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The Foundation of Air Mobility, 1955-1962

By General Hamilton H. Howze, Ret.: 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 Ft. Eustis, VA, 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 CH-37 Mojave picks up a load during training circa 1957./ U.S. ARMY FILE PHOTOS

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 now 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 sale 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 devastatingly 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 mostly lost interest in the slow, low regime of flight – flight close to the treetops.

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 LTG Jimmy Gavin, then G-3 of the Army.

H-21 Shawnee helicopters drop infantry troops for security while H-34 helicopters deliver supplies to troops during a tactical exercise in Oklahoma, Aug. 27, 1956.

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 Ft. Leavenworth to get the 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, one 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, PA.

1955-1962 was a period of much interest in the science of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) and flight at very low 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 COL 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.

A CH-47A loading a 105mm Howitzer circa 1962.

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 the 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 heli-copter 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 H-40 experimental helicopter being developed by Bell, in Fort Worth, TX. The H-40 (ultimately to become the UH-1, or “Huey”) was, most importantly, designed at what we believed 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 hide it 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 one 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 prospective 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 additional 2,000-plus AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships.

Though the ship has to be considered a very great success, the Huey had its faults, as all aircraft do. One was serious: blade-slap, the loud, distinctive, rapid plop-plopplop-plop which telegraphs the ship’s approach to any destination three or four miles before it gets there. In Vietnam, this alerted the enemy very undesirably.
In 1955-1957, Army Aviation was still constrained by agreement with the Air Force and the dictates of the Department of Defense to the procurement of fixed wing (not rotary wing) aircraft with an empty weight of no more than 5,000 pounds. That’s a pretty small craft. We argued that our procurement should be determined by our approved mission, not by an arbitrary weight figure. We eventually won, but it was a long, hard argument. Ultimately, however, we got the twin-turboprop Grumman Mohawk (something like 12,000 pounds empty weight of surveillance aircraft, but capable of carrying armament), and the Canadian deHavilland twin engine light cargo aircraft- the Caribou (with an empty weight of 17,000 pounds) under procurement. Both aircraft eventually saw extensive service in Vietnam.
In April of 1960, the Rogers Board (LTG Gordon Rogers, president) was convened. I was a member, coming back from Korea to attend. The board devoted itself largely to hardware, receiving from a number of small study teams which had been hard at work for many weeks recommendations for research, development, and procurement of aircraft in each of the primary fields of Army interest. Because the teams had done their work well, the board was able to perform a very worthwhile service by establishing practical guidelines for further aircraft development and purchase.

Because of its limited charter, the Rogers Board rejected (properly, I suppose) my endeavor to insert into the basic report a few pungent thoughts about air fighting units, tactics, and doctrine. I was allowed only to add a short addendum marked “In closure I to Section VII”, called “The Requirement for Air Fighting Units.” I quote from it:

“I invite the special attention of the board to another area of aircraft tactical employment, hitherto unexploited, which is of fundamental importance to the Army.
“MOMAR (Modern Mechanized Army, a CONARC plan) and OCSOPS Plans I, II, III, and IV are all devoted to the purpose of enhancing the combat capability of infantry, tank, and reconnaissance units through the device of assigning those units additional qualities of light aircraft.

“Substantial benefits will undoubtedly accrue from this, but it should be fully acknowledged that the assigned and attached aircraft will simply improve the ability of these units to execute their conventional missions, and that the employment of the aircraft will be restricted to those missions. A prime example exists in the Armored Cavalry regiments visualized in MOMAR and Plans I - IV: aerial reconnaissance companies will be very useful here, but the mission of the regiment, which has basically only wheeled mobility, will control and limit the employment of the aircraft. In the days when the horse provided the highest degree of battlefield mobility, it would have been a fundamental error to restrict the assignment of horses to the infantry divisions. While infantry divisions employed horses in considerable quantities, with benefit, it was necessary and desirable to group a substantial percentage of all the horses in cavalry units in order to take proper advantage of their mobility.
“I, therefore, submit that a new course of action, parallel to and of equal importance to the modernization of conventional type ground units, is urgently necessary. The Army should proceed vigorously and at once in the development of fighting units (which may be called air cavalry) whose mode of tactical employment will take maximum advantage of the unique mobility and flexibility of light aircraft – aircraft which will be employed to provide, for the execution of the missions assigned these units, not only mobility for the relatively few riflemen and machine gunners, but also direct fire support, artillery and missile fire adjustment, command, communications, security, reconnaissance and supply.

“Missions appropriate for assignment to air cavalry units are these: the seizure of critical terrain in advance of large forces, raids, penetration of shallow enemy positions and the disruption of enemy rear areas, pursuit and exploitation, the protection of a long flank and wide reconnaissance. New weapons developments will provide air cavalry units with very destructive firepower, and these forces will develop many targets for the employment of surface-to-surface missiles. Air cavalry would find particular applicability in any battle area in which the threat of area weapons forces wide troop dispersion – and hence, a porous battlefield – as well as in ‘brush fire’ actions against relatively unsophisticated opponents.’’

