Sham WAR Demonstrates New Air Attack Strategy (Jul, 1931)

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Sham WAR Demonstrates New Air Attack Strategy

by CAPT. T. R. PHILLIPS, U. S. Army

Immense fleets of fighting planes directed in battle by radioed orders from a flying general—deadly new attack planes carrying a quarter ton of bombs and capable of firing 3000 shots a minute—these are a few of the latest developments in aerial warfare demonstrated in an amazing sham air war. Don’t fail to read this authoritative article if you take pride in keeping informed on Uncle Sam’s defense system.

STAGING the most amazing sham air war in all history, 672 fighting planes of the U. S. Air Corps, assembled from all corners of the country, recently engaged in mimic battle over the skyscrapers of New York, dropping dummy bombs on the financial district, laying smoke screens, attacking in formations, and otherwise demonstrating the latest developments in air attack strategy which will be used in the next war, if and when it comes.

New York is not the only city to witness this impressive demonstration. Even as you read these lines, the First Air Division will be repeating its performances over most of the large cities of the nation. In fact, before the planes return to their home bases it is estimated that 70,000,000 people will have witnessed their maneuvers. More than 2,-000,000 miles will be flown and half a million gallons of gasoline consumed.

What is the purpose of this vast concentration of fighting planes? It is not just an impressive aerial parade—it marks the end of that glamorous fighting era of the World War in which the flying heroes were the Rickenbackers, Guynemers, and Bishops, famous aces of individual combat. Those days are gone forever. The aerial heroes of future wars will be flying generals who direct thousands of plane units under their command with the skill of a Pershing or a Foch.

The First Air Corps demonstration is in reality a test of the new fighting strategy—¦ the most severe test to which planes can be subjected outside of actual combat with an enemy. It will test the ability of flyers to work together in large numbers; it will test the feasibility of controlling an air fleet by radio; it will determine how well an armada of the skies can be serviced with gasoline and oil, and whether ground crews can keep the ships in good operating condition.

What are the latest developments in air warfare? The most conspicuous advance, as has been intimated, is the massing of planes in large numbers for formation attack. The flying circuses of the World War were the first efforts at formation flying, but they were not well developed because the leaders did not have radio equipment and so could not issue orders to a large group. Six planes are as many as can be well controlled by wing signals in the air. To radio, therefore, must go much of the credit for making the modern formation attack possible.

There are still problems to be overcome in installing radios in fighting planes. There is little difficulty in installing a light radio in bombers and other large planes, but even the slightest change in weight on the single-seater pursuit plane is dangerous. An example of this is afforded by the recent test of a pursuit plane in which had been installed a weight equal to that of a radio set. At 10,000 feet the pilot put the ship into a spin and recovered after three turns. He then put it into a spin in the opposite direction, but after three turns was unable to bring it out. He tried every maneuver possible until he had lost 7,000 feet altitude and had to jump to save his life.

Attack aviation is another distinctly new development. Its specialty is the bombing of troops, anti-aircraft batteries, supply trains and planes when on the ground. They approach their game hedge-hopping and tree-dodging, and drop their bombs and are away almost before the unfortunate target knows what is happening. They fly too low to be hit by the 3-inch guns of the “Archies” and are in and out of machine gun range in less than a minute and may be in sight for only a few seconds.

An attack group with its hundred planes can bomb the entire fourteen-mile length of a division of troops, 20,000 men, in a minute and be on their way. To do this they would split up into three plane elements, ,as they approached the division, each element assigned to a definite portion of the division. All would dive on the column at the same moment with machine guns belching, straighten out, and fly along the heads of the troops dropping their bombs at intervals. The three planes of each element fly as one, the two rear planes guiding on the leader. Action is fast; the pilot must fly his plane, use his machine guns and drop his bombs all at the same time. The attack plane has four forward pointing machine guns and two defensive guns over the rear cockpit. It can carry three hundred pounds of bombs. Attack aviation was unknown as a sep- arate type at the end of the World War, although the Germans had formed a couple of squadrons, shortly before the armistice, whose business was to operate as attack does now. It developed from “ground strafing.” Planes flying low over enemy troops found that they were rarely hit and they were able to drop their bombs from low altitudes with uncanny accuracy.

