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My dad told me a number of stories about flying in an aircraft during World War II, in which the aircrews could transport their gear by driving a jeep up a ramp into the plane. That plane, the Curtiss C-46 Commando, played a pivotal role in World War II, as well as Korea and Viet Nam. During the course of this blog, we’ll follow the service of the Commando in a number of tasks for which it was uniquely suited.
Development of the C-46 began in 1937 by Curtiss-Wright as the CW-20 airliner. The CW-20 was initially developed through private funding for the purpose of competing with the four-engine Douglas DC-4 and the Boeing Stratoliner by offering a pressurized cabin. However, the CW-20 cabin provided an edge in pressurization over the previous two aircraft due to a figure-eight or double-bubble fuselage, which enabled it to better withstand the pressure differential at high altitudes. This was accomplished by having the sides of the fuselage creased at the level of the floor, not only separating the two sections, but sharing the stress of each, rather than merely supporting itself. This concept allowed the main spar of the wing to pass through the bottom section, which was designed for cargo without disturbing the upper passenger compartment. The emphasis in the design of the CW-20 was one of simplicity coupled with economy, which dictated a twin-engine concept as opposed to a four-engine one.
After an intensive series of wind tunnel tests, the CW-20 in its final form had a streamlined fuselage with the cockpit area blended as a glazed dome. In spite of its aerodynamic appearance, the aircraft had a large capacity for its day and could comfortably seat thirty-four passengers. The engines featured a unique nacelle tunnel cowl, in which air was ducted in and expelled through the bottom of the cowl, reducing turbulent airflow and induced drag across the upper wing surface. Though Curtiss-Wright approached a number of airlines to sign contracts for the CW-20, only 25 letters of intent were received. However, CW management decided there was enough potential to begin production. The initial configuration of the CW-20 included twin vertical tail surfaces with the aircraft powered by two 1,700 hp. Wright Cyclone engines. After a successful test flight in March 1940, the aircraft was fitted with a large single tail to improve performance at low speeds. As a result of tests later that year, General Henry “Hap” Arnold became interested in the potential of the twenty as a military transport and ordered 46 CW-20As in September 1940. This order was later increased to 200 planes. Now designated the C-46, the aircraft received enlarged cargo doors, a more durable load floor and a convertible cabin, which allowed ease of change in carrying freight and troops. Perhaps the most important modification was the upgrade to the 2,000 hp. Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engines, giving the C-46 the ability to fly on a single engine for extended periods.
By December 7, 1941 only two of the proposed two-hundred aircraft of the 1940 order had been delivered to the USAAF. The Commando was well suited to operations in the Pacific Theater, due to its heavier payload, longer range, faster cruising speed and higher altitude over the Douglas C-47 Skytrain. The surface area of the Commando’s wing was also greater than either the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress or the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, the largest USAAF bombers in service at the time. With a service ceiling of nearly 28,000 ft., the C-46 was the prime mover in flying cargo over the Himalaya Mountains to troops and bases in China in desperate need. This effort gained importance during the early phases of B-29 operations from China launched against the Japanese home islands. While other transports had been employed in the area, the C-46 proved the most versatile and durable aircraft, in overcoming adverse weather conditions, heavy cargo loads, mountain terrain and poorly equipped runways, which remained a constant challenge. During the course of its service in the China, Burma, India and Pacific areas, the Commando experienced a number of mechanical problems, primarily with the Curtiss-Electric pitch control mechanism on the propellers. However, once the pitch control mechanism had been removed the incidence of mechanical problems began to decrease. The US Marines found the C-46 (R5C) useful in both flying supplies to island bases and evacuating wounded personnel from unimproved runways.
