Excerpted from US Army Aviation Digest, June 1979, by Laurence B. Epstein.

Army Aviation logistics today is a large, complex and sophisticated matrix of operations, facilities and personnel. It was not always so.

Army aviation was first committed to combat during the North African invasion in November 1942. Three Piper L-4 Grasshoppers were launched from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger 60 miles off the Moroccan coast. Naval gunners, startled to see the little aircraft, opened fire on them, as did the Vichy French “enemy” shortly thereafter. Only officially 5 months old, few people were familiar with either the aircraft or their mission.

Captain Ford Allcorn flies his L-4 Grasshopper from the USS Ranger during the North African invasion.

Earlier, on 6 June 1942, the War Department had established Army aviation by assigning a team of two liaison airplanes to each field artillery battalion and each division, brigade and corps artillery headquarters. Two pilots and a mechanic were assigned to operate each pair of aircraft.

This capped the Field Artillery’s struggle over several years to obtain suitable aircraft for the observation and adjustment of artillery fire by aircraft that were owned, operated and maintained by the artillery units in the field. The pilots were Artillery Soldiers who were trained to fly. They were familiar both with Field Artillery’s problems and with the gunners whose eyes they became.

Army aviation’s debut at Ft. Sill, OK and in combat was made without a firm plan of organization or tactical employment. Unfamiliarity and indifference plagued Army aviation throughout the North African campaign. Many of the Field Artillery commanders did not know what to do with a handful of aviators and light, unarmed aircraft. It was not unusual for an entire Field Artillery battalion to move off in the middle of the night and neglect to inform their assigned aviation section. Frequently, commanders failed to provide for the feeding and supplying of their attached air section personnel.

L-4s on the flight line at Ft. Sill 1942.

Few Field Artillery commanders were qualified to evaluate either the operations of their aviation sections or the qualifications of their personnel. As a result, the air sections were usually on their own. That Army aviation survived the North African campaign and prospered was due solely to the ingenuity and exploits of its liaison pilots and mechanics.

Only the Army Air Forces had the fiat to purchase aircraft. The Commanding General of the Army Air Forces was responsible for procuring and issuing to the Army Ground Forces the necessary liaison airplanes under the 1942 Troop Basis. They also supplied the necessary spare parts, repair materiels and auxiliary flying equipment required. He and the Army Ground Forces commander jointly determined the number of aircraft required and their expected delivery rate, the quantities of other aviation supplies and equipment needed, as well as the procedure and policies in regard to their issue and delivery.

Maintenance responsibility was split. The Army Air Forces were to provide major repairs which required the use of base shop facilities, known as third echelon maintenance to them. The Army Ground Forces were to handle all maintenance that could be performed in the field with the use of handtools and equipment normally available to field units. In actuality, the Army Air Forces overlooked this responsibility when they organized their overseas maintenance support units. The result was that the Army aviators had to set up their own parts supply system as best they could in the combat zone.

The Field Artillery’s aviation liaison sections suffered in North Africa from poor aircraft maintenance and supply procedures. They encountered a host of unanticipated problems in administration, supply and operational employment, in addition to those in maintenance. The manuals and policy statements in which the answers were spelled out had yet to be written. Consequently, the logistics system was very much the result of innovation and informality, instead of preconceived design.

Informality was a hallmark of Army aviation that was to continue throughout the war. It is difficult today to comprehend the informal manner in which Army aviation came into existence. In the summer of 1940, a lieutenant in the Texas National Guard, Joseph McCord Watson Jr., a member of the recently federalized Texas 36th Division, suggested to his commander that a solution to obtaining airplanes to adjust their brigade’s artillery fire might be to ask a civilian aircraft company. With his commander’s oral permission, LT Watson called the Piper Aircraft Company in Lock Haven, PA to ask if they would be interested in participating in Army maneuvers at Camp Beauregard, LA.

Mr. William Piper Sr., Piper’s president, sent a pilot and a Piper Cub. It was to be the first of numerous such occasions. This unpaid support eventually grew into a squadron in which other light aviation aircraft manufacturers also joined. This joint military-industrial cooperation demonstrated, through their participation in a series of maneuvers during the next year, that the use of light, unarmed civilian aircraft was feasible. It led to the official tests that the Chief of the Field Artillery and others had been striving unsuccessfully to obtain.

Mr. W. T. Piper Sr., president of Piper Aircraft Co., prepares for a flight during the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941.

Army aviation succeeded because it was a practical solution worked out by practical people. Those who were involved in it were more interested in flying airplanes than desks.

It seemed ludicrous in those early, unproven days to view the L-4 as a weapons system. Most were off-the-shelf Piper Cubs with L-2 Taylorcrafts and L-3 Aeroncas making up the rest. They were found circling little civilian grass strip airports every Sunday. The only differences were that these unarmed, unarmored, single-engined airplanes were painted olive drab and had radios. They were powered by simple 65 to 70 horsepower engines which any automobile mechanic easily could understand and repair.

Their flight instrumentation consisted of airspeed indicators, non-sensitive altimeters and magnetic compasses. They had no flaps, turn-and-bank indicators, navigational radios or lights (since they were not intended to be flown after sundown). In essence, they were as close to powered gliders as it was possible to get. Also, they were extremely rugged—in spite of their stretched fabric over tubular frame construction—easy to maintain and dependable.

This simplicity was one of the major selling points of the limited program to the War Department. The little aircraft did not use critical resources needed for warplanes and could be maintained in the field. They had a low price tag (a Cub cost $2,400 with radio), inexpensive to maintain and as useful as the ubiquitous jeep.

Many problems encountered by the Artillery pilots had to be solved by improvising and they learned their lessons from experience. But by the end of the North African campaign, a pattern for the employment of Army aviation and its logistical support had taken shape. It was not to change much for the remainder of World War II.

Equally as important, field commanders began to recognize the value of organic light aviation in achieving their objectives and in performing a wide variety of tasks. These included everything from flying commanders quickly from place to place to carrying emergency supplies to isolated units. Later, in Europe, some pilots experimented with lashing bazookas [1] (along with reports of other armament) to the wing struts and were credited with destroying German tanks. By the end of the war, the Army Ground Forces were operating more than 1,000 light, liaison aircraft, all L-4s and L-5 Sentinels, which had been purchased at an overall cost of around $42.2 million. The costs of logistical support and avionics were negligible.

One of two L-5s located at Luca, Italy, assigned to the First Armored Division, in September 1944.

One of the reasons that logistics support and avionics costs were negligible was that avionics practically were nonexistent and logistics primarily were hand to mouth. Pilots and mechanics did much of the maintenance in the field near the front line, and occasionally behind the enemy’s lines. They handled their airplanes just as Cavalry troopers had groomed and cared for their horses. Automotive gasoline was a common substitute for high octane aviation fuel which was often unavailable to them. “Scrounging” became the standard operational procedure.

An L-4 named “Lucy’ was an example of the expedient nature of repair and maintenance needed to keep the Field Artillery’s liaison airplanes flying. Major Edward S. Gordon logged more than 100 combat missions in “Lucy” by the end of the Sicilian campaign. But “Lucy” was not the same “girl” she had been when she rolled out the doors of the Piper factory at Lock Haven. Incorporated into her airframe was a landing gear made from parts of a German ME-109 fighter and a French bomber. Her instrument panel came from three different American fighter planes (a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a Bell P-39 Aircobra and a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk) and an armored halftrack. In addition, her glass cockpit housing came from a P-40, some of her tubing came from a French fighter plane and her tail assembly was bench-built from a wrecked jeep.

In March 1943 War Department Training Circular Number 24 made the unit commanders responsible for first and second echelon aircraft maintenance. In addition to being a pilot, the aviation officer assigned to the headquarters battery of division artillery was also the aviation engineering officer. He made the required technical inspections of the airplanes, saw that their technical records were kept up-to-date, and supervised the performance of first and second echelon maintenance. In turn, the senior pilot in each battalion headquarters battery was charged with the maintenance and repair of the airplanes in his section, keeping their prescribed maintenance records, and seeing that fuel, supplies and spare parts were requisitioned.

Army aviation proved itself during World War II with its versatility in performing a variety of functions. The myth that light aircraft could not survive over the battlefield was dispelled, although they fared better with the achievement of air superiority. Thus, by the latter stages of the war, the hostility and indifference to organic light aviation within the Army Ground Forces had all but disappeared. As a result, in August 1945, the War Department extended organic aviation to the Signal Corps, the Tank Destroyer, the Infantry, the Corps of Engineers, Armor and the Transportation Corps.

The cessation of hostilities in Europe and, a few months later, in the Pacific led to a rapid demobilization of the vast armed forces of the United States. Most of the 2,630 liaison pilots and 2,252 mechanics trained during the war were released and the aircraft inventory was reduced from 1,600 aircraft to about 200 before the end of 1945.

