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Military Flight Aptitude: Types of Aircraft and Their Roles

Although military aviation is a key component of the U.S. armed forces — projecting military might and conducting far-reaching operations to protect the interests of the United States of America and its allies — it’s also a career, and a very exciting and fulfilling one at that. You’re in command of a remarkably effective weapon on the modern battlefield.

Many times in the span of an average military career, the President of the United States requires the use of U.S. military force to disable an enemy’s combat capability, to protect vital U.S. interests abroad, and to honor treaties established with allies in the pursuit of the common good of the world.

As a military aviator, you can expect that you’ll be the tip of the spear — the first strike — in these situations. During the past few conflicts the United States has been part of, military aviators have been the ones to lead the way, and that role will continue into the future.

Military aviators must be intelligent, quick to grasp an unfolding situation, and loyal to both their country and their fellow service members on the ground. Above all, they must be self-sacrificing team players whose love for country and fellow humans will be tested time and time again.

The various U.S. military branches use many different aircraft for many different missions. Fighter/attack aircraft conduct multifaceted operations to gain air superiority and to destroy crucial opposing targets; bomber aircraft deliver munitions over a great distance with minimal collateral damage (civilian casualties). Cargo aircraft perform long-range airlift and humanitarian efforts. Helicopters support ground offensive operations.

The overall category of military aircraft breaks into two major types: fixed-wing and rotary-wing. Each military branch differs somewhat in its mix and usage of each type and in the way it uses pilots; here’s a quick rundown:

  • The Air Force typically uses fixed-wing aircraft to project military might; it calls on helicopter assets in resupply or rescue operations.

  • The Navy also looks to fixed-wing aircraft to project military might while utilizing helicopter assets in resupply or rescue operations.

  • The Marine Corps utilizes fixed-wing, rotary-wing, and tilt-rotor in a variety of combat and combat support operations.

  • The Army primarily utilizes rotary-wing assets to support ground maneuver operations and relies on a small number of fixed-wing aircraft for logistical support.

  • The Coast Guard uses fixed-wing aircraft for long-range search-and-rescue or anti-drug operations and primarily utilizes helicopters for more-localized search-and-rescue efforts.

Fixed-wing (airplanes)

Fixed-wing aircraft consist of airplanes ranging from super-large, heavy-lift cargo planes to the relatively small fighter and attack aircraft. The history of modern fixed-wing aircraft can be traced back to the Wright brothers’ famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

Fixed-wing aircraft are distinguished by a fixed or attached lifting device (wing) that allows the aircraft to fly in a forward motion at relatively great speed. The typical fixed-wing aircraft travels down a runway to achieve the velocity required to develop a lifting force that enables it to overcome the earth’s gravitational pull. Most military aircraft in today’s fleet are powered by turbine engines, which either directly convert the energy to thrust (as in a turbojet) or convert the energy to shaft horsepower to turn a propeller (as in a turboprop).

Rotary-wing (helicopters)

The category of rotary-wing aircraft consists of helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft. The German Focke-Wulf Fw61 — which made its inaugural flight on June 26, 1936 — is generally considered to be the first operational helicopter.

Rotary-wing aircraft have a rotating lifting wing (rotor blade), which develops lift and thrust to overcome the force of gravity. This system allows the helicopter to take off and land in a vertical or near-vertical fashion, a capability that lets the helicopter utilize unimproved areas and greatly enhances its ability to provide ground force protection.

Helicopters typically have a much slower forward airspeed than fixed-wing aircraft do but make up for that lack of speed in versatility and the capability to be forward-placed in a battlefield environment. That is, helicopters can be placed right up to the front lines and operate from that vantage, as well as hide in a selected spot and wait for a target to appear, providing the element of surprise.

A hybrid aircraft exists today that’s hard to place in a particular category, but it is included here because it has some similarities to rotary-wing. This aircraft is the tilt-rotor aircraft currently utilized by the U.S. Marine Corps. The V-22 Osprey (which you can see here) can take off and land vertically and then tilt its rotors to act as a forward-thrusting propeller, giving it excellent midrange lift and the capability to land in unimproved areas.

[Credit: Photograph courtesy of www.navy.mil]
Credit: Photograph courtesy of www.navy.mil

Another past variant on the tilt hybrid model is the tilt-wing aircraft. With this type of aircraft, the entire wing tilts, not just the engine nacelles (cover housings) and rotors. Historically, the military has tested several tilt-wing prototype aircraft — including the Vertol VZ-2, the Hiller X-18 (see this figure), and the LTV XC-142 — but none was ever put into operational service.

[Credit: Photograph courtesy of http://rotored.arc.nasa.gov]
Credit: Photograph courtesy of http://rotored.arc.nasa.gov

Trainer, experimental, and orbital aircraft

Training aircraft for the armed services are smaller aircraft that can economically train and refresh the training of military aviators. These aircraft can range from small turboprop fixed-wing aircraft to small turbine engine training helicopters.

Experimental aircraft (designated by the X identifier, such as the X-15) are test aircraft, and they’re truly the cutting edge of new aircraft design technology. This category is where science and flying skills meet for the first time.

Finally, spaceflight relies heavily on the skill and experience of military aviators as both astronaut pilots and mission specialists. All early astronauts were direct recruits from the armed forces, and most space shuttle crewmembers were members of the military. Here is a glimpse of a space shuttle.

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