This was submitted more than two years before the convocation of the Howze Board, but little if anything was done in those two years in response to this recommendation. However, by 1962 the Secretary of Defense was persuaded to write a couple of directives to the Army telling it to investigate the possibilities. This resulted in the convening of a board whose official name was so long and complicated that it became known as the Howze Board, I being the designated President.
I cannot cover in this very short paper the composition, multiple activities, and recommendations of that huge board; the last time I tried, it took an article extending through three consecutive issues of ARMY Magazine. I can only say that the Board had well over 100 military and civilian members, organized in multiple subcommittees in order that every part and aspect and activity of the Army be examined to see how Aviation could help it, but also how it (the Army part) could help the development and ultimately support a thorough workable, combat and combat-support Army air capability. Moreover, a major part of the country’s aviation industry was explored for what it could do to enhance the Army’s brand of aviation.

To get enough Army aircraft for tactical experimentation purposes, we had to get planes, helos, and pilots from Army units all over the country; we got our troops for the scores of experimental exercises – each one repeated until we got the perfect (and fastest) solution-from the nearby, ever – capable 82d Airborne Division. All this activity was guided by a Steering Committee of 18 officers and civilians, all with wide aviation experience, the civilians mostly from industry. I spent nearly every day in the field with the testing troops and aircraft.

In the process of our experimentation with aircraft and Soldiers, we got very good at what we were doing, and eventually put on a demonstration for all the Service Secretaries and for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all down from Washington. The demo showed, among other things (including operations in jungle) a direct frontal assault on a dug-in, fortified (with foxholes, wire, and mines) enemy position. It started with a very short (three quick volleys) three battalion artillery preparation, then a wave of low-flying Mohawks dropping 1,100 pound bombs with 10 second delay fuses, which bombs galloped up and over the objective, scattering trees about, and down the other side, where they exploded with enormous bangs. We told the audience they blew up the enemy CPs and mortars on the reverse slope.
Happily for the briefer –which was I – Air Force fighters couldn’t fly under the 200 foot ceiling we had that day. (It made a perfect point for us. Our aircraft had no trouble.) Had a war occurred in Europe against the giant USSR . . . the extreme mobility, flexibility, and firepower of our proposed aviation-heavy Army could have been a decisive factor in the defense of Europe against the Soviet onslaught."

Into the smoke and dust of our artillery fire on the objective, about 20 Hueys (which had just scared the pants off the spectators by coming very low – and very suddenly – over their heads) put down the riflemen of two infantry companies in a direct assault – not in front of the enemy, but directly on his top. I announced to the audience that had just seen this extremely noisy spectacle of movement, fire, and violence that from the time the first artillery salvo fell on the objective until the last helo had discharged its load of infantrymen onto that objective was considerably less than one minute. That was, in contrast to the extended time measured in hours it would have taken conventional infantry to cover that fire swept, heavily mined ground in a conventional attack.

Mr. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, asked me how much it cost to put that infantry force on the objective. I told him I’d figure it out, but I never did. It was explained that this little show was not presented as a new normal method of assault, except in special situations, for we’d soon run out of aircraft. It merely demonstrated the possibilities – brilliantly.

Well, all this plus much other work and investigation over two hectic months allowed us to write a report in the last month. The report, with all its annexes and enclosures (one copy of which would fill a foot locker) gave mountains of test conclusion, proven and unproven opinion, data, argument, and rationale, including outside opinion from almost all the senior officers in the Army. It also set forth our recommendations for the activation of several new types of combat aviation units and aviation logistic support units, and for the extensive procurement of aircraft, at the cost of billions. We also showed the impact of our recommendations on the rest of the Army.

The Army did a lot of the things we recommended but never procured enough aircraft and other gear to form the number of new aviation-heavy combat and logistic units we recommended. Did we on the Board go too far? Well, what with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the strength we recommended never became necessary, no more than did all the tank divisions and aircraft carriers and bombers our government bought. Had a war occurred in Europe against the giant USSR, on the other hand, the extreme mobility, flexibility, and firepower of our proposed aviation heavy Army could have been a decisive factor in the defense of Europe against the Soviet onslaught.

The Board’s final report had an initial section for the quick perusal of executive types; it recommended the activation of many more aviation combat and combat support units than were ever approved, but it did so on the basis that we alone of the NATO nations could afford a multi-division, powerful force supported by large quantities of low-flying combat aircraft, many very heavily armed. The cold war having ended by the collapse of Communism, it is fortunate that our recommendations were not fully implemented. But if the USSR had not collapsed and had instead attacked in an attempt to overrun Europe, and thereby ultimately dominate the world, our recommended airmobile divisions and brigades might have ensured our victory at a far earlier date than otherwise.
And, of course, a great many Board recommendations were implemented, its philosophy and combat methods adopted. I should say, as only one individual in an enormous board, that it was a major step in the modernization of the new Army.

GEN Howze was commissioned in the Cavalry in 1930, and earned his Army Aviator wings in 1947. As Chairman of the “Howze Board” he is recognized as the Intellectual force behind the current airmobility and Army Aviation doctrine. He was the Director of Army Aviation from 1955 to 1958, where he developed new tactical principles.