The 1909 Wright Military Flyer was the world’s first military airplane. Invented by the famed Wright brothers, the U.S. Army Signal Corps officially accepted, purchased and put the plane into service.
Military aircraft have come a long way since that initial two-seater plane. Learn about some of the largest, fastest and most impressive planes used by the United States military.
The first B-52 was first flown by the Air Force in 1954. This aircraft can drop or launch the widest array of weapons, including gravity bombs, cluster bombs, precision-guided missiles and more. The plane is 159 feet, 4 inches long; 40 feet, 8 inches high; has a wingspan of 185 feet; and weighs 185,000 pounds — though it can take off weighing up to 488,000 pounds loaded.
Bell X-2 Starbuster
Boeing B-29 Superfortress
The B-29 is called a Superfortress for a reason. When it was built in the 1940s, it was the world’s heaviest production plane. The B-29 had two crew areas, bomb bays, a tail gunner and guns that could be fired by remote control.
Boeing C-17 Globemaster III
The first C-17 was first used by the U.S. Air Force in 1993. The military transport aircraft, which was designed for long hauls and big payloads, can carry up to 102 troops or 18 standard 463-L pallets. The last C-17 was produced in 2015.
Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker
The KC-135 was designed specifically for aerial refueling. The jet-fuel tanker first rolled out in 1956. For more than half of a century, this aircraft has provided aerial refueling support to the Air Force as well as the Navy, Marine Corps and allied nations’ aircraft.
With a name like Hercules, you know this aircraft could do some heavy lifting. Originally designed in 1951, the Lockheed C-130 is still in production — the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft. At lengths of more than 112 feet and with a maximum takeoff weight of 164,000 pounds, this massive plane is capable of carrying troops or airdropping equipment into battle zones, and it’s designed to take off and land on rough dirt runways.
Convair B-36 Peacemaker
Before the Air Force began in 1947, the U.S. Army Air Corps ordered this intercontinental bomber. They required a heavy, long-range nuclear bomber with a top speed of 450 mph, a service ceiling of 45,000 feet, the ability to haul a 10,000-pound bomb load and to fly 12,000 miles non-stop. At its maiden flight in 1946, the Convair B-36 was the biggest American warplane. The last B-36 flew in 1959.
The “Delta Dart” started life as an improved version of the F-102 Delta Dagger all-weather interceptor. The first aircraft flew on Dec. 26, 1956. The supersonic aircraft was used by the United States Air Force from the 1960s through 1988 and had a top speed of 1,525 mph.
Called “The Blackbird,” the YF-12 was an experimental fighter-interceptor version of the A-12. Lockheed began working on the aircraft secretly in the late 1950s. Although it never flew as an operational military craft, two YF-12s were flown between 1969 and 1979 in a research program with NASA and the Air Force. The aircraft was able to sustain a cruise speed of over Mach 3 and broke speed and altitude records, helping developers go on to create faster, stealthier military planes.
The XC-99 was a transport version of the Convair B-36 bomber. It was flown by the USAF between 1947 and 1957. The double-decked plane had a wingspan of 230 feet, a length of 185 feet, a gross weight of 320,000 pounds and the ability to carry 400 troops, 335 patients or 100,000 pounds of cargo. With a light load, it had a range of about 8,000 miles.
Douglas A3D Skywarrior
Designed in 1947, the A3D Skywarrior was the U.S. Navy’s first twin-jet nuclear bomber. With a radar-controlled tail turret, a crew of three and a weight of 70,000 pounds, the A3D entered service in 1956 as the largest and heaviest aircraft ever to operate from an aircraft carrier. The Air Force created a revised design, the B-66 Destroyer.
The Army Air Corps wanted the most technologically advanced long-range bomber possible. They chose aircraft manufacturer Douglas to design and develop the XB-19. The giant, super-secret bomber faced budget constraints and other hurdles. It was finally finished in 1941 and was the largest aircraft America had ever built at the time. Although it was tested for some time, it was never put into service and was eventually scrapped after many years and millions of dollars were invested.