Attack, bombardment, observation, and pursuit are the four main types of planes used in modern warfare. Attack and observation planes are much the same as far as construction goes; each is a two-place ship with pilot and observer, carrying machine guns shooting forward through the propeller, and another gun or two at the rear to defend the tail. Observation planes usually fly alone in time of war, being protected by pursuit planes if necessary. The purpose of an observation plane is to make photographs, report on the position of enemy artillery, and otherwise act as the eyes of the army.

Bombing planes are twin-motored, comparatively slow, and they fight only defensively. Pursuit planes flying above them act as an escort. Pursuit ships are single-seated, fast fighting units ready to fight at the drop of a hat. There are also transport planes for the carrying of troops. These are usually tri-motored ships of large passenger capacity such as the Ford or Fokker.

The basic flying unit for all types of planes is the three plane flight called the element. The three planes of the element fly as a single unit, the rear planes slightly above and on either side of the leader. The element leader ‘signals to the members of his element by dipping his wings or pitching up and down. Three or more elements are combined into a unit called a Flight. Two flights usually compose a squadron.

Pursuit planes operate in groups of one hundred from three to five miles high in the sky. They must be high up because the plane on top can dive to attack the one below, and therefore the odds favor the pilot with the most altitude. The drawing depicting the attack on New York City, accompanying this article, illustrates how the pursuit planes are arranged. The lowest squadron of 25 planes called the assault might be at 17,000 feet; the next—called the support—would be 19,000 feet high. Two thousand feet behind the last two squadrons, with their 50 planes, called the reserve, would be at 21,000 feet. These altitudes are variable depending on the ceiling of the plane and the weather, but the ships are always stepped up and back in this manner.

An attack on enemy airplanes below would be started by the assault squadron. It would split up into its three plane elements and each element would dive on one of the enemy ships in the formation below. Element follows element so closely that the unhappy victims have no time to recover from one before the other is on them. The support squadron follows the assault down in the same manner and lastly if necessary the reserve dives down, three-plane element following three-plane element. While the upper squadrons are attacking the ones who dove first reform and climb for another attack.

When a pursuit group meets another pursuit group and both are willing to stay and fight, the battle becomes a dog fight. Pursuit planes have only forward guns aimed by pointing the planes and each pilot tries to get on the tail of the enemy arid stay there. The pilot with the most maneuverable plane then has the advantage. If he can turn a shorter circle he can stay behind and inside firing on his scuttling enemy while safe himself. A dog fight is each for himself but when one man has downed his enemy, he joins one of his partners and helps him dispose of his opponent.

Bombers do not fight in the air unless they have to, and then only defensively against air attack. For this reason the bombing formations are different than pursuit. The pursuit is stepped up and back to facilitate the dive of one element after another. The bombers have to meet this dive and so they are stepped back and down. In this formation they can bring the four guns of each bomber of the formation to bear on the attacking pursuit. A bombardment group of 52 planes has 208 machine guns which can fire 240,000 rounds a minute on the attackers, a veritable hail of steel.

These formations are pretty tough for the pursuit to break up and their effort is to attack first one and then another bomber, no two following attacks being directed at the same plane, and to so disperse the machine gun fire of the bombers that it will not all be concentrated at a single diving element. The pursuit element comes down on the bombers as it spreads out and the three planes of the element dive at one bomber from three different directions.

It is easy to talk of formation flying and it is easy to see how much more effective are great numbers operating together than single planes, but this massing of units that are floating on billowing air currents is difficult and dangerous. Flying in formation is hard and skilled work. Planes are tossed up and down and sidewise and would crash into each other except for the constant watchfulness of the pilot, who must sense each movement of the air and fly against it before he is thrown into his neighbor. Many bad crashes have occurred in formation flying when planes have locked wings.

It may be assumed, from the description of attack aviation given some paragraphs back, that the airplane has everything its own way when attacking ground troops. This is far from being the case. The infantry has been developing effective defenses against air attack. Anti-aircraft artillery is becoming increasingly effective. It is, however, impracticable to attack artillery units to every marching element, and defense must therefore be made with the weapons with which the infantryman is provided. These include the rifle, machine gun, trench mortar, and one-pounder gun.

