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Over the past 100 years, Marine Aviation has grown in both numbers and variety of missions. During this blog, we’ll trace the history of USMC aviation from its inception to the many roles it plays in defense of our nation today.
The beginnings of Marine Aviation date back to 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported for aviation duty at the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland. The camp was composed of two officers, six mechanics, and three aircraft. Cunningham soloed on August 20. 1912 after a mere two hours and forty minutes of instruction. During the next four years, Lts. Bernard L. Smith, William M. Mcllvain, Francis T. Evans and Roy S. Geiger were assigned to the school. Each pilot had his own concept of how this new arm could enhance Marine Corps. operations. This resulted in two rival concepts of Marine Aviation, one in which the sole mission of the air arm was combat support of ground forces, while the other emphasized combined operations in which Marine Aviation supported the Navy. A training exercise in 1914 proved the value of USMC aviation. This exercise was a test of the ability of a Marine force to occupy, fortify and defend an advanced base and hold it against hostile attack. The air contingent was composed of two officers with ten mechanics, one flying boat and one amphibian. As the exercise progressed, two pilots took brigade commanders on reconnaissance flights over the battle area. The brigade officers were impressed with the speed and field of vision of the aircraft and recommended doubling the size of both the pilots and ground crew.
With the US declaration of war against Germany in 1917, Marine Aviation entered a period of rapid growth in both manpower and equipment. The Marine Corps entered the war with 511 officers and 13,214 enlisted. By wars end the Corps. commitment totaled 2,400 officers and 70,000 enlisted. While the initial concept of Marine deployment to France was to send a brigade to fight alongside the Army, Marine Aviation began to assert itself to ensure that the new arm got its share of Corps. manpower, additionally providing air support for the brigade. However, Marine Corps. Aviation found itself split between two competing missions. Land-based planes provided artillery spotting and reconnaissance for the brigade deployed to France, as well as a seaplane unit flying antisubmarine patrols. In addition to flying cover for ground forces, Marine Air units carried out fourteen bombing missions against railway yards, canals, and supply dumps, resulting in the destruction of four German aircraft.
After World War I ended, the Marine Corps., along with the other services, began a desperate struggle to persuade Congress to maintain prewar levels of bases, personnel, and equipment. As a sidebar to the overall battle for military appropriations, Lt. (now Maj.) Cunningham fought for a permanent status for Marine Aviation. He appeared before a number of military organizations, in addition to Congressional Committees. Cunningham also wrote a number of articles emphasizing the role of aviation in future military conflicts. As a result of his efforts and those of other military leaders, Marine Aviation had survived with Congress authorizing Marine Corps. strength at twenty percent of total Navy strength in 1920. The Corps. found it necessary to conduct a number of well-publicized exercises in order to garner further support from both Congress and the American public. One such exercise was conducted in 1922 in which a force of 4,000 Marines marched from Quantico, Va. to Gettysburg, Pa. Three heavy Martin MTB bombers were assigned to support the march. The Marine aviators flew a total of 500 hours and 40,000 air miles, carrying passengers and freight, as well as executing simulated attack missions. Marine aviators tested both new equipment and techniques, with the first successful dive-bombing conducted in 1919. They also made several long-distance flights, in addition to participating in a number of key air races. Overseas deployments to the Carribean, China, and the Western Pacific in the 1930s proved the flexibility of Marine Air.
Marine Aviation experienced a phenomenal growth during World War II. In 1936 there were only 145 Marine pilots on active duty with a gradual increase to 245 by mid-1940. By the end of that year, it had swelled to 425, augmented by the Marine Corps. Aviation Reserve. At the time of Pearl Harbor, Marine Aviation was composed of 13 squadrons and 204 aircraft. By the end of the war, its strength had increased to 145 squadrons and approximately 3,000 aircraft. To support this expansion, new bases were required in the continental United States. New and larger bases such as Cherry Point, NC replaced the original base at Quantico Virginia, while El Toro, CA replaced the older base at San Diego on the West Coast. The location of both bases was in close proximity to the major Marine ground bases at Camp Lejune, North Carolina and Camp Pendleton, California. The location of these bases facilitated the doctrine of close air support of Marine ground units by Marine Aviation. Though outnumbered, Marine pilots performed admirably in the defense of Wake Island, sinking the destroyer Kisaragi and shooting down seven Japanese aircraft. While sustaining heavy losses at Midway, Marine aviators nevertheless played a vital role in the victory there. They plowed their way up the Solomons from Henderson Field at Guadalcanal to Okinawa, providing dedicated ground support. Marine aviation ended the war with 2,335 aircraft destroyed, producing 121 aces.
After World War II, Marine aviation began to emphasize operations from aircraft carriers, which actually began late in that war. The development of the helicopter also broadened the horizons of Marine Aviation. When the Korean War began in 1950, Marine Aviation units were alerted for combat duty. Within six weeks, a carrier-based squadron was flying ground attack missions. Marine air gave a good account of itself flying ground support missions for UN forces in the Pusan Perimeter, as well as providing valuable close air support for the Inchon landing from carriers and later Kimpo Airfield. Along with the Navy and Air Force, Marine aircraft supplied the 1st Marine Division and evacuated more than 5,000 casualties during the withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir. By the end of the war in July 1953, Marine aircraft flew more than 118,000 sorties, of which 29,500 were close support missions. Marine helicopter squadrons evacuated approximately 10,000 ground troops during the course of the war.
Marine Aviation was at the forefront during the Viet Nam War, and both Gulf Wars. It has a long tradition of providing close air support and material support of ground forces. Though its missions have changed in recent years, it remains a force of readiness for the nation.
In late 1950, as USAF B-29s were bombing North Korean supply lines in support of UN ground troops, they encountered a swept-winged North Korean aircraft capable of great speed. While the introduction of the MIG-15 caught United Nations forces by surprise, its counterpart would prove to be a legend among jet fighter aircraft.
As early as 1944, North American Aviation had proposed a jet aircraft design to the US Navy, as a result of combat against the early German jet fighters, such as the ME-262. This design, the FJ-1 Fury was, in essence, a jet version of the P-51 MUSTANG. Though its speed was impressive compared to piston-powered fighters, its overall performance failed to meet expectations. However, within a few months, the USAAF approached North American with a requirement for a medium-range, single-seat, high-altitude, jet-powered day escort fighter/fighter-bomber. In early 1945, North American submitted four designs to the Air Corps with North American granted permission to produce three examples of the XP-86 (Experimental Pursuit) aircraft. While the XP-86 was a lighter plane than the Fury, and could attain 582 mph, as opposed to 547 for the FJ-1, the XP-86 could not meet the Air Corps requirement for a top speed of 600 mph. Furthermore, two rival designs, the XP-80 and XP-84 having speeds in the range of the XP-86 were already under development and might result in cancellation of the contract for the XP-86.
North American was able to solve this problem with a leapfrog in technology. The XP-86 was the first American aircraft to take advantage of captured German test data at the end of World War II, which indicated a thin swept wing could greatly reduce drag and delay compressibility problems when an aircraft approached the speed of sound. Further study of the tests revealed a swept wing would solve the speed problem, while a slat on the wing’s leading edge would enhance low-speed stability. Since the 86 was approaching an advanced stage of development, North American’s senior management was hesitant to incorporate a swept wing design. However, after a series of wind tunnel tests, a 35-degree sweep offered the best performance with automatic front slats and an electrically adjusted stabilizer based on the ME-262. As a result of combat experience gained in Korea, the front edge wing slats were phased out in favor of a leading edge chord extending 6 inches from the wing root to 3 inches at the tip.
Though much of the design work was delayed until after the end of World War II, the first F-86 SABRE was completed on August 8, 1947, with the first flight occurring on October 1 of that year. The SABRE was first assigned to the USAF Strategic Air Command in 1949 prior to its deployment to Korea in late 1950. The F-86 set a number of speed records during its early years, an official world speed record of 671 mph in September 1948, a 1951Bendix Trophy for an average speed of 553.76 mph, as well as the first woman, Jacqueline Cochran, to break the speed of sound in May 1953.
