Excerpted from a letter to The Commandant, Field Artillery School, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, August 4, 1941, from William W. Ford, Major, Field Artillery

In January 1941 this writer presented his views on the above subject in an article entitled “Wings for Santa Barbara“. This article, published in the April 1941 issue of the Field Artillery Journal, recommended[s] as follows:

  • Light commercial planes as Field Artillery observation vehicles, one per battalion, organically assigned;
  • Field Artillery observers;
  • Field Artillery pilots, if necessary, recruited from the many thousand commercial pilots in this country.

In April 1941 a British board, sitting to consolidate World War II experience in this respect and to set up specifications for Field Artillery observation airplanes, made recommendations so nearly identical with this author’s that the similarity was striking. The coincidence of view might be considered really phenomenal had not the present Commandant of the Field Artillery School made similar suggestions twenty years before. The idea is not new.

Despite the unanimity of views indicated above and the concurrence therewith in large part by our War Department G-2 [military intelligence], nothing seems to have been done to investigate, officially, the worth of the scheme suggested. At the present time it is understood that development of air observation for Field Artillery is confined to… the allotment of three slow-flying airplanes of the O-49 type to each observation squadron.

This writer believes the above program to be hopelessly inadequate and impractical. It is not denied that the O-49 are suitable observation vehicles. Objection to them rests upon other grounds:

  • [They are] expensive and slow to build, making their procurement in adequate numbers a doubtful matter. They require an inordinate quantity of strategic materials. A more economical machine, if practicable, is certainly desirable.
  • Highly complex, their maintenance in the field will involve many difficulties. This presents a dilemma. If the machines are scattered, as they should be, one to each Field Artillery battalion, disproportionately large maintenance crews will be necessary. (In contrast, one mechanic can maintain a commercial lightplane). On the other hand, if the machines are grouped in the observation squadron for economy of maintenance it can not be expected that one will be present at all times with each Field Artillery battalion, ready for instant use when needed.
  • The O-49 is a cumbersome aircraft, difficult to conceal under natural cover.

In addition to the above disadvantages of currently proposed aircraft, there are several apparent defects in the present program:

  • Only three light observation airplanes are allotted to each squadron. These are classed as “liaison” planes. They will serve others than the Field Artillery. The division artillery can not expect to get more than a single airplane, part of the time. This is not enough. It is not nearly enough.
  • No corps of observers exists, either in the Field Artillery or in the Air Corps, qualified to perform artillery observation missions under modern battle conditions. Nor are such observers being trained. The current program of observer training in the Air Corps does not meet Field Artillery needs.

The time has come to give the light commercial plane a fair trial. Lacking both planes and observers, the Field Artillery should set out energetically to get them. The sources are well within reach. Pilots, too, are already present within the Field Artillery in considerable numbers; others can easily be obtained from the almost unlimited reservoir of civilian lightplane pilots.

This test of the light commercial plane should be made by the Field Artillery itself. Collaboration with the Air Corps is most undesirable. Air Corps experience is with heavy “military” planes. Air Corps personnel, as such, are unfamillar with the lightplane’s characteristics and performance, and are unqualified to judge its merits. An indication of this is found in the fact that when the Air Corps recently selected certain small commercial planes for trial it chose the Ercoupe and the Stinson 105 for the test. The resulting report was unfavorable, as might have been expected by anyone familiar with lightplanes, since the ships investigated had relatively long take-off runs and relatively high landing speeds. A lightplane expert would have tried, instead, ships of the class of the Piper Cub and the Taylorcraft tandem trainers.

A further instance of the danger of allowing such an important issue to become clouded by hearsay or by the testimony of those knowing little about it may be found in the footnote at the bottom of page 233 of the April, 1941, Field Artillery Journal. Here the editor Inserts as a footnote to the article “Wings for Santa Barbara” the comment: Recent tests indicate that the landing gear of these commercial planes breaks down after repeated landings in “cow pastures.” What tests? The source of the “expert” advice which persuaded the editor to make that statement is not known, but the statement is highly misleading. Tens of thousands of civilian pilots have flown these small planes from small, unimproved landing fields over a period of years, and the breakages of landing gear have been nominal. When breakage does occur the repair is usually simple and inexpensive, and can readily be made by one good mechanic. This writer has flown small commercial airplanes for the last eight years in many parts of the United States and on innumerable cross-country hops. The statements made above are from extensive personal experience and from intimate acquaintance with hundreds of lightplane operators.

It is strongly believed that a group of six or more of these small commercial planes should be procured and stationed at Fort Sill for thorough investigation of this matter. Conditions of the test:

  • Test to be under the exclusive control of the Field Artillery;
  • Pilots to be obtained among Field Artillery officers, stationed at Fort Sill, who hold CAA “Private Pilot” or “Commercial Pilot” certificates;
  • Observers to be Field Artillery officers who are graduates of the Battery Officers Course;
  • Mechanics to be furnished by the aircraft companies furnishing the planes, hired for the duration of the test. One mechanic per three planes is entirely adequate under conditions in garrison.

Purpose of the test:

  • To determine definitely the suitability of the light commercial plane for Field Artillery observation purposes;
  • To develop a suitable technique for adjusting Field Artillery fires from low altitudes over own lines. (Present methods are unsatisfactory, since it is quite impossible to estimate deviations from low altitudes several thousand yards from the target area.)
  • To work out the very real communication problem involved. Present radio equipment is inadequate. Light two-way voice radio, crystal-controlled, similar to the sets used in air navigation, is indicated for the aircraft. On this writer’s private plane such a set cost $150.00, weighed 13 pounds. Several such radio sets, each transmitting on a single frequency different from the others, should be provided for the artillery of a division. Thus each battalion could be issued for its own plane a radio set transmitting on a single predetermined frequency which it would be incapable of altering. Off-frequency operation and interference would be eliminated. It is of paramount importance to reduce to the minimum tuning operations in the air.
  • To develop a piloting technique designed to afford the maximum advantages to the observer and the maximum protection from hostile aircraft. Avoidance of stalls and spins while maneuvering at low speeds at low altitude would be stressed, as would techniques for quick landing and subsequent concealment of the aircraft.
  • To train both observers and pilots for later duty as instructors in division artillery and corps artillery brigades.

The airplane is not a strange and mysterious contrivance, capable of being understood and operated only by Men from Mars. It is a commonplace vehicle, operated daily by men, women and children, old and young. There is no necessity for restricting its military operation to a single branch unless economy or efficiency is enhanced thereby, which is not the case. There is no more reason for placing all airplanes in the Air Corps than there is for placing all trucks in the Quartermaster Corps, all cannon[s] in the Field Artillery, or all radios in the Signal Corps. Such ideas invariably arise with the advent of a new piece of mechanism, but just as invariably they are abandoned when the efficient use of the mechanism is learned.

It may be later than we think. Until the matter of air observation is settled our artillery will not be ready for battle.

The urgent need for an adequate observation plane for field artillery purposes is recognized. The air corps instructor with this department is of the opinion that a light commercial model now being manufactured in quantity (Piper Cub) is adequate. Anything this school can do to expedite the standardization, procurement, and issue of such a plane would seem to be justified.

Acknowledgement from Howard C. Bowman, Lt. Col., F. A., Director

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