Aviation's War Communique No 5

Air war around the world is tightening slowly to advantage of the United Nations. Britain's command of the Islands' air seems secure, though England still will take some hard poundings.

As near as one could add the score from here, German and Russian air power was in a deadlock, stiffened by cold. What will happen as the sun warms up these two hornets nests cannot be guessed. Germany will have to fight on both the British and Russian fronts, and therefore cannot hit in full force on either.

In the East, American heavy bombers and fighters are increasing in number, and the Allies are taking over in the Australian sky. But the drive northward may be slow, because the bulk of munitions and planes are still going to Russia to fight Germany, which is still the giant among our enemies.

It is unfortunate that the whys and wheres and hows of the air battle cannot be told. Aviation's editors have learned more than can be printed — enough, at least to keep them from going far wrong in presenting the news. And along with this limited information, the editors have learned the reasons why the people cannot be informed of their own battle. If you could sit in with Air Force officers, and hear these reasons, you would be satisfied with the meager information you are getting.

Here is an example. A news dispatch from the Eastern stage made known what naval units were used in a recent operation. The Japanese knew that those units must necessarily return to a certain place. During the next few days you read in the papers that they were bombing certain military objectives. Actually, they were hitting at those naval units, which had been located for them by the news.

Army and Navy apparently do not intend to ask that clamps be put on our free speech and our press. But they do plead that everybody be careful.

Air Force officers are crying for airplanes. Though we are short of ships and guns, the general staff joins in the plea for planes, seeming to consider them the main weapon.

No doubt you have read in the papers that neither merchant nor combat ships can operate within range of land-based planes. The editors are able to confirm this point, definitely. A country that does not have enough air power to control the air over its ships, simply has to stay out of range of land planes. That is a mighty important fact. It is one of the main reasons why England is still fighting, and it is one of the main reasons why the United Nations are at a disadvantage in the East.

As this Communique has said before, the Japanese control the air over their theater of war largely because they are unopposed in force. In this connection, the writers have another confirmation. They have said, in this space, that Japanese airplane production is not more than 500 units per month. The statement was made, not long ago, by a member of the high command, that Japan's over-all production of war equipment is about one tenth that of the United States. This included airplanes, and you can figure for yourself that Japan is building less than 500 planes a month.

Why don't we go over there and beat their pants down? Because nearly every one of a baker's dozen of Allied fronts is crying for American warplanes. Trying to fill up those places with aircraft is a heartbreaking task, like pouring water in a gopher hole. But even the longest and deepest gopher hole can be filled up. And the vast present and potential production of British and American planes will, in good time, turn all those empty spots into stingers pointed at the Axis.

Meanwhile, we have to wait. If it were not for Russia and Britain and the Caribbean and Alaska and Panama and both our coasts swallowing airplanes and occupying our ships, Japan would be a pushover.

We have to wait because we never had enough bases in the first place, and the Japanese now have all we had. We will get bases by using Australia as a springboard and retaking captured territory in the Indies, in the Philippines, in Malay, and possibly by taking some Japanese Islands. There are also the possibilities of operating from Alaska, of using Chinese territory when the Chinese and we can occupy areas close enough to Japan, and of using Russian ground if and when it is made available by hostilities. When we have absolute protection for our carriers, they too will be brought in close for attack.

One of our most serious problems is a plain old-fashioned shortage of experienced personnel. This is natural enough in a citizen army. We have experienced airmen, experienced maintenance men, but when you spread them, as nuclei among several hundred thousand new men, you are spreading them too thin. The result is exasperating delays and greenhorn plays aplenty, and there's nothing anybody can do about it. Nothing but time — a matter of months — can ease this situation.

Distance means everything in war. Both of the Axis powers are barricaded in their own back yards, with their guns and their shops and their grubstakes plumb handy. While the United States must spend the energy and the time and fuel and food to go four to eight thousand miles, and then fight after we get there. It's a tremendous job — a historical epoch; it's bigger than the movement of Europe's millions to the new world.

And for that reason, we shall have to have three times as much shipping, three times as many airplanes, three times as much of everything as the enemy has, to beat him. That triple is not just a guess; it is the thoughtful estimate of our military leaders. For Allied individualists to buckle down and out-produce the enslaved hordes of the Axis is no small chore.

You recall that Donald Nelson, a few weeks back, said that our airplane production was up 50 percent over the rate at the time of Pearl Harbor. That was good news. But production has to go up about 350 percent before many swift months have rolled by, if we are to make the steep grade laid out by the President. We are in a steep climb, headed for the goal. It must be noted that the goal has changed, numerically, because of the shift to more heavy planes.

There is nothing the matter with our airplane production but human frailty in the face of such a task. We are still having bottleneck trouble — always shall. Bottlenecks exist everywhere, from little plants all the way up to big sheet of paper on which Donald Nelson every morning checks the industrial output of the United States. The different elements go up and down, like the planes in a formation flying rough air.

Right now, the aircraft industry is short of heavy dural forgings, and of many machined parts. Some plants have been waiting for engines. They are short of aluminum sheet. The forging shortage may be partly remedied by substituting castings. The machined parts will be speeded up by adding more subcontractors. But when our current bottlenecks are opened more will pop up.

A spectacular effort to beat the aluminum shortage has been started by several airplane producers, foremost among them being North American Aviation and Curtiss-Wright. NAA is going over to wood and mild steel in its AT-6 trainer, believes combat ships too can be built without much aluminum. For over a year, NAA has been working on a cold rolling process to get the right steel characteristics for the job. Other manufacturers have built steel planes; it is not new. But this mass steel production program is new, and it's important. It may turn out to be one of the high cards in the war deck.

You probably will ask yourself why, if steel can be flown now, it hasn't been done before. One answer is they didn't have the right steel. Another one is that ordinary steel corrodes, and may weaken at points hard to inspect. This problem is now solved by water-proof coatings. On the outside, the steel will be covered with camouflage paint anyway. Another answer, and this comes frankly from some of the best men, is that engineers have the aluminum habit, and are set in their ways. You can take that one, or leave it alone.

One of the prettiest things about steel is that all the wing and body surfaces will be spot-welded instead of riveted and the ship will be as smooth as any fish, except in wartime, when all planes are covered with camouflage paint, which is a bad drag.

Little is known of Curtiss-Wright plans to produce wood transport planes for the Army. Up to the close of the first World War, most airplanes were made almost entirely of wood. Then steel tubing was put into fuselages; then came Ford and other all-metal planes. There is no doubt about the success of the wood plane project. It's been done before; there are plenty of old timers skilled in wood design; new plants, such as furniture factories, can participate.

And to end this report with the tall story of the month. A Russian pilot bailed out, fell a couple of miles with an unopened chute, and hit on the side of a mountain so steep, in a snowdrift so deep, that he just ricocheted to the bottom, not badly hurt. It might be so — might be so, but….

This article was originally published in the May, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 5, pp 70-71, 239-240.
The original article includes a photo of the tails of several B-25s, showing different national insignia, a photo of Hudsons on the flightline, and a formation of five Boeing Kaydet trainers showing different national insignia.
Photos are not credited.