When the Soviet MIG-15 was introduced in November 1950, it outperformed all UN aircraft, such as the straight-winged F-80 and F-84. The MIG was clearly a generation ahead of both types, as well as the F9F PANTHER, flown by the US Navy from carriers offshore. Three squadrons of F-86s were dispatched to the Far East in December 1950. Though the F-86 and the MIG-15 were evenly matched and based on similar design concepts, there were a number of differences. SABRES were more aerodynamically stable and could turn, roll and dive faster than the MIG. The F-86 could also go supersonic in a dive, while the MIG would experience structural damage attempting to do so. The SABRE was also equipped with a radar gunsight, which allowed pilots to quickly aim their .50 caliber guns more accurately-even compensating for speed. The MIG-15s key advantages were faster climbing and acceleration rates, effective handling at high altitudes and being somewhat more maneuverable. Firepower between the two aircraft was a tradeoff, with the SABRE firing more smaller rounds more accurately aimed and the MIG firing less accurate but larger bore (23mm and 37mm) ammunition. Perhaps the deciding factor in the air war over Korea was the quality of pilots. Many of the MIGs were flown by Soviet pilots for about the first year of their deployment. Many of these were aces from World War II and were thus capable pilots. The USAF followed the same philosophy, sending a number of World War II aces to Korea as well. While the Soviet pilots were well trained, the USAF training program at Nellis AFB was both more broad and intense. As Soviet pilots were rotated home, they were replaced by less capable Chinese and North Korean pilots. As the war progressed, this was reflected in the loss ratio between the two aircraft. While the overall loss ratio was in favor of the SABRE of about eight to one by wars end (78 to 687), the loss ratio against Soviet pilots has been disputed in recent years, with a number of former Soviet pilots stating a loss ratio of two to one in favor of the SABRE. The most hotly contested battles were fought over an area near the mouth of the Yalu River known as MIG ALLEY.
After the Korean War, the SABRE was exported to a number of nations to include NATO allies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, West Germany, Greece, Spain, Norway and Turkey, as well as Taiwan, Japan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The last SABRE was retired from the Bolivian Air Force in 1994. Though the SABRE was in service for many years, the high point of its career was in Korea-in which a few brave pilots and planes made the difference in saving a nation.
While many of our ancestors arrived in this nation by ship – the only practical means of mass transit at the time, the subject of this blog chose a different but no less dangerous path to freedom. In his case, timing made the difference between life and death.
Kenneth H. Rowe (No Kum-Sok) was born in Sinhung, Korea on January 10, 1932. When Rowe was twelve years old, Korea was a part of the Japanese Empire and both Japanese culture and companies dominated the peninsula. Though Korean traditions and culture were officially shunned, Rowe’s father worked for a Japanese corporation and made a relatively good living, providing Ken with both material and social advantages. By his teen years, Ken could speak both Korean and Japanese fluently. In 1944 the Japanese military began sending its pilots on suicide missions against the American navy in the Pacific and requested Korean volunteers. Although Rowe was only twelve, he asked his father if he could volunteer to serve as a kamikaze pilot. The father was able to discourage Rowe, and conveyed an attitude that the United States would ultimately win the war. This aroused a curiosity in Ken about the United States and its people.
While Rowe began to express pro-American sentiments to his classmates, he had to be careful about them since the Soviets occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel after World War II and installed a Communist regime. After several years of dictatorship under Kim ll Sung, Ken became convinced he had to leave North Korea but ironically decided being an ardent Communist would give him the means to do so. Rowe’s zeal caught the attention of the North Korean military and he soon trained to become a fighter pilot.
Ken began flying combat missions in Soviet-built Mig-15 jet fighters in 1951. Although he flew nearly a hundred missions during the course of the war, he sought to avoid dogfights with USAF jet fighters, which enjoyed both qualitative and quantitative advantages. In September 1953, two months after the end of the Korean War Rowe (No) saw his chance. Rowe’s squadron was on a training mission from Sunan Air Base, just outside of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. With near perfect flying weather, Rowe was able to veer away from from his unit and set a course for the 38th parallel into South Korea. He knew the odds were against him to land safely at an American air base, but after a fifteen minute flight Rowe landed safely at Kimpo Air Base, just outside the South Korean capital of Soul. He later discovered the USAF radar was shutdown for maintenance work that morning, though he barely missed a collision with an American jet fighter landing on the same runway from the opposite direction.
Rowe (No) spent the next six months on Okinawa as a consultant to both the USAF and CIA on the capabilities of the Mig-15, as well as providing insight about North Korean air combat strategies. Ken arrived in the United States in 1954, working as a paid contractor to a number of US intelligence agencies. During that time, he often traveled by rail between Washington DC and New York, passing through Newark, Delaware – home of the University of Delaware School of Engineering. Intent on pursuing his education, Rowe enrolled in the UD engineering program, earning degrees in both mechanical and electrical engineering. He was well situated upon graduation, with the $100,000 reward received for defecting with the Mig (of which Rowe was unaware) invested for him and yielding a high rate of return.
