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Strategic Airpower

The History of Bombers

In the history of strategic airpower, the U.S. Air Force and the nation’s aerospace industry are inexorably linked. For generations men and women have answered their nation’s call, serving in the military or working within industry, devoting their skill, ingenuity and passion, and in some cases their lives to the mission.

This timeline of archival photos and newsreel footage helps tell their story, beginning in 1924, when the Douglas World Cruiser became the first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe, through today. Clearly, American men and women in the military and industry have been united in mission throughout history, ready to deliver on the promise of strategic airpower.

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1924

1924 DWC

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1924
DWC
Douglas World Cruiser
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First flight around the world
Around the world in 175 days

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The United States Army Air Service commissioned the Douglas Aircraft Company to design and build its Douglas World Cruiser for the first flight around the world. The Boeing heritage company built only five of the aircraft, of which four attempted the flight, each named after a city in the U.S.—Seattle, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans. Of the original four aircraft, only two made the 27,553-mile journey back to the starting point in Seattle. Seattle’s crew survived crashing into a mountainside in Alaska but lost the aircraft, and the Boston II replaced Boston after mechanical issues downed it over the Atlantic.

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1934
Y1B-17
Y1B-17
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Army Air Corps purchases its first strategic bombers
An American bomber is born

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In 1934, the U.S. Army Air Service announced a multiengine bomber competition. Boeing answered with the company-funded XB-17, which added two engines to its YB-9 design that allowed the Model 299 to surpass the Army’s requirements. Pilot error caused the Model 299 to crash and Boeing to lose the competition, but Army leadership believed in the plane’s abilities and ordered 13 Y1B-17s. The aircraft, a predecessor for the B-17, could fly 256 miles per hour at 30,600 feet with a range of 3,320 miles—well past the competition’s desired 200 miles per hour at 10,000 feet for 10 hours.

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1942
B-25
B-25
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Doolittle Raid
A one-way mission deep into enemy territory

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One month after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Doolittle proposed the U.S. Navy launch bomb-loaded B-25s from an aircraft carrier. Chosen for its size, 16 of the North American Aviation built aircraft loaded onto the USS Hornet and, on April 18, 1942, attacked the Japanese mainland. Of the 81 bombers, 69 survived, and Doolittle won the Medal of Honor, with President Roosevelt saying, “With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Lt. Col. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland.”

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1943
B-17
B-17
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Joint Army Air Corps and RAF bombing missions over Europe
Combined offensive over Europe

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Following the outbreak of World War II, first Britain’s Royal Air Force then the United States Army Air Corps purchased thousands of B-17s and began to use them extensively in the European theater. Over the next two years, the two countries flew hundreds of missions designed to disrupt and destroy Germany’s domestic war effort. During these missions, the B-17 earned a reputation that it could survive heavy damage from enemy fighter pilots and anti-aircraft fire. On Oct. 14, 1943, what would become “Black Thursday,” 291 bombers attacked factories in Schweinfurt, Germany, of which 77 were lost and 122 needed repairs.

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1945
B-29
B-29
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World War II ends
Pacific bombings prove decisive

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Near the end of World War II, Boeing produced the B-29, an advanced aircraft that had a pressurized cabin, electronic fire-control system and remote-controlled machine gun turrets. The Army Air Corps extensively used the four-engine “Superfortress” in the Pacific theater, many launched from a forward base in China and, after they were seized in the summer of 1944, the Mariana Islands. Although it was originally designed and built for high-altitude bombing raids, the aircraft was also used in low-level raids in support of the United States’ island hopping strategy in the Pacific Ocean.

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1947
USAF
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The U.S. Air Force becomes its own service
The Hap Arnold wings

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The United States Air Force became its own service on Sept. 18, 1947, when Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson swore in Stuart Symington as the first secretary of the Air Force. The service adopted the iconic “Hap Arnold Wings” as its logo, which are the foundation for its current logo, and adopted the motto “Aim high… fly-fight-win.” The U.S. Air Force also began pushing the bounds of aircraft design and performance in 1947, as Chuck Yeager became the first man to go faster than the speed of sound.

