Excerpts from The Field Artillery Journal, October, 1946, by Maj. Delbert L. Bristol, F.A.

In December 1941 the War Department ordered a test of the feasibility of using organic aircraft in the held artillery to provide short range air observation for adjustment of fire. By 1 March 1942 a group of volunteer pilots and mechanics had completed a short course of instruction at the Field Artillery School followed by a series of practical tests conducted in conjunction with the 2nd Infantry Division Artillery at Fort Sam Houston and the 13th Field Artillery Brigade at Fort Bragg. The board reports recommended the establishment of organic aviation in field artillery units, and the War Department approved this recommendation in June of that year. Within a short period of time, courses of instruction for both pilots and mechanics were being conducted at the Field Artillery School, utilizing the personnel of the original test group and qualified civilians as instructors. In September the first pilots and mechanics were graduated and either assigned as instructors at the school or assigned to units then preparing for the invasion of North Africa.

Air OP’s first participated in combat when our forces invaded North West Africa in November 1942. Shortly thereafter, they joined units fighting in Tunisia and before the end of the Tunisian campaign were operating effectively as a secondary means of observation. Air OP’s moved into Sicily in July 1943 with the invading forces and it was during this operation that they really won recognition as a dependable observing agency for the field artillery. In September 1943 the Air OP’s accompanied the assaulting forces to Italy and there became extremely popular with the American doughboys and highly unpopular with the Germans. Later, in June 1944, the Air OP’s landed in Normandy and were the only effective means available to the artillery for locating targets and adjusting fire in the “hedge-row” country.

From this time on, the Air OP’s played a vital role in all phases of combat operations as a primary means of observation. In Europe alone, it may be said that Air OP’s accounted for better than 75% of all of the observed fire adjustments conducted.

To the surprise of many combat losses both in aircraft and personnel were surprisingly low. This was not attributable to the fact that the enemy did not endeavor to liquidate the Air OP’s, but because a well prepared Air OP has more fire power than any enemy antiaircraft battery, and can easily evade the enemy aircraft which is very vulnerable to being shot down by our own AAA [anti-aircraft artillery]. Although there are no statistics on the subject, it is probable that the enemy lost an average of at least two aircraft for each attempt to destroy one Air OP. This was largely due to the effectiveness of our own AAA fire, and Air Force fighter cover.

Student pilot taking off from fight tactical strip.

From the outset of the organic aviation program in 1942 to the present date, the principal aircraft for use as Air OP’s has been the L-4, better known as Piper Cub. Practically all units overseas were equipped with this aircraft until very late in the war when a limited number of the L-5 type (Stinson Sentinel) were made available to artillery units. Experience in all theaters indicated that there was a definite requirement for an aircraft with better observation and performance qualities than provided by the L-4 type. On the other hand, the L-5 did not prove entirely satisfactory because of its greater weight and increased maintenance in comparison with the L-4. Just prior to the end of the war, military characteristics for an observation aircraft were established based on combat experience in both the European and Pacific Theaters.

The Army Air Forces were directed to develop an aircraft based upon these characteristics, with a view to standardization for the field artillery. With regard to personnel, it was originally planned that the bulk of the Air OP pilots would be enlisted men. However, it was soon realized that officer pilots were required who were qualified not only to fly but also to serve on battalion and higher staffs as advisors to commanders on matters pertaining to air observation. This fact naturally resulted in a change of concept. It is a matter of passing interest to note that, although several thousand field artillery pilots were trained during the war, less than twelve were Regular Army officers.