Though the Commando played a vital role in the CBI and Pacific areas, it was not deployed in significant numbers to Europe until March 1945, when it complemented existing C-47 Skytrain transports during Operation Varsity, the airborne effort in support of Allied forces crossing the Rhine. Though the C-46s sustained a twenty-five per cent loss rate, this was largely due to delayed upgrades of self-sealing fuel tanks with the aircraft particularly vulnerable during low altitude air drops. While the plane overall had been successful during World War II, after undergoing a number of modifications, its airline service after the war became limited due to both higher fuel and maintenance costs over the C-47/DC-3. However, a number of surplus C-46s were used by small airlines, such as the Flying Tigers and World Airways to carry both cargo and passengers over mountainous and jungle areas of South America, where vehicle transport would be impractical. C-46s were flown in support of Israel’s war for independence in 1948, flying both cargo and bombing missions. Commandos flew resupply missions for Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces in the civil war against Mao’s Communist forces in China. In the early 1950s, C-46s flew clandestine missions in both Korea and French Indo-China, dropping both agents and supplies behind enemy lines. The CIA formed its own airline for these operations, Civil Air Transport, later renamed Air America. The C-46 also flew supplies in support of the Bay Of Pigs invasion in 1961, as well as counterinsurgency operations in Viet Nam until being replaced in that role by the C-130 in 1968.
While the Commando experienced a number of mechanical problems during its service, such as fuel system and fluid leaks, these were primarily solved by maintenance in the field. Though the C-46 required about 50% more maintenance hours over the C-47, the Commando was both a larger and a more capable aircraft, performing a variety of missions for our nation at a critical time.
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.
From the journeys of the Apostle Paul to the twenty first century, missionaries have been on the move, proclaiming the gospel as well as meeting the physical needs of the communities they serve. During the course of this blog, we will trace the development of mission aviation from its earliest days to its global reach of today.
While missionaries were flown into Central America and the Caribbean region as early as the 1920′s, it wasn’t until after World War II that mission aviation developed into its own unique ministry. One of the the first air ministry organizations was the Mission Aviation Fellowship. The MAF was formed in 1946 as a result of several World War II aviators who envisioned a role for aviation in spreading the gospel. The Mission Aviation Fellowship was initially established from three branches, with Jim Truxton of the United States, Murray Kendon of the the United Kingdom and Edwin Hartwig of Australia. The earliest MAF efforts were in Mexico, Peru and Ecuador with Betty Greene flying two Wycliffe Bible translators to a remote location in Mexico in 1946. By 2010 the MAF supported missionaries in 55 countries, transporting over 200,000 passengers, meeting global mission and humanitarian needs with 130 aircraft.
As a result of the increased global outreach of the Missionary Aviation Fellowship and other aviation ministries, a need for pilot training programs became evident. In 1975 the Mission Aviation Training Institute (MATI) was formed. Upon retiring from the Air Force, Davis Goodman was approached by the President of Piedmont Bible College to establish a flight training program for missionaries under development by the college. Flight training began the prior year, with a single instructor, a borrowed aircraft and nine students at a local airport. Later in 1975, Davis became the program director and purchased a Cessna 150 dedicated for training purposes. Within four years, the program leased space at a larger airport, followed by the addition of an Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic School in 1981. In 1984 Goodman ceded both ownership and operational control of Sugar Valley Airport and MATI (now Missionary Aviation Institute) to Piedmont Baptist College. With more pilots than planes for mission efforts, Goodman founded Aviation Ministries International (AMI) in 1984 with the primary tasks of fundraising and aircraft acquisition. By 2015 AMI (now Missionary Air Group) was providing both mission and medical services to outlying areas in more than a dozen countries.
With the steady growth and progress of mission aviation over the past seventy years, as well as improvement in transport systems in underdeveloped areas, some have questioned if mission aviation is relevant. However, when one considers the perspective of a pilot, a different picture arises. While the major cities of the world are easily accessible by jetliner, reaching remote local areas remains a problem. Transportation is not uniform within many of these countries with highways turning into back roads within a fifty mile radius of urban areas. A journey of a few hours by plane could take a day on foot. Secondly, roads are actually disappearing in some of the remote areas of the world. For example, in a number of African countries, when one could travel across the country in a couple of days, is nearly impassable today with bridges and roads in disrepair being replaced by jungle growth due to political instability and inadequate funding. Also, in many instances air transport remains a cost-effective means of travel. A mission organization in Brazil chartered a motorized canoe for a trip up the Amazon river only to find out they could have chartered a Cessna 206 float plane for an identical rate. National aviation organizations now exist fully staffed and funded by local mission groups. The Asas de Socorro in Brazil manages five bases along the Amazon in addition to operating a flight school in Anapolis, training students from other Latin-American countries. Finally, mission aviation remains the most flexible and responsive tool to reach otherwise impassable areas. In Morocco, where mission work has thrived for years along its populated coastal cities, the Berber tribesmen of the Atlas Mountains remain without a church due to the ruggedness of the terrain and relative isolation.
While watching the recent movie Sully, I was amazed at the sophistication of current flight simulators available to the major aircraft producers. During the course of this blog, we will trace the development of flight simulators from mere mechanical devices to the virtual reality electronics of today.
A flight simulator is a mechanical or electronic device, which attempts to duplicate both aircraft flight and the environment in which it flies. Current simulators can replicate factors such as flight controls, wind, moisture and electronic system interaction. While flight simulation is used primarily for pilot training, it may also be used to design aircraft, as well as identify effects of aircraft properties.
The earliest flight simulators were used during World War I to teach gunnery techniques. This involved a static simulator with a model aircraft passing in front to aid both pilots and gunners to develop correct lead angles to the target. This was the only form of flight simulation for nearly ten years. The Link Trainer, developed by Edwin Link in the late 1920′s, capitalized on the use of pneumatic devices from player pianos and organs from the family musical instrument business. The first trainer was patented in 1930 with an electrical suction pump boosting the various control valves operated by stick and rudder action while another motor simulated the effects of wind and other external disturbances. These actions could be manually adjusted to provide a variety of flight characteristics.
While the Link Trainer provided a quantum leap in capability over previous flight simulators, many in both the military and civil aviation communities believed the live flight experience offered a better training environment. However, by the early 1930′s, the United States Army Air Corps had a need for flight simulator applications which could train mail pilots to fly by instruments for long distances. An enhancement to the Link Trainer was a device called the course plotter, in which a self-propelled tracker could remotely trace the trainer position from an inked wheel with communications between pilot and instructor facilitated by the use of simulated radio beacons.
It was during the late 1930′s, when flight simulation began to be based on electronic applications. The Dehmel Trainer, developed by Dr. R. C. Dehmel of Southwestern Bell, coupled a Link Trainer with an advanced radio simulation system, which could accurately duplicate navigation signals transmitted to a receiving aircraft, providing a state of art simulation of radio navigation aids. The Aerostructor, developed by A. E. Travis, utilized a fixed base trainer with a moving visual presentation, as opposed to radio and electronic signals. This presentation was based on a loop of film which depicted the effects of course changes, pitch and roll. While the Aerostructor was never mass produced, a modified version of it was in service with the US Navy.
During World War II advances in aircraft design such as retractable landing gear, variable pitch propellers and higher speeds created a demand for more realistic forms of flight simulation. In response to this, the Hawarden Trainer was developed, which used a cutaway center section of a Spitfire fuselage, which allowed training in all aspects of operational flight. In 1939, the British were in need of a simulator which could train it’s navigators who were ferrying US aircraft across the Atlantic. The navigator was supported by a number of radio aids, as well as a celestial dome corresponding to changes in the position of the stars relative to changes in time, longitude and latitude. The Celestial Trainer, designed by Ed Link and P. Weems was also modified to train bomber crews, in which simulated landscapes gave the bomb aimer target sightings as they would appear from a moving aircraft. Redifussion (Redifon) produced a navigation device in 1940, which simulated existing radio direction equipment allowing two stations to take a fix on an aircraft’s position. By the end of the war, aircraft crews were trained by the simulation of radar signals to acquaint them with new types of radar developed during the war.
While the science of flight simulation had progressed dramatically over the past thirty years, they were unable to accurately duplicate performance characteristics of a plane. This changed with the arrival of subsonic jetliners in the 1950′s. Aircraft manufacturers began to produce more complete data and extensive flight testing. This data was stored on analogue computers, making the data transferable, but requiring more hardware as aircraft testing became more sophisticated. By the early 1960′s, digital computers began to replace the aging analogue units due to the increased data capacity and speed of the digital units. The most successful of these, the Link Mark I, operated with three parallel processors functional, arithmetic and radio selection, using a drum memory for data storage. By the 1970′s the majority of computer systems could be adapted for flight simulation.
