The onset of Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s remains one of the seminal events in Air Force history. On Jan. 17, 1991, the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi military occupation opened with a massive barrage of air and cruise-missile strikes against targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
USAF special operations MH–53 helicopters initiated combat by leading an Army helicopter force that destroyed enemy radar sites. B–52G Stratofortress crews from the 2d Bomb Wing of Eighth Air Force, Strategic Air Command, flew from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, to launch 35 cruise missiles against targets in Iraq and returned home, completing the longest bombing mission in history. Constituting less than 2.5 percent of all coalition aircraft, the F–117A stealth fighter-bomber successfully attacked over 31 percent of Iraqi strategic targets the first day.
During Desert Storm, aircraft from a U.S.-led coalition flew more than 1,200 combat sorties with all service components involved. Air Force Reserve A-10s operated close to the front lines along with special operations and rescue forces, and a Reservist scored the first-ever A-10 air-to-air kill.
January 21, 1991: Capt. Paul T. Johnson, USAF, in his A–10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, located a Navy fighter pilot who had ejected in Iraqi territory. The A–10 destroyed a threatening Iraqi truck to allow a USAF MH–53J Pave Low helicopter to rescue the pilot. Captain Johnson thus earned the Air Force Cross, and the Pave Low helicopter crew earned the Mackay Trophy.
On Jan. 22, 1991, The Air Force began using precision-guided munitions against Iraqi hardened aircraft shelters. These attacks were so successful that Iraqi fighters began flying to Iran to escape destruction.
February 6, 1991: Capt. Robert R. Swain, Jr., of the 706th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Air Force Reserve, scored the first-ever A–10 Thunderbolt II air-to-air kill by shooting down an Iraqi helicopter.
February 24, 1991: After more than a month of air strikes that severely weakened Iraqi forces, the U.S.-led coalition launched a ground offensive from Saudi Arabia. C–130s had already airlifted elements of the Army XVIII Airborne Corps from eastern Saudi Arabia to Rafha, on the Saudi-Iraqi border. Flying more than 300 sorties a day in 10-minute intervals, the C–130s delivered 13,843 troops and 9,396 tons of cargo. This movement enabled coalition forces to encircle Iraq’s Republican Guard in what Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, combatant commander of US Central Command, described as the “Hail Mary maneuver.” Within 100 hours, coalition ground forces, coupled with continued air attacks, totally overwhelmed the Iraqi ground troops. Between February 24 and 28, the Air Force flew 3,000 reconnaissance, close air support, and interdiction sorties.
February 28, 1991: Operation Desert Storm ended at 0800 hours with a coalition-declared cease-fire. During the war, coalition forces released approximately 16,000 precision-guided munitions against Iraqi forces and dropped some 210,000 unguided bombs. In 42 days of around-the-clock operations, USAF aircraft flew 59 percent of the nearly 110,000 combat sorties. U.S. aerial strength of approximately 1,990 aircraft comprised 75 percent of the total coalition air power. Extensive use of satellite technology during Desert Storm persuaded some USAF leaders subsequently to refer to the operation as the “first space war.”
December 21, 1991: The AC–130U Spectre gunship flew for the first time. The new-generation gunship combined increased firepower, reliability, and accuracy with the latest target-location technology.
In the wake of Desert Storm, Airmen continued to serve and were heavily involved in enforcing the no-fly zone over northern and southern Iraq as well as in humanitarian relief missions to assist uprooted Iraqi Kurds.
In July 2, 1992, the humanitarian assistance continued and expanded to Operation Provide Promise which delivered food, medical supplies, and relief cargo to Sarajevo and other communities in newly independent Bosnia-Herzegovina, amidst a civil war following its independence from Serbia. Provide Promise became the longest sustained relief operation in U.S. Air Force history. By early January 1996, when the operation ended, it had delivered nearly 160,000 tons of relief supplies, some of them by airdrop and some by landing on airfields under hostile gunfire.
January 17, 1992: To modernize its fleet of training aircraft, the Air Force accepted the first production model T–1A Jayhawk.
