Air Force's 10 Most Important Missions

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
What was the most important mission in the Air Force? How did we get to where we are today, as the most powerful Air Force in the world, with a decades-long legacy of air supremacy?

As a self-styled military aviation historian, these are the questions that keep me up at night. The question was prompted largely by the gathering this month (April 2013) in Florida of three of the four surviving Doolittle Raiders for their 71st reunion, during which they stated that this reunion will be their last, at least as a public event.

Here are, for your review, discussion and debate, the 10 most significant missions and events, in ascending order, in the history of the U.S. Air Force and its predecessor organizations. (Please note that the following list is my opinion only and does not reflect any official ranking or view of the U.S. Air Force.)

10. Battle of Saint-Mihiel, September, 1918. Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, chief of Air Service for the American Expeditionary Force in France for World War I, coordinates the use of nearly 1,500 British, French, Italian and (a handful of) U.S. aircraft during the battle. It is the first major, coordinated air-ground offensive in history.

9. Linebacker II, Dec. 18-29, 1972. Also known as the "Christmas Raids," this "maximum effort" bombing campaign over North Vietnam, led by B-52 Stratofortresses, was the heaviest bombing campaign of the Vietnam War. Though the Vietnamese government claimed otherwise, the campaign - and the threat of its resumption - was seen by many as the catalyst to bring about the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973.

8. Air Superiority & the Korean War, 1950-53. Aided by the introduction of the F-86 Sabre and other jet aircraft, U.S. forces quickly gained control of the sky over the Korean Peninsula during the early stage of the Korean War and never let go. In the six decades since that time, the U.S. has maintained air superiority in every conflict and contest.

7. Integration Leader, March 21, 1941. The 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first Black flying squadron, is created. Along with several other squadrons created shortly thereafter, these flyers eventually become known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Their exemplary flying record during World War II, even while facing bitter racial discrimination, helps lead to the integration of the U.S. military.

6. First Combat Mission, April 20, 1915. With U.S. troops sent to the Texas-Mexico Border to guard against possible cross-border raids by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, the 1st Aero Squadron is given its first tactical assignment. Operating from Fort Brown, Texas, the squadron is assigned to provide observation support to the infantry. On April 20, a "Jenny" piloted by Lt. Byron Q. Jones, with Lt. Thomas D. Milling as the spotter, takes enemy ground fire from across the Rio Grande River. The aircraft is able to evade and land safely. It is the first combat mission for a U.S. military aircraft - and it happens over U.S. soil. In 1917, Jones would serve as the first commander of Selfridge Field.

5. Shock & Awe, Jan. 17, 1991. War begins in the Persian Gulf. More than 1,200 combat sorties are flown, and 106 cruise missiles are launched against targets in Iraq and Kuwait during the first 14 hours of the operation. It is perhaps the most awesome concentrated display of air supremacy in the history of warfare.

4. Flight of the "Question Mark," Jan. 1-7, 1929. Remaining airborne for approximately 151 hours, the crew of the Question Mark, a Fokker C-2A, proves the viability of aerial refueling. This capability eventually allows the U.S. Air Force to project air power on a global scale. Among the crew of five on the Question Mark are future Air Force chief of staff Carl A. Spaatz and Ira C. Eaker, who commanded the Eighth Air Force in World War II and was a key architect of the day-time bombing missions of that war.

3. Atomic Bombing, Aug. 6, 1945. The B-29 Superfortress "Enola Gay," commanded by Col. Paul Tibbets, Jr. drops the atomic bomb "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, the B-29 "Bockscar" drops a bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. The destructive force unleashed by these missions is immense. Together, the bombings bring about the end of World War II, the largest armed conflict in the history of man.

2. First Flight, May 19, 1908. Army Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, working with a consortium led by Alexander Graham Bell, makes the first flight by a person wearing a U.S. uniform. This flight launches the U.S. on a path that eventually leads to the creation of the Air Force as a separate military service in 1947. On Sept. 17, 1908, Selfridge is killed in a crash while flying with Orville Wright. (Note: I did not include the Wright Brothers original Dec. 17, 1903, flight on this list, as that was not a military project.)

1. The Doolittle Raid, April 18, 1942. Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle leads 16 B-25 Mitchells on a secret mission that launches off a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and bombs Tokyo, Japan. The mission comes five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. From a tactical point of view, the mission accomplishes relatively little. It has huge strategic value however, giving a shot in the arm to a still shell-shocked American psyche. And it causes the Japanese Empire to re-direct some forces to home security, impacting the balance of forces in the Pacific Theater. It is a daring use of air power that provides once and for all concrete evidence of the impact air power can make.