Special Report

The US Air Force’s Favorite Planes

NNehring / E+ via Getty Images

As the war in Ukraine rages on, the U.S. Air Force is helping shield NATO allies from additional aggression. As part of the premier air force in the world, U.S. fighter jets have been deployed along the Baltic Sea region to augment the alliance’s capabilities to safeguard NATO’s eastern borders.

The United States Air Force is one of the most dominant and versatile aerial combat forces in the world. As such, it incorporates a wide range of aircraft to maintain its supremacy. Here is a look at some of its most common aircraft.

To identify the 25 most common planes in active service in the U.S. Air Force, 24/7 Wall St. referenced the 2023 report, World Air Forces, from FlightGlobal, an aviation and aerospace industry website. We ranked aircrafts by the number of units in active service, considering only those with more than 25 units. Supplemental data regarding the type of aircraft, how many are in active service, and how many are on order came from FlightGlobal. Data on each aircraft’s first flight came from various military and historical sources.

The backbone of U.S. aerial warfare is its extensive fleet of multi-role fighters. Two of the most numerous of these aircraft in the Air Force are the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle/Strike Eagle. These aircraft are capable of performing air-to-air and air-to-ground attacks. (See if these are among the world’s 20 fastest warplanes.)

Currently, over 770 F-16 Fighting Falcons are in service as well as over 400 F-15 Eagles. The F-15 Eagle is a twin-engine, all-weather, tactical fighter that plays multiple roles including air dominance and ground attack capabilities. Variants of the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-15 Eagle are also some of the most numerous. 

Other aircraft that are relatively common in the U.S. Air Force are fifth generation fighters, including the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II, which represent the next level of stealth, avionics, and overall capabilities. (These are the most expensive planes in the U.S. Air Force.)

The F-35 Lightning II program, in particular, is set to become one of the most numerous planes in the Air Force considering orders for the coming years. There are more than 300 F-35 Lightning IIs currently in service and over 1,400 on order. With evolving technologies, the F-35 Lightning II is poised to become one of the most crucial additions to the U.S. Air Force, supplementing and eventually replacing many of the older aircraft.

The wide range of aircraft ensures that the Air Force remains versatile and well prepared to confront challenging situations across different terrains and operational requirements. 

Here is a look at the 25 most numerous planes within the U.S. Air Force.

Source: my_public_domain_photos / Flickr

24. U-2 Dragon Lady
> Type: Special Mission
> Active in Air Force: 26
> First flight: August 1955
> On order for the Air Force: 0

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

23. E-3 Sentry
> Type: Special Mission
> Active in Air Force: 31
> First flight:February 1972
> On order for the Air Force: 0

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

22. U-28A Draco
> Type: Special mission, transport
> Active in Air Force: 35
> First flight: May 1991
> On order for the Air Force: 0

21. HC-130J Combat King II
> Type: Special Mission
> Active in Air Force: 38
> First flight: July 2010
> On order for the Air Force: 9

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Source: Clive Wells / iStock via Getty Images

20. KC-10 Extender
> Type: Tanker
> Active in Air Force: 40
> First flight: July 1980
> On order for the Air Force: 0

19. MC-12W Liberty
> Type: Special Mission
> Active in Air Force: 40
> First flight: April 2009
> On order for the Air Force: 0

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Source: usairforce / Flickr

18. B-1B Lancer
> Type: Combat aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 43
> First flight: December 1974
> On order for the Air Force: 0

17. C-5M Super Galaxy
> Type: Transport
> Active in Air Force: 52
> First flight: June 1968
> On order for the Air Force: 0

16. MC-130J Commando II
> Type: Tanker
> Active in Air Force: 59
> First flight: September 2011
> On order for the Air Force: 8

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Source: my_public_domain_photos / Flickr

15. KC-46 Pegasus
> Type: Tanker
> Active in Air Force: 61
> First flight: September 2015
> On order for the Air Force: 113

Source: my_public_domain_photos / Flickr

14. B-52H Stratofortress
> Type: Combat aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 72
> First flight: April 1952
> On order for the Air Force: 0

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13. F-16D Fighting Falcon
> Type: Training aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 147
> First flight: January 1974
> On order for the Air Force: 0

Source: NNehring / E+ via Getty Images

12. C-130 Hercules
> Type: Transport
> Active in Air Force: 162
> First flight: December 1957
> On order for the Air Force: 0

Source: arcticwarrior / Flickr

11. C-130J Super Hercules
> Type: Transport
> Active in Air Force: 171
> First flight: April 1996
> On order for the Air Force: 27

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10. F-22 Raptor
> Type: Combat aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 177
> First flight: May 1990
> On order for the Air Force: 0

9. T-1 Jayhawk
> Type: Training aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 178
> First flight: July 1991
> On order for the Air Force: 0

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8. C-17 Globemaster III
> Type: Transport
> Active in Air Force: 228
> First flight: July 1993
> On order for the Air Force: 0

Source: Stocktrek Images / Stocktrek Images via Getty Images

7. A-10C Thunderbolt II
> Type: Combat aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 286
> First flight: October 1975
> On order for the Air Force: 0

Source: my_public_domain_photos / Flickr

6. F-35A Lightning II
> Type: Combat aircraft, training aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 310
> First flight: March 2014
> On order for the Air Force: 1,428

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Source: barteq24 / Flickr

5. KC-135 Stratotanker
> Type: Tanker
> Active in Air Force: 388
> First flight: June 1957
> On order for the Air Force: 0

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

4. F-15EX Eagle II
> Type: Combat aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 408
> First flight: February 2021
> On order for the Air Force: 136

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3. T-6 Texan
> Type: Training aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 444
> First flight: April 1935
> On order for the Air Force: 0

Source: Ryan Fletcher / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

2. T-38 Talon
> Type: Training aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 497
> First flight: April 1959
> On order for the Air Force: 0

Source: Ethan Miller / Getty Images

1. F-16C Fighting Falcon
> Type: Combat aircraft
> Active in Air Force: 775
> First flight: January 1974
> On order for the Air Force: 0

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