January 3, 1993: President George H. W. Bush of the United States and President Boris Yeltsin of Russia signed the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the most far-reaching nuclear-arms reduction pact in history. The agreement committed the United States and Russia to the elimination of all intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles and the reduction of the number of nuclear weapons carried by bombers.
January 13, 1993: Maj. (later Lt. Gen.) Susan Helms, USAF, a member of the space shuttle Endeavour crew, became the first U.S. military woman in space.
June 14, 1993: The Air Force acquired its first C–17A Globemaster III transport aircraft, which was delivered to the 437th Airlift Wing at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. Capable of delivering outsized cargo to a tactical environment, the Globemaster III increased the Air Force’s ability to airlift to relatively small airfields, eliminating the need to shift cargo from larger to smaller transports.
June 17, 1993: Lt. Col. Patricia Fornes, USAF, assumed command of the 740th Missile Squadron at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, becoming the first woman commander of a combat missile squadron.
August 6, 1993: Dr. Sheila E. Widnall became the first woman secretary of the Air Force and the first woman to head any of the military services.
October 3–4, 1993: TSgt Timothy A. Wilkerson, a pararescueman, ran through enemy fire repeatedly to carry out five wounded Army Rangers after an Army MH–60 Black Hawk helicopter was shot down during a battle in Mogadishu, Somalia. For his heroism, he earned the Air Force Cross.
December 2–13, 1993: In one of the most challenging space missions ever, astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, piloted by Col. Richard O. Covey, USAF, performed a record five spacewalks to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
December 7, 1993: The Air Force Reserve acquired its first B–52 bombers, which went to the 917th Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.
December 17, 1993: The first B–2 Spirit bomber, The Spirit of Missouri, arrived at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. The B–2, essentially a flying wing, was the first “stealth” heavy bomber.
January 25, 1994: A Titan II booster launched the unmanned space probe Clementine I toward the Moon—part of the first U.S. lunar mission since Apollo 17 in 1972.
February 10, 1994: Lt. Jeannie Flynn completed training in an F–15E Eagle to become the first woman fighter pilot in the Air Force.
May 6, 1994: 1st Lt. Leslie DeAnn Crosby became the first Air Force Reserve woman fighter pilot after she graduated from an F–16 Fighting Falcon training course in Tucson, Arizona.
October 4, 1994: F–16 Fighting Falcons replaced the last F–4 Wild Weasel aircraft in the performance of suppression of enemy air defenses missions.
October 14–16, 1994: In their first strategic mission, two C–17 Globemaster IIIs transported military equipment and supplies from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, to Saudi Arabia.
February 3, 1995: Lt. Col. Eileen M. Collins, USAF, became the first woman pilot of a space shuttle. On July 23, 1999, Collins became the first woman commander of a space-shuttle mission on a flight of the Columbia.
April 27, 1995: Air Force Space Command declared the Global Positioning System satellite constellation fully operational. The system provides accurate geographical coordinates for personnel moving on the ground, sea, or air.
June 2–8, 1995: After a surface-to-air missile downed his F–16 Fighting Falcon fighter over Bosnia, Capt. Scott O’Grady, USAF, evaded capture by hostile forces for six days until he was rescued by Marine Corps helicopters.
July 29, 1995: Air Combat Command activated the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron, the first unit of unmanned aerial vehicles, now called remotely piloted aircraft, reflecting the Air Force’s increasing reliance on unmanned aircraft in combat-support roles.
January 9, 1996: After three-and-a-half years, Operation Provide Promise officially ended. During this international operation—the longest sustained humanitarian airlift in history—the U.S. Air Force flew more than 4,500 sorties to deliver 62,802 metric tons of cargo to Sarajevo and other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In February 1997, the Air Force Reserve officially became the Air Force Reserve Command, the Air Force's ninth major command
May 5, 1996: Col. Betty L. Mullis, USAF, assumed command of the 940th Air Refueling Wing, becoming the first woman to command a flying wing.
