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 A Summary History of Army Aviation

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Army Aviation

(Updated 12-12-12)

Army Aviation became a separate branch on April 12, 1983, but soldiers had been taking to the air since the days of the observation balloon. Aviation is one of the combat arms branches today, but in the beginning flying was just a method of observation and scouting. During the American Civil War both the North and the South used balloons to direct artillery fire and observe enemy dispositions. This marked the beginning of aerial support for ground forces. The United States also used balloons during the Spanish American War and WWI. However, soon after the first powered flight the airplane quickly replaced balloons for all military purposes.

The Wright brothers flew the first heavier-than-air, engine powered, full size airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. Within a few years, the leadership of the Army began to run tests of the new invention to see if it had any military benefits. During one of these tests, Lt. Thomas Selfridge became the first U.S. soldier killed in an airplane crash. He had been flying with Orville Wright on September 17, 1908 when the mishap occurred. The following year, the Army accepted delivery of "U.S. Army Aeroplane No. 1," built to specification by the Wright brothers, on August 2, 1909. The subsequent October 26 saw the designation of the first two Army aviators, Lieutenants Frederic E. Humphreys and Frank P. Lahm, when each completed their first solo flight.

With approval of Congress, an Aviation Section was created under the U.S. Army Signal Corps on July 18, 1914. The Punitive Expedition to Mexico saw the first tactical usage of Army airplanes when General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing used them for scouting while the expedition chased Pancho Villa's forces in northern Mexico. Nevertheless, the Army only had a few dozen aircraft in the inventory when the First World War began. During WWI, the number of Army aircraft grew to more than 11,000 planes with more than 190,000 aviation personnel in the Army Air Service, created in May 1918.

After WWI, the leadership of the Army Air Service, particularly General William "Billy" Mitchell, argued forcefully for the creating of an independent air force, separate from the ground forces of the Army. That argument was rejected at the time, but it was evident that aviation needed to be considered a combat arm unto itself. Again with the required action of Congress, the Army Air Service was changed to the Army Air Corps on July 1, 1926, with a newly designated "Secretary of War for Air" to manage it. This action put the Air Corps in an equal status with the infantry, cavalry, and artillery.Click to preview or purchase "The Boldest Plan is the Best" from Amazon.com

During the 1930s the top leadership of the Army Air Corps was focusing on the potential for air power to be employed as a strategic asset (in other words, bombing major targets rather than supporting ground units). This concerned ground forces commanders, particularly in the artillery branch that benefited from using light observation aircraft for adjustment of indirect fire. The Army experimented with organic light aircraft in artillery units during maneuvers in 1940 and 1941. The tests of these "Grasshoppers," as the light planes were called, were very successful. Their performance was better than the larger Air Corps planes that had been used previously.

In the meantime, the advance of technology marched on. In January 1938 the War Department disbursed $2 million for research into the possibility of developing rotary wing aircraft. The Army acquired its first real helicopter on November 1, 1941, a Sikorsky YR-4.

On June 6, 1942 the Air Corps was elevated to the Army Air Forces (AAF), which put that component of the Army on the same level with Army Ground Forces. The Field Artillery branch was allowed to keep "organic army aviation" under their control. This meant that light observation aircraft like the L-4 Grasshopper and the L-5 Sentinel and their personnel organic to the artillery battalions and brigades that they worked for. The Department of Air Training was established at the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. This date, June 6, 1942 is recognized as the birth date of Army Aviation.

Organic Army Aviation first participated in combat during Operation Torch in November 1942 in North Africa. While the original function of organic Army Aviation was to adjust artillery, during the course of the war, it expanded. During World War II, L-4 Grasshoppers and a few larger L-5 Sentinels were used to adjust artillery fire, gather intelligence, support naval gunfire, conduct medical evacuations (MEDEVAC), and perform other functions like command and control. The expanding mission and close coordination with ground forces was primarily because the aircraft were available to - and often under the command of - the commander on the ground, where the assets of the Army Air Forces were not.

The difference in need, mission, priorities, and philosophy as to the employment of aviation assets caused a great deal of friction between the leaders of the Army Air Forces and Army Ground Forces. It was time to separate the two. The United States Air Force (USAF) became its own branch of service, separate from the United States Army, on September 18, 1947. There continued to be a great deal of friction between the services with suspicion of overlapping areas of responsibility and competition for precious funding. On April 21, 1948, President Eisenhower signed the "Key West Agreement" that provided for the division of assets between the Armed Services. Under the agreement, the Air Force would have control of all strategic air assets as well as most tactical aviation and logistic functions. The Army was allowed to retain aviation assets to be used for reconnaissance and medical evacuation purposes. The Navy could have their own combat air arm to support naval operations, which included combat aircraft to support the Marine Corps. After the adoption of the Key West Agreement, the Army continued to develop its light planes and rotary wing aircraft to support its ground operations. In 1949 the Army established the Warrant Officer Pilot Program to fly new cargo helicopters it was fielding.

The Korean War saw a leap forward in Army Aviation. On January 3, 1951, the first combat medical evacuation by helicopter was conducted - in Korea by 1LT Willis G. Strawn and 1LT Joseph L. Bowler. The H-13 Sioux rotary wing aircraft had been fielded since 1947 and was used for MEDEVAC and command and control operations. The helicopter proved its worth in the rugged terrain of Korea. This recognition of the capabilities of rotary wing aircraft increased the demand for machines and pilots. In 1951 the Army began organizing helicopter transport companies and the fielding of H-19 Chickasaw, albeit in limited numbers due to the competition for the aircraft from the Air Force.

