U.S. Military Aviation’s Half Century Club
There are a handful of aircraft designs that are approaching, or have already surpassed fifty years of service with various U.S. military users. Half a century of service speaks praises of the design’s utility and adaptability, as many designs have been assigned duties other than what they originally were intended to carry out. Additionally, some former military aircraft have been passed to non-military government agencies and used even further. Here’s a look at many designs that have been in service to the United States for half a century, plus a bonus look at some aircraft that have come very close to that half-century mark, or will no doubt break that milestone in the near future.
Beech T-34: First operational in 1953 as the T-34A piston-engined trainer, very few of the turboprop T-34C versions are still in military service as Navy test or chase aircraft. NASA uses a T-34C as a chase and systems testing airframe too. The design has been in use for sixty-five years!
Boeing B-52: The first B-52B entered service in 1955; the final B-52H airframe was delivered in 1962. Air Force planners have hinted that they’d like to use the currently active –H versions until they are close to or even surpass one hundred years of service… some of these airframes are already fifty eight years old!
Lockheed U-2: The original U-2A became operational in 1955, and the current, larger U-2R version has been operated since 1967. Although the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk has been earmarked to replace the manned U-2 on multiple occasions, the U-2 design continues to be relevant after sixty-three years of service. NASA uses the ER-2 version as well.
Lockheed C-130: The first C-130As went operational in 1956, and the C-130J version is still in production sixty-two years later. Many modifications to the basic airframe have added missions such as electronic reconnaissance, jamming and broadcasting, aerial refueling and gunship roles. Some airframes served over fifty years before being retired.
Boeing C/KC-135: The first Boeing 717 military transport and tanker was declared operational in 1957, the last of over seven hundred airframes was delivered in 1965. Besides its aerial tanker role, the basic C-135 has gained missions such as weather reconnaissance, electronic ferreting, transport and acting as a test airframe for a multitude of sensors and aircraft systems. The new KC-46 is expected to replace the sixty-year old KC-135 design over the next decade, leaving the RC-135 reconnaissance version(s) to continue their work indefinitely.
Cessna T-37: The “Tweet” jet trainer was operational in 1957, and retired from service in 2009 after fifty-two years. It was replaced by the Beech/Raytheon T-6A.
Bell UH-1: A classic helicopter that began operations in 1959, and was used by all four major military branches one time or another over its almost sixty year career. The Marine Corps uses the UH-1Y version today, and the Air Force uses the UH-1N twin-engined version as well as a few dozen TH-1H trainers today too.
McDonnell Douglas F-4: The Phantom II first became operational with the Navy in 1960; the final U.S.-operated Phantoms were a quartet of QF-4E drones which retired in 2016.
Northrop T-38: The Air Force’s supersonic advanced jet trainer was declared operational in 1961. The upgraded T-38Cs will be replaced by a new trainer which is in the midst of a bid process today. The jet is used by the Navy’s Test Pilot School and NASA too.
Sikorsky H-3: The Navy’s SH-3 anti-submarine helicopter became operational in 1961. It was followed into service immediately by versions of VIP transports, known as VH-3A and the current VH-3D. Today as the only active H-3s, the Marines’ handful of VH-3Ds are commonly used as a Presidential aircraft – “Marine One”. A bid is under way to replace the VH-3Ds, which are the last of this model still in service.
Boeing/Vertol CH-47: The Chinook first entered service in 1962. Rebuilt and new airframes of the CH-47F variant are still being delivered today.
Lockheed P-3: The Orion was introduced to its antisubmarine duties in 1962, and is still on duty in 2018, fifty-six years later. It is being replaced by Boeing P-8 jets in Navy use, and the Customs And Border Protection uses a handful of airframes too.
Grumman EA-6/A-6: The A-6 Intruder attack jet became operational in 1963 for the Navy, and later the Marine Corps. Within a few years, an electronic countermeasures version, the EA-6A, was introduced. This led to an enlarged version, named the EA-6B Prowler, used by the Marines and Navy. The A-6 and EA-6A were retired shortly after Operation Desert Storm, but the EA-6B is still active with the Marine Corps, although their last squadron should stand down in 2018, ending fifty-five years of A-6 lineage.
Northrop F-5: First used as a light fighter and attack jet in the Vietnam War, the F-5A and upgraded F-5E have been used as aggressor aircraft by the Air Force, Navy and Marines over the period spanning 1964 through today.
