Air Force Technology Timeline

Air Force 75th Anniversary

October 1947

U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager becomes the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound, test-flying the experimental X-1 rocket plane.

October 1954

The Bell X-1B rocket-powered experimental airplane makes its first powered flight. A few months later, the U.S. Air Force transferred the X-1B to the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) — predecessor to NASA — which conducted the heating and control tests.

October 16, 1963

At Cape Canaveral, FL, the Air Force inaugurates a space-based nuclear-detection system by launching twin satellites to assume circular 7,000-milehigh orbits on opposite sides of Earth. The satellites could detect nuclear explosions anywhere on Earth.

September 20, 1966

Lt. Col. Donald M. Sorlie becomes the first Air Force pilot to fly the NASA lifting body from the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base. Airlaunched from a B–52 at an altitude of 45,000 feet, the craft reached a speed of nearly 400 miles per hour during the 3.5-minute flight. It tested the concept that a space capsule could fly back from outer space rather than falling by parachute into the sea for ship recovery

March 15, 1967

The Sikorsky HH–53B, the largest and fastest Air Force helicopter, makes its first flight.

October 16, 1967

The first operational F–111A supersonic tactical fighter lands at Nellis Air Force Base, NV. The variable swept-wing jet used its terrain-following radar-guidance controls for the flight from Fort Worth, TX.

February 9, 1969

The free world’s first tactical communications satellite, the 1,600-pound TACSAT 1, blasts into geostationary orbit from the Air Force Eastern Test Range, FL. TACSAT was designed to relay communications among small land-mobile, airborne, or shipborne tactical stations.

July 29, 1971

The Air Force completes flight tests of the experimental X–24A lifting body. Data from these tests contributed to the development of NASA’s space shuttle.

January 9, 1975

The first operational F–15 Eagle, a new air-superiority fighter aircraft, arrives at Langley Air Force Base, VA. The F–15 is the first fighter to have a thrust greater than its weight, allowing it to accelerate while going straight up.

March 23, 1977

Tactical Air Command’s first E–3A Sentry aircraft arrives at Tinker Air Force Base, OK. The Sentry, the Air Force’s first airborne warning and control system aircraft, carried a large rotating radar disk above its fuselage.

February 22, 1978

An Atlas booster launches the first Global Positioning System satellite. A “constellation” of such satellites revolutionized navigation.

June 18, 1981

The F–117 Nighthawk, the world’s first stealth combat aircraft, flies for the first time. The revolutionary aircraft presented very little radar image. Manufactured by Lockheed, the F–117 could evade most radar detection with its radical shape and radar-absorbent surface.

October 1984

The Boeing B-1B Lancer flies. Its blended wing/ body configuration, variable-geometry design and turbofan engines combine to provide greater range and high speed — more than 900 mph (Mach 1.2) at sea level. Its extremely accurate Global Positioning System/Inertial Navigation System, Doppler radar, and a radar altimeter enabled aircrews to navigate accurately around the world without ground-based navigation aids.

July 1995

An unarmed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance RQ-1 version of the Predator is first deployed and operated out of Albania.

April 27, 1995

Air Force Space Command declares the Global Positioning System satellite constellation fully operational.

September 7, 1997

At Dobbins Air Reserve Base, GA, the extremely maneuverable F–22 Raptor makes its first flight. A new stealth fighter with the ability to cruise supersonically, the F–22 would replace the F–15 for air-superiority missions.

February 28, 1998

The RQ–4 Global Hawk flies. The new remotely piloted aircraft — designed for high-altitude, long-range, long-endurance reconnaissance missions — has a wingspan of 116 feet and was built to fly at an altitude of up to 65,000 feet and photograph an area the size of Kentucky in 24 hours.

September 18, 2000

The first Air Force CV–22 Osprey arrives at Edwards Air Force Base. Designed originally for the Navy, the tiltrotor Osprey can take off like a helicopter and fly like an airplane.

October 26, 2001

The Defense Department chooses Lockheed Martin to build the Joint Strike Fighter. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps plan to purchase thousands of the stealthy aircraft, designated the F–35.

May 22, 2002

The X–45A unmanned combat air vehicle flies for the first time at Edwards Air Force Base. It is the first unmanned aircraft designed for combat operations, such as suppression of enemy air defenses, in an extremely hostile environment.

March 19, 2008

A B–1B Lancer from the 9th Bomb Squadron becomes the first Air Force aircraft to fly at supersonic speed using an alternate fuel — a 50/50 blend of synthetic and petroleum gases.

August 2009

A rocket propelled by a novel propellant — consisting of a nanoscale aluminum and ice mixture — launched for the first time.

December 20, 2019

The U.S. Space Force — the first new branch of the armed services in 73 years — is established.