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1948
B-36
B-36
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General Curtis LeMay assumes command of SAC
Strategic commander for Strategic Air Command

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In 1948, when Gen. Curtis LeMay took control over the Strategic Air Command, it had only a few B-29 groups left over from World War II. LeMay focused SAC on a rapid response to any nuclear threat worldwide, and used the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, which had a range of 10,000 miles and could deliver pay loads across continents without refueling, as the United States’ dominant weapon in the nuclear arms race. When LeMay retired in 1957, SAC had become a modern, efficient, all-jet force.

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1949
B-50
B-50
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First airplane to make a non-stop circumnavigation of the globe
Lucky Lady II circles globe in 94 hours

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Only 25 years after the first worldwide circumnavigation in Douglas World Cruisers, two crews took four to six hour shifts for 94 hours to round the globe in a Boeing B-50 called “Lucky Lady II.” It was the first aircraft to do so without landing. The aircraft evolved from the B-29D, and was one of the last piston-powered bombers during the jet age. The more than 23,000-mile journey required refueling in-flight multiple times. Lucky Lady III, a Boeing B-52, would make the trip in less than half the time eight years later.

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1951
B-47
B-47
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Introduction of first all-jet strategic bomber
Swept into the jet age

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The Boeing B-47 “Stratojet” featured a new swept-wing design to accommodate its six engine, jet-powered performance. The aircraft, designed to complement the Strategic Air Command’s long-range mission, could fly 607 miles per hour at 33,100 feet, and had a combat radius of 2,000 miles with a 20,000 pound bomb load. Initially, the B-47 had engines inside of the fuselage but later they moved underneath the wings, as the engines could pose a fire hazard. The aircraft never saw active combat, but it became an integral part of SAC’s mission to establish the United States as a superior nuclear power.

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1952
B-29
B-29
Operation Pressure
Establishing air superiority over Korea

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Two days after North Korea invaded South Korea, the United Nations authorized the use of military force to stop the attack. The next day, on June 28, 1950, President Truman asked General MacArthur to begin a Boeing B-29 air campaign to cut North Korean supply lines and attack the country’s military positions. For the next two years the bombers eliminated military targets, leading to the attack on the Sui Ho Dam in 1952. Called “Operation Pressure,” 19 specially modified B-29s attacked the dam through heavy resistance that damaged 18 of the aircraft.

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1955
B-52
B-52
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Introduction of the longest-serving bomber in history
More than 50 years of service and still going

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Boeing used the company‘s bomber heritage to build the eight-engine, all-jet B-52. It was to become the longest-serving bomber ever when it entered into service in 1955. Now with more than 50 years of service, the B-52 has a 70,000 pound payload capacity, can climb to 50,000 feet and fly 650 miles per hour. Boeing’s last production run was the “H” line, which it built in 1963. The company has since maintained and sustained the aircraft to support the United States’ missions throughout the successive half century.

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1960
B-58
B-58
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Introduction of the first supersonic bomber
A bomber with a sonic boom

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The United States Air Force introduced the first supersonic bomber into service March 15, 1960. The Convair, a Lockheed Martin heritage company, B-58 “Hustler” had a delta wing and could fly at Mach 2 with an operational ceiling of 63,000 feet. Although it had a shorter range and payload capacity than the B-52, the four turbojet engines allowed the aircraft to climb at 17,400 feet per minute fully loaded. And, overall, it provided the Strategic Air Command with a rapid, nuclear-strike option.

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1965
B-52
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Operation Rolling Thunder
Operation Rolling Thunder

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President Lyndon Johnson authorized a sustained bombing program on North Vietnam March 2, 1965. Up to that point most of the bombing from the United States’ Air Force had been retaliatory, small in scale and limited in scope. Called “Operation Rolling Thunder,” the mission took B-52s from their nuclear deterrent duties with the Strategic Air Command and fitted them with conventional weapons. The administration began the three-year bombing campaign with a goal to dissuade North Vietnam from fighting, however, after its completion in 1968, the U.S.’ involvement in the Vietnam War had grown significantly.