Forward thinking leaders in the Army saw the potential of rotary wing aviation. General James Gavin published an article in April of 1954 titled "Cavalry, and I Don't Mean Horses." In this influential article, Gavin called for the use of helicopters in cavalry operations that would provide the mobility that the Army had lacked in Korea due to the terrain. This was an indicator of a doctrinal push that rapidly expanded Army Aviation into the combat arm it is today. On November 1, 1954 the Army Aviation School was moved from Fort Sill to Fort Rucker, Alabama. The United States Army Aviation Center (USAAVNC) was established there in March 1955.

Under this new doctrine of "air cavalry" the Army saw the need to mount weapons on helicopters to serve as a kind of "aerial artillery." The French Army had seen some success mounting rocket launchers and 20-mm cannon on helicopters during the Algerian War of 1954-1962. Based on this example, the Army began running tests on armament systems for rotary wing aircraft in 1956. Primarily, Colonel Jay D. Vanderpool directed these combat development experiments. Vanderpool also wrote the first doctrinal manuals. This research and development was conducted while the Air Force still theoretically had exclusive responsibility for aerial fire support. Nevertheless, Army commanders felt that the Air Force was not doing enough to prepare to support ground forces and under the Key West Agreement were not allowed to arm their fixed wing aircraft. Therefore, it would seem that competition between the services actually led to the development of armament systems for Army helicopters.

An armed helicopter company was activated in Okinawa in 1962 and later deployed to Thailand and then Vietnam. In Vietnam the new helicopter company flew escort for lift helicopters. There were no mission restrictions on the army aircraft enforced by the Department of Defense, thereby giving implied permission to deploy armed rotary wing aircraft. Also in 1962 the Tactical Mobility Requirements Board was formed. Commonly known as "The Howze Board," this group had been established to develop and test the concept of air mobility. After test exercises, war games, and concentrated study and analysis, the Howze Board recommended that the Army commit itself to organic air mobility through the extensive use of helicopters. The 11th Air Assault Division (Test) put the Board's recommendations into testing from 1963 to 1965. Beginning with their deployment to Vietnam in 1965, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) repeatedly demonstrated the validity of the airmobile concept in combat. On April 6, 1966, the Johnson-McConnell agreement was signed between the Army and the Air Force. The Army gave up its fixed wing tactical airlift aircraft (primarily the DHC-4 Caribou) in exchange for the Air Force relinquishing its claim to most forms of rotary wing aircraft.

Vietnam was truly America's "Helicopter War." The United States' involvement in Vietnam began with Army Aviation operating a fleet of reciprocating engine aircraft. In the early days of the development of air mobility, the UH-1 Iroquois, or Huey was introduced, a modern turbine-powered aircraft with both troop carrier and gunship versions developed specifically with deployment to southeast Asia in mind. Before the end of the Vietnam War, more than 5,000 of these truly versatile aircraft were sent overseas. Also during Vietnam, the OH-6 Cayuse (the "Loach") and the OH-58 Kiowa were fielded as scout aircraft, replacing the OH-13. In 1967, the AH-1G Cobra came online to begin replacing the Huey gunships as an attack aircraft. The U.S. Army's heavy lift helicopter in Vietnam (and ever since) was the tandem rotor Boeing CH-47 Chinook, introduced in 1962. The OV-1 Mohawk and U-21 Ute (Beechcraft King Air) were part of the small fixed wing aircraft inventory flown by the Army.

After United States combat forces left Vietnam, Army Aviation continued to develop and pass major milestones. On June 4, 1974, Fort Rucker graduated the first female Army aviator, 2LT Sally D. Woolfolk (Murphy) from Rotary Wing Flight School. NASA chose Major Robert L. Stewart to be the first Army aviator to become an astronaut in January 1978. The aircraft inventory began to enter the modern era with the delivery of the first UH-60 Blackhawk to Fort Rucker on April 1, 1979. In recognition of the demonstrated increasing importance of aviation in Army doctrine and operations, Aviation became the fifteenth basic branch of the Army on April 12, 1983. Since then, commissioned officer pilots would be branched aviation, fully dedicated to learning its operations and tactics, rather than being temporarily detailed from another branch. The Army began to field the AH-64 Apache in 1984. On May 16, 1990, the 160th Aviation Battalion was reorganized and designated the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne). The unit was assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and signaled the arrival of dedicated aviation assets to special operations.

Since Vietnam and during operations in Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf Army Aviation has played a major role in combat and support operations. An Army aviator fired the first shot of Operation Desert Storm from an Army helicopter. Within a few minutes, two teams of Apaches destroyed two Iraqi radar stations on January 17, 1991. During the next 100 hours of ground combat, Army aviation dominated night operations. The Army can be justly proud of the performance of its aviation assets and personnel during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq, and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

In April 1993, attack pilot positions were opened to female aviators. Another milestone was reached when Lieutenant Colonel Nancy J. Currie (formerly Nancy Sherlock), the first female Army aviator to become an astronaut, made her first space flight on June 23, 1993. By 1998 the AH-64D Longbow was arriving at Fort Hood, Texas. In December 2006 the Army accepted its first UH-72A Lakota, a twin-engine light utility helicopter long overdue in the inventory.

The mission of Army Aviation is to find, fix, and destroy the enemy through fire and maneuver; and to provide combat, combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) in coordinated operations as an integral member of the combined arms team. Army Aviation has the organic flexibility, versatility, and assets to fulfill a variety of maneuver, CS, and CSS roles and functions. These cover the spectrum of combined arms operations. Aviation can accomplish each of these roles during offensive or defensive operations and also for joint, combined, contingency, or special operations. Since its inception over one hundred years ago, Army Aviation has continued to modernize. With the integration of the AH-64D Longbow, MH-47E, MH-60K, and the UH-72A Lakota, Army Aviation stands on the threshold of a new century more mission capable than ever.

 

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