US Army Air Force 

Before the War
The Army Reorganization Act of 1920 made the Air Service a combatant arm of the Army and gave the Chief of the Air Service the rank of major general and his assistant chief the rank of brigadier general. Tactical air units in the United States were placed under the nine U.S.Army corps area commanders where they continued to be employed primarily in support of the ground forces. The Chief of the Air Service retained command of various training schools, depots and other activities exempted from Army corps control.

During most of the 1920s, the total offensive strength of the Air Service in the United States consisted of one pursuit, one attack and one bombardment group. Overseas, the Canal Zone and the Philippines each had assigned one pursuit and one bombardment squadron with two squadrons of each type stationed in the Hawaiian Islands. The Air Service focused initially on observation and pursuit aviation, with major aeronautical development efforts concentrated in the Engineering Division at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio.

The formal training establishment took shape during the 1920s. The Air Service concentrated flying training in Texas. Technical schools for officers and enlisted men were at Chanute Field, Ill. The Air Service (later, Air Corps) Tactical School trained officers to command higher units and taught the employment of military aviation. First located at Langley Field, Va., this school moved to Maxwell Field, Ala. in 1931.

The Air Corps Act of 1926 changed the name of the Air Service to Air Corps, but left unaltered its status as a combatant arm of the U.S. Army.

The act also established the Office of Assistant Secretary of War for Air. The Air Corps had at this time 919 officers and 8,725 enlisted men, and its "modern aeronautical equipment" consisted of 60 pursuit planes and 169 observation planes; total serviceable aircraft of all types numbered less than 1,000.

In August 1926 the Army established the Air Corps Training Center in San Antonio, Texas. A few weeks later, on Oct. 15, the logistical organization was placed on firmer footing with the establishment of the Materiel Division, Air Corps, at Dayton, Ohio. A year later this division moved to nearby Wright Field, thereafter the primary base for air logistics.

In Texas, Randolph Field, the "West Point of the Air," was dedicated on June 20, 1930, and became the headquarters of the Air Corps Training Center and the site of the primary flying school in 1931. By June 30, 1932, the Air Corps had grown to 1,305 officers and 13,400 enlisted men, including cadets, and possessed 1,709 aircraft. The Corps also possessed at this time two airship and two balloon squadrons.

On March 1, 1935, the General Headquarters Air Force, which had existed in gestation since Oct.1, 1933, became operational and assumed command and control over Air Corps tactical units. Tactical units, less some observation squadrons scattered throughout the nine Army corps areas, transferred to this initial air force.

The three GHQAF wings were located at Langley Field, Va.; Barksdale Field, La.; and March Field, Calif. The Office of the Chief of the Air Corps and GHQAF existed on the same command echelon, each reporting separately to the Army Chief of Staff. The GHQAF Commander directed tactical training and operations, while the Chief of the Air Corps maintained control over procurement, supply, training schools and doctrine development. On March 1, 1939, the Chief of the Air Corps assumed control over the GHQAF, centralizing command of the entire air arm.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt acknowledged the growing importance of airpower, recognized that the United States might be drawn into a European war. Assured of a favourable reception in the White House, the Air Corps prepared plans in October 1938 for a force of some 7,000 aircraft.

Soon afterwards, President Roosevelt asked the War Department to prepare a program for an Air Corps composed of 10,000 airplanes, of which 7,500 would be combat aircraft.

In a special message to Congress on January 12, 1939, the President formally requested this program. Congress responded on April 3, authorizing $300 million for an Air Corps "not to exceed 6,000 serviceable airplanes."

World War II
Beginning in September 1939, the German army and the German air force rapidly conquered Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France and within one year had driven the British off the continent. Leaders of the Air Corps now found themselves in the novel position of receiving practically anything they requested. Plans soon called for 54 combat groups. This program was hardly underway before revised plans called for 84 combat groups equipped with 7,800 aircraft and manned by 400,000 troops by June 30, 1942. All told, U.S. Army air forces strength in World War II would swell from 26,500 men and 2,200 aircraft in 1939 to 2,253,000 men and women and 63,715 aircraft in 1945.

With this enormous expansion underway, the War Department began in 1939 to establish new bases and air organizations in rapid succession overseas and in the continental United States. At the same time air leaders worked to create an independent institutional structure for air within the U.S. Army.

Both necessity and desire thus caused a blitz of organizational changes from 1940 through 1942. On November 19, 1940, the General Headquarters Air Force was removed from the jurisdiction of the Chief of the Air Corps and given separate status under the commander of the Army Field Forces. Seven months later, these air combat forces returned to the command of air leaders as Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S.Army Chief of Staff, established the Army Air Forces on June 20, 1941, to control both the Air Corps and the Air Force Combat Command.

