United States Army Air Corps

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The United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) was the predecessor of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) from 1926 to 1941, which in turn was the forerunner of today's United States Air Force (USAF). Although abolished as an organization in 1941, it existed as a branch subordinate to the USAAF from 1941 to 1947.

Today, the Army's Aviation Branch remains a subordinate element of the United States Army, although it is unrelated to the original USAAC.

Lineage of the United States Air Force[edit]

  • ** The Air Corps became a subordinate element of the Army Air Forces on June 20th 1941, and it continued to exist as a combat arm of the Army (similar to Infantry) until disestablished by Congress with the creation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947.

History of the Air Corps[edit]

Creation[edit]

The Lassiter Board, a group of General Staff officers, recommended to the Secretary of War in 1923 that the Air Service be replaced by a force of bombardment and pursuit units to carry out independent missions under the command of an Army general headquarters in time of war. The Lampert Committee of the House of Representatives went far beyond this modest proposal in its report to the House in December 1925. After eleven months of extensive hearings, the committee proposed a unified air force independent of the Army and Navy, plus a department of defense to coordinate the three armed services.

Another board, headed by Dwight Morrow, had already reached an opposite conclusion in only two and one-half months. Appointed in September 1925 by President Calvin Coolidge ostensibly to study the "best means of developing and applying aircraft in national defense" but in actuality to minimize the political impact of the pending court-martial of Billy Mitchell and to preempt the findings of the Lampert Committee, the Morrow Board issued its report two weeks before the Lampert Committee's. In accordance with the views of the President, it rejected the idea of a department of defense and a separate department of air, but it recommended several minor reforms including that the air service be renamed the Air Corps to allow it more prestige, that it be given special representation on the General Staff, and that an Assistant Secretary of War for air affairs be appointed.

Congress accepted the Morrow Board proposal, and the Air Corps Act (44 Stat. 780) was enacted on July 2nd, 1926. The legislation changed the name of the Air Service to the Air Corps, "thereby strengthening the conception of military aviation as an offensive, striking arm rather than an auxiliary service." The act created an additional Assistant Secretary of War to help foster military aeronautics, and it established an air section in each division of the General Staff for a period of three years. Other provisions required that all flying units be commanded by rated personnel and that flight pay be continued. Two additional brigadier generals would serve as assistant chiefs of the Air Corps. The Chief of the Air Service, Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, then became Chief of the Air Corps.

The position of the air arm within the Department of War remained essentially the same as before, that is, the flying units were under the operational control of the various ground forces corps commands and not the Air Corps, which remained responsible only for procurement of aircraft, maintenance of bases, supply, and training. Even the new position of Assistant Secretary of War for Air, held by F. Trubee Davison from 1926 to 1932, was of little help in promoting autonomy for the air arm.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of the act for the Air Corps was the authorization to carry out a five-year expansion program. However, the lack of funding caused the beginning of the five-year expansion program to be delayed until July 1st, 1927. The goal eventually adopted was 1,800 airplanes with 1,650 officers and 15,000 enlisted men, to be reached in regular increments over a five-year period. But even this modest increase never came about as planned because adequate funds were never appropriated in the budget and the coming of the Great Depression forced reductions in pay and modernization. Organizationally the Air Corps did double from seven to fifteen groups. (Origin of first seven groups shown here)

Air Corps Groups added 1927-1937
Group Station Date activated Aircraft type
18th Pursuit Group Wheeler Field, Hawaii January, 1927 PW-9
7th Bomb Group Rockwell Field, California June 1st, 1928 unknown
12th Observation Group² Brooks Air Force Base, Texas 1930 O-19
20th Pursuit Group Mather Air Force Base|, California November 15, 1930 P-12
8th Pursuit Group Langley Air Force Base, Virginia April 1, 1931 P-6
17th Pursuit Group¹ March Air Force Base, California July 1st, 1931 P-12
19th Bomb Group Rockwell Field, California June 24th, 1932 B-10
16th Pursuit Group Albrook Air Force Base, Canal Zone December 1st, 1932 P-12
10th Transport Group Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio May 20th, 1937 C-27
¹Redesignated 17th Attack Group in 1935
²Disbanded on May 20, 1937

Most early operational fighters were of the Curtiss P-1 Hawk (1926-1930) and Boeing P-12 (1929-1935) families, and most bombers before 1934 were variants of Huff-Daland/Keystone design.

The formulation of theories of strategic bombing gave new impetus to the argument for an independent air force. Strategic or long-range bombardment was intended to destroy an enemy nation's industry and war-making potential, and only an independent service would have a free hand to do so. But despite what it perceived as "obstruction" from the War Department, much of which was attributable to a shortage of funds, the Air Corps made great strides during the 1930s. A doctrine emerged that stressed precision bombing of industrial targets by heavily armed long-range aircraft.

This doctrine resulted because of several factors. The Air Corps Tactical School opened in 1926 at Langley Air Force Base, then moved in 1931 to Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, where it taught a 14-week course for mid-career officers that included military aviation theory. The Bombardment Branch, under the direction of its Chief, Major Harold. L. George, became influential in the development of doctrine and its dissemination throughout the Air Corps. Conversely, pursuit tacticians, primarily Capt. Claire Chennault, Chief of the school's Pursuit Branch, found their influence waning because of repeated performance failures of pursuit aviation.

New bomber types under development clearly outperformed new pursuit types, particularly in speed and altitude. In both 1932 and 1933 large-scale maneuvers found P-26 fighters unable to climb to altitude quickly enough to intercept attacking Y1B-9 and B-10 prototypes, a failure so complete that Brig. Gen. Oscar Westover, following the 1933 maneuvers, actually proposed elimination of pursuits altogether. (Bowman, p.7) The superiority of bombers resulted in a 1934 feasibility study for a 35-ton 4-engined bomber (the Boeing XB-15) that, while found to be unsuitable for combat, led to the design of the Model 299, later to become the B-17 Flying Fortress, whose first flight was in July 1935.

In 1933 the Air Corps expanded to a tactical strength of 50 squadrons: 21 pursuit, 13 observation, 12 bombardment, and 4 attack.

GHQ Air Force[edit]

File:USAAC Roundel.svg
U.S. aircraft roundel from interwar years to early World War II

The next major step toward creation of a separate air force was taken on March 1, 1935 with the creation of a centralized operational air force, commanded by an aviator and answering to the Chief of Staff of the Army. Called General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force, this command took all combat air units in the United States out of the control of corps area commanders, where they had resided since 1920, and organized them administratively into four geographical districts (which later became the first four numbered air forces) and operationally into a strike force of three wings. GHQ Air Force was a "coordinate component" of the ostensible U.S. air arm along with the Air Corps, and not subject to its control. However all its members, along with members of units stationed overseas and under the control of local ground commanders, remained part of the Air Corps.

Nonetheless, the GHQ Air Force remained small in comparison to European air forces. Lines of authority were also difficult as GHQ Air Force controlled only combat flying units within the continental United States, with the Air Corps still responsible for training, aircraft development, doctrine, and supply, and the ground forces corps area commanders still controlling their installations and the support personnel manning them. The commanders of GHQ Air Force and the Air Corps, Major Generals Frank Andrews and Oscar Westover respectively, clashed philosophically over the direction in which the air arm was heading, adding to the difficulties, with Andrews in favor of autonomy and Westover espousing subordination to the Army chain of command. The air arm embraced strategic bombing as its primary doctrine after the creation of GHQ Air Force, but could only buy a few of the new four-engined B-17 Flying Fortresses, so that by 1938 there were still only thirteen on hand and orders for more had been suspended.

In January 1936 the AAC contracted with Boeing for thirteen Y1B-17 prototypes, enough to equip one squadron for operational testing, with deliveries made from January to August 1937. The cost of the aircraft disturbed both Army Secretary Harry Woodring, who denied requests for further purchases, and Army Chief of Staff Malin Craig, who in 1938 reversed plans for five squadrons of B-17s (67 airplanes) to be purchased with carryover funds. The Air Corps also incurred the enmity of the Navy by widely publicizing an interception on May 12, 1938, of the Italian ocean liner Rex by three B-17s while it was 725 miles off-shore of New York City; Craig placed a 100-mile restriction on all off-shore flights in response.

