Reprinted from Infantry Journal, by Private John Wolbarst, July 1941.
Six thousand airplanes of less than 100 horsepower produced in 1940 attest recognition of the great sport to be found in a lightplane. That the same lightplane is potentially a military instrument of real value is less well recognized.
There have been proposals for the organization of a great utility air fleet, using our civl aircraft and civilian pilots as an Air Corps auxiliary. Among the many suggested duties are a nationwide aerial radio patrol and a courier service for the Army. In this field British civilian pilots have been useful to the RAF in certain non-combat work and American experiments in that direction are likely. But the first strictly military use of lightplanes seems to have been for command missions during the Nazi sweep through Poland. And during the 1940 campaign an early German arrival in Paris was a lightplane which landed neatly on a boulevard.
For American defense the lightplane could he developed into a scout and utility plane and would supplement the activities of motorcycles, scout-cars, and so on. It might take over a variety of minor missions that may be vital to a particular ground unit but which do not warrant calling upon regular Air Corps facilities.
Both planes and pilots should be drawn from such sources as to be available in quantity at relatively low cost and without causing further strain and congestion in military plane production and Air Corps pilot training.
A scoutplane could easily be developed from a light commercial plane like the [ERCO] “Ercoupé,” which is a 65-horsepower, low-wing, two-place metal monoplane, that has been certified by the Civil Aeronautics Authority as “characteristically incapable of spinning.” In other words, spinproof and inherently safe. To fly it safely requires a minimum of physical coordination and comparatively little flight training. There is but one flying control—a wheel which steers it like an automobile in the air or on the ground, and also operates the elevators for climb and descent. Tricycle landing gear allows the ship to be flown in to a landing at forty-five miles per hour, under control. With some slight changes a scoutplane of this type could be put to many military uses.
One or more scoutplanes could be assigned to each infantry battalion or similar unit. Pilots would come from enlisted volunteer and civilian aviators unsuitable for regular military flying, and would be given a distinctive NCO rank. The scoutplane’s simplicity of operation would permit nearly any civilian flying school to give the pilots a concentrated course in operation and elementary maintenance of the ships. Both men and planes should be part of the Air Corps but permanently assigned to a ground organization and under the commander’s orders. Equipment need be only of the simplest type consonant with safe contact flying, and might well include a two-way radio.
The scoutplane does not need airports or hard runways. Any reasonable sized pasture or a highway will do. When grounded it is no more difficult to conceal than artillery or big trucks.
Most scoutplane activities would be in areas where combat is unlikely. Aerial direction of troop traffic far from the battle zone is hardly a task for combat pilots and planes with pressing duties elsewhere. Yet the airplane’s ability to detect and give warning of potential traffic jams may insure the timely arrival of troops and supplies at a critical destination.
Quiet areas, not important enough to justify regular Air Corps patrol, could be kept under constant surveillance by scoutplanes attached to ground units in those areas. General reconnaissance, liaison, light transport and other duties suggest themselves.
If attacked by enemy fighters the scoutplane pilot would have to bail out at once, but even here he might have time to report the enemy’s presence. The large number of airmen taken alive in this war indicates a good chance of pilot survival. Granting that scoutplane losses might be numerous under some conditions, they would compare favorably with other military losses, for the equipment loss would come to less than that involved in the destruction of a heavy-duty truck. Moreover the pilot would have had less time and effort spent on his training than an expert infantryman or tank driver. The scoutplane’s useful services should far outweigh in value any losses.
Many ground officers have never flown over their commands nor studied troop operations from the air. This summer commissioned and noncommissioned officers should have that opportunity. The increasing emphasis on protection from air attacks adds a special aspect to maneuver problems, transport, and terrain. Any man who is to be responsible for the movement or concealment of troops and equipment ought to have ample opportunity to view his work from the viewpoint of an enemy bomber.
For most efficient air-ground cooperation all members of the ground forces should understand the theory and have some practice in the mechanics of air-ground liaison.
Moreover, from the air the maneuver director or commander of large units can better observe all movements and by the use of a two-way radio can increase the effectiveness of the training.
The Air Corps should not be asked to spare the planes nor the men for such work. An effective temporary substitute would be to hire civilian pilots and equipment. The experiment need not be limited to lightplanes. The very variety of equipment which would probably be represented might be of value in selecting types for future use as Air Corps auxiliaries. Eventually, scoutplanes could be assigned to troop training duties.
Recent successes of the Sikorsky helicopter give promise of a revolutionary means of flight, but this is apparently too far in the future to be of much good in the current emergency.
The Air Corps has experimented with the autogiro and had recently developed Ryan and Stinson monoplanes which can fly very slowly and are excellent for artillery spotting and other field duties. These are remarkable ships and the scoutplane described here need not compete with them in their particular work. But in addition to being just as defenseless as the scoutplane they are relatively expensive and high-powered ships, requiring more highly skilled pilots.
There are enough reserves of production capacity in the lightplane industry to build under license large numbers of standardized design scoutplanes. Unlimited reserves of pilot material are also available.
A defense need exists which these planes and pilots can help to meet. Given the chance, there is no reason to doubt that the job will be well done.