No one can challenge the success of the Air OP during the recent conflict. It established itself as a “must” and is here to stay. In spite of their exemplary performance, much can be done to improve the effectiveness and versatility of Air OP’s of the future. I feel that the following are of prime importance:

  1. The training of the maximum number of junior field artillery officers as field artillery pilots.
  2. Training of the maximum number of field artillery officers and enlisted men in the duties of air observer.
  3. Training of all field artillery pilots in the non-flying duties of field artillery officers of the same grade.
  4. Establish a policy of 3 years as the maximum tour of primary duty as pilot, after which field artillery pilots must serve at least 3 years in another assignment before again becoming eligible for primary duty as a pilot.
  5. Development of a combination VHF and FM multiple-channel radio installation, which can be carried in the observation aircraft in order to insure flexibility of communication.
  6. Establish a Ground Aircraft Service Test Section at Wright Field with the mission of overall technical supervision of Army Ground Forces’ organic aviation, to include responsibilities in connection with new developments, dissemination of technical information, compliation of technical and supply statistics, preparation of technical bulletins and liaison with the Army Air Forces Air Technical Service Command.

The adoption of the major portion of the above program will insure that the Air OP’s of the future maintain a position abreast of all elements of our modernized post-war Army.

Air OP Operations in the Third U.S. Army

Flight Altitudes. With the German Air Force operating as it did during the European campaign, Air OPs discarded the original doctrine of flying at not over 600 feet altitude and in the general locality of the battery positions. Air OPs continue to fly with relative impunity over the front lines and at times even well into enemy territory at 2,500 to 3,500 feet altitude in order to get better observation on difficult targets.

Air OP Missions. Artillery Air OPs provided a most important means of observation to the field artillery. A coordinated patrol over the division front from dawn to dusk is of great value in locating targets of opportunity and discouraging enemy artillery activity. Certain conditions of poor weather, such as low ceilings and restricted visibility have proven very hazardous to Air OP operation. Spearheading of armored columns with an Air OP very greatly accelerates the progress of the column. The Cub, flying as far as two or three miles ahead, finds road blocks, condition of bridges, enemy dispositions, etc. This type of operation is very costly in aircraft as it is necessary to use unreconnoitered landing strips in the immediate vicinity of the column for security purposes. Counterflak operations have been very successful in that losses to Army Air Force aircraft on bombardment and close support missions were greatly reduced, as flak was kept to a minimum.

Communications for Air OPs. Air communications required additional facilities at airstrips in order to implement flexible operational procedures and adequate hostile aircraft warning system. Use of an SCR-608 radio as a base set of all corps, division artillery, and group airstrips was found necessary to supplement wire communication with command posts, for local traffic control, and for emergency communications to any group or division artillery plane in the air. An SCR-593 radio at the same airstrips to monitor the antiaircraft warning net eliminates all but one relay of enemy aircraft warnings to Air OPs in flight. Each battalion should have a third SCR-610 radio to use as a base set on operations wherein the battalion air section is operating separately and to use as a spare in case of failure of one of the SCR-610s installed in the aircraft.

Centralized Airstrips. Centralization of control of air sections consists of all battalions of the group or division artillery operating from one base field under the supervision of the Air Officer. This system facilitates supply, maintenance, communication and messing, and allows the Air Officer to run his patrol mission so that the maximum efficiency in use of aircraft and pilots is obtained. However, this centralization does not mean that any battalion can not call upon its own aircraft for special missions as it chooses. When necessary and desirable, battalion planes can be operated from their own strips. The control exercised is merely to facilitate missions which must be participated in and divided among all the aircraft of the units. When all sections are operating separately the Air Officer is notable to exercise as much supervision of actual flying in many cases, when fields are scarce, poorer strips will be used with consequent increase in accident rates. A certain degree of centralization under the group or division artillery Air Officer is generally found most satisfactory.

Location of Airstrips. Airstrips should be selected with high priority considerations being given to operational safety of the field. They should not be located within 500 yards of friendly battery positions, important crossroads, towns or villages, as these points usually draw enemy fire. A number of aircraft damages resulted from ranging rounds of such fire falling on or near airstrips.

Causes of Accidents. The most general cause of accidents to aircraft was pilot error. The ratio of operation losses to actual battle losses over an eight- month period was approximately two to one. Of these pilot error accidents, the primary cause was airstrips obstructions. Next came artillery shells landing on or near aircraft. Next were weather conditions such as ice, snow and frost on wings (causing take-off accidents), and mid-air collisions.

A continuous program for focusing attention of pilots on the fact that errors in judgment cause most of the accidents in which aircraft sustain damage and injury to personnel is warranted.

Night Flying. Except on special rare occasions, night flying, as such, was not warranted on the Continent. Antiaircraft artillery in the area must be issued a hold-fire order during the period of flights and gun flashes are impossible to locate on a map except on exceptionally clear nights of full moon when there is no haze. Dusk patrols may be profitable and warrant the effort and hazard involved.

Immediate Use of Reinforcement Pilots. Reinforcement pilots arrived on the Continent without having had any flying time for periods ranging from one to three months. While in the reinforcement system they received no flight training, and not until actually arriving at an artillery unit did they have such opportunity. Excess reinforcement pilots should be assigned for training to units which are doing the greatest amount of flying. This provides operational experience and relief for assigned pilots of the organization and results in filling vacancies as they turn up with seasoned personnel.

Landing Mats. In operations on the type of soil generally found in northwest Europe, aircraft of the weight of a Cub will tear up turf and quickly often the ground beyond usability in as little as one day’s operations. Use of L-5 aircraft is either impossible from the start or even more quickly becomes so because of its greater weight. Landing mats are essential for the majority of airstrips during the rainy season. Landing mats should be provided for future operations insufficient quantity to supply strips of at least 900 feet in length and twenty feet in width if the terrain is such that muddy conditions can be anticipated. Use of the mat insures continuous aircraft operation and reduces operation accidents.

Dropping Supplies. Supply dropping to isolated units was found to be feasible but hazardous. In several instances all types of supplies, including medical supplies, ammunition, radios, batteries, food and other equipment, were dropped to bridgehead or surrounded units thereby enabling them to continue fighting and later be reunited with friendly troops. This was accomplished by tree-top height flight covered by other Air OPs which were prepared to take enemy flak positions under fire. Small arms fire, however, did inflict considerable damage to aircraft.


The 43d Mobile Reclamation and Repair Squadron, which operated with this command as the higher echelon maintenance and supply agency for all field artillery aircraft, was an Air Force organization, neither assigned nor attached to Army Headquarters. This resulted in difficulties in obtaining supply, rations, services, etc. Such an agency should be assigned to the army and under direct supervision of the Army Artillery Officer.

Employment of M.R.&.R. Squadron. Throughout the campaigns of Normandy, France and Germany, the Mobile Reclamation and Repair Squadron, consisting of 187 enlisted men and nine officers, was split in two echelons, each self-sufficient. These two units—identical in capacity for type and volume of maintenance and repair work—operated at times as much as two hundred miles apart, and were moved so that one echelon was operational during the period required for displacement of the other. In fast moving, mobile situations such as prevailed after the breakthrough at Avranches [a commune in western France] the two echelons were leap frogged. In static situations such as prevailed prior to 16 December 1944 the two echelons were placed as far forward as possible, each supporting the units in its half of the Army front. This resulted in continuous service available to units at shorter distances than would have otherwise been possible, thus making crash pick-up quicker and accessibility of supplies greater enabling units to turn in bulky wing parts, spare engines, etc.

Supply Procedure. All parts which were recoverable were issued on an exchange basis. Expendable supplies were issued on stores charges. Table of Equipment items and critical items of supply were requisitioned through and issue controlled by the Army Artillery Air Officer. Restrictions were issued by Air Force service command to Army Air Force supply agencies higher than the mobile reclamation and repair squadron to prevent field artillery units from drawing equipment out of channels and thereby upsetting priorities on procurement and issue of critical items.

Fuels and Lubricants. Proper grade of fuel and oil should be available. Motor vehicle fuels and lubricants should not be used. It was found that the 80-octane motor transport fuel originally provided for use in aircraft resulted in very drastic increases in maintenance difficulties and engine overhauls causing a severe shortage of certain parts such as valves, rings, spark plugs, etc. Engines had to be overhauled on an average of every forty hours of operation with this gasoline while in similar operation with 73-octane aviation gasoline for which this engine was designed, overhauls were necessary only every 125–150 hours.

A. G. F. Light Aviation

Prepared by the Staff of the Army Ground Forces Air Training School, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Forward looking, this staff is confident that light aviation—one of the outstanding developments of World War II—faces a bright future

Although the roar of artillery and the sound of “fire mission, fire mission,” coming from the observer in an artillery airplane has died away, the final “mission accomplished” cannot yet be given Army Ground Forces light aviation. Today Army Ground Forces air sections are playing as important a role in occupational activities as they did in combat.

Although 2,900 artillery pilots and 2,500 airplane and engine mechanics have been trained to date, the vast majority of these have now returned to civil life, and the Army Ground Eorces Air Training School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, is still busy turning out pilots and mechanics, not only for artillery units but also for infantry, engineer, cavalry and armored units as well. The need of arms other than Field Artillery for organic light aviation was proven in combat, and among the first changes made in Tables of Organization after V-J day were those authorizing organic air sections for the several arms.

Fundamentally, the missions of organic aviation in all ground arms will be the same, although technique will vary in order to meet particular requirements of each branch. At the Army Ground Forces Air Training School all pilots are given the same mechanical and flight training course, and the same basic tactical training in adjustment of fire, reconnaissance, selection, development and operation of air strips, aerial route reconnaissance, aerial photography, and map reading. Pilots then receive special training in communications and those subjects and missions which are peculiar to their individual arms. Pilot training commences at the Army Air Forces Liaison Pilot School at San Marcos, Texas, where the students are taught elementary flying, some instrument flying, and basic ground school subjects. This course lasts 16 weeks. Pilots then proceed to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for a second 16-weeks’ course at the Army Ground Forces Air Training School.

At this school they are given instruction in advanced flying to improve their technique and accuracy, particularly in short field landings and take-offs. Since Ground Force pilots must be able to maintain their aircraft, the Air Training School has an Engineering Department which conducts instruction in engine theory, carburetion, ignition system, engine disassembly, engine assembly and trouble shooting. At the same time the students are instructed in the construction of liaison airplanes, airplane maintenance, fabric repairs, rib repairs, patching and sewing, plastic repairs, structural repair, rigging, and the installation of radio, pontoons and Brodie hook. Approximately 15 hours of night flying is included in the course for each student pilot, consisting of dark field landings, flare path landings, short field take-offs and landings, and extended cross-country night flights using night navigational aids.

Pilot instruction on road landings.

The Tactics Department receives the students after they have completed their flying and maintenance training and during the last three weeks of the pilot course, teaches them how to employ their flying skills in the field. Pilots of all branches are taught the tactical employment of their aircraft with ground force units, adjustment of artillery fire, aerial photography, communications, advanced map and aerial photograph reading, combat intelligence, and special operations such as emergency supply, use of aircraft flares, adjustment of artillery fire at night, night reconnaissance and operations under extreme climatic conditions.

The tactical training is practically the same for all arms except that only the Field Artillery students have night service practice, during which they fire from the air using illuminating shell. Students from other arms receive a total of 11 hours of classroom instruction in conduct of fire from the air and shoot one or more problems during each of eight service practices. When they leave the Air Training School they are well versed in Field Artillery firing procedures and are experienced in adjustment of fire. Officer instructors of each arm authorized light aviation give individual instruction in problems peculiar to that arm. For example, radio communication is taught using the radio issued to the pilot’s own arm. Engineer and Field Artillery pilot students are given intensive instruction in aerial photography. Cavalry and Armored Force students are given extra problems in aerial reconnaissance and cooperation with spearheads and reconnaissance parties. The course is climaxed by a two-day overnight field problem involving a tactical situation into which all phases of the course have been incorporated to give student pilots practical experience.

