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80th Anniversary of Army Aviation

Looking Back, April 2022 - By Mark Albertson

80th Anniversary of Army Aviation

One of the true intellectuals of the Army Aviation movement penned the following, for the 50th anniversary of Army Aviation. This particular effort appeared in the December 1992 issue of Army Aviation, pages 26, 28, 30, 32 and 34. 

“Army Aviation, 1955-1962: The Foundation of Air Mobility”
By General Hamilton H. Howze, (Ret.)
{Edited by Mark Albertson] 

The period of 1955-1958, for Army Aviation, was one of gradual transfer of authority and responsibility from the Air Force to the Army.  The offices of the Chief of Army Aviation, the Chief of Transportation, the Transportation Center at Fort Eustis, Virginia, and the Army Aviation School were all recipients of major responsibilities by that transfer.  The Air Force, by and large, had done a good job in training our pilots and technicians, in supplying our fleet and developing our aircraft, but now the jobs became ours to do.

The post of Chief of Army Aviation became that of a major general, a step forward in that the chief, in his frequent visits to aircraft manufacturers, was no ushered in to see the president—and the chief’s self-imposed mission was always to get the company interested in what was to become (he hoped) a major market for the same of good new light aircraft, fixed and rotary wing, combat and non-combat.

In 1955, the Air Force had largely flown away from the Army, having become strongly preoccupied with the new super firepower afforded by atomic reaction and with a new means of propulsion—the jet engine.  These developments made possible:  very high altitude, supersonic speed, and for refueled bombers, intercontinental range with devastating effective bomb loads (not to mention the capabilities of ICBMs and jet fighters).  The Air Force, convinced that these strengths gave it all the tools necessary to win the next war, had lost interest in the slow, low regime of flight—fight close to the tree tops.

But a few perceptive officers of the Army reckoned that maybe all future combat would not necessarily be atomic or at transoceanic ranges—and that indeed many things useful to do in combat might be done in the air at low altitude.  One of them was Lieutenant General James Gavin, then G-3 of the Army.

An office job we in Army Aviation considered vital was selling all pertinent parts of the Army staff in the Pentagon on this proposition.  To that end, we wrote the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth to get tactical problems they were currently presenting to their students; these we presented to any individual or group of officers we could get to listen.  First we gave the problems straight, as C&GSC gave it; then we put a very few selected, attached light reconnaissance aircraft, attack aircraft, and troop-carrying aircraft on one side, but not the other, and presented the problem again; then we shifted the aircraft to the other side and gave it a third time.

The effect of a few aircraft on the outcome was astonishing.  One side knew much more of the other’s position, disposition, and activity; one could move critically needed supplies or persons quickly, the other couldn’t; one could cross part of its strength over hills and rivers easily; the other couldn’t.  Indeed, once could beat hell out of the other, other things (besides aircraft) being equal.  The little show was immensely convincing.

We also gave the spiel to the tactical departments of all the Army’s prestigious combat branch schools, Infantry, Armor and Artillery; to the Command and General Staff College, and to the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.

1955-1962 was a period of much interest in the science of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) and flight at very altitudes—in the “nap of the earth,” so to speak.  I was astounded to see how many ways had been developed to lift an aircraft and its cargo vertically off the ground—many of the aviation manufacturing companies we visited had an experimental candidate aircraft to show us.

Throughout the years 1955-1963, Combat Developments at the Army Aviation School, under Colonel Jay D. Vanderpool, was doing all sorts of useful things in respect to the development of helicopter flight procedures close to the ground, among the trees, at night and in marginal weather –there being no established blind-flying techniques for helicopters at that time.  We also sent school flight instructors to learn special helicopter mountain flying techniques from the Okanagen Helicopter Corporation in British Columbia, there being no mountains in Alabama.

Our people strapped onto helicopters every variety of light weapon they thought might not blow the ship out of the air:  all sorts of machine guns, including .50 caliber (which on our cobbled-up mount nearly shook the helo to pieces), 75mm rocket launchers, and 40mm grenade throwers.  They even pushed fuzed 81mm mortar bombs out of the side of Hueys with their feet, being careful not to go out with them.  This was all a bit illegal, but we were demonstrating for the first time that a helicopter could be made (ultimately, with the application of money, engineering, and weapon expertise) into a formidable fighting machine.

On our behalf but under the cognizance of the Air Force, we (especially the Transportation Corps) devoted much time to the Model X-40 experimental helicopter being developed by Bell, in Fort Worth.  The H-40 (ultimately to become the UH-1, or “Huey”) was, most importantly, designed at what we believe to be the right size to carry an infantry rifle squad, and in the right shape—the shape was important, because we sought a low profile so that, among other things, we could make it hide under a tree.  The cargo weight goal—the infantry squad—was never fully realized even after enlargements and greater engine power in later model numbers.  But it was otherwise a superb ship.

At the time, before the first H-40 experimental model was delivered, the Air Force recommended to the Army that the whole project be scrubbed because of perspective manufacturing problems with the blade.  This was devastating news—the future of Army Aviation hung in large part on our getting a ship of this size and capability into our inventory.  After much debate and effort at persuasion on our part, the Air Force relented:  the difficulty was overcome and the helo reached production.  In its several models, the Huey became the aviation mainstay of the Army, which over many years bought about 12,000 copies.  Counting purchases by other U.S. services, American civilian sources, foreign co-production and licensed production, more than 16,000 UH-1s—an astonishing number—were made.  Of all the world’s aircraft, it became one of the most prominent, thus justifying the decision by our little offices in the pentagon to persevere in its development.  What’s more, the Huey’s dynamics—engine, transmission, and blades—formed the basis for the production of an addition 2,000-plus AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships.