True Stories
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The Most Epic Things the United States Air Force Has Ever Done

Updated November 5, 2019 1.3k votes 346 voters 13.6k views12 items

Of all of America's military branches, the Air Force is the youngest. As prominent a role as air power has come to taker in the military, it's easy to forget that aviation as a thing has barely existed for a hundred years. But as you'll see further into this list, it didn't take long for man to take to the air in huge numbers with lots of guns and bad intentions. 

A century after biplanes and pistols, we've got flying deathbots and laser-guided boomsticks that can take an enemy out well before they're in sight. Some say this era heralds the beginning of the end of military aviation as we know it. And that might be true. But in between, the Air Force sure has given us its fair share of epic true stories. They could involve massive air battles with thousands of combatants, or one fearless badass going full kamikaze to take out a machine gun nest. Some changed history by dropping single bombs or by killing single men; others did it by dropping millions of bombs and leveling entire countries.  

But no matter what your standard of "epic" may be, the Air Force has provided a true story to meet it. Prepare to witness the awesome might of American air power -- and the century it helped to shape. Vote up your favorite true story about the Air Force.
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  • 5

    Blackbird Evades Six MiGs While Trolling Russia

    Most of the Blackbird's missions are still confidential, but a few notable examples have been allowed to reach the public. For many years, the Lockheed SR-71 streaked over the skies of Russia with near impunity, skipping over the top of our atmosphere like a Mach 3 bullet. However, not even the mighty Blackbird was invulnerable to enemy fire. It could still hypothetically be shot down by any number of high-altitude interceptors like the MiG 31 Foxbat, which wasn't much slower than the Blackbird at Mach 3.2. The only thing the Blackbird really had going for it was stealth, altitude, range, and the fact that it could cross over Russian airspace before they had the chance to scramble interceptors.

    And that's exactly what happened on one mission some 30 years ago. Ducking and dodging all over Russia, one SR-71 evaded no less than six high-altitude Soviet interceptors. By the time the interceptors were within range, the SR-71 had already sped past. Several did actually fire on the Blackbird, but it was like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet fired from another bullet. While this encounter did make the CIA (not technically Air Force) a little more leery about overflights, it did nothing to tarnish the Blackbird's invulnerable reputation. 
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  • 6

    Shooting Down Admiral Yamomoto

    When it's called "Operation Vengeance," you know it has to be good. This was the code name given to the attack that ended the life of Isoroku Yamamoto, the brilliant Japanese admiral who had planned and executed Pearl Harbor. Of all of the weapons Japan wielded during these years, there's no question Yamamoto's mind was the greatest of them. 

    This operation began in secret, with code breakers who figured out how to quickly read Japan's most secret messages. This paid dividends when military planners got wind of an "inspection" tour Yamamoto had planned in 1943. He'd be visiting several Japanese islands in one of two heavily armed G4M1 "Betty" bombers, escorted by six Zero fighters. The Navy would have been a logical choice for this mission, except they didn't have aircraft with the range, speed, and firepower to shoot Yamamoto down.

    The Air Force did. They outfitted 16 stripped-down P-38 Lightnings with drop tanks, and used fuel mixture and cruise settings developed by Charles Lindbergh to almost double the Lightning's range. In the end, the Lightnings caught up with Yamamoto, destroying both bombers and sending Japan's last great hope down in flames. 

    Interesting epilogue: It wasn't revealed until after the war that there even WAS an "Operation Vengeance," and that it had specifically targeted Yamamoto. In order to keep the code breakers' successes secret, the Brass had declared his death a fortuitous accident. The Admiral's death was simply the result of a chance meeting between Yamamoto and a flight of P-38s on combat air patrol -- not a devastating attack months in the planning.  
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  • 7

    The Bomb

    If you don't already know this story, you've been living under a very large rock, indeed. A single B-29 super-fortress penetrated Japanese airspace on August 6th, 1945. The Japanese paid it little mind; the Air Force had begun randomly flying single aircraft over Japan months before. Not to drop bombs or anything; just to get Japanese radar operators used to seeing random American planes flying over.

    It didn't take long for Japan to conclude that these single-plane overflights were "harmless" recon or transport flights. So they stopped shooting at anything smaller than obvious bomber groups. This decision proved fatal, as early one morning the Land of the Rising Sun found a terrifying new light dawning on the horizon: the Atomic Age. First Hiroshima and then Nagasaki fell, a quarter million deaths total, before Japan finally realized "fighting to the last man" would entail exactly that.

    Today, the bombings' effectiveness and necessity are still debated. But given Japan's martial rule, fear of American occupation, fierce fighting and willingness to sacrifice soldiers and civilians alike on previous occasions... it's probably fair to say the Bomb did slightly more good than harm. It remains an open question. But what's not open to debate is how definitely epic this mission truly was. 
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  • 8

    Breaking the Sound Barrier

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    It doesn't seem like much of a big deal today, but there was a time when the sound barrier was seen as exactly that: a barrier. Some likened it to the speed of light, a kind of universal speed limit past which no airplane could survive flying. True, the sound barrier had been approached or broken before, most notably (and fatally) by P-38 Lightnings in a dive. Early on, the radical P-38 got a reputation as a widowmaker, owing to its habit of locking up and going out of control in a power dive. It was eventually realized that this was due to the "compressibility" of air over the very fast, very heavy airplane's control surfaces as it neared the speed of sound. The result was always a very large hole int he ground, and a very dead pilot.
     
    So, it was no small thing when Chuck Yeager strapped on the rocket-powered Bell X-1, and punched through the sound barrier in 1946. His Bell X-1 hammered right past the speed of sound, topping out at about 1,000 miles an hour before its rocket engines ran out of fuel. A mere two years later, Bell introduced the X-1A; which, apart from a greater fuel capacity, was identical to Yeager's plane. But that was all test pilot Jean "Skip" Ziegler needed, this time hitting 2.44 times the speed of sound (1,620 mph) in level flight. Not too bad for a time before color TV and fully automatic transmissions. 
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