The Biplane Period, 1917 to 1932
The AEF’s Air Arm
When the French Prime Minister on May 24, 1917, requested an American force of 4,500 planes in 1918, a massive aviation program was launched, requiring a production and training effort far beyond previous American experience. One front-line squadron of 25 single-seat fighters in 1918 would need 31 officers and 181 enlisted men; the latter including 21 chauffeurs, 6 cooks, and two buglers. From the Major in command to his airplane pilots, technical sergeants, and the privates at their service, all these men would have to be taught their new jobs.
An estimated aircraft attrition rate of 50% per month from combat and ordinary accidents would require 100 planes per squadron each six months, and by 1918 it appeared that 200 squadrons might be needed for 1919. United States production had to begin with training planes to provide fliers for the war in France.
Raw materials needed would include vast quantities of spruce for air frame structures and cotton for covering them, along their varnish (then called dope) finish, as well as metal for their power plants and weapons. When these needs were added to the demands of a huge land army and naval expansion, America quickly changed from a market economy to a command economy.
On June 17, 1917, a joint Army-Navy Mission led by Major R.C. Bolling sailed for France to gain information on aircraft types. Samples of several Allied warplanes were selected and shipped to the United States for production here, but of the combat types selected, only the DH-4 would be produced in quantity. To fill the gap until American-built aircraft would be available, the French contracted on August 30, 1917, to supply 5,875 aircraft to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).
As the following chapters will tell, the American squadrons at the front depended principally on French equipment. The 36 squadrons at the front on November 1, 1918, included 15 with the Spad and one with SE-5A single-seaters, and 10 with the Salmson, eight with the U.S.-built DH-4, and two with the Breguet two-seaters. None had twin-engine equipment.
During the war, the Army received 11,754 planes from United States contractors, of which 1,216 were delivered to the AEF before the Armistice. France provided 4,791 aircraft (incl. 2,186 service types) to the AEF, Britain 261 (incl. 189 service types) and Italy 19 trainers. This gave the AEF a total of 6,287 planes, including 2,696 trainers and 3,591 service types. On Armistice Day the AEF had 740 planes at the front. Table 1 shows how this number compared with the forces of other countries.
Beginning Navy Air Power
Naval aviation developed its own specialties: flying boats to patrol the sea, and torpedo-carrying seaplanes to attack enemy shipping were joined by fighters carried by the British fleet on vessels with flight decks.
The United States Navy had some experience with shore-based aircraft, but when war was declared had only 45 training seaplanes, six flying boats, and three landplanes, none of them armed or designed for combat.
U-boats were the war’s chief threat to Britain, so when a British flying boat claimed to have sunk one for the first time on May 20, 1917, Allied naval aviation’s most important mission was clear. Hundreds of American flying boats were ordered for shore-based patrols.
Because of the difficulty encountered in getting enough aircraft, the government built its own Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia. Unlike the Army’s Engineering Division at Dayton, which built only prototypes, the NAF produced flying boats in quantity, and would be the only government-owned aircraft factory for thirty years.
Flying boats were valued for spotting enemy submarines, but a more direct attack could be made by bombing the sub bases on the English Channel. For that purpose, a Northern Bombing Group was organized with DH-4, DH-9, and Caproni landplanes obtained from the Army and the Allies.
Unlike the AEF, the Navy obtained most of its planes at home; only 142 of 2,705 Navy machines were procured abroad. United States production for the Navy was 1,444 service types, 1,084 training planes, and 36 experimentals, as well as 155 DH-4s and 144 trainers transferred from Army stocks.
American Air Power Between the Wars
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The Armistice left the United States with an enormous stock of rifles, machine guns, and artillery for the ground forces. These could be expected to provide the Army with a secure arsenal for at least twenty years. But the aircraft stockpile was a different matter, for warplanes were rapidly made obsolete by technical advances.
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