File:B-17s flyby Rex.jpg
Interception of the Rex. The navigator for the mission was 1st Lt. Curtis LeMay

The separation of the combat organization (GHQ Air Force) from the logistic organization (Air Corps) created serious problems of coordination. To correct this condition and coinciding with a change of command at GHQ Air Force, the combat force was placed under the new Chief of the Air Corps, Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, in March 1939, but divisions were not entirely resolved. The two organizations were separated again on November 19, 1940, when its flying units were again placed under direct control of the Army Chief of Staff (then George C. Marshall) and its airfields under local corps commanders. However Arnold had joined the General Staff as acting "Deputy Chief of Staff for Air" on November 11, 1940, a position that enabled him to coordinate the two sections of the air arm until the organizational problems were repaired.

The problems of lack of unity of command were again exacerbated in March 1941 when the commander of GHQ Air Force, Delos C. Emmons, who had begun his tour junior to Arnold, was promoted to lieutenant general, forcing him to report to and act under an inferior in rank (both Arnold and his acting replacement as chief of the Air Corps, George H. Brett, were major generals). On June 20, 1941, to end the divisions, the War Department revised Army Regulation 95-5 to create the Army Air Forces with the Air Corps and GHQAF (the latter redesignated as Combat Command) as its major components, authorized an Air Staff to manage planning and execution of expansion of the air arm, and named Arnold as Chief of the Army Air Forces.

During World War II the role of the Air Corps changed again. On March 9, 1942, with the issuance of War Circular 59, the Air Corps was further subordinated to the USAAF as a combatant arm (as Infantry and Field Artillery were subordinate combatant arms of the Army Ground Forces) and the office of Chief of the Air Corps was abolished. The required Congressional disestablishment of the Army Air Corps itself did not occur until July 26, 1947, with the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 (61 Stat. 502).

The Air Corps tested and employed a profusion of pursuit, observation, and bomber aircraft during its 15-year history. The advent of the all-metal monoplane, enclosed cockpits, retracting landing gear, enclosed bomb bays, and the emergence of strategic bombardment doctrine led to many designs in the mid and late 1930s that were still in use when the United States entered World War II. Among the key technology developed were oxygen and cabin pressurization systems, engine superchargers (systems essential for high-altitude combat), and the Norden bombsight.

Notable fighters developed during the late 1930s were the P-40 (first flown October 1938), P-38 (January 1939), P-39 (April 1939), P-51 (October 1940), and P-47 (May 1941). Bombers developed during this period for or used by the USAAF in World War II were the A-20 (first flown October 1938), B-25 (January 1939), B-24 (December 1939), and B-26 (November 1940). Except for the B-24, P-47 and P-51, all had production deliveries begun before June 1941. Three other long-range bombers began development during this period, though only mockups were produced before World War II: B-29 (study begun in 1938), B-32 (June 1940), and B-36 (April 1941).

Main article: Military aircraft of the United States

Organization of the Air Corps[edit]

Army Air Corps, March 1, 1935[edit]

SOURCE: Maurer Maurer, Air Force Combat Units of World War II

General Headquarters Air Force (Maj. Gen. Frank Andrews, Langley Field, Virginia)

Other flying units

Overseas units

Annual strength[edit]

Strength as of June 30 of each year
Year Strength Year Strength Year Strength
1927 9,979 1932 14,650 1937 18,572
1928 10,518 1933 14,817 1938 20,196
1929 12,080 1934 15,621 1939 22,387
1930 13,305 1935 15,945 1940 51,185
1931 14,485 1936 16,863 1941 152,125

Chiefs of the Air Corps[edit]

Army Aviation today[edit]

Today, the Army's aviation assets are consolidated as the Army Aviation Branch, an administrative body of the Army established in 1983 which serves to organize, train, equip and operate the Army's light aircraft and helicopter assets. Its primary function is the tactical support of the army by providing tactical direct fire support and transport services. An updated version of the Key West Agreement governs the division of responsibility for air assets between the Army and the Air Force (the Army is precluded from operating fixed-wing aircraft in the airlift or close air support roles).

See also[edit]

Sources[edit]