Life begins at 40 or 50, or …
It’s a sure fact of life that we all reach a point where we can’t begin to guess how long ago something in our lives happened. Did such and such happen five years ago? Or was it 10? We get to the point where we can’t even guess what decade something happened. That’s why, when we start attaching birth dates to airplanes that we all think of as being the hottest new thing, the majority of us suddenly feel older.
Think about seeing an F-117 Nighthawk on a pole marking the entrance to a military base. How can that possibly be?! It’s the newest technology and helped blast open the doors into Saddam’s twisted kingdom not that long ago—except that the first Gulf War happened 25 years ago. And today, after serving for a quarter of a century, the 117 has been out of service for nearly eight years. When did all of this happen?! Our first stealth fighter, the F-117, flew in 1981, which seems fairly recent, but basic math shows that that was 35 years ago. If something like the F-117 is so old (it retired in 2008), what about the rest of its birthmates that are still in uniform? Are our minds playing tricks on us and our combat aircraft are older than we think they are?
Here’s a fact that we haven’t verified but has to be true: There is not a single crewman aboard a B-52 over Syria or Iraq who is older than the airplane design he’s flying. It first flew in 1952 (64 years ago!), and the last one to roll off the original production line, now modified to “H” configuration, was in 1962 (54 years ago!). It might be possible someone that old is still current in the Buff but unlikely.
Would anyone like to guess how long ago our most numerous air-superiority fighters, the F-15 and F-16, flew for the first time? How about 44 and 42 years, respectively? That’s close to half a century! That doesn’t seem even remotely possible, especially considering that both airplanes are still considered benchmarks in their fields. And what about their aquatic compadre the Navy’s Hornet? Surely, it is much newer. Yeah, it is—but not by much. The first flight on the Hornet was 38 years ago; even the Super Hornet flew 21 years ago. Small wonder that we are hearing that, because of budget cutbacks, less than half of the Hornets are operational at any given time, and those that are flyable sometimes depend on parts pirated off of airplanes displayed in museums or sitting in the desert north of Tucson.
Of course, not all of our combat aircraft are just short of qualifying for AARP. We have some super modern aero pups that can’t be that old, right? How about the most Star Wars airplane in anyone’s air force: the otherworldly B-2 Spirit? Would you believe that it first flew 27 years ago? 27 years! Even the hotshot F-22 is 19 years old!
Read the article from the October 2016 issue of Flight Journal, click here.