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

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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    135 VOTES

    Two A-10s Destroy an Entire Column of Tanks in a SINGLE PASS

    The A-10 Warthog is a very singular aircraft designed for a singular mission: to kill lots and lots of Soviet tanks during the height of the Cold War, when an armored invasion from the east into Europe seemed almost inevitable. By the time the first Gulf War rolled around, the A-10 was considered a relic; not just ugly, but outdated and kind of pointless. 

    Pointless, that is, until the day when a certain Iraqi dictator decided to invade a neighboring country with Cold War era Soviet tanks. It was during the first Iraq war when the A-10 first took the public spotlight. Finally given the opportunity to do the job it was designed for, the A-10 rose to worldwide fame after just devastating over 1,000 Iraqi tanks with its massive Gatling cannon.

    Probably the one occasion best remembered came early in the conflict, when TV cameras caught two A-10s sweeping slowly down like angels of death, destroying eight of Russia's best tanks in a single pass with cannon and Maverick missiles. And this was only a portion of the 23 total tanks these two planes destroyed THAT DAY. 
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    116 VOTES

    A Single F-105 vs. ALL of North Vietnam

    The mission against this key anti-aircraft base was a long shot to begin with. It was the hub of a massive VC defense network, with an exceptionally heavy concentration of anti-aircraft guns, artillery, SAMs and fighter coverage. It was protecting a major industrial complex due to be bombed immediately after the initial strike. That initial strike consisted of three F-105 Wild Weasels, given the all-important task of crippling the air defenses. They were long odds...even longer since two of the aircraft had been shot down, and Major Merlyb Dethlefsen's aircraft had been damaged by a SAM.

    But, knowing that the following bombers would be flying into a suicide if he failed, the Major wheeled around and pressed that attack. A single F-105 against literally every AA gun and SAM within 50 miles made pass after pass against -- WHILE being constantly chased by MiGs.

    But flying just off the deck, the Major made repeated bomb and gun runs, almost single-handedly crippling the base. With ammo exhausted, the Major hit the afterburners and somehow made it home alive, crash-landing with his aircraft shredded and on fire. The bombing mission was a success, leveling the industrial area and incurring minimal losses of its own. 
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    176 VOTES

    Pilot in Fatally Wounded Jet Goes Full Kamikaze on Machine Gun Nest

    Pilot in Fatally Wounded Jet Goes Full Kamikaze on Machine Gun Nest
    Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

    Major Charles Loring was the leader of a four-plane flight of F-80 Shooting Stars; originally known as the Lockheed P-80, possibly most famous for being pretty, and for being the first jet fighter ever manufactured with an ejector seat. Remember that. 

    Loring's flight was tasked with low-altitude close air support, an odd role for jets of the time, and one probably best typified by the A-10 Warthog today. His job was to dive-bomb several machine gun emplacements, which were tearing into United Nations soldiers on the ground. Just to clarify: dive-bombing machine-guns is the aerial equivalent of charging in the open toward a group of guys with AK-47s pointed at your face. That is pretty awesome in and of itself. Loring's aircraft was ripped to shreds by highly accurate and highly concentrated machine gun fire. Still, he pressed the attack, taking out several gun nests before his own plane was too injured to pull out of the dive. 

    So, did Loring use that famous ejector seat of his? Oh, no.  He deliberately turned his aircraft 45 degrees toward a ridge holding the most concentrated group of guns  -- and nailed the afterburner. Loring plowed his 13,000 pound, bomb-laden fighter jet into the enemy gun emplacements at something close to the speed of sound, devastating the enemy's strongest defensive line and saving hundreds (if not thousands) of UN ground troops. 

    Ultimate. Badass. 
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    118 VOTES

    Two Sabres take on 12 MiGs -- and Save Bomber Formation

    Be honest: the only thing anyone remembers about the Korean War is M*A*S*H and jet fighters. It's all right. They don't call it "The Forgotten War" for nothing. But at least we got a pretty good TV series out of it, as well as the first (and some say still the best) examples of jet-on-jet dogfighting in history.

    One story that exemplifies this combat is that of Major Andrew Davis, an F-86 Sabre pilot who found himself clearing the airspace for a bombing raid near the Manchurian border. Normally, such combat flights would consist of four planes; but the flight leader's plane had a malfunction, and he returned to base with his wingman. That left only Davis and his wingman clearing the air for the bombers operating nearby. Little did they know the Koreans had already sent up approximately a dozen MiG-15s to intercept. 

    Outnumbered six to one by jets easily a match for his own, Davis could have been excused for bugging out in his slightly faster plane. But he didn't. Knowing the bombers were doomed without his help, Davis and his wingman dove down right into the middle of the formation and began shooting. Davis took out a single MiG as he blew through. The others quickly turned on him, following him down. His wingman could only do so much, and Davis was under heavy fire.

    But instead of running when he had the chance, Davis turned around and shot down two more MiGs. His Sabre sustained a fatal hit, and Davis ejected just before it slammed into a mountain. His mission was successful, though. By slowing down and disrupting the MiG squadron, he'd given the bombers just enough time to escape and make it home. 
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    123 VOTES

    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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    96 VOTES

    Breaking the Sound Barrier

    Breaking the Sound Barrier
    Photo: Pinterest
    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.