September 18th marks the 73rd birthday of the Air Force, and with it, decades worth of interesting and innovative history. Here are six cool facts I learned while diving deeper into the history of the Air Force (spoiler: Santa and Chuck Norris are in good company).
Faster than the speed of sound
West Virginia born Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier on October 14th, 1947, less than one month after the Air Force became its own branch, reaching a top speed of Mach 1.05. Prior to Yeager, this feat was believed by many to be a death sentence. At the time, many thought reaching those speeds would surely tear any aircraft apart, along with whatever or whoever was inside of it.
Yeagers plane, named Glamorous Glennis after his wife, did the impossible when the X-1 rocket plane reached 662 mph at 40,000 feet (the sound barrier at that altitude). Following this, Yeager remained a test pilot for Bell Aircraft Company (the makers of the X-1) and went on to reach speeds of 1,650 mph in the Bell manufactured X-1A.
Without the Air Force, Chuck Norris might have never gotten his name
It’s hard to imagine a world without being able to reference all that is Chuck Norris, but I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different had he never joined the service.
Following his high school graduation in 1958, Norris (still known by his given name of Carlos) joined the Air Force and became an air policeman. He was stationed at Osan Air base in South Korea. Osan was where he was given his now infamous nickname by fellow his Airmen. It’s also where his martial arts practice and skills became undeniable. After his honorable discharge in ‘62, he applied for a job as a civilian police officer, but was put on a waiting list. This interim gave him the idea to open his own martial arts studio, which over the time grew into numerous locations.
By 1968 he won his first World Middleweight Karate Championship and within a few years was playing opposite Bruce Lee in his first film Return of the Dragon. The rest, as they say, is roundhouse history. Along with decades of successful movies and tv shows, his military service has continued to be highlighted as well. In 2001, the Air Force awarded him the Veteran of the Year Award, and he became an honorary Marine in 2007.
Chuck Norris wasn’t the only famous person to come out of the Air Force (just don’t tell him I said that)
Despite being the youngest branch of the military (aside from the newly formed Space Force), the Air Force has had many well known members. Another individual whose name originated in the A.F. is none other than Johnny Cash. Legally named J.R. at birth, supposedly due to his parents indecisiveness, it wasn’t until his enlistment in 1950 that he became John R. Cash, as the military would not accept initials as a legitimate name. It was also during his time stationed in Germany that he bought his first guitar. Other names you might recognize are Jimmy Stewart, Morgan Freeman, George Carlin and Hunter S. Thompson.
In true Thompson fashion, it was actually at the request of his commanding officer that he be honorably discharged early, due to his difficulty adapting to a military environment. In correspondence regarding Thompson it was noted by Colonel William Evans that “this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy,” as well as his “rebel and superior attitude” having a tendency to “rub off on other airmen”.
The Air Force shares a birthday
Airmen aren’t the only ones blowing out the candles every September 18th. They actually share the day with the CIA. Since both were born from the National Security Act of 1947, it was even posited by former Director of National Intelligence and retired Air Force lieutenant general James Clapper that the shared birthday “established an affinity between the CIA and the Armed Forces from the very outset.”
Condor Cluster isn’t just a cool sounding name for an 80’s band
As if they were channelling a tech nerd comic book villain, 2010 was the year that the Air Force Laboratory successfully made one of the most powerful supercomputers ever built…using Playstations. 1,760 PS3’s to be exact, all contributing to what, at the time, was the fastest computer the DoD had. Aside from just overall being a really conceptually badass, the Condor Cluster was built to serve a lot of important purposes, among which were pattern recognition, satellite image processing, radar enhancements and A.I. research.
One of the unique added bonuses of using game consoles, was taking advantage of their graphics capabilities and using them as a means to identify typically hard to discern objects in space (which to me also means fingers crossed for some hi-res alien shots in the future). For some impressive numbers, it’s estimated that by using Playstations for the build, the cost was just 5-10% of what it would have been if it had been made with “off-the-shelf” computer parts, and consumes about 10% of the power that other supercomputers made with traditional parts do.
A typo put the Air Force in charge of tracking Santa’s annual sleighride
It was Christmas Eve 1955, when Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup got an unusual phone call while working the night shift at the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center in Colorado. The caller was from a young child in a nearby town, wondering where Santa had made it to so far.
As it turns out, Santa had an ad printed in a local paper, listing a number to his direct line for children to call him, except a misprint meant the paper published the number to CADCOC by mistake. Not wanting to disappoint the child who called to talk to the big man himself, Shoup assured them that Santa was well on his way, and they would ensure his safety throughout his flight.
The tradition was adopted by NORAD (upon its inception in 1958) and is getting more and more technologically impressive every year. One of the first things my oldest son asks for every Christmas Eve morning is to find NORAD’s Santa Tracker, so he can check on Santa and his reindeer throughout the day. Despite briefly denying Santas existence on Twitter back in 2017 (a decision they seemingly regretted pretty quickly) the Air Force continues to work alongside the Department of Transportation, who approves Santa’s route, and the U.S.P.S who have been delivering letters to the North Pole for over a century, to make sure kids all over the world can catch a glimpse of Old St. Nick.
It may be one of the youngest branches, but it’s history is full of undeniably unique stories.
Happy 73rd Birthday Air Force!