Army Aviation

35th Anniv. of Army Avn. Branch:  Product of American Invention, Innovation & Specialization of Tasks

Looking Back, February 2018 / By Mark Albertson: Army Aviation is the product of American invention and innovation; and, is the beneficiary of that inexorable march towards specialization which has come to mark the evolution of the American armed forces following the Spanish-American war.

1802 Intrepid balloon

Left: Thaddeus Lowe’s balloon

An early attempt at innovation and specialization of tasks appears in 1848 during the Mexican-American War with John Wise, one of the celebrated names in American aeronautics.  Wise hatched a scheme to break the siege at Vera Cruz.  He proposed the use of a monstrous lighter-than-air-craft capable of hoisting a payload of 20,000 pounds.  It would be anchored to a cable endowed with five miles of slack.  This Jules Verne-like heavy bomber was to drop its 18,000 pounds of explosives on San Juan de Ulua, a 128-gun fortress guarding the approaches to Vera Cruz.  Wise intended to pulverize the Mexican strongpoint in a spectacular show of force designed to smash the defenders’ will.  The War Department, though, was unimpressed with such outlandish schemes of science fiction.(1)

Prospects, though, picked up with the Civil War; in particular with the Balloon Corps, led by Thaddeus Lowe.  This enterprising aeronaut helped to bring innovation to the table:

  • Lowe’s mobile gas-generating equipment became organic to balloon units.
  • On June 17, 1861, Lowe broke ground with the first air-to-ground electronic communication via telegraph.
  • On September 24, 1861, at Falls Church, Virginia, General William Ferrar Smith ordered Lowe into the air to direct U.S. Army artillery fire, eight decades before the Class Before One.
  • On November 11, 1861, Lowe became the first American airman to lift off from a flattop aircraft carrier, the George Washington Parke Custis.(2)

Lowe’s early attempt at carrier aviation predates the Navy’s USS Langley (CV-1), commissioned on March 20, 1922.  Ironically both the Custis and the Langley were converted coal vessels.  The former was a remodeled flat coal barge; while the latter was the converted collier Jupiter (AC-3).

Yet the majority of the Union Army Officer Corps was afflicted with an ingrained reactionary nature.  No doubt the Jomini-Napoleonic teachings of cavalry as the medium of shock and reconnaissance helped to spell the demise of the Balloon Corps in 1863.(3)

The Army again resorted to aerial observation during the Spanish-American War.  The single balloon employed enjoyed moderate success until shot down, aptly demonstrating the 19th century advance in firearms technology.  No longer did the static balloon enjoy virtual immunity from ground fire(4).  Thus it became evident that aerial observation must engage movement:  Hence the airplane.

L-4 Cub was representative of fixed wing technology employed for great advantage for the direction of artillery fire.

It is prudent, however, to recognize the war of 1898 as a watershed; a conflict emblematic of the expectations and ambitions of a young, dynamic republic poised for new markets and challenges.  Manifest Destiny—that national pastime of continental expansion which linked Chesapeake Bay with the Golden Gate—came to embrace a global perspective.

America had gone to war in 1898 with a frontier army; an army trained to wage campaigns against unsophisticated militaries as fielded by their Native American opponents.  Little imagination is required to envision the outcome in Cuba if America’s frontier force had taken on the British Regulars, von Schlieffen’s Kaiserheer, Poilus of Republican France or Japan’s German-trained army versus the troops of a tottering Spanish Empire.(5)

The postwar analysis of the 1898 American Expeditionary Forces galvanized a number of policymakers in Washington to cope with the sobering realities.(6)  Overseas possessions bought and paid for with blood and treasure could only be preserved with a standing army, professional in nature,(7) in lieu of the outmoded frontier force.

The Root Reforms of 1901 loosed a litany of initiatives which, over time, enabled America to better compete in the Darwinian arena of global politics:  The General Staff Act of 1903; the National Guard Act of 1903, followed by subsidiary legislation in 1908 and the National Defense Act of 1916, all of which conferred upon the president firmer control over the National Guard.  The previous Citizen Soldier concept as outlined in the 1792 Militia Act had been superseded by the 1903 Dick Act or National Guard Act.

These and other initiatives underscored the trend towards modernization; a trend which moved in concert with the resulting specialization of tasks attendant with the growing complexities inherent in modern war.  And a beneficiary of this trend has been Army Aviation.

Like the machine gun, submarine and motorized transport, the heavier-than-air-craft came into its own during the Great War.  Indeed observation aviation was the cornerstone of the fixed wing’s reason for existence.  Yet the idea of using an airplane to direct artillery fire was sound; but hardly practicable given the system which existed at the time and with airmen who had little or no training as artillerymen.

Embryonic technology offered limited air-to-ground radio communications.  The lack of continuity saw airmen flying for the Field Artillery one day, then engaged in bombing missions the next.  Artillerymen and infantrymen railed against the inefficiencies of the system.

UH-19 was emblematic of the Army’s evolving organic capability of deploying troops. / courtesy of the Sikorsky Aircraft archives

Postwar studies like the Hero Board offered that aerial artillery spotters should come from the ranks of the Field Artillery, and, that they should live, sleep and eat with the units to which they are attached.

Postwar findings such as those as the Hero Board flew in the face of a growing faction of airmen seeking to detach themselves from the Army to create a separate air service.  Their agenda was two-fold:  The strategic use of airpower and to exact absolute control over military aircraft; a platform that would come at the expense of close air support and observation aviation.

Army Ground Forces—led by the Field Artillery—proved successful in challenging formidable opposition posed by the “Bomber Mafia” to establish an observation capability necessary to satisfy their local combat needs.

Pilots and mechanics of the Field Artillery germinated from the ranks.  They ate, slept and lived with their units, creating a system of efficiency that by 1944, helped to make the U.S. Army Field Artillery a truly fearsome arm.

Perpetual innovation and invention and the specialization of tasks that has underscored the evolution of organic aviation in World War II, carried the branch forward into a postwar world wrought with new challenges.  From artillery spotting to our current mission sets of lift, attack, medivac and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in support of our soldiers, Army Aviation has come to mirror the armed forces’ evolution from a citizen army to a well-trained professional force required to service the nation’s global responsibilities and interests.

And while we commemorate the 35th anniversary of Army Aviation as a branch, the long view of history demands that we also recognize that the rudiments of this glorious history goes back farther than 1983.

The farther back one looks, the further ahead one sees. . .   Winston Churchill

End Notes

(1)  F. Stansbury Haydon describes this attempt at aerial bombing in his, Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies, With a Survey of Military Aeronautics Prior to 1861, pages 29 and 30, chapter 1, “Military Aeronautics Prior to 1861.”  Refer, too, page 6, chapter one, “Gas Bags, Dress Silk and Quaker Guns,” vol. 1, Sky Soldiers:  The Saga of Army Aviation, by Mark Albertson.

(2)  Aeronaut John La Mountain lifted off from the Union steamer Fanny on Chesapeake Bay on August 3, 1861.  He is credited with being the first American to pilot an aircraft from a ship.  However the Fanny was not a flattop aircraft carrier.  So Lowe earns the distinction of being the first American to fly off a flattop aircraft carrier.

(3)  Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini had a less than flattering outlook on aerial observation as a useful tool in war.  In his most famous of works, he noted, with regards to the balloon, “An attempt of another kind was made in 1794, the battle of Fleurus, where General Jourdan made use of the services of a balloonist to observe and give notice of the movements of the Austrians.  I am not sure that he found the method a very useful one, as it was not again used; but it was claimed at the time it assisted in gaining him victory:  of this, however, I have great doubts.”  See pages 251 and 252, “Article XLII, “Of Reconnaissance and Other Means of Gaining Correct Information of the Movements of the Enemy,” The Art of War, by Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini.

De Jomini is incorrect here with regards to his comment, “as it was not again used.”  The French Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety decreed the founding of the Compagnie d’Aerostiers or Company of Aeronauts on April 2, 1794.  That same year, the first school of military aeronautics was opened, Ecole Nationale Aerostatique.  On June 2, 1794, a balloon was committed to the battle of Maubeuge, followed on June 23 at Charleroi, followed three days later at Fleurus.  Following these engagements, the Company of Aeronauts was expanded and wielded for the next few years.  But by 1799, the reactionary sentiment to aerial reconnaissance won out.  And the Ecole Nationale Aerostatique was closed down and the Compagnie d’Aerostiers was disbanded.  And one of the detractors was Napoleon Bonaparte.

(4)  July 26, 1861, John Wise’s balloon was being towed towards Ball’s Crossing, Virginia, when the tow lines snapped and the balloon broke free.  Union gunners shot down the balloon to prevent its capture by Confederate forces.

(5)  Following the conclusion of the War Between the States, President Andrew Johnson dispatched General Phil Sheridan to the Texas border.  With Sheridan were 50,000 battle-tried Union troops.

In direct contravention to the Monroe Doctrine, thousands of French troops were in Mexico fighting the forces of Benito Juarez in the vain attempt to keep the Hapsburg Prince Maximilian on the throne in Mexico City.  Maximilian was a puppet installed by Napoleon III of France.

However, the Prussian defeat of Austrian forces in Europe in 1866 caused Napoleon III to evacuate French forces from Mexico.  A potential war between France and the United States was averted.  The difference between 1865 and 1898 was that a battle-tested American army led by an experienced commander schooled in the rigors of conventional war would have made a formidable opponent for Napoleon III’s North American Expeditionary Force in 1865.

(6)  Following the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, Army General John M. Schofield was among a group of concerned officers who equated the United States with China.  Both were large nations with abundant resources, but militarily weak.  And like China, America could find itself in defeat following a conflict with a smaller but better armed and organized foe like Germany or Japan.

General Schofield also warned that the Atlantic Ocean would prove lacking as a barrier to an invading European power; just as the Japan and Yellow Seas had failed to shield China.

(7)  Many of America’s Founders had warned against maintaining a large standing army, viewing same as a threat to the viability of the Republic.  One such was George Washington, who repeated such a concern in his farewell address from the presidency in 1796.

Yet one hundred years later, America had already displaced the British as the globe’s ranking economic power.  The Nation was no longer some colonial backwater.  It was taking its place on the world stage, as evidenced by the Spanish-American War and the epic circumnavigation of the globe by President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, December 16, 1907 to February 22, 1909; that superlative effort in American seamanship which saw 14,500 sailors and marines manning sixteen coal-burning battleships traverse a dozen oceans and seas, crisscross the Equator six times, call on more than 30 ports and log over 46,000 miles.  This was TR’s announcement to the world that America had arrived as a global power.


Albertson, Mark, Sky Soldiers:  The Saga of Army Aviation, vol.1, yet to be published.                   
Albertson, Mark, They’ll Have to Follow You!  The Triumph of the Great White Fleet, Tate Publishing & Enterprises, Mustang, Okla., 2007.

Carlson, Colonel Adolf, “Joint U.S. Army-Navy War Planning on the Eve of the First World War:  its Origins and its Legacy,” Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA., February 16, 1998.

Christopher, John, Balloons at War, Tempus Publishing, Ltd., Great Britain, 2004.

Culpepper, LCDR Steven D., USN, “Balloons of the Civil War,” U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 66027-6900.

De Jomini, Baron Antoine Henri, The Art of War, translated from the French by Captain G.H. Mendell and Lieutenant W.P. Craighill, U.S. Army, J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, PA., 1862.  Originally published 1838.

Haydon, F. Stansbury, Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies, With a Survey of Military Aeronautics Prior to 1861, The Scholar’s Bookshelf, Cranbury, NJ., 2006.  First published 1941.

Pawlowski, Gareth L., Flat-Tops and Fledglings:  A History of American Aircraft Carriers, Castle Books, New York, 1971.

The War of the Rebellion:  A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Published Under the Direction of the Honorable Elihu Root, Secretary of War, by, Brigadier General Fred C. Ainsworth and Mr. Joseph W. Kirkley, Series III, Volume III, U.S. War Department, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1899.