50th Anniversary of Army Aviation, authored by Major General Dave Robinson. Originally published in United States Army Aviation Digest, May/June 1992.

From North Africa to North Korea, from the islands of the South Pacific to the deserts of Southwest Asia, from the plains of Central Europe to the jungles of Indochina, and from the night patrols over the waters of the Caribbean to the night invasion of Panama City, Army Aviation was there, when needed. That sums up the past 50 years of Army Aviation.

Army Aviation, born out of necessity on 6 June 1942, and the newest of the combat arms, has been battle tested in six armed conflicts during its brief 50-year history. From its humble beginnings, with the flights of the L-4 Grasshopper as spotter planes for the field artillery during World War II, to our latest success in the Persian Gulf, flying the most advanced aircraft the world’s industrial base has to offer, Army Aviation has established itself as a true combat multiplier.

This June marks the 50th anniversary of Army Aviation as we know it today. We have come a long way since the “Class Before One.” Thousands of fixed-wing and rotary-wing Army aviators have joined the ranks and fought for our country because they believed what they were doing would make a difference, and they were right. Since its inception, Army Aviation has contributed to our nation’s successes in every conflict.

Army Aviation has not developed over the past half century without a struggle. It took the monumental courage and relentless efforts of great visionaries to overcome the ridicule and the roadblocks that the Army traditionalists put up at every turn…

The role of Army Aviation has changed dramatically over the past half century. Our mission has expanded greatly from the days of field artillery adjustment. Today, Army Aviation must perform across the entire operational continuum.

From the first use of aviation on the battlefield by Thaddeus Lowe in 1861, Aviation has demonstrated that the ability to break friction with the ground is not a trivial capability. The training and the aircraft our aviators fly today have changed dramatically over the past 50 years, but one thing remains constant: the heroic acts of Army aviators throughout our history are legendary.

The names of distant battlefields and aircrews may have been forgotten, but the legacy that our predecessors have left for us will live on forever. We owe much to those early visionaries who saw that aviation possessed the unique ability to control the battlefield by reaching out and capturing the third dimension. They have forever changed the way that warfare will be waged.

“It wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t always fair, but when freedom called we answered, we were there.” Our mission is warfighting, and we must never forget it.

Organic Army Aviation in World War II

Part 1, 1940–1943, by Dr. John W. Kitchens, Aviation Branch Command Historian, U.S. Army Aviation Center, Fort Rucker, AL. (Part 2)

On 6 June 1942, the secretary of war ordered the establishment of organic air observation for Field Artillery. Through companion memoranda sent to the commanding generals of the Army Air Forces (AAF) and the Army Ground Forces (AGF), the War Department issued specific instructions for organizing organic air observation. It also provided guidelines for relations between the AAF and this new air arm of the AGF.

For example, the air forces were to supply the ground forces with small one-engine planes, called “liaison-type airplanes,” and spare parts. The air forces also were responsible for all third echelon aviation maintenance in the Army, basic flight training, and rating the student pilots” according to standards established for liaison pilots.”

Below: A “Grasshopper” stopped at a filling station for gas during the Louisiana Maneuvers in 1941. Inset: Captain Joseph M. Watson, Jr. and his L-4 “Mary Ellen,” which he flew throughout the Tunisian and Italian campaigns. (photo cutlines)

Organic air observation in Field Artillery was intended not to replace, but rather “to supplement the AAF’s responsibility for aerial adjustment of artillery fire” from high-performance aircraft. The order of 6 June authorized two organic aircraft for each artillery battalion and two for each brigade, division, and group artillery headquarters, without affecting existing obligations of the AAF.

The establishment of organic Army Aviation in June 1942 complied with a recommendation from the office of the commanding general of the AGF. This recommendation followed a series of tests and experiments that had demonstrated the efficacy of organic aircraft for Field Artillery units.

The AAF of the World War II (WWII) period had evolved from the 19th century Balloon Corps, the Army Air Service of the WWI era, and the Army Air Corps of the 1920s and 1930s. The history of the U.S. Army’s air arm from the Civil War era until 6 June 1942 is the common heritage of both the Aviation Branch of the Army and the U.S. Air Force (USAF).

After the birth of organic Army Aviation in 1942, the evolutionary path of the future Aviation Branch of the Army diverged from that of the future USAF.

During WWII, and until the establishment of the USAF in 1947, however, the large and powerful AAF and the minuscule new air arm of the AGF were both parts of the Army. Even during these early years, they often competed for resources and mission assignments.

The Louisiana Maneuvers

The movement in the AGF that was to result in establishing a new Army air arm began around 1940. Joseph McCord Watson, Jr., a young artillery officer, had been experimenting with the concept of artillery fire adjustment from small aircraft.

In 1940, he requested that the Piper Aircraft Corporation furnish two Piper Cubs to experiment with fire adjustment during Army maneuvers. These experiments, conducted at Camp Beauregard, LA, in August 1940, proved successful not withstanding the absence of radios in the aircraft.

In the fall of 1940, Major General (MG) Robert M. Danford, the chief of Field Artillery, and other artillery officers became interested in further testing the organic spotter-plane concept.

They were motivated by two major factors. First, Air Corps planes were not always available to provide artillery spotter support when needed. Secondly, some artillerymen were coming to believe that lightweight aircraft, piloted by artillery officers and dependent on ground commanders, could do a better job. Interest in the concept of using small organic aircraft for fire adjustment became more widespread as a result of an article by Major (MAJ) William W. Ford, “Wings for Santa Barbara.” The article was published in the Field Artillery Journal in April 1941.

Army General Headquarters conducted maneuvers in Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, and the Carolinas in 1941. Three light aircraft manufacturers, Piper, Taylorcraft, and Aeronca, placed 11 planes at the disposal of the Army during the maneuvers.

Colonel William W. Ford (left), was the first director of the Department of Air Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1942, and Lieutenant Colonel Gordon J. Wolf was the first deputy director. (photo cutline)

These cub-type planes, mostly Piper J-3s, flown by civilian pilots were tested for artillery spotting as well as for courier service and other liaison roles.

During the maneuvers, these 11 “Grasshoppers,” as they were named by MG Innis P. Swift, commanding general, 1st Cavalry Division, flew about 400,000 miles in some 3,000 missions.

In comparison to the larger air forces planes, the Grasshoppers cost much less, could take off and land on almost any level surface, and could maintain much more effective contact with the ground units that they supported.

Furthermore, according to General Danford, the “only uniformly satisfactory report of air observation during the maneuvers … [came] from those artillery units where… light commercial planes operated by civilian pilots were used.

After the 1941 maneuvers, General Danford renewed his efforts to obtain War Department permission to conduct formal tests of light aircraft organic to Field Artillery units. On 8 December 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a War Department memorandum authorized Field Artillery to proceed with the proposed tests and directed the AAF to make 28 YO-59 (Piper J-3 or Piper Cub) aircraft available to Field Artillery as soon as practicable. With the new liaison “L” classification introduced on 2 April 1942, the YO-59 became the L-4, the aircraft most widely used by organic Army Aviation during WWII. The AGF also used a few L-2 Taylorcraft and L-3 Aeroncas, but they were far less satisfactory.

The Class Before One

On 2 January 1942, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) William W. Ford became director of air training at Fort Sill, OK, for the purpose of training group of licensed pilots in the techniques of aerial artillery spotting from small aircraft. Ford selected MAJ Gordon J. Wolf, Field Artillery reservist, as his executive officer.

First Lieutenant (1LT) Robert R. Williams and 2LT Delbert L. Bristol assisted Ford and Wolf in setting up the program. Nine civilian flight instructors also joined the team.

Training began on 15 January at Fort Sill’s Post Field with 24 Piper Cub J-3 airplanes furnished by the AAF. The students, who have come to be known as the “Class Before One,” consisted of both officers and enlisted men. At Fort Sill, they were trained in both tactical flying and airplane maintenance. For artillery spotting, they had to learn to fly low and slow: low in order to avoid hostile aircraft and slow in order to land on the shortest possible landing strip.

Upon completion of the training on 28 February, the detachment was divided into two groups for the tests. Flight A consisted of six officers and eight enlisted men. It was sent to Fort Bragg, NC, and then to Camp Blanding, FL, for tests with the 13th Field Artillery Brigade.

Flight B consisted of Major Wolf, six other officers, and seven enlisted men. It was sent to Fort Sam Houston, TX, for tests with the 2d Infantry Division artillery. LTC Ford divided his time between the two groups.

In the tests, the Piper Cubs operated by artillery officers performed fully as well as their advocates expected. Several advantages of the light aircraft were clearly demonstrated. Piper Cubs were easy to operate and maintain; they could be easily dismantled for ground movement; and they could take off from and land on unimproved strips.

The tests also demonstrated the effectiveness of close contact between pilots and ground commanders and of providing maintenance training to pilots. The validity of the organic-light aircraft concept was proven.

The tests were completed in late April of 1942. At that time, Brigadier General Mark Clark, chief of staff to the commander of the AGF, Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair, approved the test reports and recommended the establishment of organic air observation for Field Artillery. The memoranda of 6 June 1942 resulted from this recommendation.


The Department of Air Training was established in the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill a few days after the War Department memoranda of 6 June. The original training staff consisted of most of the people involved in the test group, including LTC Ford and MAJ Wolfe, who continued as director and executive officer, respectively. The first tactical flight training class, “Class One,” began in early August, 1942.

Maintenance was an important part of organic Army Aviation training from the beginning. The first class for mechanics began in July 1942. LT Marion J. Fortner, an aeronautical engineer and a member of the Class Before One, was primarily responsible for the development of maintenance courses for both pilots and mechanics.

Initially, all tactical flight training students already had civilian pilot licenses. As the supply of licensed pilots ran out, the AAF, which had responsibility for providing rated pilots to the AGF, contracted with civilian companies to conduct primary flight instruction.

The primary training phase consisted of around 9 weeks of liaison pilot training at Pittsburg, KS, and Denton, TX. After primary flight instruction, the new pilots received from 5 to 10 weeks of advanced tactical training in the Department of Air Training at Fort Sill.

Army Air Forces and Army Ground Forces Rivalry

Rivalry between the AAF and the AGF over organic aviation had surfaced in 1940, when the ground forces began testing the concept. Friction between the two major Army commands became more pronounced during the latter half of 1942. One aspect of the dispute concerned the selection, training, and rating of pilots.

Field Artillery preferred that its “pilot-observers” be officers, branch-trained artillery officers insofar as possible. On the other hand, all AAF liaison pilots were noncommissioned officers (NCOs). War Department leaders originally expected that most of the Field Artillery pilots would be NCOs also. Furthermore, the AAF believed that the liaison pilot should be trained only to operate light aircraft and that the “passenger-observer,” who need not be a pilot, should be responsible for fire adjustment.

Most of the licensed volunteers who completed the tactical training course during the early months of the program were officers. When the AAF began training and rating pilots to send to Fort Sill in September 1942, the air forces selected and trained enlisted men according to their policy regarding the rank of liaison pilots.

Since the AAF had already combed the Army for aviation volunteers, however, it was difficult to find qualified persons willing to serve as enlisted pilots. All trainees of the first group sent to Fort Sill, for example, consisted of rejected aviation cadets.

The instructors at Fort Sill found many of the men selected, trained, and rated as liaison pilots by the AAF to be inadequately trained, or otherwise unqualified, when they arrived for advanced tactical training.

Conversely, the air forces, with exclusive authority to rate Army pilots, challenged the qualifications of some of the licensed pilots admitted to the advanced course at Fort Sill without having received training under the auspices of the AAF. The commandant of the Field Artillery School reported, on 28 September 1942, that the procedures for the selection, training, and rating of pilots were “chaotic.” He proposed that the ground forces be given exclusive responsibility for these functions.

The assistant secretary of war called a series of meetings of high-level AAF and AGF representatives in response to reports of personnel selection and pilot rating problems in organic Army Aviation. Compromise agreements were reached in late 1942 and early 1943. Field Artillery won on two points and lost on two others.

First, the “pilot-observer” concept was accepted; the pilot-observers were to be officers trained to adjust artillery fire. The pilot-observer of each aircraft was to be accompanied by a radioman-mechanic, who also helped watch for hostile planes and assisted in fire adjustment.

Second, the AGF gained responsibility for and control over the selection of volunteers for the organic aviation program. The AAF, however, retained responsibility for providing primary flight training and for conferring pilot ratings.

Most of the enlisted men rated as liaison pilots before April 1943 were subsequently commissioned. It should be noted, however, that some NCOs remained in organic Army Aviation and performed creditable service in all major theaters throughout the war.

The conflict between the AAF and the AGF erupted on another issue in late 1942. General McNair had been lukewarm toward organic aviation in Field Artillery when it was established. However, he became a staunch supporter before the end of the year. He accordingly proposed, on 16 November, that the program be extended to other branches of the ground forces.

MG George E. Stratemeyer, Chief of the Air Staff, responded 3 days later with a counterproposal that all Field Artillery aviation be discontinued and replaced by air forces liaison flights. All AGF aviation personnel and planes were to be transferred to these AAF liaison flights, which would be assigned to each army, corps, and division to support the ground commanders.

Organic Army Aviation was already coming to be recognized as an excellent solution to the problem of aerial fire adjustment. Since the AAF observation squadrons continued to fail to provide reliable artillery support, the General Stratemeyer’s proposal was not given serious consideration.

General McNair’s proposal, however, in effect called for the acquisition of more liaison-type planes than would have become available for all the armed services during 1943. Therefore, the War Department rejected it. Although organic ground force aviation continued to expand gradually, its official mission did not change until 1945.

These AAF-AGF conflicts during the infancy of organic Army Aviation were harbingers of a rivalry that would continue for more than three decades. The very existence of a second Army air arm, albeit minuscule in comparison to the AAF, constituted a constant temptation for the AGF (later the Army) to expand it; it also created a potential rival for the AAF (later the USAF) to either absorb or destroy.

Combat: Mediterranean Theater of Operations

Organic Army Aviation first entered combat in North Africa in late 1942. On 9 November, four Army liaison pilots flew three L-4s from the deck of the USS Ranger, a carrier participating in the invasion of North Africa.

Since the captain of the Ranger refused to break radio silence to announce the presence of these Piper Cubs—unusual aircraft to be seen at sea during an invasion—they were fired upon by American ships and shore batteries. The plane flown by the squadron leader, Captain (CPT) Ford E. Allcorn, was hit and crash landed on shore, but all of the pilots survived.

Before the end of November, several other L-4s and Army aviators arrived in North Africa, where they were assigned to armored and infantry divisions. LT Paul A. Dewitt was reported to be the first Army aviator to fly a Grasshopper in an artillery mission in combat.

During the North African campaign, there were not enough aircraft and pilots for all artillery units. A program for training additional pilot-observers in North Africa encountered bureaucratic hurdles and achieved only limited success.

With the aircraft available to them in North Africa, the pilot-observers learned several valuable lessons that they passed back to the Department of Air Training at Fort Sill. These included staying airborne much longer than had been intended, flying at dusk to locate enemy artillery positions more effectively, and nighttime flying.

As early as the North African campaign, the exigencies of war and the availability of the organic aircraft caused them to be used for purposes other than artillery fire adjustment. These other uses included command and control, medical evacuation, and aerial photography.

The obvious value of the L-4s in these missions fomented the AGF effort to expand organic aviation to other Army branches in 1943.

With more planes and pilot-observers available, the role of organic Army Aviation expanded as the allies moved from North Africa to Sicily. During the landings on Sicily, CPT Brenton Devol, Jr., who had flown one of the first L-4s off the U.S. Ranger, constructed a flight deck on a landing ship transport (LST).

Later at Anzio, in the Italian campaign, L-4s took off from the decks of LSTs and participated in combat. Nighttime artillery fire adjustment became common during the Italian campaign. Since the L-4 had no built-in navigational instruments and no panel lights, however, night flying was a problem; hand-held flashlights were sometimes used. Army aviators who made significant contributions to the development of techniques for artillery fire adjustment at night included O. Glenn Goodhand (later brigadier general) and Delbert Bristol (later a colonel).

Additional missions performed by organic Army Aviation during the Italian campaign consisted of adjustment of offshore naval gunfire, laying wire, emergency light transport, courier service, aerial photography, and reconnaissance.

An L-4 takes off from the improvised deck of an LST during Mediterranean Invasion rehearsals. (photo cutline)

In northern Italy, and later in southern France and in other theaters, AGF planes were also used in so-called “Horsefly” missions. These missions assisted high-performance fighters and bombers in locating close-in targets on which Army ground units desired air strikes. One of the pioneers in planning and conducting Horsefly operations was MAJ John Oswalt.

Organic Army Aviation and the L-4

The aerial adjustment of artillery fire was both the purpose for the establishment of organic Army Aviation and its single most important function during WWII. After it came to be accepted by artillery commanders, organic aviation was a complete success in this mission.

The AAF observation squadrons, which were to have shared responsibility for artillery fire adjustment, proved unworkable in combat, and virtually all aerial artillery fire adjustment was provided by organic aviation.

That the 65 horsepower L-4s were effective in artillery fire adjustment and that they had several advantages over AAF aircraft had been amply demonstrated before they first entered combat. However, many observers still doubted that L-4s could survive in a hostile environment. As it turned out, they were very survivable.

Top: Captain Ford Allcorn flies his L-4 Cub from the USS Ranger during the invasion of North Africa in 1942. Left: An L-4 on the hangar deck of the USS Ranger. Above: Lieutenant William Butler (front seat) and Captain Brent Devol prepare to takeoff. (photo cutlines)

Their defense against enemy fighters, when the allies did not have command of the skies, was to roll over and dive toward allied anti-aircraft batteries, which would then open fire on the pursuing enemy aircraft. Their defense against enemy ground fire was their radio, with which they could direct artillery fire on the enemy battery.

