It wasn’t an easy birth. The Air Force left the Army and become an independent service of the Defense Department on September 18, 1947, when the National Security Act of 1947, signed by President Harry S. Truman that July, went into effect. The act created the new Department of Defense from the old War and Navy Departments and created the Air Force (as well as the Central Intelligence Agency). The changes came after months of often contentious wrangling within the military, with both the Army and the Navy (which included the Marines) determined to retain their own air arms. Stuart Symington became the Air Force’s first secretary and Carl Spaatz assumed the role of the service’s first chief of staff.

The 75 years since then have been a time of continuous change. The newly born Air Force was still flying mostly propeller-driven aircraft in 1947 and continued to do so during the Korean conflict, even as jets like the North American F-86 Sabre began taking the vanguard. In fact, the technological advances in the Air Force over the past 75 years have been breathtaking—and include the high-flying Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird that became a vitally important eye in the sky, the stealth aircraft (Lockheed F-117 and Northrup Grumman B-2) developed to evade radar, and unmanned drones that receive their commands from thousands of miles away.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the hard work of the men and women in Air Force uniforms who remain dedicated to preserving and protecting the United States, whether they are flying Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers for refueling operations, making mission-sustaining supply flights in lumbering Lockheed C-5 Galaxies, keeping their fellow airmen alive and healthy as medics or performing the myriad (and often unsung) jobs necessary to keep the Air Force functioning. As the service’s motto says, they intend to “Aim high: fly-fight- win,” something the Air Force has been doing for three-quarters of a century now.

Click on the photos on the gallery below to see the full images.

Stuart Symington (left) gets sworn in as the first secretary of the Air Force on September 18, 1947, the day that marked the service’s debut as an independent branch of the United States military. (U.S. Air Force)

Bombers representing the old U.S. Army Air Forces and the new USAF gather at Carlswell Air Force Base in Texas after receipt of the first Convair B-36 Peacemaker in 1948. Clockwise from top left are a Douglas B-18 Bolo, the B-36, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and a Boeing B-29 Superfortress of the Strategic Air Command’s 7th Bombardment Wing. The gigantic B-36 provided a cornerstone of SAC’s role for nuclear deterrence. (U.S. Air Force)

One of the Air Force’s first tasks was to help keep Berlin supplied during the Berlin Airlift. Here Douglas C-47s unload cargo at the city’s Tempelhof Airdrome in 1948 during “Operation Vittles.” By the time the airlift ended in September 1949, the Western powers had delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies to beleaguered Berlin. (National Archives)

Lieutenant (and future general) Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. stands beside a North American P-51D Mustang of the 18th Fighter Wing in Korea, where he flew 101 missions. The Air Force was the first branch of the U.S. military to fully integrate. (National Archives)

A Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star drops napalm on Suan, North Korea, on May 8, 1952. (U.S. Air Force)

During a melee over Hanoi, a North Vietnamese MiG-17F pursues a Republic F-105F Thunderchief, as photographed through the gunsights of a second F-105F. (U.S. Air Force)

Colonel Robin Olds, commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Vietnam, returns from his final combat sortie. (U.S. Air Force)

A McDonnell F-4 Phantom II and its 500-pound bomb load undergo a “last chance” check before embarking on another mission to North Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force)

During Desert Storm in January 1991, a General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon of the South Carolina Air National Guard, a McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle from Bitburgh Air Base, Germany, two F-15Es from the 4th Fighter Wing based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, and an F-16A of the New York Air National Guard conduct a sortie against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army.(SSgt. Fernando Serna/ U.S. Air Force) (U.S. Air Force)

A Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit prepares to refuel from a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker in 2006. The stealth bomber flew its first combat mission in 1993. This aircraft is assigned to the 393rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron and is currently deployed to Andersen AFB, Guam, as part of Pacific Command’s continuous bomber presence in the Asia-Pacific region. (SSgt Bennie J. Davis III/U.S. Air Force)

1st Lt. Jeannie Flynn (Leavitt), the first female pilot to qualify in the F-15E, climbs aboard her airplane. She was following in the footsteps of women like 1st Lt. Christine E. Schott, the first to complete Air Force flight training; Captain Sandra M. Scott, the first to command a KC-135; and 2nd Lt. Mary L. Wittick, the first to graduate from the Air Force’s helicopter program. (U.S. Air Force)

The Air Force has always explored cutting- edge technology. This 1953 photo of research aircraft at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ High-Speed Flight Research Station (now known as the Dryden Flight Research Center) shows the Douglas X-3 Stiletto (center) and (clockwise from bottom left) the Bell X-1A, the third Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak, Convair XF-92A, Bell X-5, Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket and Northrop X-4 Bantam. (U.S. Air Force)

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is an unmanned aerial vehicle—popularly known as a drone—and it represents the new face of the war in the air. (SSgt. Larry E. Reid Jr./U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron "Thunderbirds", perform the Trail-to-Diamond roll during the Constanta Air Show, Constanta, Romania, June 8, 2011. The Thunderbirds will perform in nine countries during their six-week European tour, fostering international goodwill and representing America's Airmen around the globe. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released) (SSgt. Larry E. Reid Jr./U.S. Air Force)

In 2021, an F-16 approaches a KC-135 of the 350th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron to receive fuel during a mission over Southwest Asia. (SSgt. Trevor T. McBride/U.S. Air Force)

Lightning provides a dramatic backdrop for a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base. The Stratofortresses first entered Air Force Service in 1955. This airplane, called Ghost Rider, was retrieved from the boneyard in the Arizona desert in 2015 and completely updated. It returned to the air on September 27, 2016. The Air Force expects to keep flying the venerable B-52s until 2050—the year the service will celebrate its 103rd birthday. (SrA J.T. Armstrong/U.S. Air Force)

this article first appeared in AVIATION HISTORY magazine

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