Boeing Vertol CH-46: This twin-engined, twin-rotored helicopter was recently retired from Marine Corps Service, ending a fifty-one year service record from 1964 to 2015. It was replaced by the MV-22 Osprey.
Cessna T-41: The Mescalero has been used by the Air Force and Army as trainers and liaison duties since 1964. Both the Air Force Academy and the Army’s West Point Academy have T-41s assigned to them today.
Grumman E-2: The Hawkeye AWACS turboprop has been in use since 1964, with two large batches built. The airframes have been constantly updated with new equipment – radar, radio, data link communications, etc. over the five-plus decades the Hawkeye has been in Navy squadron use.
Grumman C-2: The Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft replaced the C-1A in 1966, and fifty-two years later, there isn’t a replacement in sight.
Sikorsky CH-53: Multiple versions of this large helicopter have gained a third engine, minesweeping paraphernalia in some cases, and will soon be produced as the upgraded CH-53K King Stallion. First operational in 1966 it is one of but a few air-refuelable helicopters in the U.S. inventory.
Beech VC-6/U-21/T-44: Various versions of the Beech 90 KingAir have been in use for over fifty years… the Army and Air Force’s VC-6A (used for Presidential and VIP transport duties) and the U-21 Ute staff transport came into use in 1966. The Army’s U-21 was modified into the reconnaissance-gathering RU-21 version later in life. The Navy’s version, the T-44A Pegasus, first flew in 1977 as a multi-engined trainer. The C-6s were retired in the 1980s, the U-21s in the 1990s, but the T-44, now upgraded to the T-44C version, continues to be used by the Navy.
Bell AH-1: The Army’s first purpose-built attack helicopter used components from the successful UH-1 Huey, and was introduced in 1967. The Marine Corps utilized a twin-engined version of the AH-1, and after upgrades, still uses the AH-1Z today.
Bell TH-57: The Navy used the modified version of the civilian B-206 Jet Ranger, beginning in 1968, as a training airframe. The model is still in use today, fifty years later, with engine and avionics upgrades. The Army’s similar OH-58 Kiowa served for just forty-nine years with major modifications, being retired in 2017.
Honorable mention… those close to the half-century mark:
Lockheed C-5: The first airframes of the C-5A were delivered in 1970, 48 years before this article was written. About half of the original airframes produced will become C-5M Super Galaxies, with more powerful engines and systems upgrades. A full wing box modernization program has already occurred, and it is envisioned that these jets will easily surpass fifty years in service.
Boeing T-43/C-40/P-8: The militarized versions of the Boeing B-737 have spanned over forty-five years of service, first as the Air Force’s T-43A (B-737-200) navigation trainer variant used between 1973 and 2010. The Navy and Air Force’s C-40 transport/priority cargo versions (of the B-737-300) became operational in 2001, and the Navy’s currently – produced P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine/patrol jet (a modified B-737-800/900 introduced in 2013) will be in use for decades into the future.
Lockheed T-33: the jet trainer was introduced in 1948, and the final NT-33A test aircraft was retired in 1997 – a 49 year span!
Douglas C-9: The Air Force used the aeromedical transport of the C-9A – dubbed the Nightingale – from 1968 to 2005. The Air Force C-9C VIP transports were used from 1976 through 2011. The Navy and Marine Corps used the C-9B jet transport from 1973 through 2014 (Navy C-9B), and 2017 (Marines’ C-9B), thus giving the C-9 a forty-nine year span in military service from 1968 through 2017.
Douglas A-4: The Skyhawk was introduced in 1956, and the last TA-4J trainer was retired in 2003, giving the type a forty-seven year presence with the Navy and Marines.
Martin B-57: The Canberra light bomber was introduced in 1954 by the Air Force. Reconnaissance versions were used for atmospheric sampling and surface photographic reconnaissance duties – up through 1974, when the last WB-57F – a much modified B-57B bomber – was retired from Air Force use. NASA attained a few of the airframes, and still uses three WB-57F aircraft today, some sixty-four years later. Recently, at least one WB-57F, without NASA titles, was seen in the Middle East, presumably acting as a high-altitude military testbed for advanced electronics in a live environment.
Well, there’s my U.S. Military Aviation Half-Century Club. Did I leave anything out? Here’s my admiration of the designers, engineers, manufacturers, maintainers, managers and pilots who allowed each model to serve for over 50 years!