From the formation of the Air Force in 1947 to today, the flying branch’s sexiest assets have always been its fighters. These soaring agents of death intentionally fly into fights in one of the planet’s most unforgiving environments.
Here are 8 of the machines that defined Air Force fighter history:
1. P-51 Mustang
The P-51, renamed in 1948 to the F-51 when the Air Force changed its plane designation system, was one of the fighters that the U.S. Air Force inherited when it morphed from the Army Air Force. The beloved Mustang variant served with distinction in the Korean War, but mostly as a close-air support asset, not as a fighter.
The P-80 flew during World War II but wasn’t deployed to combat until Korea where it became one of America’s early champions against the rampant MiG threat from China.
4. F-86 Sabre
America’s other great champion in MiG Alley fights over North Korea and Manchuria was the F-86 Sabre, a swept-wing jet fighter capable of breaking the sound barrier and going toe-to-toe with the best MiGs of the day.
5. F-4 Phantom
The Phantom got a bad reputation in the Vietnam War where early variants lacked a cannon and used unreliable air-to-air missiles. But the powerful A-4 got improvements over time that made it more than capable of going up against anything the Soviets could throw at it. The A-4 is still in service in the Middle East where two Israeli F-4s interrupted an Egyptian attack of 28 planes, shooting down seven MiGs with no F-4s lost.
6. F-15 Eagle
One of the main reasons that later F-4 variants couldn’t redeem themselves in American service is that the F-15 Eagle overshadowed the F-4 from day one. The Eagles boast powerful engines that gave it nearly unprecedented speed as well as “look down, shoot down” radar, powerful missiles, and a 20mm Gatling gun. The F-15 is still in service with the U.S. and feared by adversaries around the world.
7. F-16 Fighting Falcon
With a long combat radius, all-weather, and day and night capabilities, the F-16 is prepared to fly, fight, and win everywhere. While the F-16 is a capable strike aircraft, its greatest value may reside in its capabilities as one of the world’s premier dogfighters.
8. F-22 Raptor
The reason that the F-16 isn’t the world’s premier dogfighter is that the F-22 exists. The Raptor can sneak up on its prey and watch it for minutes without the enemy ever knowing it was there. Or, it can shoot down opposing fighters from outside of its adversaries detection and engagement ranges.
Currently, the plane is serving as a sensor platform in Iraq and Syria where it detects enemy air defenses and guides friendlies around them, but it could eradicate other fighters in the sky on a moment’s notice.