Our Air Force – A Farce! (May, 1939)

Interesting article from just before WWII pointing out that the U.S. air force sucks ass, has slow planes, is disorganized and hobbled by politics.

Our Air Force – A Farce!

“We are five years behind England and Germany in planes, engines and equipment and a full 10 years behind in the development of our air force as a third arm of defense”

by Major Al Williams

AMERICA is not an airpower! We have, instead, two flying services— one with the Army and the other with the Navy—and they are not adequate for the defense of the nation.

As airpower goes, I estimate that we’re about five years behind Europe’s leaders in planes, engines, and equipment, and a full 10 years would be needed for the maturity of a brand new service. This goes in spite of a European demand for American fighting ships, in spite of “downhill” speeds of from 575 to 700 m.p.h. claimed for blunt-nosed radial engined planes, and in spite of a college-student civilian training program which portends to be a solution to the pilot problem.

Our air-cooled engines are good, and hold their own with foreign radials. Our ships came in handy in the scramble for planes after the Munich incident; they are fill-ins for building programs that weren’t geared to air war. But they are powered by engines which can’t approach the English Rolls-Royce streamlined power plants, for instance, and none of the planes is in the same speed bracket with standard fighting ships of the airpower nations.

In my opinion, the most significant development in American military aviation in recent years came recently when the Army super-speed XP-38 Lockheed streaked across the continent in a little more than seven hours. That plane was powered by two Allison streamlined, liquid cooled engines, and it could mark the fulfillment of enduring prophecy and the beginning of America’s true performance in the air. It picks up speed research where a little Navy biplane left off 16 long years ago.

The biplane was a sleek, streamlined little ship powered by a Curtiss D-12 engine, an in-line and water-cooled plant. It slid through the air with less resistance than any ship of its period, and its record of 266.6 m.p.h. was made when no service plane was tipping 150. I flew that ship to its laurels, and its | speed stood briefly as the world’s record and for eight years as the American speed record. It stood as our record for so long because the reactionaries, headed by the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy for air, declared that 266.6 m.p.h. was all the speed we could use.

Jimmy Doolittle, of the Army, (I, then a pilot for the Navy), and many other ambitious youngsters envisioned speeds of 300 and 400 m.p.h. and up and were anxious to fight for them. We lost out, though, and first the Navy and later the Army abandoned the inline engines in favor of the radials. Never since has the United States held the world’s speed record, which at present is held by Italy at 440 m.p.h.!
The new type twin-engine Army ship hasn’t I brought us out of the woods, although it does blaze a trail. It isn’t “probably the fastest in the world,” as announced at the time of its appearance. Last summer I flew one German ship whose prototype approached the top speed claimed for the Lockheed, and saw another type which outdid it by 35 m.p.h.

It isn’t 100 miles an hour faster than single-engined foreign ships, and I know that from time at controls, too. It isn’t an innovation, for upon my return from Europe last summer I reported a twin-engined, streamlined fighting plane—also a single-seater—which can outdo the aerobatics of any single-engined plane.

But the new American ship is a tribute to the Army Air Corps’ initiative and to the perseverance of the Allison Engineering Corp. It’s an example of what should be going on all over the country, for speed is the essence of airpower, and research is the only way to speed. And even after a good engine is developed, a long period of teething trouble is ahead of it. It’s a hard grind from the experimental stage to the standard fighting ship rating. In all these things, we trail Europe.

Our nearest approach to actual air power lies in the General Headquarters Air Force.

Before 1935 the Army Air Corps was scattered throughout the country, and in charge of nine different Army Corps Area commanders—all generals of infantry, cavalry, or artillery. As could be expected, they operated as nine separate forces. If the pilots of the first pursuit group at Selfridge Field, Michigan, wanted to fly to New York, for instance, they had to get permission from the Corps Area Commander. The GHQ Air Force was established in 1935 as an experiment. Later, when Major General H. H. “Hap” Arnold took over control of the Army Air Corps in 1938, he said he was going after some faster fighting planes. He meant business, as witness the new twin-engined streamlined Lockheed. He’s dug into the defense problem with his “blackout” rehearsals, and the long range work of his corps is best attested to by the “Flying Fortress” flights to South America.

I’ve got a lot of respect for “Hap” Arnold. He flies his own ship, and that dates back to 1911. He’s a flying man’s pilot, and a flying man’s executive.

The GHQ force illustrates the merit of a separate air force, but it isn’t a separate air force in any sense of the word. It’s a compromise, and it provides the reactionaries with a handy answer for air power appeals without stripping the control from their hands. While the force nominally operates under its single command, it nevertheless is subordinate to the General Staff and is restricted to land operation. (The Navy’s jurisdiction prohibits the Army force from flying more than 100 miles to sea.)

The GHQ Air Force is dependent on a parent service, but it isn’t living in the same house. That little taste of independence and opportunity for initiative has produced results, and gives us a glimpse of what our air force should and could be.

Each time our fighting aviation services have shown promise of being able to run a war independently of the land and sea forces, Army and Navy leaders jumped on the idea and pushed our errand boy aviation back to its original status. That’s where it is today and whether our Army and Navy can be compelled to acquiesce to any reorganization is the first “question” in the popular desire for air protection.

The Army needs the planes assigned to it—so does the Navy. Neither outfit dares to move without information from its “eyes.” Neither can afford to waste ammunition without firing directions from its elevated fire control stations on wings. The sensible solution is to give the fleet and the army a thousand planes apiece, let them use them as they see fit.

We have enough air services. What we need is a great air force enabled to handle all air defense affairs, to work out the promising and dreadful future of air power, and give us the only kind of defense there appears to be against massed air attack. The Army and Navy do not offer us such protection in their service operations, and neither one’s air service is strong enough to ward off the determined attack of a real foreign air power.

For all the expense of aviation and the losses which come with new types, it is a comparatively cheap operation. For the cost of one battleship, it is possible to buy about 500 gigantic bombers such as the Boeing Company calls “Flying Fortresses.”

These bombers carry two 1,000-pound bombs. Five hundred times 2,000 is one million pounds of trouble that can be sent where they will do the most damage and far beyond where any fleet or army can think of going.

While it is true that the battleship will last upwards of 20 years, the fact that it preserves well does not increase its effectiveness in modern warfare. It is not protection or defense against an air raid.

The navy sees aviation’s duty as an arm of the Fleet, and has divided its operations into four general groups; tender-based patrol bombing planes, seaplanes operating from battleships and cruisers, landplanes operating from aircraft carriers, and the aviation detachment of the Fleet Marine Corps forces.

None of these departments is set up to project a true air war, nor to thwart a determined attack. The long range patrol bomber has been the outstanding development in Naval operation during the past few years, and the routine transfer of whole squadrons from California to Hawaii and to the Canal Zone has emphasized the key part these big flying boats are playing in the Navy’s long-range tactical program.

But flying boats suffer by comparison to land planes, and it is noteworthy that the air power nations are concentrating on the latter type. It costs much horsepower to lug the bulky hull of a flying boat through the air, and this cuts sharply into the bomb load which can be carried. For all their size and horsepower, our patrol bombers— even the new four-engined flying battleships—can accommodate only a negligible bomb load for long-range work. Negligible, I say, as compared to the load the landplane counterpart could haul.

The attempt of any navy to operate air power is awkward from the start. In tieing the operation to the sea to justify its existence, the navy handicaps aviation by take-off and landing limitations, by the wind-resisting hulls of the flying boats, and by elaborate—and vulnerable—shore bases and seagoing tenders with their broods of planes.

It is becoming recognized—even by many who do not fully subscribe to the potentialities of air power—that shore-based aircraft (landplanes) are superior in bomb-carrying capacity, range, and speed, to ship-based warplanes and flying boats.

If the national defense system of the United States were recognized to provide the true American air power which our production facilities and engineering skill can produce, we could have the whip hand in the Pacific with air power operating from Alaska.

That would about duplicate the trump card Russia owns in her gigantic air base at Vladivostok. An eminent British Naval expert told me that were it not for the threat of Russian air bombardment launched from Vladivostok against Japan’s capital cities, that Japan would have washed out Russia in the Far East long ago.

Vladivostok is only approximately 500 miles away from the heart of Japan, a distance easily within the range of modern bombers.

While the Japanese could just as easily attack our air bases in Alaska as our bombers could get at Japan, they would be bombing our military establishments only, while we would be getting at the heart of the Japanese homeland.

Since air attack is superior to the defense against it, we would be playing air power cards in proper sequence—if we had the air power.

There is only one answer to a threatened air war, and that is to beat the other fellow to the punch— or threaten to do it with more chances of achieving wholesale devastation than he cares to contemplate.

It is true that the Navy is building an air base at Sitka and it has completed surveys for two more, one at Kodiak, and the other further westward, or closer to Japan, in the Aleutian Islands. But again the objective falls short of real air power.

No matter where we turn in any plans for war with Japan in the far Pacific we find ourselves scheming to defend what we have, and with only remote chance of making a single stab at Japan proper with air power alone—not a chance with sea power.

If air war should come to our East coast, the Navy would be even less prepared at that point. The Naval concentration on the Atlantic at present is limited entirely to a base at Norfolk, for Navy planes, and a base at Quantico, Virginia for Marine Corps planes. Pensacola, of course, is an enormous plant, but that is for training purposes only. There are plans for several air bases in addition to the ones we already have in the Atlantic sector, these stations to be set up with a full complement of patrol and carrier units and with service and overhaul facilities.

All this would be strategic if a foreign power projected an air attack against the United States with ship-based aircraft, brought to within easy striking distance; or by operating from a neighboring territory. In that case, the Navy would be able to lunge at the source of the attack.

At least three European powers already have ships that might be squeezed across the Atlantic with bombing loads. England has a bomber, the Vickers Wellesley, which could make the trip with a good sized bomb load on board. It flew 7,162 miles non-stop, for the world’s distance record.

There is no question in my mind that the latest Italian Savoia Marchetti, and the German Heinkel 111 would bear the overload of gas for the flight.

The above facts indicate that America is wide open to a bombing attack!

What chance would an aircraft carrier have of accurately locating itself so that its short range fighters could be in the air when and where the enemy arrived? It’s too late to dispatch single seater fighters when you see, or your scientific devices detect, enemy bombers. You must know that they are approaching and give your fighters a chance to reach altitude.

As for the ground defense against such an attack, experts still contend that no anti-aircraft gun today can do business above 10,000 feet. I say this in full knowledge that better than 20,000-foot accuracy is claimed for them. But I have seen figures on the performance of the world’s best guns in Spain, and I know that above 10,000 feet they’ve only nuisance value.

I think air power under a separate air force is vital to the defense of the United States. I hope we won’t have to lose a war to learn a lesson!

1 comment
  1. anthony matias says: May 24, 20061:35 pm

    The construction and deconstruction of jet planes is the wave of the future.

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