During that decade computer image generation or CGI technology became available for flight simulation models. This technology, adapted from the space program, used a ground plane image, supplemented by three dimensional graphics. This technology became more sophisticated in recent years, mating it to advances in digital computers – a far cry from the rolling ground plane pictures of the 1940′s. Today, flight simulation is a colossal industry, spanning the globe with a wide range of high tech applications for both aircraft users and producers, enhancing the safety of both crew and passengers.
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.
In the late 1930s the USAAF found itself in need of a light bomber, as a result of aircraft developments from the Spanish Civil War. It was required to carry a bomb load of at least 1,000 lbs. and be capable of both level and dive bombing. The Douglas A-20 Havoc became one of several USAAF aircraft designated as attack bombers, aircraft which carried a greater payload than fighters but having less range and firepower than medium bombers.
The Havoc was developed at a time when a low-altitude, high speed attack mode of aviation was coming to fruition among the worlds leading air forces. The A-20 was designed as a mid-wing, three-place light bomber with both frontal and rear armament. While flight tests began in 1938, the USAAF was initially not interested in the aircraft, because it’s 1,100 hp., Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engines could not provide sufficient power. However, several French officers witnessed the tests ( in violation of the Neutrality Act) and were impressed enough to place an order for 270 planes. After initial combat experience from the French Air Force and later the RAF, the Havoc’s engines were upgraded to Wright R-2600, 1700 hp. Twin Cyclone engines – giving it a performance comparable to many fighters of the day.
At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the A-20 was the only aircraft of its type available in large numbers. Once in wide use, the aircraft proved itself both durable and adaptable. Armament was increased to a 2,000 lb. internal bomb bay load, as well as an additional 1,000 lb. bomb attached to external racks under each wing. The nose greenhouse was also replaced with a solid cone containing either six .50 cal. machine guns or four 20 mm cannon. This configuration was especially effective for the low altitude ground attack and anti-shipping missions of the Southwest Pacific. The Havoc gained favor with Soviet forces as an effective anti-armor, ground support aircraft with approximately one-third of all production sent to the Soviet Union via Lend Lease. It also supported the Normandy invasion and subsequent operations in Western Europe.
Although eclipsed by the Douglas A-26 Invader in 1944, many pilots still preferred the Havoc due to its relative speed and maneuverability. It performed a number of roles, such as dive bombing, level bombing, strafing and skip bombing. There was also a successful night fighter version, the P-70. The Havoc was easy to fly and had a relatively simple control panel. It gave pilots the best of both worlds – the range and payload of a bomber coupled with the speed and maneuverability of a fighter.
The history and development of medical transport closely parallels developments in both aviation and medical technology, since physicians have sought to use aircraft in patient care from the earliest days of flight. During the course of this blog, we will trace the progress of in-flight care from the trainer aircraft of World War I to the turbine helicopters of today.
Ironically, the need for in-flight medical care arose from pilot training injuries during World War I. To support expansion of the Air Corps, a number of new airfields were constructed in remote areas of the country. If a student pilot were injured in a crash, it could be several hours to the closest hospital. Therefore, the Air Corps undertook a novel approach and converted a number of Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” trainers to flying ambulances. Although several versions were built, the patients were enclosed in the fuselage without the benefit of in-flight care. In spite of the limitations of the aircraft, the USAAC system became a prototype for other air ambulance services.
By World War II the emphasis was on long range medical evacuation, involving the use of large cargo planes. These aircraft were large enough to accommodate in-flight care while transporting the injured to theatre hospitals, where they could receive more comprehensive care. While the cargo planes were a quantum leap in both service and technology, there was still a pressing need for small aircraft capable of flying from the forward areas to small field hospitals in the rear. The Cessna Birddog and other small fixed wing aircraft were modified to carry stretchers and medical supplies. Sikorski YR-4B helicopters were first used in Burma in 1944 to evacuate soldiers from isolated areas behind Japanese lines. Although the early helicopters had a limited capacity, their missions were successful. By Korea, dedicated helicopters such as the Bell 47 and Sikorski R-5 were able to provide timely evacuation of the wounded, reducing the fatality rate from the 4.5% of World War II to 2.5%. In Viet Nam, with the use of the Bell UH-1 Huey, the fatality rate was further reduced to less than 1.5%.
The success of military medevac programs inspired civil efforts, as well. Project CARESOM was initiated in Mississippi in 1969, in which several military helicopters were provided to the state by a federal grant to transport patients in underserved areas of the state. The city of Hattiesburg continued the program and became the first civilian medical air unit in the United States. Another experiment, the Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic (MAST), was formed in 1969 at Fort Sam Houston to use military helicopters to supplement civilian providers. The program was highly successful and spawned services such as Flight For Life Colorado, which began in 1972, along with the Air Ambulance program in Canada, which was established in 1977 by the Ontario Ministry of Health. The Ontario program also transferred patients between facilities. One of the first helicopter services independent of any hospital, Mercy Flight WNY was formed in 1981 in New York state and is one of a few not-for-profit providers. Today, there are more than 200 medical transport firms in the United States with the number growing. The scope of their services has grown, as well. Medics can now perform emergency procedures done by ER doctors, just a few years ago.
The use of seaplanes dates back to 1910, when French aviation pioneer Henri Fabre performed the first successful launch of a seaplane from water. Fabre’s plane, Le Canard or Duck, was powered by a 50 hp. engine and flew a course of about 1,650 ft. The following year, Glenn Curtiss, the renowned American aviator and racing enthusiast modified a biplane with attached floats and successfully took off and landed from water. During World War I seaplanes played a limited but important role in protecting convoys from prowling German U boats. However, it was not until after the war when a Curtiss NC-4 became the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic from New York to Lisbon that their potential was recognized by both the civil and military aviation communities.
In order to gain a better understanding of seaplanes, we must first define them by their subcategories – amphibians, float planes and flying boats. An amphibian is an aircraft which can take off from both land and water, having both floats and /or a boat shaped fuselage with retractable wheels. Float planes are essentially land based aircraft with flotation pontoons attached underneath the plane corresponding with the landing gear position, as these are often interchangable with landing wheels. Floatplanes either have a large central float located underneath the fuselage with additional floats near the wingtips for lateral stability or a catamaran arrangement placing two equal sized floats below the inner wing to provide buoyancy. Flying boats are seaplanes which have a boatlike shape to their fuselage and usually land in water, although the employment of beaching gear, a temporary dolly on wheels, may be used to move the plane from water to land.
During the 1920s a number of float planes competed in the international racing circuit. By the 1930s seaplanes were being developed for use as commercial airliners. The advantages were twofold: early aircraft engines were still relatively unreliable, so a plane which could land on the sea offered a measure of protection in the event of engine failure, while the capability to land on water made such aircraft accessible to remote areas of the globe. By the mid 1930s seaplanes such as the Sikorsky S-42 and the Martin M-130 were flying transoceanic routes on a regular basis, connecting North America with both Europe and Asia. Flying boats, amphibians and float planes were used extensively during World War II for reconnaisance, transport and bombardment missions, the Consolidated PBY Catalina a prime example.
However, after the war interest in amphibian aircraft began to wane for several reasons. By the late 1940s enough commercial airliners with intercontinental range became available to cover the routes flown by the seaplanes, while newer land based aircraft offered more passenger capacity, speed and range than flying boats. Military use of seaplanes declined as well, as a result of their being superceded by more efficient land based patrol and transport aircraft and the more cost effective helicopters in the air-sea rescue role.
Despite their decline in commercial and military use, amphibians are extremely well suited for operations in remote areas of the globe, providing vital links to the outside world. The current trend toward light sport aircraft has renewed interest in them, with a number of high tech designs such as the Privateer, Donier S-Ray and Petrel. The common thread among these aircraft are lightweight composite materials, fuel efficient engines, as well as the latest electronics. These planes are both versatile and fun to fly. Instead of fishing on one lake with a boat, why not fish from several with an amphibian?