May 31, 1996: The Air Force awarded the largest military contracts ever for the production of 80 additional C–17 Globemaster III transports over the course of seven years at a cost of $16.2 billion. The new aircraft would bring the C–17 fleet up to a total of 120, which would allow the retirement of most of the aging C–141 Starlifters.
June 11, 1996: Air Combat Command acquired its first E–8 joint surveillance target attack radar system aircraft. The E–8 airplane, capable of providing detailed radar information about ground targets, had been tested during its development phase in Operations Desert Storm and Joint Endeavor.
September 3, 1996: The 11th Reconnaissance Squadron began operating the RQ–1B Predator, an remotely piloted aircraft designed for aerial surveillance and reconnaissance, over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
March 21, 1997: At Pensacola, Florida, Lt. Col. Marcelyn A. Atwood became the first woman to command a training squadron and the first USAF officer to command a Navy squadron. The squadron trained both Air Force and Navy pilots.
September 7, 1997: At Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, test pilot Paul Metz piloted the F–22 Raptor in its first flight. A new stealth fighter with the ability to cruise supersonically, the F–22 would replace the venerable F–15 for air-superiority missions.
February 28, 1998: The RQ–4 Global Hawk first flew. This new remotely piloted aircraft, designed for high-altitude, long-range, long-endurance reconnaissance missions, took off from Edwards Air Force Base, California, on a 56-minute flight. The aircraft, with a wingspan of 116 feet, was built to fly at an altitude of up to 65,000 feet and photograph an area the size of Kentucky in 24 hours.
December 9, 1998: President William J. Clinton awarded an honorary fourth star to Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first black USAF general and the leader of the “Tuskegee Airmen” in World War II.
December 16, 1998: Operation Desert Fox commenced with the launch of cruise missiles and air strikes by the United States and Great Britain against Iraqi targets after Iraq refused to allow United Nations weapons inspectors to continue their work. The four-day operation, which hit some 100 enemy sites, destroyed weapons-production facilities. The largest air campaign against Iraq since the Southwest Asia War of 1991, Desert Fox involved the first combat use of B–1B Lancer bombers.
March 27, 1999: For the first time, an F–117 stealth fighter was shot down in combat. Enemy ground fire brought down the Nighthawk over Yugoslavia. Capt. John A. Cherrey, an A–10 pilot, earned the Silver Star for locating the downed pilot, who was rescued by helicopter the same day.
April 4, 1999: A USAF C–17 Globemaster III airlifted relief supplies from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to Tirana, Albania, for refugees from Kosovo at the start of Operation Sustain Hope (Shining Hope), a humanitarian-airlift counterpart of the ongoing Operation Allied Force (Noble Anvil). In the first month, allied transports, including C–5s, C–17s, and C–130s, airlifted more than 3,000 tons of food, medicine, tents, supplies, cots, blankets, sleeping bags, and other relief cargo to refugees who had fled to camps in Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Maj. Gen. William S. Hinton, Jr., USAF, commanded the operation.
June 10, 1999: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization suspended air strikes against Yugoslavia after its president agreed in writing to the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo, their replacement with multinational peacekeeping forces, and the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians to that province. Noted military historian John Keegan claimed that Allied Force was the first war in history won by air power alone.
July 23, 1999: Col. Eileen M. Collins, USAF, who had been the first woman pilot of a space shuttle in 1995, became the first woman commander of a space-shuttle mission on a flight of the Columbia.
October 6, 1999: The United States destroyed the first of 150 Minuteman III silos in eastern North Dakota, in accordance with the terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.
March 2, 2000: After floods in Mozambique that left an estimated million people homeless, Operation ATLAS RESPONSE commenced. C–5s and C–17s flew 4,600 miles from a base in Germany to southern Africa, where C–130s and MH–53 and HH–60 helicopters distributed food, water, medicine, and tents. Maj. Gen. Joseph H. Wehrle, Jr., USAF, served as the joint task force commander.
May 3, 2000: Gen. Joseph W. Ralston became the first USAF officer in 37 years to serve as supreme allied commander, Europe—head of all North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces.