Excerpts from US Army Aviation Digest, June 1961, The Army Aviation Story by Captain William K. Key

Many contend Army Aviation was born June 6, 1942, when organic aircraft were first authorized in the Field Artillery for air observation.

[It was in 1941] that Army ground commanders seriously began looking to their pressing aviation needs. That year an Artillery major (William W. Ford) suggested in an Artillery Journal article that light aircraft, organic to the units they served, be used as spotters. The Chief of Field Artillery (Maj Gen Robert M. Danford) became interested. Several months later his interest intensified when he saw experiments conducted with light aircraft at the British Royal Artillery School.

Events now moved swiftly. Using civilian-type light aircraft in the 1941 Louisiana maneuvers, artillerymen discovered they had a potentially valuable aid.

By January 1942, twenty-four L-4 type aireraft, the standard J-3 Piper Cubs, and 30 Field Artillery officers and enlisted men, all holders of CAA licenses, were assembled at Fort Sill.

The unit (often referred to as The Class Before 1) began training on 15 January. Within 6 weeks the unit completed its training, split into two groups, and began testing their theories with the 2d Division at Fort Sam Houston and 31st Artillery Brigade at Fort Bragg. They completed their tests in April, made their reports, and reassembled at Fort Sill to await the outcome.

On 6 June, 1942, they had their answer. The War Department had approved Field Artillery organic aviation. The 20 pilots and 10 mechanics who had conducted the tests became the nucleus of the newly established Department of Air Training of the Field Artillery School.

Since the students were flight qualified, the course consisted of tactical training stressing short field approaches, barrier landings and operations from unimproved strips. The initial aircraft used for training were the L-4B Piper, the L-2B Taylorcraft, and the L-3C Aeronca.

Army Aviation was first committed to combat in the North African landings. Ten officers from pilot classes 2 and 3 were in the convoy during this assault. Four of these pilots flew ashore to the Casablanca area from the carrier USS Ranger in three L-4s on 8 November, 5 months and 2 days after the establishment of Artillery Aviation. These four officers were Capt Ford E. Allcorn, Capt Brenton A. Devol (who acted as an observer), Lt John R. Shell and Lt William H. Butler. Captain Allcorn was shot down by United States troops when his aircraft crossed the beach, but he survived. Lieutenant Shell was later killed in Tunisia while serving as aviation officer of the 1st Armored Division.

In the words of one Army Aviator, the Navy “…launched the L-4s into combat and almost terminated our program a few minutes later. Every ship in the fleet shot at them.”

Later a naval gunnery officer replied to a reproachful Artillery pilot: “What would you have done in my place? If you were 60 miles at sea and saw a Cub put-putting by, would you believe it?”

Originally, Artillery pilots believed their flights would last no longer than 7 minutes. They would fly out, adjust the artillery fire, and return to their strips before the enemy could knock them down. The pilots soon learned, in North Africa, that they could remain in the air for lengthy periods. Friendly antiaircraft fire drove off enemy fighters, and enemy ground forces soon learned that the minute they revealed their position to the Artillery pilots, American artillery would range in on them. The light craft soon flew with near impunity.

Indeed, the light planes proved to have a sort of psychological counterbattery effect. German batteries tended to cease fire when the observation craft were in the air. In 1943, most divisions in Italy were keeping at least one Artillery observer in the air during daylight hours.

It was soon discovered that enemy gun positions could be readily located at dusk and in the early morning hours from their prominent flashes. This evolved into night adjustment of fire below Casino and later on the beachhead at Anzio. Frequently the fire adjusted by the AOPs amounted to guns of all calibers, with many volleys per battery. On one particular target on the Anzio beachhead, over 370 guns were fired on a TOT (time on target). This included support from three cruisers off shore—the USS Brooklyn, the HMS Dido and the HMS Orion.

After the breakout at Anzio in 1944, L-5s were used to direct air strikes by fighter planes. Many units in the Pacific also used L-5s extensively to direct strikes by fighter type airplanes.

In the Italian campaign aircraft of the 1st Armored Division landed on the outskirts of Rome on 3 June to contact lead tanks and armored cars entering the city. As Rome fell on 4 June, the L-4s continued surveillance of the retreating German army. Since the German air force was being pressed in France, Army Aviators were able to fly deep into enemy territory without too much danger except from ground fire.

With the aircraft remaining in the air from daylight to dark, Artillery pilots soon found themselves flying surveillance and reconnaissance missions, controlling columns, and making aerial photographs. It was not long before pilots discovered they could lay wire from the air. In Italy and the South Pacific, particularly, L-4s carried D-4 reels, laying a half mile of wire at a time—all the aircraft could carry.

Since the planes could live in the combat environment, they soon had other obvious missions: transporting commanders and staff officers, and flying messenger and liaison flights. Such flights were not always routine. One division commander flew deep into unfriendly country on a 2-hour flight. While returning to the Allied lines the plane was forced down by lack of fuel near a forward outpost. The pilot obtained enough gasoline to fly his commander back to division headquarters.

In 1944, Artillery pilots started aerial evacuation, particularly in jungle areas of the South Pacific. The L-4 was not designed to carry a litter patient; however, at Bougainville an L-4 of the 37th Division Air Section was modified by insertion of a plywood deck extending backwards from the front seat. This enabled a litter patient to be evacuated by the L-4. Later this system was widely used during the Philippine campaign to evacuate wounded to airstrips from which Army Air Force pilots in L-5s could fly them to field hospitals.

At the same time, the pilots began flying limited supply missions. Some amazing stories of small aircraft dropping supplies to isolated units and combat patrols came out of the jungles—only to be matched by equally amazing stories from the European theater. Such units often were completely supplied by L-4s which dropped everything needed to survive and fight.

In both theaters the problem of launching small craft into invasions had to be met. In Southern France the first L-4s flew into combat from an LST’s jury-rigged flight deck. For them, there could be no return. They flew their reconnaissance and naval fire directing missions and landed where they could.

The 37th Infantry Division used another system to get its aircraft ashore in the landing at Lingayen Gulf, 9 January 1945. The wings were removed from the division’s five L-4s and each was loaded with its wings aboard a DUKW [an amphibious transport]. The DUKWs were transported from Bougainville aboard LSMs [Landing Ship Medium, an amphibious assault ship] and launched at sea off Lingayen Gulf. The L-4s’ SCR 610 radios were used to maintain contact as the group proceeded to a predesignated dirt road on the beach. The L-4s were reassembled and took to the air to become the first Army aircraft active in the Luzon Campaign.

The L-4’s bulky radio equipment, with requisite battery and wind driven generator, levied significant weight on the aircraft.

In the Okinawa invasion, light aircraft flew from the LST No. 776, equipped with the Brodie Device—a cable arrangement which would launch and retrieve a light plane. Miraculously, not a pilot was lost. There were some good pilots in that invasion.

At the end of the Pacific war, Army Aviation again pulled a chestnut from the fire. When General MacArthur announced the date of the surrender to be accepted aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the Commanding General, in Manila, announced that General Yamashita would surrender simultaneously at Baguio.

Later a staff officer pointed out that as yet Yamashita had not been consulted. Off into Japanese-held country flew an L-4 bearing a flag of truce. Yamashita proved cooperative and an L-4 brought him into Baguio to take part in the surrender ceremony.

By 1945, it was clear that small craft were useful to many arms and services. In that year aircraft were authorized for division headquarters, Infantry regiments, Cavalry squadrons and groups, and Engineer and Signal Corps units. At the same time, the restriction which had kept Artillery pilots from flying any but cub-type planes ended.

Signal Corps

Communications, Combat Surveillance, Avionics Spell Command Control

The three major elements of command control are COMMUNICATIONS, AVIONICS, and COMBAT SURVEILLANCE. These functions are part of the mission of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Use of Army aircraft in direct support of ground operations is accepted military doctrine. These lightweight aircraft play an important role in any war.

Army aircraft operate in an environment close to the ground—barely skimming treetops, in the nap of the earth. The Army Aviator must not only pilot the ship, he must also serve as navigator, flight engineer, communications engineer, and observer.

An L-4A instrument panel comprised of “steam gauges,” devoid of aviation electronics, i.e. avionics. The battery indicator, serving only for radio operation, was not provided on later models.
Piper L-4 instrument panel annotated. With a minimum set of instruments, a pilot guided the airplane principally with “eyes above the horizon.”

The electronic assistance that the Army Aviator needs has come to be known as avionics. Included under avionics are equipment and systems for navigation, communications, flight control, identification, instrumentation, and other electronic functions.

The communications problem was critical in early Army Aviation. Used primarily for artillery fire direction during World War II, the principal means of communication to the fire direction center were battery-operated ground radios. To be used for this purpose, ground radios had to be adapted to aircraft, but they lacked flexibility, range, and other essentials of dependable communication.

Light planes were used during VFR flight conditions exclusively, as they lacked the essential instruments for IFR flight. Hence, they required no sophisticated navigation capability nor air traffic control communications. They usually operated within sight of the parent unit, so identification did not become a major difficulty. Thus remained the Army liaison plane and its mission [in WWII].

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