An airplane is vulnerable to small arms bullets. During the World War there were not only numerous instances where airplane motors were put out of commission by ma-” chine gun bullets, but it was found that the greatest single factor in the destruction of planes in the air had been ignition of gasoline leaking from bullet-punctured tanks. Furthermore, bombs carried by attacking planes can be exploded by the impact of rifle bullets, destroying their carrier.

The problem of the infantry was to devise some system of anti-aircraft firing that would lead to the maximum number of effective hits.

First it involved firing at a 30-foot ship traveling from 90 to 120 miles an hour. The angle of the plane’s approach might be either parallel, oblique or vertical. The range would change swiftly from 1,500 yards to 50 feet.

Early tests were not encouraging. Shots resulted mostly in misses. It was obvious that a rifle aimed at a target traveling 100 miles an hour would not register a hit despite the fact that a bullet travels 2,760 feet a second.

The solution was offered by an old duck-hunting soldier.

“Don’t try to hit the bird. Let the bird fly into your shots,” he advised.

The experts tried it and found that the same factors that are recognized in shooting moving game applied to anti-aircraft firing with a rifle and machine gun. The principle of “leading through the target,” that is directing the aim first at the ship and then carrying it to a point in front where it will intersect the path of flight, was made the basis of training.

“Tank planes”—so-called because of their all-metal construction—are being developed for the Army, carrying a quarter ton of bombs and a half dozen machine guns, making them quite the deadliest weapons of their type ever perfected. Secrecy surrounds the construction of these planes, one of which is being built by Fokker and the other by Curtiss for experimental tests, but it has been reliably learned that both planes are all-metal, low-wing monoplanes, powered with Curtiss Conqueror engines which will give a speed of around 200 miles an hour.

The Fokker flying arsenal has two cockpits in its fuselage. One is for the pilot and the other for the observer posted behind him. The observer will operate the guns in the wings and drop the ten 50-pound bombs at strategic points. He will also have to defend his plane from the attack of enemy airmen. In order that the observer might fight off the attack of enemy planes, two guns have been installed on a scarf ring or gun carriage, making it possible for him to fire at any angle.

It has a wing span of 65 feet. The metal fuselage is oval in shape and tapers off toward the rear like the body of a wasp. It required one year to build her.

A similar attack plane was being built by the Curtiss engineers at their Buffalo factory. There were some slight variations of design, however. The machine guns were hidden in the undercarriage instead of the wing. The reason for this is ascribed to the fact that Curtiss mechanics are believers in the super-efficiency of the thin-wing while the Fokker people sponsor the thicker one.

On the other hand, the Curtiss design requires a supporting strut while the Fokker machine needs no external bracing, since it has a full cantilever wing. On the Curtiss battle plane there is a tunnel gun installed in the bottom of the tail on a swivel so that it can be used in raking fire in the rear and underneath in case a hostile plane should attack from those quarters and out of the observer’s range of vision.

Since it has been arranged to have special contacts by electricity, all of the guns on these new American terrors of the skies can be fired simultaneously. The Fokker war-plane can spread its shower of 3,000 pellets a minute even when it is in a power-dive and going at six miles a minute.

This is an improvement on the old type of military aircraft. On the old models the guns were timed with the engines and fired through the propeller disk, only at a speed in proportion to the revolutions of the engine. As for wing spread, the Fokker and Curtiss designs are alike. The Curtiss fighting plane will also carry 500 pounds of bombs on racks under the wing.

General Foulois is commander-in-chief of the First Air Division. Col. H. H. Arnold, whom Modern Mechanics and Inventions readers will recognize as editor of Plane Talk department, is in charge of the supply department of the vast air armada.

  1. GaryM says: May 10, 20108:48 am

    Did that really happen? Dropping anything from planes onto NYC’s financial district sounds seriously dangerous, aside from the potential for causing panic.

  2. Firebrand38 says: May 10, 201010:57 am

    Here is a contemporary account of what happened in Time magazine dated June 1st, 1932…

  3. Sean Meaney says: May 17, 20106:51 am

    Oh…that. Yeah that was the one where they (the pilots) took fire from the locals.

  4. ASDFAS says: May 21, 20103:32 am

    Vince for Sham WAR!

  5. GaryM says: May 25, 20109:13 am

    The Time article doesn’t mention anything about dropping bombs, dummy or otherwise.

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