F-100 Super Sabre
This sleek, swept-back-wing fighter was initially built in 1953. The F-100 was the first supersonic jet of the U.S. Air Force. It entered into service in 1956 and was widely used during the Vietnam War. The aircraft was retired and transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1978.
McDonnell’s F-101 Voodoo was conceived as a fighter escort for SAC nuclear bombers. Several versions were created, including an attack fighter, an interceptor and a reconnaissance aircraft, which were used in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command, Air Defense Command and Tactical Air Command. The F-101 set several new speed records, such as flying from Los Angeles to New York and back in 6 hours, 46 minutes.
The F-104 became known as the “missile with a man in it” due to its appearance and performance capabilities. The single-engine supersonic interceptor aircraft became widely used as an attack aircraft. The F-104 set a world speed record of more than 1,404 mph and a world altitude record of more than 103,000 feet.
This aircraft was designed as an answer to the needs of the United States Air Force and U.S. Navy for a tactical fighter bomber. It was capable of reaching supersonic speeds at 200 feet above the ground and twice the speed of sound above 35,000 feet. Although the first production models were delivered to the USAF in 1967, the Navy canceled the program.
For several decades, the Eagle has been used by the U.S. Air Force as the primary fighter jet and intercepter platform. Conceived in 1967, the jets began flying in 1972. The Streak Eagle broke time-to-climb world records, reaching 98,425 feet just over 3 minutes.
F-16 Fighting Falcon
The first F-16 was delivered to the USAF in 1979. The F-16 was jointly produced in an agreement between the United States, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. It can reach Mach 2 speeds (1,500 mph) at altitude and has a ceiling above 50,000 feet.
F-4 Phantom II
The F-4 entered into service in 1961. The Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds flew the Phantom II from 1969 to 1973. It broke 16 speed, altitude and time-to-climb records with speeds of more than 1,600 mph. The Phantom was flown in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm.
The first production F-22 was unveiled in 1997, intended as a replacement for the F-15. The Raptor entered service in 2005. The stealthy, highly-maneuverable craft could reach “Mach 2 class” top speeds and push well above the 50,000-foot ceiling. The Air Force received the last F-22 in 2012.
The KC-10 entered service with the United States Air Force in 1981. The Air Mobility Command advanced tanker and cargo aircraft was designed to increase the military’s global mobility. This enormous aircraft can refuel fighters while simultaneously carrying personnel and equipment on overseas deployments.
Lockheed C-5 Galaxy
The C-5 Galaxy made its first flight in 1968. One of the largest airplanes in the world, the Galaxy is 247 feet long and has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 747-400. The cockpit is about three-and-a-half stories high. It can carry twice as much cargo as any other aircraft.
Martin JRM Mars
Quite literally a flying boat, the Martin JRM Mars was conceived in 1941 as a patrol bomber. Five of the aircraft entered into service with the U.S. Navy in 1944. Although the Mars set a record by carrying 269 people in 1949, the plane soon proved impractical. A company called Coulson Flying Tankers purchased the last two remaining water bombers in 2007.
North American XB-70 Valkyrie
The XB-70 was a 1950s concept for a bomber that could fly at Mach-3 speeds. The high-altitude nuclear strike craft prototype was tested by the U.S. Air Force, making its first flight from in 1964. The second Valkyrie prototype made a handful flights above Mach 3 but was destroyed in a mid-air collision. The program came to a halt in 1969.
North American X-15
Part of a research program that NASA conducted with the Air Force, Navy and North American Aviation, Inc., the X-15 was a hypersonic aircraft. It was flown for more than a decade, setting unofficial speed and altitude records. Due to high fuel consumption costs, the X-15 had to be launched from a B-52 at 45,000 feet. After a brief rocket-engine burst of speed, pilots would bring the unpowered plan in for a glide landing. It reached Mach 6.72, or 4,520 mph, in 1967. The program ended in 1968 following the death of X-15 Air Force pilot Major Michael Adams, who was killed when the aircraft broke apart shortly after reentry.