Upon assignment to a field unit the pilot is technically trained and fully qualified to carry out his duties as liaison pilot. However, he finds that after eight months of very closely supervised training he now has considerably more freedom. The period during the pilots’ first few months of field duty has proven to be the most dangerous; the accident potential is much higher during the readjustment period. This has proven a serious problem to unit commanders, the only feasible solution being that the unit air officer must closely supervise and further train the new pilots in his air section. Accident prevention in the field
cannot be overemphasized. Army Ground Forces light aviation has an enviable safety record. Only close supervision and constant adherence to all safety rules and regulations will uphold this fine record.

Student mechanics learning aircraft nomenclature.

Field Manual 6-150, Organic Field Artillery Air Observation, was prepared to aid in guiding the organization of Army Ground Forces light aviation during its infancy. The test of battle and the resulting discovery of many missions for light aviation not envisioned at the time FM 6-150 was written has now necessitated the rewriting of this manual. Field Manual 20-100, Light Aviation (Ground Units) is now awaiting final approval by the War Department. It is the result of months of study, research, battle and field tests covering completely the whole field of light aviation. This manual should prove to be of inestimable aid to unit commanders and unit air officers.

It is generally agreed that the Piper L-4 and the Stinson L-5 performed admirably in the war just past, yet they left many things to be desired. Most pilots would like a slower take-off and landing speed, better flotation, increased visibility, a faster rate of climb, longer endurance in the air, faster cruising speed, a greater service load, simplified maintenance and enough armor plate to protect the crew against small arms and antiaircraft fire. Military characteristics for an improved Ground Force airplane have been drawn up by the War Department and the Piper, Consolidated Vultee, Boeing, Ludington Griswold and Bellanca aircraft companies have designed aircraft to meet these specifications. Several of these models offer promise and it is expected that the Army Air Forces will soon release contracts for the construction of sample aircraft of one of these designs. Detailed study and planning for an improved light aircraft for the Ground Forces are continuing, with several Ground Forces agencies conducting tests and studies on this subject. There are many reasons to believe that in the not too distant future the Ground Forces will have a light aircraft far superior to any that have been used in the past. Along with this the helicopter is being eyed.

Other problems which clamor for solution are the provision of Ground Force aviation facilities for the Organized Reserve and National Guard and settlement of the career question for pilots in all components. While no official policy has yet been announced, it may be supposed that some measure will be taken to provide training for pilots in Reserve and National Guard units. Initially, this will probably look toward the maintenance of proficiency of at least a portion of the 2,000 or so Ground Force pilots who have returned to civil life. Eventually this plan must include the training of new pilots for these components if they are to maintain their position in Ground Force aviation. In addition, it must be decided just how far a pilot will be allowed to proceed in the specialized channel of Ground Force aviation. The view is held by many that after a few years of this specialty the career officer at least should revert to general duty in his chosen arm. Ground Force aviation does not offer a complete career, so in the interest of flier and government alike some rotation seems to be in order. Official policy on this has not been announced.

As for the future, the outlook of the Army Ground Forces light aviation is very bright. This was one of the outstanding developments of World War II and it should prove to be even more important as better aircraft are designed, and more experience is gained in their employment. Many have believed that there is no place for light aviation in wars of the future because of the development of atomic power and the forecast use of guided missiles. However, since the beginning of recorded war history it has been proven time and again that regardless of the type of weapon used, a defeated nation must be occupied by ground forces before a conclusive victory can be obtained. There is no reason to believe that a nation can be defeated in the future without the use of an active, aggressive ground force, and as long as this axiom is true there will always be a need for and an important place in the scheme of things for Army Ground Forces light aviation.

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