ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. --
Arnold Engineering Development Complex team members at Arnold Air Force Base and their families gathered Sept. 18 at the Arnold Lakeside Complex to celebrate the U.S. Air Force’s 73rd birthday.
The free outdoor event, hosted by the Arnold Services Office, featured birthday cards created by attendees, a cookout, live music, door prizes, caricature artists and, of course, cake. It also featured an address from Chief Master Sgt. Robert Heckman, superintendent of AEDC, which is headquartered at Arnold AFB.
While dozens were present to mark the branch’s birthday, Heckman emphasized that the festivities were as much a celebration of the men and women who serve with or work for the Air Force.
“As we celebrate today’s Air Force birthday, I would tell you that this birthday is just as much yours as it is the United States Air Force’s because, without you, there is no Air Force,” Heckman said.
The Air Force became its own branch of the nation’s military on Sept. 18, 1947. As Heckman pointed out, getting to that point wasn’t easy.
“The adversity associated with becoming a service is no different than dealing with the pandemic on our doorstep, or dealing with our shrinking competitive advantage next to our adversaries,” he said. “It doesn’t keep me up at night because I know that our people will rise to the challenge. Why? Because they’ve done so for 73 years.”
To illustrate this point, Heckman provided a brief history on the establishment of the Air Force, a tale he said accentuates the determination, resilience and patience of those involved.
The events leading to the official formation of the Air Force actually began nearly 40 years prior and include a cast of characters who believed so fervently in an independent air force that they feverishly endeavored to remove the obstacles preventing it from becoming its own branch, sometimes at their own expense.
It wasn’t long after the Wright brothers successfully flew the first powered airplane on Dec. 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, that H.G. Wells penned a book titled “The War in the Air.” A theme of this 1908 work is that the use of airpower would change the way in which war is conducted.
Nations around the world had begun thinking about how airpower could be used in warfare and national defense in the years following the book’s release, but no movement on this truly occurred until 1917 when Winston Churchill, who was then Britain’s minister of munitions, lamented his decision not to invest in airpower.
World War I ended in 1918 and, in April of that year, Britain became the first nation to have an independent air force. Despite seeing an ally accomplish this, it would be several years before the first steps to establish a U.S. Air Force were taken.
In 1923, Gen. William Lassiter was commissioned to study airpower. However, no action was taken on Lassiter’s submitted findings, which recommended that the U.S. Army expand its Air Corps to include a force of new planes.
This inaction led Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell to step in and begin his airpower advocacy. As Heckman explained, Mitchell was described by some as bold and visionary while others viewed him as combative and insubordinate. Mitchell’s adversarial approach toward his superiors led to his 1925 court-martial for insubordination. He resigned from the service the following year. Still, he continued to champion further investment in airpower.
In 1934, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt tasked a committee headed by Newton Baker, who served as secretary of war during WWI, to take another look at national airpower. This committee recommended the establishment of a General Headquarters Air Force, that more planes should be purchased and that personnel be dedicate to this force. The majority body, however, recommended that air units remain under the control of the U.S. Army.
Pilot James Doolittle, a member of that committee who would go on to lead a group of bombers known as Doolittle’s Raiders during World War II, submitted a minority opinion. Doolittle argued that airpower is the next generation of warfighting and will be needed to protect the U.S., and that a national air force would be stronger if separated from the Army.
It was also in 1934 that Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, the namesake of AEDC and Arnold AFB, was made the chief of the Army Air Forces. Arnold worked to allay the concerns leaders in other military branches shared about the Air Forces operating its own planes. These efforts would eventually pay off.
On July 26, 1947, then-President Harry S. Truman was set to take a flight from Washington National Airport to be with his ill mother. But the president had unfinished business. He needed to sign into law the National Security Act of 1947, which created both the Department of the Air Force and the U.S. Air Force. The July heat was bearing down, and the documents took over an hour to arrive. Despite all that was going on, Truman remained patient and signed act into law before departing.
“He’s a patriot, so he had determination to sign those documents, and he did,” Heckman said. “And the rest is history.”
The official birthday of the U.S. Air Force is recognized as Sept. 18, 1947, as that was the date that W. Stuart Symington was sworn in as the first secretary of the Air Force.
“What does all this have to do with us being the greatest Air Force in the world? I would answer with this – it takes resilience, patience and determination to navigate any adverse and uncertain environment,” Heckman said. “If you look at the decades-long history of what it took to establish us as a service, nobody can dispute there was adversity and nobody can dispute that it was fraught with uncertainty.”
Heckman said that the determination of Airmen to navigate adversity while exhibiting the resiliency and patience necessary to succeed has not waned over the past 73 years.
“So what makes us the greatest Air Force in the world? You,” he said. “Our people make us the greatest Air Force in the world. If you look at the problems that we solve, if you look at the new capabilities that are developed, that is done by you.”
Those who coordinated the event wish to express their appreciation for those who worked to help make the celebration possible. They include: Melissa Effingham and her Facility Support Services team for their planning and execution, Master Sgt. Jose Flores for his coordination the Color Guard presentation and Protocol Officer Sonja Smith for her support.