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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 1945 the USAAF was at a crossroads. While the B-29 Superfortress was a capable platform in carrying the war to Japan, future requirements dictated an aircraft of intercontinental range, in excess of five thousand miles. The Convair B-36 Peacemaker met this requirement, but would not enter service for three more years. Further complicating matters, General Curtis LeMay and several other forward thinking generals were considering a jet powered bomber. However, within a few years, the generals and engineers got together and designed a truly great jet bomber – the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. During this blog we will tell the story of the B-52, its development and its long service record with the USAF.
In addition to the range requirements of the aircraft, other performance characteristics specified by the Air Material Command in 1946 were a cruising speed of 300 mph. at an altitude of 34,000 ft., with a minimal payload of 10,000 lbs with five or six 20mm. gun turrets. The AMC issued bids later that year with Boeing, Glen L. Martin and Consolidated Aircraft submitting proposals. The Air Force accepted the Boeing proposal, an aircraft powered by six turboprop engines with a range of 3,110 miles. The Boeing plane, designated Model 462, was a straight-winged aircraft with a gross weight of 360,000 pounds – a heavy plane for its day. As a result of the weight issue, the Air Force began to have doubts about the ability of the aircraft to successfully perform its mission. Boeing then offered a smaller follow-up design, Model 464, having four engines and a 230,000 pound gross weight. While the 464 aircraft was deemed acceptable, the Air Force changed its requirements within a few months to a plane having a 400 mph cruising speed, with a 300,000 pound gross weight. Additionally, the Air Force wanted an aircraft with a range of twelve thousand miles, capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. These modifications increased the gross weight of the plane to 480,000 lbs.
Boeing responded by proposing two bombers, Model 464-16 and Model 464-17. Both planes were four engine turboprop designs, with the Model 16 being a nuclear only aircraft carrying a ten thousand lb. payload. The Model 17 bomber was a conventional bomber, able to mount a 9,000 lb. payload. By mid 1947 the Model 17 aircraft was deemed acceptable by the Air Force, except for the range requirement. By now, designated the XB-52, the aircraft offered only marginal performance in speed and range over the Convair B-36, which was about to enter service. The Air Force then postponed the project for six months in order to evaluate its potential. After a series of intense discussions between Boeing and the Air Force, the XB-52 project was back on track in January 1948, with Boeing urged to include the latest aviation innovations in the bomber design such as jet engines and aerial refueling. In May 1948, jet engines were substituted for turboprops which satisfied the Air Force. However, the Air Force still wanted a turboprop design, since jet engines of the era lacked fuel efficiency. October 1948 proved to be a crucial month for the XB-52 project. Boeing engineers George Schairer, Art Carlsen and Vaughn Blumenthal presented a refined turboprop design to Colonel Pete Warden, Director of Bomber Development for the USAF. After reviewing the proposal, Warden asked the Boeing design team if they could prepare a proposal for a four engine turbojet bomber. The following day Colonel Warden scanned the design, requesting an improved version. After returning to their hotel room, Schairer, Carlsen and Blumenthal were joined by Ed Wells, Boeing Vice President of Engineering, in addition to two other Boeing engineers, Bob Withington and Maynard Pennell. After eight hours of intense deliberation, the Boeing team had designed an entirely new airplane. The new concept of the XB-52 had 35 degree swept wings, based on the B-47 Stratojet, with eight engines paired in four pods below the wings with bicycle landing gear and outrigger wheels underneath the wingtips. The XB-52 also had flexible landing gear, which could pivot 20 degrees from the aircraft centerline to compensate for crosswinds upon landing. Warden approved the design the following week and the Air Force signed a contract with Boeing in February 1951 for an initial production run of 13 B-52As.
When the B-52 entered service in 1955, it was assigned to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to deliver nuclear weapons under the doctrine of massive retaliation. Carrying a 50,000 lb. payload coupled with the capability to fly nearly half way around the globe, the Stratofortress was ideally suited for its role and soon became the standard for future bomber aircraft. Three B-52s from March AFB set a record around the world flight in 1957. However, it had its share of teething troubles, as with all aircraft. For example, the split level cockpit had climate control problems, while the pilot and co-pilot had sunlight exposure on the upper deck, the navigator and observer nearly froze on the lower deck. Early B-52 models were often grounded due to both electrical and hydraulic issues, with the Air Force assigning contractor teams to B-52 bases, troubleshooting problems as they arose.
By the late 1950s, advances in Soviet surface to air (SAM) missile capabilities brought about a major upgrade in the electronic countermeasure capabilities of the B-52. This situation also caused SAC to change its philosophy from high altitude bombing to low level penetration. The switch to low altitude bombing required a number of modifications to B-52 component parts. Such features as an updated radar altimeter, structural reinforcements, modified equipment mounts, an enhanced cooling system, as well as terrain avoidance radar were necessary to support missions flown at altitudes as low as 500 ft. By the end of the decade, B-52 capabilities increased with the addition of the Quail and Hound Dog missile systems. The Quail, a decoy missile, was carried in the aft bomb bay of the B-52 and launched while in flight to the target. The missile was programmed by the crew to match the speed and altitude of the B-52, thus confusing Soviet radar. Each Stratofortress carried four of these, in addition to the regular nuclear payload. North American’s entry, the AGM-28 Hound Dog was an offensive missile launched from the B-52 to carry a nuclear warhead to its target. With a mach 2 speed and an altitude variance of from 500 to 60,000 ft., the Hound Dog was able to penetrate enemy air defenses to a range of 600 miles. The primary drawback of the Hound Dog was its weight. At 20,000 lbs. each, the B52s could only carry two of them with a corresponding fifteen per cent loss of range.
