6 Need-to-Know Facts About Military Aviation

By Sydney Johnson

Maybe you’ve watched them in movies. Maybe you’ve seen them flying their planes overhead. Maybe you’ve even heard stories of their adventures from a family member who served.

No matter what you know or don’t know about them, one thing is certain: military aviators help protect and serve the U.S. in the air and have been doing so for more than 100 years, ever since the Wright Brothers built the Army its first aircraft.

Here’s what you should know about American military aviation and military aviation history:

Military Aviation History: The First Military Aircraft

In 1908, the Army started accepting bids for its first aircraft.

The famous Wright brothers submitted a proposal for their seemingly perfect two-seat observation aircraft. The plane met all the standards the military required for its entries and the proposal was accepted by the Army. Unfortunately, not all the military’s tests of this aircraft were successful; one ended with the death of an Army observer, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge.

The following year, the Wright brothers returned with a new and improved plane, known as the Wright Military Flyer, which the Army purchased for $30,000. The military started training pilots using this plane, making it the world’s first official military aircraft.

Photo credit Library of Congress

The Wright brothers and some Army Signal Corps soldiers work on the Wright Military Flyer as they test it out at Fort Myer, Virginia, 1909.

The Wright Military Flyer can now be found at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Who Was the First Military Pilot?

After the military acquired its first aircraft, it had to find someone to fly the new plane. So, they decided to train three pilots, one of whom was Frederick E. Humphreys.

On October 26, 1909, the West Point graduate became the first military pilot to fly a plane solo, after receiving only three hours of training.

Humphreys resigned the following year to take over his family’s business, but joined the New York National Guard in 1915. He died in 1941 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

A Military Aviator to Know: Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt

Meet Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot. After entering the branch in 1992, she became the first woman to command a combat fighter wing and has logged more than 3,000 flight hours, including over 300 combat hours.

Throughout her service, Leavitt has earned a Bronze Star Medal in addition to a slew of other decorations. She currently serves as the Director of Operations and Communications, Headquarters Air Education and Command on Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.

Need for Speed

Cutaway drawing of the North American X-15 showing the various components of the aircraft. | Photo credit NASA Illustration

Military aircraft are known for being precise, powerful and very, very fast. So what’s the fastest military jet to ever flown? The X-15.

This jet was created in a hypersonic research program that NASA conducted with the Air Force, Navy and North American Aviation Incorporation. It was flown for ten years and is the world’s unofficial speed and altitude record holder. It reached a whopping 4,520 mph (Mach 6.72) – which is more than five times the speed of sound – on October 6, 1967. The man behind the controls that day was Air Force pilot Maj. William “Pete” Knight. Four years prior, it soared at 354,200 feet with NASA pilot Joseph Walker.

Although no other military jet has reached anywhere near the speed of the X-15, there have been some very fast aircraft flown in the 21st century including the F-15E Strike Eagle (1,875 mph), the F-15A Eagle (1,650 mph) and the F-22A Raptor (1,500 mph), all of which are Air Force jets.

Are There Military Aviation Jobs Outside of the Air Force?

Since the word “air” is literally half of the Air Force’s name, it is a misconception that aviation is exclusive to the branch. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. If fact, every U.S. military branch has its own commissioned pilots and aircraft.

Photo credit U.S. Air Force photo/Sr. Airman Mya M. Crosby)

U.S. Air Force pilot prepares to takeoff during the 2018 Heritage Flight Training and Certification Course at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. During the course, aircrews practice ground and flight training to enable civilian pilots of historic military aircraft and U.S. Air Force pilots of current fighter aircraft to fly safely in formations together.

The Marines, Navy, Army, Coast Guard and Space Force all have aviators. The major differences between the branches are the types of aircraft they fly and the training they undergo.

There’s a Military Aviation Museum

While some very famous aircraft can be found at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., military aviation buffs should also head south to visit the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia. This establishment, which is dedicated to showcasing military aviation history, opened in 2008 and displays over 70 aircraft, including planes from the U.S., Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and more.

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