industrial bases of our enemies. Outside of Germany, American airman of the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy fought boldly against the Japanese in the Philippines and the Southern Pacific. In China, the American Volunteer Group under General Clair Chennault, nicknamed the 'Flying Tigers' flew sharkmouthed Curtiss P-40s to best the Japanese air force. U.S. transport aircraft made easy work of 'the Hump', flying over the highest mountains in the world and dramatizing the importance of global air transport, perhaps the greatest development of air power during the war. With the dropping of atomic bombs by B-29s on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was forced to surrender on September 2, 1945.
During WWII, the ACCA carried on limited functions for the industry while manufacturers focused on the war effort through East and West Coast Aircraft War Production Councils. These councils coordinated industry support with the War Planning Board and the military services.
Following the war, ACCA was reorganized to concentrate on the industry's trade and commercial interests and became, for the first time, a trade association. To reflect this development, its name was appropriately changed to Aircraft Industries Association of America, Inc. By the latter part of 1947, the industry had begun to run out of money and ideas. Its ranking sank to 44th among American industries in 1948. The war-built reserves were consumed, and diversification in civil and non-aviation markets had failed. The industry turned to the government for relief.
Appeals for help were made to the U.S. Presidents Air Policy Commission of 1947, which was formed in response to the distress of the aircraft industry and dissension over the role of air power in our national strategy. The commission listened sympathetically to the industry's pleas and to the Air Force's case for an air power strategy. The Air Force presented to the commission a logical, comprehensive system that seemed appropriate for the budding Cold War. The commission eventually recommended planned procurement at a level intended to sustain the aircraft industry and provide a base for mobilization and an air-nuclear-deterrent strategy was adopted.
INTO THE JET AGE
The aerospace industry continued evolving in an effort to meet the changing needs of national security, military strategy and commercial transportation. While the U.S. was experiencing a phase of domestic demobilization and disarmament after the war, the industry was busily engaged in developing and building jets. Engineers continuously modified these planes, enabling aircraft to fly higher and faster while simultaneously improving stability and maneuverability. These developments eventually led to the B-58 and wide-body cargo planes with the capacity to carry troops, tanks and literally tons of supplies. One of the greatest beneficiaries of jet development was commercial aviation.
Although the American aviation industry led the passenger transport business through the 1940s, British Airways challenged that lead in 1952 with the introduction of the first jet airliner. The De Havilland Comet was designed to fly at 35,000 feet and higher, dramatically reducing fuel consumption. The success of the Comet forced the hand of American aerospace manufacturers and weakened the reluctance of the conservative airlines to use jets.
Consequently, the aerospace industry began a race for the jet airliner market. The Boeing 707, based on a jet tanker design built for the Air Force, followed the Comet in 1954 and addressed the structural problems that doomed the first jetliner. The new Boeing jet boasted a newly designed airframe that offered a smoother, faster ride with room for more passengers. This airliner sparked Douglas Aircraft to produce the DC-8, a plane with greater range and more cabin width. With a seating capacity of 550 people, Boeings 747 was the world's first and largest commercial jumbo jet. The Lockheed L-1011and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 followed.
By the 1960s, passenger jets were the principal mode of passenger transportation. Military innovations and commercial interests were mutually supporting innovation and progress.
In the aftermath of WWII, the Soviet Union and the U.S. continued to struggle over the future of Europe. Western Europe joined the U.S. in its alarm over Russia's actions, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 to halt the use of force to spread communism. The American contribution of forces to Europe and the equipping of allies lacking the capability to build modern aircraft expanded America's export markets.
A NEW WAR BREEDS NEW TECHNOLOGY
The Cold War stumbled into the forefront of the public discussion in 1948 when the Russians moved against Berlin and the Americans chose an airlift as the counter move. Although each superpower sought to influence events through non-military means, the clash sometimes flared into armed conflict as in Korea in early 1950s and Vietnam in the 1960s.
By the time the Korean War began in 1950, the speed of jet fighters was considered a necessity to win air combat engagements. By the time the Korean War ended in 1953, the aerospace industry had undergone a massive expansion and was restored to its WWII status as the largest American industry. Jet fighters continued to be invaluable in Vietnam, illustrated by dramatic, high-speed dogfights with MiGs. Bombers also played a crucial role.
The U.S. also developed global air transport, enabling it to project power around the world and provide humanitarian airlift to people in distress using the C-130, C-141 and the giant C-5 aircraft. Global air transport demonstrated its importance early during the Berlin Airlift in 1948 when it gave the West its first victory of the Cold War. U.S. nuclear advantage and development of air power allowed the economies of Western nations to grow without the excess burdens of military spending faced by the Soviet Union and its satellites, which maintained huge ground armies throughout the Cold War.
Starting in the late 1940s, the U.S. Defense Department pursued research, rocketry, and upper atmospheric sciences as a means of ensuring American leadership in technology. Following Sputniks launch on October 4, 1957, the U.S. launched its first Earth-orbiting satellite on January 31, 1958, from atop a modified Redstone.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) formed later that year, with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and parts of other agencies forming its core, to provide research and development for the exploration of space. The pressures of national defense during the Cold War also contributed to NASA's establishment and mission.
The Air Force, NASA, Navy and North American Aviation joined together for the X-15 program to embark upon a new frontier - exploring the possibilities of a piloted, rocket-powered, air-launched aircraft capable of speeds about five times the speed of sound. In nearly 200 flights from 1959 to 1969, the X-15 program demonstrated humans' attempts to fly higher, faster and beyond Earth's atmosphere. In 1969, innovation on several fronts converged with Boeing's first flight of its 747 jet and the Apollo 11 moon landing.
MISSILE TECHNOLOGY, FIFTH-GENERATION FIGHTERS
As the Cold War continued, the U.S. aerospace industry further developed the strategic air power that had dominated the skies in Europe and Japan. The massive B-36 provided early deterrence, giving way during the 1950s to the B-47, B-52 and, later, to the swing-wing B-1 and stealthy B-2. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles began entering service in the late 1950s, and rockets like Atlas, Titan, Minuteman and Peacekeeper played a role in deterrence as well.
Air power served as a platform for electronic and photographic intelligence essential to the Cold War, flying at the edges of the Soviet Union to photograph installations, collect signals and locate radar systems. Aircraft like the U-2 and the SR-71 achieved fame until reconnaissance satellites during the 1960s took over responsibility for these dangerous missions.
It was aerial photos that first proved the Soviets were planning to base nuclear missiles in Cuba. The end of the Cold War has not lessened the influence of the Air Force and aviation in our national security. Recent conflicts show an even more dominant role for the Air Force, including NATO actions in Eastern Europe that were almost wholly air wars. The current global war on terror only further proves that the debate continues on the role of air power in different types of conflicts. As evidenced by the fighter-launched bomb that took out Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, at the time al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, in 2006, the Air Force is clearly vital to these first battles in the long war on terror.
The U.S. Air Force has been on the forefront of our military success around the world and throughout the past century. Some of the most advanced technology in the world is being developed for the Fifth-Generation Fighters - the F-22 and F-35. The most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, the F-22 Raptor is a revolutionary leap in technology that unites advanced capability with reduced maintenance costs and support requirements. The F-22's combination of stealth, advanced avionics, and maneuverability will give pilots a first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability against any potential enemy. F-35 Lightening II represents unprecedented international cooperation on developing an advanced platform, with eight other nations participating from the early stages of the program.
The Air Force is continuing to look forward in its position as a world technology leader, beginning the process of developing the next generation long-range strike aircraft in 2007. The U.S. aerospace industry and Air Force have grown up together, two siblings that have supported and sustained each other through successes and challenges for almost a century. From the sands of Kitty Hawk to the skies of Europe and Asia to more recent challenges over the Middle East, our men and women in uniform know they can count on their compatriots in the factories back home crafting the best equipment in the world to ensure our airmen and women are safe and victorious.
SOURCES: Celebrating a Century of Flight, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2002. NASA Publication SP-2002-09-511-HQ. Bright, Charles D. The Jet Makers: The Aerospace Industry from 1945 to 1972.Lawrence, Kan.: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1978. Milestones of the First Century of Flight, Aerospace Industries Association, 2000. Chasing the Sun. PBS. KCET/Hollywood. July 2001. http://www.pbs.org/kcet/chasingthesun/