Every U.S. military aviation enthusiast has a favorite aircraft, whether they know it or not. Is it the ever-agile F-16 Fighting Falcon? The aggressively belligerent A-10 Thunderbolt II? The uber-expensive F-35 Lightning II? Or how about the hulking C-130 Hercules, or the workhorse C-17 Globemaster III?
You may spend time arguing over the various capabilities of each of these mighty airframes, but there's one thing most people will agree on: No aircraft is more adorable than those that make up the Air Force's patchwork fleet of miniature aircraft.
Seriously, just look at these things. Aren't they just freaking adorable? They may not fly, but what they lack in airworthiness, they almost certainly make up for in preciousness -- and, we hope, in recruiting value, as that's how they're most often deployed around the United States.
Let's take a look at these dainty-ass aircraft, shall we?
The Air Force has had not one, but three mini C-130 Hercules aircraft in its inventory (at least) at certain times in the last 25 years or so. The first mini C-130, built by the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi in 1999 and nicknamed "Lil' Bill," was constructed "to enhance community relations and outreach to the public," according to the 403 WG, much to the delight of local children. Technically a replica of the C-130J, the aircraft has participated in Veterans Day parades and other armed forces-themed events for years before the specialized trailer that hauled it around the Gulf Coast broke down permanently, making transportation prohibitively complicated. In 2021, Lil' Bill was sent to his final home at the Mississippi Aviation Heritage Museum in Gulfport, where he still delights children to this day.
The second mini C-130, operated by the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Airlift Wing, was built by airmen from the unit's 123rd Maintenance Squadron nearly 20 years ago, making its debut at the 2004 Kentucky Derby Festival parade, according to the 123 AW. Built "from scratch" from the chassis of a three-wheeled Cushman utility cart, the mini C-130 can hit speeds of up to 120 mph and features a working cargo door, a UHF radio, working propellers and a stereo system to entertain the dozen passengers it can carry. While the vehicle cannot fly, it's apparently been a big hit among children across Kentucky and Indiana for years.
The third mini C-130 is operated by the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing and has been since at least 2008, when it first appeared during an annual 5K run at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, according to the NC ANG. It apparently took the 145th Maintenance Squadron some five years to get the so-called "Mini" up and running, and according to airmen, the time was well worth it. "To be able to give our time to kids and educate them about the Air Force is far more valuable than anything else," as then-Master Sgt. Marty Jones put it back in 2013. "The look on their faces and [the] happiness they exude when in and around the mini C-130 is reward enough!"
The Air Force's mini C-17 Globemaster III, named "the Spirit of Hope, Liberty and Freedom," was built over the span of four years by members of the 315th and 437th Airlift Wings, Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, based on a John Deere "Gator" multipurpose vehicle donated by the 315th Recruiting Service, according to a fact sheet from the 315th AW. Completed and dedicated to the citizens of South Carolina in 2004, the 32-foot-long "true to life" replica features flight station panels, operational ramp and cargo doors, and even real-life engine sounds, per the wing, and the aircraft has made numerous appearance at parade and air shows in the region and even appeared in the Pentagon courtyard.
The Air Force apparently has several mini F-16s floating around in its inventory. A pair apparently belonging to the Encino, California-based 369th Recruiting Squadron were photographed back in 2007 participating in an Armed Forces Day parade in Torrance, California; another made an appearance at a Veterans Day parade in Milwaukee in 2021, this one operated by the Civil Air Patrol's Wisconsin Timmerman Composite Squadron, an auxiliary component of the Air Force. But the best version of the mini F-16 may be the one belonging to the Indiana Air National Guard's 122nd Fighter Wing, which even features its own (hopefully inert) AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
Details surrounding the Air Force's mini F-22 are understandably elusive, as they should be for the highly maneuverable stealth fighter. While the earliest photographic evidence of the aircraft comes from the same Torrance Armed Forces Day parade that also saw a pair of mini F-16s in attendance, the same mini F-22 also appeared at a 2015 Veterans Day parade in Dallas, according to a photo from the 344th Recruiting Squadron. There's also evidence of a second mini F-22, built on a golf cart frame by the 314th Recruiting Squadron, getting refurbished by airmen at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey in 2017. Hopefully these mini F-22s did a better job driving recruiting than their big brother did in the first "Iron Man" movie.
Bonus: The BD-5J Small Manned Aerial Radar Target-1
While technically the product of aerospace contractor Bishop's Aerial Productions, this jet-powered version of the tiny-as-hell Jim Bede-designed BD-5, the world's smallest jet, has been occasionally used by the Defense Department as a cruise missile surrogate since 2012 under the moniker Small Manned Aerial Radar Target-1, or SMART-1. If the BD-5J looks familiar, that's understandable: most of the world was introduced to the delightfully diminutive aircraft in the 1983 James Bond film "Octopussy," in which Roger Moore ostensibly pilots one through an open hanger. And while not officially part of the Air Force's fleet, we'll give this little airframe a pass as it's the only one on our list that actually flies.
-- Jared Keller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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