High-tech aircraft have been featured in plenty of news stories in recent years, with reports about unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones), the B-2 stealth bomber and the top-secret stealth helicopter used in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Most aircraft in the U.S. military’s inventory are much less glamorous. And they’re much older, too. In the U.S. Air Force fleet, the average plane is 26 years old, and some are far older than that. The aircraft models in this story were first introduced at least a half-century ago, at the height of the Cold War. Incredibly, because of Pentagon budget cuts and other factors, some of these aging aircraft may continue to play a vital role in U.S military operations into the 2040s.
5. Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight (Introduced in 1964)
Why it’s so Effective: The CH-46 helicopter has been a workhorse, transporting everything from troops and rations to cannons slung from its belly. Nicknamed the “Phrog” because of its squat stance and bubble cockpit, the CH-46’s twin-rotor design makes it both powerful and fast; both characteristics have kept it relevant in the 21st century. The mountains of Afghanistan present a challenge for smaller helicopters such as the Army’s single-rotor Blackhawk. But the larger CH-46 is able to transport much heavier loads in the thin mountain air.
When it Might be Replaced: The Navy phased out its CH-46 fleet in the early 2000s, but the aging bird remains popular with Marines, who like to joke, “Never trust a helicopter under 30.” Still, bowing to reality, in 2006 the Marines began phasing out the oldest helicopters in its CH-46 fleet with the MV-22B Osprey. This is a tilt-rotor aircraft that operates as a hybrid helicopter/airplane. Shrinking budgets mean this transition will take several years.
4. Lockheed U-2 (1957)
Why it’s so Effective: Before CIA satellites could read your license plates and UAVs were hunting terrorists from 10,000 feet, there was the U-2. This was the state-of-the-art spy plane in 1957. It could reach altitudes exceeding 70,000 feet so the pilot had to wear a spacesuit for flights that could last 12 hours. It could fly undetected over almost any target in the world and was thought to fly too high to be targeted by missiles. (This was proven wrong in 1960 when Russia shot down a U-2 flown by Gary Powers.)
When it Might be Replaced: Many people are astonished to learn the U.S. Air Force still uses this plane. Even military aviation observers assumed satellites and UAVs would have already retired the legendary “Dragon Lady.” Today, updated with advanced avionics and communications equipment, the plane still has a couple of advantages over satellites and drones. Having a pilot gives the U-2 flexibility over fixed satellites, and the U-2 is also more evasive than drones, which are much more susceptible to anti-aircraft fire. Yet it is not as sleek as its legendary reputation suggests; the plane is difficult to fly at low altitude, and a chase vehicle is necessary when it lands, to help communicate altitude and alignment information. The U.S. still has an estimated 30 U-2s in service, and the plane could be around for another decade, possibly longer.
3. Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker (1956)
Why it’s so Effective: Another Cold War warrior, the Stratotanker can fly at 530 mph with a range of 1,500 miles and still carry up to 200,000 pounds of jet fuel. The ability to so effectively refuel planes in the air made the U.S. Air Force a truly international force capable of projecting power around the globe.
When it Might be Replaced: The last KC-135 was delivered in 1965, but the planes have been upgraded and reconditioned several times since with modern avionics. The Pentagon has been trying to find the next-generation refueling tanker for a decade, and in 2011 awarded Boeing a $3.5 billion contract for 18 tankers based on the 767 design. But the KC-135 isn’t going away anytime soon; based on their estimated airframe lifespan, most of the KC-135 fleet could remain viable until 2040 — at which point they’d be 75 years or older.
2. Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules (1956)
Why it’s so Effective: Unlike the other aircraft in this story, the C-130 Hercules is still in production. Although its primary use is as a troop and cargo transport aircraft, this versatile airframe has been modified for literally hundreds of uses, from NASA and meteorological research to search and rescue operations. And don’t forget the C-130 provided the frame for two legendary U.S. gunships, the AC-130U “Spooky” and the AC-130H “Spectre.” As a cargo aircraft, the C-130 can take off and land on rough terrain, and carries a capacity of 92 troops (or 64 paratroopers).
When it Might be Replaced: Although earlier models of the C-130 have been retired, the basic design from almost 60 years ago remains largely unchanged. The Air Force has been talking for many years about a replacement that could carry roughly twice the payload. But a definitive timetable on that aircraft isn’t set, and military budgets are getting tighter, so the C-130 should remain a key part of USAF plans into the 2030s.
1. Boeing B-52 Stratofortress (1952)
Why it’s so Effective: The ultimate symbol of the Cold War era U.S. military, the B-52 long-range bomber was designed to carry large conventional and nuclear payloads from the U.S. at altitudes as high as 50,000 feet to attack targets in the Soviet Union. The last plane was delivered in 1962. Its large bomb capacity and range has allowed it to maintain a prominent place in the Air Force arsenal, delivering GPS-guided bombs and cruise missiles on missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When it Might be Replaced: The Air Force says the B-52 can remain in service until 2045, close to its 100th birthday. However, developments in anti-aircraft capabilities in the coming years will continue to decrease the effectiveness of these aircraft.
One More: Bell UH-1 “Huey” (1960)
First flown in combat in Vietnam in 1963, the Huey immediately gained a reputation for toughness with its ability to hack down little trees in landing zones with its heavy rotor blades. A versatile troop transport, cargo carrier, medi vac and gunship, the UH-1 became almost a symbol of America in Vietnam. The unforgettable helicopter assault scenes in the film Apocalypse Now cemented its iconic status in popular culture. The UH-1 has been largely replaced by the UH-60 for active duty missions, but it is still employed in a variety of support roles such as training and VIP transportation.