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Grasshopper Pilots For the Field Artillery

Excerpted from The Putt-Putt Air Force by Patricia Strickland

The legendary Grasshopper Fleet of World War II was helped into being by a December 22, 1941 memorandum headed “Civilian Instructor Personnel for Field Artillery Air Observation Test Training Program.” Sent to the CAA (Civil Aeronautics Authority, precursor to the FAA), it stated the administration would select and arrange for the assistance of Field Artillery Pilot-Mechanics “experienced in flying of the barnstorming type” and “experienced in aircraft and engine maintenance familiar with field experience and who can keep airplanes flying under adverse maintenance conditions.”

Light plane manufacturers had been trying to convince the military services they should reserve a niche in their war plans for the “puddle jumper” (a term for a light aircraft capable of utilizing small air strips and or lakes for commuting small distances). Manufacturers sent planes and pilots to Army maneuvers to demonstrate the utility of small aircraft. It was proved that they did not need runways, they could operate from a rough dirt road; they could direct armored columns and adjust tank fire; they could carry messages and ferry personnel; they could be used for scouting and patrol.

For example, when an artillery battery wanted to fire at a target, the pilot took his little plane and would report on shell bursts by radio, acting as spotters for the Field Artillery.

The Grasshoppers proved to be the most versatile of aircraft (even as a non-combat classification). Their cost, operation and maintenance was only a fraction of the cost of heavier observation planes (at the time used for many of the same roles). Furthermore, pilots maintained these light aircraft in the field.

From a CAA press release on training exercises in 1942:

These planes will be used as elevated and movable observation stations. Carrying a pilot and an observer, they will operate in the air approximately above our artillery positions from which vantage point the observer will be able to adjust artillery fire.

These planes must take off and land from all sorts of terrain, and the pilot must be able to maintain his craft in the field just as the artilleryman takes care of his gun and motor vehicle. Average flights are estimated from 5 to 15 minutes duration, after which the pilot will probably have to land and hide his plane.

The lightplanes flew across the battlegrounds of Western Europe and the Mediterranean. A Grasshopper pilot operating in this theatre was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, as recorded in Senate Hearings dated February 2, 1944:

During the assault phase of the landings (Sicily, July 1943) Lieutenant Julian W. Cummings, Battalion Artillery Officer, took off in a Piper Cub in advance of the required time and under incessant fire, from an improvised runway on the deck of an LST, to spot and report positions of enemy artillery then laying highly effective fire on beaches being used to land clements of the armed forces. He located and reported the progress of our front line to the Force Commander. Lieutenant Cummings’ initiative, resourcefulness, and extraordinary bravery under fire to accomplish an urgent mission, contributed materially to the success of the operation.

No more graphic tribute to the work of these pilots ever appeared than in a Wing Talk article published in the February 17, 1944 issue of Collier’s magazine:

Unarmed Piper Cubs (L-4 Grasshoppers)... the Field Artillery took them and used them to distinct advantage as flying observation posts for directing artillery fire. The Grasshopper and the Field Artillery are welded together forevermore in the art of warfare.

I watched artillery Grasshoppers circling positions. Occasionally German flak burst close to them and they scattered like partridges, then cautiously edged back again. The Grasshoppers were an important link in the lnfantry-Air-Artillery team that broke those strong defensive positions.

I watched one of the Grasshoppers—“Li’l Sourpuss”—hovering over a tiny pasture near lsigny. Within the pasture there were slit trenches, foxholes and cows. Completely surrounding it were trees and concrete telephone poles. A 20-mile-an-hour wind was blowing across it, a gusty wind, too. It was raining. It was dark. And the field was small even for a Grasshopper.

The pilot dragged it methodically then straightened out for a crosswind landing, gliding and crabbing into the wind with such a huge drift angle that it appeared to be flying sidewise. He did a neat turn around a beech tree at an airspeed close to the stall. He maintained the large angle of yaw and side-slip until just before it touched down; then straightened out in the direction of flight with downwind rudder and aileron into the wind. He dropped it in about twelve inches.

It was a good landing under full control squarely in the middle of the pasture at a place where apple trees served as a windbreak. Grasshoppers crews, though, have learned to evaluate one risk against another and sometimes considerable juggling of values is required. It was good airmanship and good headwork of the kind that is required every day from the wartime Grasshoppers.

When many guns start shaking the earth, little Grasshoppers like “Who Dat?,” “Flak Bait” and “Li’l Sourpuss,” climb up regularly from pastures and apple orchards. Soldiers all know that these planes play a role out of all proportion to their size.

When landing on a strange site, they don’t mind the live cows in it, because Grasshoppers which have landed on anti-tank mines aren’t here any more. They often land downwind, especially when it is uphill. They have lots of fun when they must takeoff down the hill and down the wind; they say it is like the roller coasters back home. But sometimes it is annoying to land on the side of a hill that is too steep spanwise and have the Grasshopper’s wingtip mow grass.

In taking off from tight spots and over high obstructions, they study the wind very carefully and sometimes squeeze over the treetops by very gentle S-turning. They are experts at crosswind landings and probably have made more downwind landings than anyone. They often fly to a new site with an L-4 so stuffed full of K-rations, ropes, bedrolls, pup tents and camouflage netting that its sides bulge. Before flying, some of them just hold the tail off the ground and if it “hefts” all right, they take off.

After landing near the front, the Grasshoppers taxi quickly beneath sheltering trees or hedges. A hatchet is standard equipment for clearing the way and providing leafy cover. Camouflage netting is quickly draped over the wings and tail. A dark cover is placed over the windshield, stakes are driven and the Grasshopper bedded down.

The Grasshoppers do not always escape. Fw 109s (a successful piston-engined fighter of the German air force, the Luftwaffe) equipped with four Mauser cannons have attacked them and blown Grasshopper and crew into small pieces. They have no armor protection. They rely on friendly fighter cover, anti-aircraft forces, concealment, alertness and their ability to fly around haystacks when necessity arises.

Some Grasshoppers have spent months chasing Rommel up from Africa, to Sicily to Italy. They are quietly proud of their deluge of artillery shells falling on Germany.

“Flak Bait’s” engine purred along, the controls were good. The fabric was tight, although it was patched around the wingtips and elevators. The propeller seemed to be only slightly rough. Its air time was colossal. Yet, the little ship was in one piece after touching down in Normandy about D-plus three and spending nearly all of the flyable hours of daylight blasting Nazis from lsigny, Caretan, Cherbourg, and St. Lo.

Some Grasshoppers, perhaps, have helped to direct almost as many tons onto Nazi heads as a thousand-bomber raid. The little ships are proven veterans of this war and when the big Libs and Forts (Liberators and Flying Fortress heavy bombers) reach their Valhalla, I think they will reserve some space there for the Grasshoppers.

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–One such place is here at Cannon Field in San Antonio, Texas.

Full text of this information packed publication, The Putt-Putt Air Force: The Story of The Civilian Pilot Training Program and The War Training Service, is available here.

The Putt-Putt Air Force

 

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