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1965
B-70
B-70
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First bomber to achieve Mach 3
Flying higher, faster

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North American Aviation, a Boeing heritage company, won a contract to build two prototype bombers capable of flying higher and faster than ever before, in order to avoid intercept vehicles over the Soviet Union. North American created the six-engine XB-70. The aircraft could fly Mach 3 (2,000 miles per hour) at more than 77,000 feet. This new capability would have allowed the B-70 to outrun any fighter jet, and fly above any surface-to-air missiles on its nuclear mission. Shortly after testing began, the United States Air Force introduced its first Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and the program was disbanded.

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1972
B-52
B-52
Operation Linebacker II
An all-out B-52 blitz

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President Richard M. Nixon began Operation Linebacker II in December, 1972, with the goal to win a peace agreements with the North Vietnamese by the New Year. Unlike previous bombing efforts, the administration used hundreds of B-52 bombers loaded with conventional weapons. The mission began Dec. 18, 1972, and ended 11 days later on Dec. 29. In total, 741 B-52s dropped more than 15,000 tons of ordnance on 32 military and industrial targets. Only 12 aircraft couldn’t complete their missions.

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1986
F-111
F-111
Operation El Dorado Canyon
Rapid, stealth strike

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In 1986, the United States claimed it had “exact, precise, and irrefutable” evidence that Libya had been involved in a series of attacks, including an explosion that killed four on a TWA flight over Greece and a bombing that wounded 200 in West Berlin. The United States and Britain responded with “Operation El Dorado Canyon,” in which several EF-111s and F-111s, supported by F/A-18s, bombed suspected terrorist operations. During most of the operations the F-111, an early stealth aircraft, went undetected and had left before Libyan defenses began firing. One F-111 was lost during the operation, however.

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1989
F-117
F-117
Operation Just Cause
F-117 flies for Just Cause

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On Dec. 15, 1989, Panama declared that a state of war existed between it and the United States. Americans in Panama faced increasing violence, culminating with an attack on four U.S. military officers in Panama City. One officer was fatally wounded. President George H.W. Bush responded with “Operation Just Cause,” which called on the F-117, a twin-engine, stealth aircraft developed, built and tested in secrecy to work in conjunction with ground forces. Within two weeks the Navy SEALs captured Panama’s president, Manuel Noriega.

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1991
B-1
B-1
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Operation Desert Storm
The “Bone” in the storm

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Iraq, led by its president, Saddam Hussein, invaded its neighboring country Kuwait in August of 1990. Hussein had accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi oil through horizontal drilling. The international community responded quickly, and the United States led a coalition of 34 countries to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. The military campaign lasted a little over a month, during which time the B-1B Lancer, nicknamed the “Bone,” was used extensively. The aircraft aided the coalition forces in routing what was the fourth largest army at the time.

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2001
B-2
B-2
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Operation Enduring Freedom
The Spirit over Afghanistan

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The United States began its aerial bombardment of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after the attacks on Sept. 11. The B-2 Spirit, an advanced stealth bomber, dropped ordnance on the country in coordination with the B-52 and the B-1B. By mid-November, NATO forces had taken most of northern Afghanistan. The mission’s main objectives: to capture al-Qaeda leaders, destroy terrorist training grounds and end terrorist activities in the country. Three years later, in October of 2004, the country held its first direct elections for president.

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2003
B-52
B-52
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Operation Iraqi Freedom
B-52 answers the call

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The United States began invasion of Iraq in March, 2003. The U.S. Air Force used the B-52, in its 48th year of service, to provide support and drop ordnance while ground forces marched across the country. The initial invasion lasted until April 30, only 40 days after it began.

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2011
B-1
B-1
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Operation Odyssey Dawn
Libya faces a new dawn

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The revolutions across the Arab world reached Libya in February of 2011, when civil war broke out across the country and against the longtime ruler there, Muammar Gaddafi. The following month, the member countries of the United Nations Security Council, including France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia and China, agreed to establish a no-fly zone over Libya. The United States brought in the B-1B Lancer to support the NATO air campaign. A new government formed in September, 2011.

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