Dominance in modern war means air power, and the most powerful force in the skies is the United States Air Force. While American airmen and aircraft helped win World War II, the U.S. Air Force did not become a distinct branch of the military until 1947. The aviators of that day would scarcely recognize the modern Air Force, which goes far beyond military operations to encompass everything from search and rescue to space launches and cyberspace defense. Of the thousands of great images of the USAF available online, here are 10 standouts.
10. Good Dog!
USAF Senior Airman Steve Hanks lifts Ada the dog up during a dog-handling demonstration at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Military working dogs perform an array of vital roles, from base security to bomb detection and more. Belgian Malamutes are the preferred breed for military working dogs, and trainers look for pups with focus and drive.
9. Fill It Up
Aerial refueling gives the USAF a global reach. Here, Staff Sgt. Amanda Walls of the Tennessee Air National Guard completes her final check ride as a boom operator aboard a KC-135 Stratotanker, refueling a C-17 Globemaster III. Student and instructor work situated in the prone position, and are reflected back in the mirror above.
8. Light Up the Night
A C-130 dispenses flares during a night training mission. Countermeasures, known as flares, act as a decoy for heat-seeking missiles. Delivering personnel and cargo into a combat zone is a hazardous job. The USAF’s C-130 Hercules has been getting the job done since the Vietnam era. Able to land on remote and primitive airstrips, C-130s have been known to make it home on only two engines.
7. Some Maintenance Required
Aerial gunner Staff Sgt. Mark Riley maintains a 105 mm gun during a training mission aboard an AC-130U gunship. The so-called “Spooky” gunship provides heavy firepower capability for U.S. Special Forces far into enemy territory. Equipped with 25 mm, 40 mm guns and the 105 mm howitzer — the largest gun ever mounted on an aircraft — an AC-130 can loiter over a target area for an hour or more.
Pararescuemen from the 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron jump from a HC-130 aircraft over Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. One of the lesser-known Special Forces units, USAF special operations pararescuemen known as “PJs” carry out missions to rescue downed pilots and more. PJs have also participated in multi-service Delta Force operations.
5. Fuel Time
A B-2 Spirit bomber from the 509th Bomb Wing based in Whiteman, Mo., takes on fuel turning a training flight high above the North Atlantic. The B-2 can carry nuclear or conventional weapons and remain airborne for more than 30 hours, capable of striking targets worldwide. Two crew members work in shifts to carry out such a long-duration mission, conducting bombing runs and often returning home from combat zones to their families in suburbia and base housing the next day. USAF drone pilots experience a similarly curious psychological dichotomy of modern warfare as well.
4. Eyes on the Ground
Capt. Armands Rutkis, a forward air controller, marks a drop zone for a cargo delivery during a training mission. Forward air controllers (often known as FACs, TACPs or ROMADs, which stands for Radio Operator Maintainer And Driver) have one of the most hazardous, although little known, combat jobs performed by the USAF. In addition to guiding aerial deliveries, FACs are often embedded with U.S. Army units to assist with calling in airstrikes, often involving laser-guided precision munitions.
3. Over the Rainbow
A USAF pararescuemen team carries out a recovery during a disaster preparedness exercise in Perry, Ga. (kudos to photographer Staff Sgt. Kelly Goonan for framing the shot with a nice rainbow.) These rescue capabilities are vital during times of national disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy. The helicopter and combat rescue team pictured are out of Patrick AFB in Florida.
2. Fly Like an Eagle
Aircraft dispensing flares always make for dramatic images. Here, an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter dispenses flares over the mountains of Afghanistan. Assigned to the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron out of Bagram Airfield near Kabul, the unit is part of the ongoing Global War on Terror. Introduced in 1988, the F-15E is based on the design of the F-15 air superiority fighter. The F-15E can carry a massive amount of ordinance, including the very latest in precision laser and satellite GPS-guided munitions.
1. Paying Respects
Sometimes, the silence of a photo says it all. Tactical air controller Master Sgt. Robert Lilly honors fallen servicemen during a Memorial Day flag-planting ceremony at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City, Nevada. The U.S. Air Force brings back the remains of fallen service personnel worldwide through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, a somber duty that’s necessary all too often. U.S. Air Force servicemen and women continue to put their lives on the line worldwide in the name of freedom, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice.
One More: On the Attack
Two A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft from the 74th Fighter Squadron fly in formation during a training exercise out of Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. The Department of Defense has talked about phasing out the A-10 since the Cold War era, but the Global War on Terror has given the aircraft a new tactical relevancy. Built around a tank-busting 30 mm cannon capable of firing 3,900 uranium-depleted rounds a minute, the A-10, like the AC-130, can loiter over a target and provide continuous support to troops in contact with the enemy, ideal for fighting in mountainous regions such as Afghanistan. The company that built the A-10, Fairchild Republic, no longer exists — that’s how old the A-10 is — and current plans call for the aircraft to remain in service until at least the mid-2020s.
(Editor’s note: David Dickinson retired from the United States Air Force in 2007 at the rank of E-7 Master Sergeant. He was an Aircraft Armament Systems Specialist for more than 20 years, serving in the 1st Gulf War, South Korea, Somalia, and the War on Terror. On this Veterans Day, we thank him and all other U.S. military veterans for their service to the country.)