Early in 1941, the War Department instituted a series of actions to create a hierarchy for noncombat activities. It set up a command eventually designated Flying Training Command to direct new programs for training ground crews and technicians. The next year, the new command assumed responsibility for pilot and aircrew training. In mid-1942 the War Department established the Air Corps Ferrying Command to fly aircraft overseas for delivery to the British and other Allies. As the functions of the Ferrying Command expanded, it was redesignated as the Air Transport Command.

To control supply and maintenance, the War Department established the Air Corps Maintenance Command under the Air Corps Materiel Division. The Materiel Division then concentrated on procurement and research development.

The War Department reorganization on March 9, 1942, created three autonomous U.S. Army Commands: Army Ground Forces, Services of Supply (later, in 1943, Army Service Forces), and Army Air Forces. This administrative reorganization did not affect the status of the Air Corps as a combatant arm of the US Army.

All of these actions affecting the air forces and commands that comprised the AAF emphasized the surge towards an independent service and the expansion of combat forces that took place during World War II.

Before 1939 the Army's air arm was a fledgling organization; by the end of the war the Army Air Forces had become a major military organization comprised of many air forces, commands, divisions, wings, groups, and squadrons, plus an assortment of other organizations.

Rapid demobilization of forces immediately after World War II, although sharply reducing the size of the Army Air Forces, left untouched the nucleus of the post-war United States Air Force (USAF). A War Department letter of March 21, 1946, created two new commands and redesignated an existing one: Continental Air Forces was redesignated Strategic Air Command, and the resources of what had been Continental Air Forces were divided among Strategic Air Command and the two newcomers - Air Defence Command and Tactical Air Command. These three commands and the older Air Transport Command represented respectively the strategic, tactical, defence, and airlift missions that provided the foundation for building the postwar, independent Air Force.

The American Fighter Planes

 Lockheed P-38 Lightning

At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbour, the fighter aircraft in the U.S. Army Air Corps were outclassed by both their Japanese and German counterparts, but the industry had been developing at a rapid pace for peacetime and had the momentum, the industrial base, the economic foundation, and the will and talent to catch up. The key individuals in bringing this about were Alexander P. de Severskv and his chief designer, Alexander Kartveli.

Throughout the war, they would he at the forefront of fighter design, urging the government and the military to make the greatest demands of, and place the greatest reliance on, the nation’s aircraft. The two prewar aircraft produced by the de Severski- Kartveli team at Republic Aviation were the P-35 the plane that took America into the modern age of fighter aircraft, and the P-43 lancer, more heavily armed than the P-35 but paving for that armament with poorer performance.

Both planes were sent to air forces overseas and became the stopgap foundation of later fighter fleets. Another pre-war fighter that excited the U.S. military was the Bell P-39 Airacohra, a sleek and agile aircraft that had the remarkable addition of a 37mm cannon that shot rounds through the propeller’s disc. With four machine guns and the ability to carry five—hundred pounds (227kg) of bombs, the Airacobra in all its many versions was a versatile and formidable weapon.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Grumman P6F Hellcat

Some ten thousand of them were produced during the war and many were shipped to air forces overseas. The U.S. Air Corps kept having problems with the plane because Bell kept changing the engine specifications and thus its performance. The Airacobra became the basis of other successful fighters, but it was not a favourite of the Army Air Corps. (In June 1941 Congress established the U.S. Army Air Forces, virtually an independent branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, under the direction of Major General H.H. “Hap” Arnold. The USAAF was made into the totally autonomous U.S. Air Force—USAF—via the National Security Act of 1947 in September of that year.)

The most important fighter of the early years of the war was the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, designed by Donovan Berlin as an extension of the old Curtis Hawk of the early 1930s. The P-40 was important not because it was a very good fighter—it was not particularly fast or agile and performed poorly at high altitude—but because it was very reliable and sturdy, which was important if the plane were to see action far from suppliers of spare parts.

More than 13,700 P- 40s were produced during the war. Built primarily as a defensive fighter for patrol of the American coastline, it was ill-suited for the aggressive open-sky dogfighting it would encounter in war. It was the P-40 that was used by Claire Chennault in China in early 1942 when he commanded the American Volunteer Group known as the “Flying Tigers.” The plane lent itself to being painted with menacing shark’s teeth (which inspired the group’s original name, the “Flying Tiger Sharks,” which was later shortened).

The Flying Tigers, under Chennault’s gritty leadership (seldom has the field of battle witnessed so forceful a jaw as Chennault’s), downed 286 Japanese airplanes while losing only twenty-three of their own. The experience gained in these encounters, many with superior Zeros and other fighters, proved helpful in creating fighter tactics and the next generation of American fighters. The first American fighters to enter the war comparable to enemy aircraft then in the sky were the “Cat” fighters produced by Leroy Grumman and his chief designer, William Schwendlei beginning with the Grumman F4F Wildcat.

The Wildcat was not a fast plane either —in fact, it was among the slowest fighters in the air during the war—but it had other features that made it useful. It was extremely durable and very short (shorter even than the old P-3 9)., and the  fact  that its wings folded at its sides, made it perfect for aircraft carrier use.

An American carrier could hold nearly twice the aircraft of a comparably sized Japanese carrier. (During some early encounters, the Japanese sent out patrols looking for the other carriers all these aircraft must surely be coming from.) As the size and capacity of carriers grew, so did the Wildcat, and it eventually inspired the F6F Hellcat, introduced in 1942: the plane that outfought the Japanese fighters. The Hellcat was the fullest expression of the American approach to meeting the Zeros and turning the battle to their advantage. In a typical dogfight, a Zero would have to score a direct hit to knock out a Hellcat; a Hellcat’s six machine guns had only to strike a Zero to disable it.

Since the Hellcat was faster than the Zero in straight flight, it could easily pursue and finish off its adversary. Some eight thousand Wildcats and nearly 12,300 Hellcats were manufactured during the war, making Grumman the largest producer of American fighters and the Cat series the most prolific of the war. America took the forefront of fighter aviation with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, an airplane of astonishingly original design. This aircraft, first deployed in January 1939, was fast, agile, durable, and reliable, and could stay in the air longer than any fighter then in use. To prove its advantages, during tests it flew coast to coast in seven hours and two minutes, and would have broken the record then held by Howard Hughes had it not stopped twice along the way to refuel and test its equipment.

The essence of the Lightning’s innovation was the twin boom that housed the engine and propellers, leaving the centre component free for control, armament, and whatever else was needed. Giving speed, agility, and a solid reliable landing mechanism to an aircraft this heavy (heavier than some bombers) was no easy task. Hap Arnold was a firm supporter of the Lockheed P-38, and its designers, H.L. Hubbard and Clarence  “Kelly” Johnson, adapted the plane to many uses, including bombing; this aircraft clearly inspired the effective night-fighter, the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. Some ten thousand P-38s were built, and this plane was credited with being used to shoot down more enemy aircraft—including the plane that carried Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the attack on Pearl Harbour—than any other American fighter over the course of the war.

The best American fighter of the war, and arguably the best fighter of any nation and even the best propeller-driven fighter ever flown, was the North American P-51 Mustang. Its beginnings, however, were anything but auspicious; it was one of the few planes whose very designing made  news. The RAF, frantic to procure more aircraft in 1940, offered a contract to North American to build the Curtiss P-40 with Allison engines. The president of the company, J.H. “Dutch” Kindelberger did not care for this arrangement (mainly because the licensing fee to Curtiss- Wright  was too high), and offered to build a fighter for the RAE that would surpass the P-40. The RAF accepted the offer on the condition that a prototype of the aircraft be ready 120 days later.

On October 4, only 102 days after accepting the challenge, the prototype, designed by Raymond H. Rice and Edgar Schmued, was ready except for the engine. Allison never believed that North  American would meet the impossible deadline and dawdled on delivery of their V-1710 engines. The first test flights were held on October 26, but the prototype was damaged when the pilot hastily took off with an empty fuel tank and the plane cut out shortly after take-off. It was clear from the outset that the Mustang had a clean line and performed better than the P-40, but it did not climb well and performed poorly at higher altitudes, where it could be expected to see much action.

 North American P-5I Mustang

It turned out to be fortuitous that the designers of the P-51, not having actual engines to install, had been careful to allow a bit of extra space for the engines. In September 1942 British engineers noticed that the engine casing of the Mustang could accommodate the new Rolls- Royce Merlin engine. With the Merlin powering it, the Mustang was a new plane.

Its top speed jumped to 440 miles per hour (7O8kph), tops for a single-engine fighter and it climbed to twenty- thousand feet (6,096m) in half the time. The performance of the plane at all altitudes was virtually the same and uniformly spectacular, and production of the hybrid aircraft was stepped up. The P- 51 Mustang became the most produced fighter of the war, with just under 15,700 made. The model P-S1D had a streamlined fuselage and a cockpit canopy that provided the pilot a full 360- degree view; the P-51D was thought by pilots to be the ultimate propeller-driven fighter.

If the Mustang had a challenger to these titles, it was from another American airplane: the Vought F4U Corsair  a fighter good enough to remain in production for ten  years after the war. The concept behind the Corsair, designed by Tex B. Beisel was to marry the most powerful engine then available, the Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp, the first 2,000-horse power engine, with the smallest possible airframe. In all the early designs, the size of the engine demanded a large fuselage, a large wing structure, and the largest propellers of any fighter in the war.

The combination fell apart when a large undercarriage was necessary to support everything. Beisel’s ingenious solution was to design the wings in an inverted-gull-wing configuration and put the landing gear in the wings. This not only saved space in the fuselage, but also allowed for smaller, lower-to-the- ground landing gear. The result was another distinctive fighter design, but the aircraft was beset with many problems in the early going. The large and bulky fuselage cut down on pilot visibility, and the plane had trouble landing on the tightly confined surface of an aircraft carrier. The Corsair operated from land bases for three years until it was ready in 1943 to become a part of the carrier-based fleet of fighters.