The result was that, when the L-4s were in the air over enemy lines, enemy aircraft tended to stay away, and enemy anti-aircraft batteries tended to hide. In many cases, in fact, an L-4 was kept in the air during daylight hours for its counterbattery effect—not only on enemy artillery but also on anti-aircraft batteries.

The L-4 was an excellent aircraft for daytime adjustment of artillery fire, as well as for many other uses. Major advantages included its maneuverability and the small space requirement for take-off and landing. Shortcomings of the L-4 included its lack of panel lights, its limited range and speed, and its inability to operate at high altitudes in mountainous terrain.

Two other problems were the danger of loss of life from fire when crash landing (because of the location of the fuel tank) and the difficulty of using a parachute (because of space and weight limitations). Other disadvantages of the L-4 were related to its being used for unintended purposes.

In the absence of the required air forces liaison air support, L-4s came to be used for many missions for which larger and better equipped aircraft were needed. Because of these requirements, the AGF requested and eventually acquired larger aircraft to supplement the L-4s.

Henry Post Army Airfield, First Home of Army Aviation

Excerpted from the article by Ms. Jean Schucker, The Cannoneer, Fort Sill, OK, published in United States Army Aviation Digest, May/June 1992.

Army Aviation history began at Fort Sill on 28 July 1915, with the arrival of the 1st Aero Squadron. The squadron’s mission was to conduct experiments observing artillery fire from airplanes. Pilots also performed experiments in aerial photography using Brock automatic camera to make the first aerial mosaic map.

The squadron’s Curtiss JN-3 aircraft, known as “Flying Jennys,” began the first cross-country flight of the fledgling air service when it took off from Fort Sill 19 November 1915, for Fort Sam Houston, TX, flying 439 miles in 2 days…

Aerial observation from hydrogen-filled balloons was a risky business. Sometimes balloons and their pilots and aerial observers were scattered as far away as Mexico, depending on the prevailing winds… balloons lost their popularity as a mode of aerial artillery observation and fixed-wing aircraft came into their own. L-4s, the military version of the Piper Cub, became the most widely-used aircraft by organic Army Aviation.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, military activity picked up at Henry Post Army Airfield. With it, a new method began by using airplanes in field artillery fire.

Lieutenant Colonel William Ford, a field artilleryman and private pilot, sold the Army on training pilots in the new concept of organic aviation in field artillery. This idea meant each battalion would have its own aerial observer pilot, or “spotter,” equipped with a light airplane. Both would “live” with the battalion.

The little planes, dubbed “grasshoppers,” could take off and land on dirt roads and in cow pastures. The pilot- observer could dash into the air when a call for fire came, quickly observe and adjust fire, and land again, thus avoiding the usual long wait for aerial observer support experienced during WWI.

In January 1942, an experimental group of civilian pilots and field artillerymen became the “Class Before One.” Ford drafted field artillery officers, enlisted men, and reserve pilots who held a pilot’s license.

The test group didn’t have the luxury of time to go through basic flight training. Time was of the essence. The class trained as pilots, aerial observers, and mechanics—each man servicing his own plane while stationed with his battalion.

After brief initial training from 15 January to 28 February 1942, the pilots flew to Fort Bragg, NC, and Fort Sam Houston to perform field tests with field artillery units. The tests were a success.

Below: Henry Post Army Airfield in 1929. Top Right: L-4s, the military version of the Piper Cub, became the most widely-used aircraft for organic Army Aviation, nicknamed the grasshoppers. (photo cutlines)

On 6 June 1942, the War Department officially established organic air observation for Field Artillery. Each battalion was authorized two airplanes, two pilots, and one mechanic.

Ford was promoted to colonel and became commander of the new Department of Air Training at Fort Sill. Nineteen students entered the first class during the beginning of WWII in August 1942. By the end of WWII, 262 pilots and 2,262 mechanics had completed training at Fort Sill.

Ninety percent of all artillery fire missions in the Pacific was directed by air observation.

Students learned everything from water landings and takeoffs at nearby Lake Lawtonka to landing with Brodie gear, a wire-and-pulley device suspended high above the ground that hooked aircraft in midair. The curriculum was designed to meet with every conceivable takeoff and landing possibility when the pilots went overseas to war.

Army Aviation proved its success in WWII and was made organic to all combat branches of the Army. In 1945, the Army Ground Forces Air Training School, later designated the Army Aviation School, was established at Fort Sill…

Army Aviation Grasshopper emblem

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