When Rowe sought assistance from his CIA handlers in securing a green card to work in the US, they refused. He could only get temporary visas as a result of an agreement between the CIA and the government of South Korea, who wanted him to join their air force upon graduation. From a close relationship with a history professor at UD, Ken was introduced to a Senator from Delaware, who introduced a bill granting him citizenship. The bill was eventually signed by President Eisenhower. The CIA was instructed not to interfere if Rowe sought permanent immigration status on his own.
In 1957 Ken was reunited with his mother, who had been living in South Korea. Though he wasn’t fluent in English, he quickly adapted to life in the United States. Rowe pursued a varied and successful career in aeronautical engineering, working for a number of key aviation firms such as Grumman, General Dynamics, Lockheed and Boeing, as well as General Electric, DuPont and Westinghouse. After leaving the corporate world, Rowe served as an aeronautical engineering professor at Embry-Riddle University, making him a true hero of aviation – both inside and outside of the cockpit.
This blog is the fifth of a series about the heroes of aviation.
September 18 marked a landmark date for both military aviation and the aviation community at large, for it was the sixty-seventh anniversary of the United States Air Force. While much has changed during those years, the mission of the USAF remains that of preserving peace. During this blog, we will review the decisive missions of the USAF since its inception in 1947.
The United States Air Force became an independent armed service on September 18, 1947, as a result of the National Security Act Of 1947. Previously, military aviation functions were divided between the United States Army Air Forces (land based) and the United States Navy (sea based). While the Army Air Forces operated as a de facto separate military branch during World War ll, they remained organizationally a part of the U.S. Army. The success of large scale ground support and strategic bombing efforts during the war gained momentum for a separate air force, co-equal to the army and navy. By the end of the war, a number of military leaders, such as Douglas MacArthur, favored the creation of an independent air force.
Less than a scant year after its creation, the newly formed United States Air Force faced its first major test in the Berlin Airlift. After World War II, the German capital was divided into four occupation zones, as was the German nation as a whole. The Soviets believed if they could deny the Western Allies rail, canal and road access to the city, West Berliners would be forced to accept food, fuel and other material aid from the Soviet Zone, forcing the western powers out of the city. In June 1948, all land access to Berlin from the western zones was blockaded. While there was no formal agreement establishing land routes to Berlin, there was a written agreement in 1945 which guaranteed three 20 mile wide air corridors providing free access to Berlin. Supplying the city’s food and fuel needs was a daunting task, with approximately 1,500 tons of food and 3,500 tons of fuel required daily. However, the USAF and the RAF pooled their resources and were able to dedicate a force of 1,000 planes to the effort. In command of the airlift was Maj. Gen. William Tunner, who had reorganized the airlift between India and China during World War ll, doubling the tonnage and hours flown. Although the lift only provided 90 tons a day the first week, it had reached a 1,000 tons the second week. By January 1949 over 5,000 tons of cargo were delivered each day – exceeding pre-blockade levels. In May 1949, the Soviets reopened land routes to Berlin from the west.
When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Fifth Air Force fighters were first responders to provide ground support to the beleaguered South Korean forces. These missions were initially flown from bases in Japan, but once the ground situation stabilized a number of bases were established in South Korea for both ground support and offensive air patrols. The USAF began the war with the piston engine P-51 Mustang of World War ll. The P-51 was ideally suited for the close air support role in Korea, as it was an agile aircraft and could operate from the short, temporary airfields near the frontlines, unlike the jets of the era. Speaking of jets, Korea was the first war in which air to air combat was conducted by jets. The early jets, such as the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and the Republic F-84 Thunderjet were adequate in the ground support role, as well as dogfighting the Yak piston engine fighters flown by the North Koreans. However, this changed in late 1950 with the introduction of the Soviet built Mig-15. The Mig-15 was a swept wing jet interceptor (unlike the straight winged F-80 and F-84) and a generation ahead of both planes in design and performance. In order to address the imbalance, North American F-86 Sabres were sent to Korea. The F-86 had a 35 degree swept wing and was developed from captured German designs at the end of World War ll. Although the MIg was slightly faster and had a higher service ceiling, the Sabre was an overall better aircraft, equipped with innovations such as a radar gun sight. F-86 pilots were also better trained than their Chinese and North Korean counterparts, ending the war with an eight to one kill ratio. Transport aircraft, such as the twin-boomed Fairchild C-119 Boxcar were used extensively not only to supply ground forces, but also to evacuate civilians from the frontal areas.