The Postwar Period

Army aviation had proven itself to be extremely useful, but it was not a large operation. It was viewed as a concept of observation and liaison. It did not completely displace the role of Army Air Forces in fulfilling part of the same roles when it chose and was able to do so. Without the development of rotary-winged aircraft, Army aviation would have remained only a useful auxiliary. There was no expanded role envisioned for it beyond what had been accomplished during the war.

The passage of the National Security Act of 1947 created the Department of the Air Force and the U.S. Air Force. It made the Air Force an autonomous service co-equal with the Army and the Navy. The personnel, bases and equipment of the U.S. Army Air Forces were transferred to the new service in a series of 40 orders, the last of which was issued on 22 July 1949.

The Army assumed responsibility for determining the number of and budgeting for the aircraft needed, their accessories and spare parts. The Air Force purchased, stored and issued them at the depot level for the Army. It also continued to perform overhaul and repair work at Air Force depots, and agreed to perform field maintenance in over seas commands until 30 June 1950. Otherwise, the Army performed organizational and field maintenance, except on those Army aircraft assigned to Air Force installations.

Soon after the publication of Joint Army and Air Force Adjustment Regulation 5-1-01 on 20 May 1949, in which fixed wing aircraft were not to exceed 2,500 pounds and rotary wing aircraft were limited to under 4,000 pounds, the Ordnance Corps was assigned the major responsibilities for logistical support of organic Army aviation. It entered the aircraft supply field on 23 March 1950 with the publication of Army Regulation 700-50, “Army Aircraft and Allied Equipment,” which was identical to Air Force Regulation 65-70. It prescribed policies and procedures to be followed in the development, procurement, supply and maintenance of Army aircraft and associated aircraft equipment.

Aircraft purchased for the Army could be in any of three categories:

  • Those developed by the Air Force in accordance with military specifications and the “Air Force Handbook of Instructions for Aircraft Designers”;
  • Commercial aircraft purchased without modification after being type certified by the Civil Aeronautics Administration; and
  • Commercial aircraft purchased after codification to meet type certification by the CAA and approved by the Air Force.

Associated aircraft equipment was defined as spare parts; maintenance supplies; tools; parachutes; flying clothing; permanently installed navigational and accessory equipment authorized by the Army for the operation and maintenance of Army aircraft. In the case of both aircraft and associated equipment, the Air Force became responsible for preparing specifications, conducting research and development at the Army’s request, making type classifications in coordination with the Army, and handling the purchase, acceptance and inspection of them. The Air Force agreed to conduct evaluation and engineering tests as well as service (user) and troop tests of Army aircraft and associated aviation equipment. The Army retained the authority to determine the qualitative and quantitative requirements.

An L-5 prepares to take off for an air evacuation operation at 7th Infantry Division airstrip. Tanyang, Korea, January 1951.

The Air Force agreed to evaluate any recommended modifications of Army aircraft and equipment, as well as handle storage, issue and shipment at the depot level and perform depot maintenance at its own expense. The Army would determine the military characteristics for its aircraft and equipment, approve the specifications, and make the final decisions on the proposed modifications. It would budget for and provide the Air Force with funds for research and development on all items, their purchase, and the expenses incurred in connection with modifications and testing. It also had responsibility for the receipt, storage and issue of its aviation equipment below the depot level, as well as organizational and field level maintenance.

When the Army needed to purchase either aircraft or equipment, it executed a purchase request specifying the type and quantity to be purchased and transmitted it to the Air Force which initiated the purchase order through the Air Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and its various branch organizations. From that point on, procurement was the same as the Air Force’s. Normally, the initial order was a Letter of Intent to the manufacturer, followed by a formal contract when enough production experience warranted the negotiation of definitive prices.

L-4 shared the roads with Jeeps and troops during the Korean War.

1) December 3, 1944 – Visit from Capt. Reed (XIX Corps Arty Air Officer) to discuss, among other things, rest periods for pilots. He believes some really need it, such as the pilot who was installing a 30-caliber machine gun in his L-4, but believes that all units in the Corps have a scheme. He will check and advise further on this. (An extract from the HQ NUSA Air Journal for 1–31 December 1944, compiled by Lt Col. R. M. Leich, Army HQ Arty Air Section at Maastricht). Quoted from Ken Wakefield’s The Other Ninth Air Force.

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