The 1960s saw a change of doctrine for SAC. With the emergence of both land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), as well as sea-launched (SLBM) missiles from submarines, the manned bomber force became a leg of a nuclear triad. The primary advantage of the missile legs were their relative invulnerability to enemy attack. They were also cheaper to operate than a manned bomber fleet. Both ICBMs and SLBMs offered a quick response to an enemy attack, while a response from manned bombers was more time sensitive. The growing threat from Soviet ICBMs was another factor countering the effectiveness of the manned bomber leg. Due to the potential for conflict in Berlin, Cuba and a number of third world countries, the Kennedy Administration decided to scrap the policy of massive retalation, replacing it with the doctrine of flexible response. Instead of having a large nuclear umbrella with small conventional forces, those forces were increased in order to keep any potential war from escalating to the nuclear threshold. Under the flexible response doctrine, nuclear weapons were to be used in a limited role against selected targets. Thus, the B-52 had a new mission, to loiter on patrol at the edge of Soviet airspace, ready to strike designated targets in a retaliatory role. The Stratofortress was the ideal plane for the job, having the range, speed and payload, as well as an aerial refueling capability.
While the B-52 was designed as nuclear weapon delivery system, it served an entirely different purpose in Viet Nam. In 1964 seventy-four B-52s were modified with external bomb racks, which could carry an additional twenty-four 750 lb. bombs. The following year Operation Rolling Thunder began, in which the USAF commenced bombing missions in both North and South Viet Nam, with the primary role of the Stratofortress to support ground operations in the South. The first mission, Operation Arc Light was conducted by B-52s in June 1965, bombing a suspected Viet Cong stronghold in the Ben Cat District in South Viet Nam. Twenty-Seven B-52s participated in the raid, bombing a one mile by two mile box. Though only partially successful, the raid proved the potential of the B-52 as a ground attack weapon. Later that year, a number of B-52s underwent modifications to increase their capacity for carpet bombing. These raids were devastating to anyone in or near the target areas. B-52s bombed North Viet Nam in late 1972 during Operation Linebacker II. These missions were successful in leading to the peace talks which ended the war, although at a loss of 15 Stratofortresses. During that campaign, B-52 gunners claimed two North Vietnamese Mig-21s – the first hostile aircraft shot down by the plane.
The Stratofortress went on to provide ground support in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Operation Allied Force in Serbia in 1999, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001, as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. During its career, the B-52 has proven itself both a durable and an adaptable plane, receiving a number of modifications during its 63 year career. It has dropped bombs, launched missiles, served as an experimental platform, in addition to launching the X-15 rocket plane. Current efforts by Boeing to re-engine the Stratofortress are projected to extend its service life through 2040. One could say of the B-52, it’s the plane that keeps on flying.
As the United States Air Force entered the Viet Nam War in full mode in 1965, it was faced with multiple challenges. The missions varied from air superiority to ground support to counterinsurgency. The air force was able to meet these challenges through an evolution of both doctrine and equipment. When the air war began over North Viet Nam in 1965, the F-4 Phantom, the newest fighter-bomber in the USAF inventory, had no guns but utilized long range air to air missiles for defense. After a series of dogfights with the slower but more nimble Soviet built Mig-17s, the F-4s were modified to carry the M-61 gattling gun. The M-61 was developed in the late 1950s and fired 20mm projectiles. It was developed from the earlier M-39 gattling gun, which fired the standard .50 cal. rounds. The M-61 was a marked improvement over the M-39 in firepower, with the M-61 having three times the rate of fire of a long-barreled .50 cal. machinegun. Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers, designed for the strategic nuclear role, were modified to carry conventional bombs for carpet bombing missions against Viet Cong troop and supply concentrations. C-130 transports were also converted to gunships, firing both gattling guns and artillery at night on suspected Viet Cong positions. These planes were refined throughout the war in terms of both electronics and firepower. Transport aircraft also defoliated thick jungle underbrush and dropped flares in support of ground operations.
In both Gulf Wars, USAF doctrine was to destroy the entire spectrum of Iraqi targets within a week, unlike the gradual approach taken over North Viet Nam in the 1960s. These attacks were designed to destroy the Iraqi leadership, degrading their military capabilities and will to fight. Unlike both Korea and Viet Nam, these missions were coordinated with the air forces of several nations. As many as 700 sorties were flown on a daily basis with the A-10 Thunderbolt proving an effective tank killer. An important aspect of air operations in both Gulf Wars was the large number of tactical aircraft deployed. With few forward bases and a three-fold increase in aircraft over the Viet Nam War, an effective tanker fleet was imperative. While many KC-135 and C-130 tanker planes were beginning to show age, they remained effective in refueling the tactical air forces of the United States and other allied nations, whenever and wherever needed. Laser-guided weapons also came into use, providing precision strike capability for both isolated ground targets and strategic urban targets, as well as the global positioning system or GPS, from which to acquire targets from satellite plotting data. Once an area was secured, C-17 cargo planes, able to operate from short, unimproved runways, supplied the local population with needed food and building materials from which to renew their communities. Such aircraft have also provided relief on a global scale to areas suffering from the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, diseases and other natural disasters, proving the USAF a true force for peace.
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.