Here's What You Need to Know: These aircraft have seen it all.
The current mandatory retirement age of United States Air Force pilots is sixty, but there are now aircraft even older. Even as the U.S. military has no tanks of that age still in service, even in training capacities, there are U.S. Air Force aircraft that are old enough to be considered senior citizens and yet show no signs of retiring anytime soon.
Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
President Dwight Eisenhower was in the Oval Office, less than a quarter of all American households owned a television and it would be decades before the 57 Chevy became a classic—but 1954 was the year that the B-52 Stratofortress first took to the skies. Over the course of its lengthy carrier, the B-52 aircraft has been used to perform strategic attacks, close-air support, air interdiction, offensive counter-air and maritime operations. During Operation Desert Storm of 1991, the aircraft delivered 40 percent of all the weapons dropped by coalition forces.
Production of the Stratofortress actually ended in 1962 with 744 built-in total. There are now eighty operational B-52H aircraft currently in service and those will likely keep flying thanks to the latest updates until the 2040s. By the time it retires, the great-grandchildren of the original pilots could be behind the controls.
Lockheed C-130 Hercules
When the United States military goes to war, the C-130 Hercules is what moves the troops and material. The aircraft can carry over forty thousand pounds of cargo and has a range of fourteen hundred miles—while the upgraded C-130J Super Hercules has an even greater range of upwards of two thousand miles.
The first C-130 aircraft was delivered to the United States Air Force in late 1956, and in total twenty-three hundred of all variants have been built to date—while the cargo transport is still in production.
Boeing KC-135 Straotanker
Another long flying aircraft in the U.S. Air Force is the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, which was developed based on the B-707—Boeing’s first intercontinental passenger jet. The aircraft provides the core aerial refueling capability for the Air Force and allows the U.S. military to accomplish its primary mission anywhere in the world.
A total of 417 of the original KC-135A cargo airplanes have been updated with new engines that will enable these to be flying fuel stations of the U.S. military and its allies for decades to come.
Northrop T-38 Talon
Before today’s fighter jockeys climb into the cockpit of an F-15 Strike Eagle or F-22 Raptor, they likely sit behind the controls of the T-38 Talon. First introduced in 1961, the aircraft was designed as a genuine supersonic fighter and now serves exclusively for training. The swept-wing aircraft features a streamlined fuselage and glass cockpit with integrated avionics displays.
Advanced Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training students also use the T-38 Talon in aerobatics, formation, night, instrument and cross-country navigation training. Not as famous today as the fighters the pilots will eventually fly, this is still the aircraft that gets them there.
Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady
Designed by the legendary Clarance "Kelly" Johnson at Lockheed’s Skunk Works—its Advanced Development Projects Division in Burbank, California—the U2 Dragon Lady first took flight on May 1, 1954, and since that time it has provided the Air Force with a high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance, day or night.
Even as drones and satellites have increasingly been used, the U2 Dragon Lady has been the Pentagon’s eye in the sky, flying missions in recent conflicts over Afghanistan and Iraq.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
This article first appeared in February 2021.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson