Last year was the centennial of John M. Browning’s timeless, matchless M1911 pistol, which has only gained in stature over the last ten decades. But other tools in the military cabinet have passed the half-century mark, and some not only remain in service but, like the 1911, remain in production.
Browning M2 .50 HB. (1938 to today.) Besides the 1911, another long-long lived Browning design is the ageless M2 .50 caliber. Designed as a water-cooled gun during WW I, “Ma Deuce” in its current air-cooled form was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1938 and has served in perhaps 90 nations covering dozens of wars and conflicts. Powerful and potent, at 74 years and counting, the M2 is a strong contender for another centennial weapon.
Armalite AR-15/Colt M16. (1962 to today.) “The black rifle” entered military service as the Air Force’s AR-15 in 1962. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of semi-centennial the controversial weapon receives this year. To put that record in perspective, the M1 Garand lasted 21 years (1936-57) while the classic ‘03 Springfield remained in limited inventory until about 1957.
However counterintuitive it may seem, half-century airplanes are far more common than firearms. Here's the roster of that exclusive club:
Bell UH-1 Huey. (First flight 1954, operational 1961.) The Bell Model 204 evolved into the long-lived UH-1 (utility helicotper), and the Army’s last Hueys retired only last year—a full 50-year career. Meanwhile, UH-1s remain flying with as many as 40 other nations. Thus, the Huey belongs to an elite club of military aircraft dating from the Eisenhower administration (1953-1961). Here’s a quick look at others from the era of hula-hoops and Mickey Mouse ears:
Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. (First flight 1952, operational 1955.) The Cold War icon, the eight-jet intercontinental bomber remains in front-line squadrons fifty-seven years after original introduction. According to its Air Force Fact Sheet, the BUFF (Big Ugly Flying…Fellow) may still be flying in 2045. No, that’s not a typo for 2025. And yes, that would mean a service career of NINETY years; 80+ years for individual aircraft. In stunning comparison, the Forrestal class aircraft carriers—also from the Ike era--were active for “only” 43 years.
Lockheed C-130 Hercules. (First flight 1954, operational 1957.) The Hercules has aptly been called “the DC-3 of the postwar era.” With well over 2,000 delivered, the enormously capable, “stretchable” Herc is flown by some 60 countries. Dillonites will appreciate its ballistic options in the AC-130 Spectre and Spooky gunships, packing enormous firepower. The Spectre loadout includes 40mm and 105mm cannon while the Spooky adds 25mm gatlings. From Vietnam to Iraq, Hercs just plain deliver.
Lockheed U-2. (First flight 1955, operational 1957.) The world’s most famous reconnaissance aircraft made global headlines when Francis Gary Powers’ CIA bird was downed over Russia in 1960. Nearly half of the 86 airframes were lost in accidents or shot down over Russia and Communist China. However, the high-flying spyplane remains a valuable asset, and the Air Force plans to keep it until 2015, a service life of 58 years.
Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. (First flight 1956, operational 1957.) If you have a fleet of jet bombers, you need a fleet of jet tankers. That’s why Boeing adapted its 707 airliner for in-flight refueling and made one of the most remarkable conversions in aviation history. From first flight to operations took less than a year. Boeing built 800 Stratotankers to support 744 B-52s, and both will remain in service for years to come.
Northrop T-38 Talon. (First flight 1959, operational 1961.) Nearly 1,200 were built through 1972 as the world’s first supersonic trainer, and it’s still the lead-in trainer for USAF fighter pilots. Talons were used by four other nations: Nationalist China, Germany, Portugal, and Turkey. The derivative fighter, the F-5 Tiger, may still be used by 20 or more of 30-some air forces that have purchased it.
Lockheed P-3 Orion. (First flight 1959, operational 1962.) Based on Lockheed's still-incomplete Electra airliner, the Orion offered off the shelf availability with promising performance. Though a maritime patrol aircraft, its endurance and multiple sensor systems make it useful ashore, including in Afghanistan. More than 15 foreign users have joined the dozens of U.S. Navy Orion operators.
Boeing Vertol CH-47 Chinook. (First flight 1961, operational 1962.) Almost 1,200 Chinooks have been flown by 16 nations, and just one helo kept the Brits in business in the Falklands in 1982. Today the big chopper remains in low-rate production, meeting the need for heavy lift, especially in Afghanistan where the floor can be 8,000 feet and uphill in all directions. Apparently a successor is not even on the drafting board. As Chinook pilots say, “The only replacement for a Chinook is another Chinook.”
Grumman E-2 Hawkeye. (First flight 1960, operational 1964.) A carrier-based early warning and control aircraft, the Hawkeye appears to have an open-ended lease on life. Its distinctive feature is the rotating radar dome that provides a huge view of sea and sky, capable of detecting and sorting friendly, unknown, and hostile targets to hundreds of miles. Perhaps most remarkably, the Hawkeye’s foreign users include both Israel and Egypt.
Cessna T-37 “Tweet”. (First flight 1954, operational 1957.) Almost 1,300 Tweety Birds were produced in a 20-year production run, serving as jet trainers in 18 countries. Its 52-year USAF career ended in 2009 while the ground-attack variant AT-37 Dragonfly featured a 7.62 minigun in the nose. Reportedly armed Tweets continue hosing drug runners in Columbia and Peru.
Douglas A-4 Skyhawk (first flight 1954, operational 1956.) The Navy’s first jet light attack aircraft was intended as an interim design but remained in front-line Marine service until 1979. It’s still flying support sorties in the U.S. and Israel, and in operational squadrons with Argentina and Brazil.
F-4 Phantom (first flight 1957, operational 1960.) A hugely successful and versatile aircraft, the mighty Phantom debuted with the Navy and was retired by the Air Force in 1996. But it’s still flown by Japan, South Korea, Turkey…and Iran. Those nations will remain Phantom Pflyers for awhile, as it’s now 52 years in service and counting.
Other 50-year aircraft include and the English Electric Canberra (in service 1951-2006); the huge swept-wing turboprop Tupelov 95 “Bear” (1956 to today); and the prolific MiG-21 (in service 1959 to today).
Joe Taxpayer has received more than his money’s worth from the foregoing products. Heaven knows, that’s a rare situation amid the perpetual fraud, waste, and abuse that characterizes so many government programs.
It’s also a reminder that frequently The Latest is not The Greatest.