A History of Army Aviation
Civil War – Early WWI
The initial employment of U.S. military aviation resources can be traced back to the Civil War. During this time, a temporary Union Balloon Corps was established to conduct aerial reconnaissance, which involved gathering intelligence on enemy locations and movements, as well as directing precise artillery attacks. The Confederate forces similarly utilized balloons for these functions.
Throughout the Spanish-American War and the early stages of U.S. involvement in World War I, balloons persisted in their roles of reconnaissance and artillery guidance. Even as airplanes became more prevalent, they continued to serve the same functions, but with improved agility and speed. Notably, there was no separate “Army Aviation” division at the time; instead, these balloons and their operators were part of the Army’s Signal Corps.
During World War I, the Army experienced a significant expansion in its air assets and associated personnel. Under the new designation of the Army Air Service, their mission remained similar to that of the Balloon Corps from fifty years prior. Tasks such as observation, reconnaissance, and assisting artillery in executing precise strikes were crucial, albeit non-kinetic. However, by the end of the war, technological advancements resulting from the conflict led to planes engaging in aerial combat and limited air-to-ground operations.
More significant than the specific roles performed by American air assets during “The Great War” is the groundwork it established for the remarkable growth in the importance of aviation in military operations over the next few decades.
Billy Mitchell, a World War I pilot, and Army officer is a notable figure who passionately advocated for airpower to the United States War Department. He asserted that future wars would be fought in three dimensions, and victory would be determined by the control of the skies. Despite facing opposition from his superiors, Mitchell continued to promote his ideas, which eventually led to the downfall of his military career. However, the events of World War II and later conflicts vindicated his foresight, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt posthumously awarded him the rank of Major General with two stars.
WWII – Air Power Wins Wars
Similar to the developments during World War I, World War II saw a rapid expansion of the Army Air Corps, which transitioned into the Army Air Forces, in terms of size, composition, and objectives. The war marked a pivotal moment in the utilization of aviation in armed conflict. As Mitchell had predicted, the effective deployment of these increasingly advanced and versatile air capabilities played a vital role in both the initial triumphs of the Axis Powers and the ultimate victory of the Allies. Today, air supremacy is still regarded as a crucial component for successful military campaigns.
The early stages of the separation between contemporary Army Aviation and the U.S. Air Force emerged during World War II. Ground forces retained separate aviation assets, such as the Piper L-4 Grasshoppers and Stinson L-5 Sentinels, for artillery reconnaissance. The first use of helicopters in combat, the Sikorsky R-4s, occurred in Burma in 1943, primarily for air rescue and medical evacuation missions.
It is not feasible to comprehensively discuss the role of the Army Air Forces during World War II in this context, as it would require extensive elaboration. However, it is worth noting that there was a heated debate during the war about whether air power alone could achieve victory without ground forces. This ongoing discussion indicated the possibility of such a scenario.
By the end of the war, it was difficult to definitively confirm or refute the notion that “Air Power Wins Wars.” What is clear, however, is that victory in Europe would have been impossible without air power, and the war in the Pacific ultimately concluded due to actions taken by aircraft rather than ground forces capturing Japanese territory.
The Korean War
The Korean War acted as a catalyst for refining aviation within both the Army and the newly-established Air Force.
With the Air Force officially recognized as a separate service branch, it absorbed a majority of the pilots and aircraft in the U.S. military inventory, excluding the Navy. However, the Army maintained a small group of aviators and aircraft, leading to disputes between the two branches over resources and responsibilities. Throughout the war, these issues were gradually resolved.
The Army’s aviation component primarily transformed into a helicopter force, as the challenging terrain in Korea demonstrated the invaluable potential of rotary-wing assets in military and other operations. The H-13 Sioux became a symbol of the Korean conflict, featuring prominently in the famous media portrayal of the war, MASH. The need for helicopters and skilled pilots increased so rapidly that the Army had to relocate its flight training to a larger facility soon after the war – Fort Rucker, Alabama, which would become the new hub for U.S. Army Aviation.
A brief period passed between the formation of the “new” Army Aviation and its rapid immersion into what many call “America’s Helicopter War.” Numerous iconic images from newsreels and films serve as reminders of this era, such as the memorable “Flight of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now.
During the Vietnam War, Army Aviation was still in its early stages but proved to be absolutely crucial, even as the idea of air power alone winning a war faced significant challenges. The optimism surrounding this concept during World War II was ultimately deemed unrealistic, and military strategies returned to the traditional approach of gaining and holding ground.
Nevertheless, Army helicopters made a significant impact in Vietnam. While they couldn’t win the war singlehandedly, they greatly facilitated the process of achieving success in difficult battles. Their ability to swiftly transport resources, provide supporting fire, and access the heart of the action made these aircraft game-changers. In response to the heavy reliance on helicopters during the war, rotary-wing technology rapidly evolved to meet demand: advanced attack platforms like the AH-1 Cobra were developed, the CH-47 Chinook and CH-54 Tarhe provided increased lift capacity, agile scouting aircraft were introduced, and the versatile UH-1 Huey played multiple roles.
As a result, Army Aviation emerged from the crucible of Vietnam as a battle-hardened, mature, and fully-developed force.
Army Aviation Today
Presently, Army Aviation offers swift and adaptable aviation assistance for a wide range of ground combat missions, empowering commanders to accomplish their goals and maintain a strategic edge on the battlefield. Crucial components of this mission encompass reconnaissance, surveillance, air assaults, air mobility, medical evacuations, and additional combat support tasks. Army Aviation aims to improve the agility, responsiveness, and efficacy of ground troops while contributing to the overall triumph of joint and coalition operations. In essence, Army Aviation exists to support those on the ground.
After the Vietnam War, the requirements of the Cold War and the numerous global conflicts that ensued led to the ongoing development of the Army’s aviation assets, their capabilities, and objectives. In 1983 Aviation was officially recognized as a separate branch within the Army. Military engagements in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Somalia, as well as conflicts in the past two decades, have influenced and modernized the Army, its aircraft, and pilots in their efforts to support ground forces engaged in capturing territory from adversaries.
Here are a few of Army Aviation’s key mission sets: