Air Force vs Navy: Aircraft Comparisons

Plane Talk, Education Center October 13, 2021

As the United States (US) Air Force defends the skies, the US Navy ensures freedom of the seas through naval aviation. With more than 5,300 aircraft, the US Air Force is the largest aviation force in the world, followed by the US Navy’s fleet of approximately 3,700 aircraft.

The F-35 is a multi-role stealth plane used to strengthen national security and give pilots an advantage in missions. Both the Air Force and Navy’s aircraft include F-35 fighter jets, but there are three different variants to accommodate the different service needs.

F-35 Variants

The F-35A is the most common variant, designed to take off from and land on conventional runways. This is the primary variant of the F-35 used by the US Air Force, and by many international allies.

The F-35B is capable of short-distance take off and vertical landings, which are ideal for Marine Corps needs in the field and landing on some ships at sea.
The Navy operates the F-35C, designed and built with the Navy’s specialized needs in mind. This long-range stealth fighter was designed exclusively to land on Navy aircraft carriers.

Structural strength is one of the biggest differences between Air Force and Navy planes, especially significant when it comes to taking off and landing at sea. In addition to requiring extensive training and skill on behalf of the pilots, these more challenging landings on aircraft carriers require Navy planes to have heavier duty landing gear, wheels, brakes and tires. The fuselage also needs to be stronger, as landing on a moving target like an aircraft carrier can be a violent affair, with very little margin for error.

An F-35 takeoff from an aircraft carrier requires a catapult force that goes from 0 to 170 mph in just 2.5 seconds. To safely land on an aircraft carrier, a Navy F-35C requires catching the tailhook on several arresting, gear cable lines stretched across the landing strip. Originally found on Navy aircraft, the tailhook was eventually added to many Air Force fighters to use in emergency situations such as hydraulic failures. Deck arresting cables also have different structural components, with Navy cables powered by steam catapult and Air Force cables engaged by hydraulics.

F-15 Eagle and F-14 Tomcat

The F-15 and F-14 were built to meet different operational requirements––interceptor and tactical fighter, respectively. The now-retired F-14 Tomcat was successful at defending Navy aircraft carriers against multiple enemy bombers, thanks to its BVR (Beyond Visual Range) capabilities. The twin-engine, all-weather F-15 Eagle’s superior maneuverability was better for the Air Force’s air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities.

F-17 Cobra and F-18 Hornet

The structural differences in Navy and Air Force aircraft are also evident in the required changes when the F-17–a prototype for the Air Force–was redeveloped into the F/A-18 Hornet for the Navy. The aircraft was lengthened and widened, given more fuel space and structurally reinforced to support a more demanding lifetime. The F-17, though a capable aircraft originally, lost out to the legendary F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Navy Helicopters

Helicopter pilots are often required to land on destroyers or cruisers, which have a smaller landing area than aircraft carriers. This results in the need for high-pressure launches and landings, and a great deal of precision required on the pilots’ behalf.

Future of the Navy and Air Force Fighter Planes

With an increasing number of nations exploring the capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles, the U.S. Air Force is likewise pushing the envelope. With the advent of the fifth-generation fighters, such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, the question is being asked what will the sixth-generation look like? The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD)–for the Air Force–and the F/A-XX program–for the Navy–paint an interesting picture of multi-role aircraft that could be controlled remotely, accompanied by whole wings of specialized, unmanned drones. The days of the manned fighter are surely numbered.

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