In 1947, the U.S. military was in a state of transition. Just two short years after the end of World War II, the USAF was established as a separate service, as well as the OSS or Office Of Strategic Services of World War II being replaced by the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA – an agency with much broader powers and resources. With the onset of the Cold War, some of the traditional roles performed by the armed services were being revised to meet the new environment in which they were to operate. We will examine the role of Army aviation from its earliest days to the dedicated ground support role of today.
Army aviation actually began during the Civil War, in which both Union and Confederate forces used balloons for communications and artillery observation. While such missions could be hazardous at times, the balloons were effective in both roles. By World War I aircraft were used in direct ground support, along with other duties such as observation and establishing air superiority over the battlefield. While the ground support role of aircraft was proven during World War I, the Air Corps leadership lost interest in the concept between the wars in favor of large strategic bombers. However, this began to change as the United States entered World War II, due to a series of large scale ground exercises in 1940 and 1941. In June 1942 the War Department authorized the Field Artillery to maintain a small unit of spotter planes organic to the ground forces and independent of other Air Corps units. Small planes, such as the L-4 Grasshopper proved their worth in every theater of operations.
In 1947 the National Defense Act was passed, in which the Air Force was created as a separate service, equal to the Army and Navy. This left Army aviation with a narrowly defined mission of providing limited ground support and logistics to ground units and to disrupt enemy supply lines and communications near the line of battle. As a result of the Key West Agreement in 1948, Army aviation assumed the responsibility of transport and dispersion of troops under conditions of a nuclear battlefield. While the National Defense Act stripped the Army of most of its fixed wing aircraft, this proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it allowed the Army to devote more research toward rotary wing aircraft, or helicopters. During the Korean War the Army made significant advancements in its helicopter fleet, making it an essential item of the modern battlefield. Medical evacuation in Korea was particularly successful, with approximately 600 helicopters evacuating more than 23,000 casualties.
Although helicopters were successful in support roles, the Army was slow to develop them for a ground attack role. Part of this was due to the philosophy of massive retaliation during the Eisenhower Administration, in which USAF strategic bombers played the dominant role. Also, as tactical nuclear weapons were developed in the mid 1950s, the Army began to restructure its organization around them in the belief that large scale conventional wars were obsolete. However, as the Soviets began deploying tactical nuclear weapons of their own, the Army leadership realized the potential of a limited conventional war and began to prepare both hardware and doctrine for it. Due to experience in the Korean War, the Department of Defense authorized the Army to modify and test existing helicopters as attack platforms. While the tests were partially successful, it was clear larger helicopters with more capable engines were necessary for sustained fire support.
By 1960 the United States was finding itself more deeply involved in Southeast Asia and needed a means of providing close ground support, the helicopter being the ideal weapons platform. As a result of a Pentagon study that year, a new generation of helicopters was authorized. Purchase of the Bell UH-1 “Huey” and the CH-47 Chinook helicopters were approved, the Huey arguably the most important aircraft the Army ever procured, with many still in service today. The extensive use of helicopters during field exercises in 1963 and 1964 validated the concept of the airmobile division. However, when the 1st Air Cavalry (Airmobile) Division began operations in Viet Nam, there was a shortage of artillery support with Air Force and Navy ground support lacking accuracy. To surmount this problem, the Army developed the AH-1 Cobra, the first dedicated ground attack helicopter. The Cobra, armed with 2.75 in. rockets, was so effective that many ground commanders requested fire support from Cobra units, as opposed to regular tube artillery. Viet Nam proved that helicopters were both survivable and effective. Operational statistics revealed for a maximum force level of 2,600 helicopters in country, one copter was hit for every 1,147 sorties with one shot down for every 13,461 sorties flown with one aircraft lost every 21,194 sorties.
Army aviation had proven its value again as a vital part of the combined arms team. With both the airmobile and aerial field artillery concepts validated and the subsequent use of helicopter gunships as anti-armor weapons, Army aviation has truly progressed from the days of mere artillery spotting – becoming a separate branch of the Army in 1983. In the Gulf War, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan, Army aviation has proven itself a force to be reckoned with.