Aviation's War Communique No 10

Performance records are the only sound basis for judging an air force and its equipment. The American record is impressive.

German air power now is definitely outclassed on the Western fronts. German cities and military establishments are hurt so badly by the Allied attack that Goebbels is promising war-weary Nazis that as soon as the Russians are smashed the Luftwaffe will dish it back to Britain "a thousand to one." This old threat carries less chill now, because the British and Americans know by contact that the stuff is no longer in the air to back it up.

But this fact is no cause for relaxation. If the Germans did manage to prostrate Russia, they might rehabilitate their air force; they have the meta1, the skill, and substantial plant to do it. They are short of aluminum, oil and manpower, but experience shows you can't trust an enemy with a shortage.

It is possible that the Nazis might again give hard battle in the air across the channel, or elsewhere, and our war chiefs are going ahead preparing as if they expected just that.

Meanwhile, accumulating Allied air strength is being used prudently but aggressively to shake the foundations of Hitler's 31 essential war production centers. So good does this operation look to the lay citizenry, and to many military aviation men, that they advocate putting more materials and man-hours on an air force to beat Germany down with air fire and bombs almost exclusively.

A recent Gallup poll showed 40 percent of the public wants to give Germany the all-air treatment; 49 percent thought other military elements also would have to be used; 11 percent said they didn't know. While it is probable that the wisest people would be found among the 11 percent, nevertheless, this is the public's show, it is their money, and they are bound to boo down any act that gets too old and tiresome. It was the public that gave the hook to the Admirals' battleship skit. Who can say but they might get tired of the bayonet and pistol sketch. As one voter told the Gallup boys, "An airplane can drop a bomb that will do as much damage as a thousand men; why not save the men and use the airplane?"

This kind of pressure could grow slowly enough so air power would expand without any headlines, or head-lopping. Or it could bust out and force the Commander in Chief or the Congress to take action, accompanied by loud cheers.

To get more air power you have to take equivalent metal and man-hours away from something else, like rifles, or warships, or tank cars. That is a decision the responsible strategists have to make, and may God help them.

Maybe they are mistaken now, as they have been in the past. If you think so, you can always throw Gen Mitchell at them, or a battleship, or the Army's opinion that Russia would be beaten in three weeks. You can write letters to the President, or to the editor of the New York Times, to your heart's content. Nobody has been put in jail yet for his honest opinions.

But commanders of the US Air Forces are not so much worried about what the Gallup voters think, these latter weeks, as they are about the thoughts of their own pilots and gunners and navigators and bombardiers and radio operators. Criticism of American airplanes has been put in such a way, and so much of it has been misinformed, that Air Force crews are wondering privately if the engineers and manufacturers and air arm officers are letting them down.

These air crewmen, especially trainees, do not necessarily know very much about the over-all subject of airplanes. They just know their jobs on their particular types of planes. They only know that the enemy's planes have a hot sting. They read what the critics say, and their morale indicators go down. Criticism is good medicine for the big boys who can take it, but it should be administered cautiously in the presence of the young folks who do the fighting.

Putting all angles of opinion together, it cooks down to something like this: It is unreasonable to suppose that any small group of men can be in possession of facts and wisdom not possessed by the majority in the same line of business.

It is too true that hardshell men are in high places, and that they hang grimly to ideas they read in books at West Point and Annapolis 30 years ago. Everybody knows they did it when Gen Mitchell told them what was coming, and they did it more recently in playing at squads right till Hitler taught them better.

But those things developed in peacetime. We are now in a desperate war, and the crustaceous are under great pressure from the audacious. Every move the conservatives make is watched and checked. The old school is giving ground to the new, every day. And the old boys do render a service: they keep the hotbloods from sticking their heads up and feeling a short, sharp shock, as the Mikado's executioner describes sudden decapitation.

Most of the critical talk is about American fighter planes. (Read "The Truth About Our Fighters"). Our Air Force fighters, it is said, are out-climbed, out-ceilinged, and outmaneuvered by the Zero, Messerschmitt, the Focke-Wulf 190, and the Spitfire.

This could well be so. But no person soundly informed about warplanes will ever say that one airplane is better than another as a general thing. If you ask a man of real experience he will ask you first: Better for what? Where? In what circumstances? For he knows, as every man should know before he tries to talk for the information of the public, that every airplane is a bundle of compromises.

This is true the world around of ships, of machine tools, of almost anything you think of. In the case of the airplane, you can make it climb fast, or travel fast, or carry a big load or fly stable, or maneuver easily; you can use its lifting capacity for armor or guns or ammunition or radio equipment, or parachutes and safeguards for the pilot. You can't do them all; you have to compromise.

That is how our fighter planes were designed. The best answer to those who don't like them is that almost every time they meet the enemy, they beat him. The War Department has the records of engagements and losses, and you can read them for yourself. Our pilots have plenty of heavy guns to fight with; they have armor to stop bullets, so that they can come back and fight another day; they have fuel for long range so they can run the enemy down or accompany their bombers; they have efficient but heavy radios that help them to win and avoid death traps.

But this Communique does not aim to wield the whitewash brush. It is perfectly true that the enemy, and England, and no doubt Russia, have fighter planes that will do things our fighters won't do. Some of them fly higher, maybe faster, and some can out-turn ours. We can do that too, and we are doing it, only our compromise, we hope and expect, will turn out better than theirs. We are trying, with every brain cell our engineers posses, to climb faster, and fly higher, and turn shorter than anybody else, and do it with plenty of armor and guns and ammunition and radios to boot.

Beside the P-40s, the P-39s, P-51s, and P-43s, now in service on many fronts, we have two Air Force fighters and one Navy fighter in production and just getting into the field. At this writing we had no official reports on what they had been able to do. Perhaps the services will not say much about them for a while. They are the Thunderbolt P-47, the Lightning P-38, and the Navy's F4U Corsair, shipboard fighter. All three of these planes carry 2,000 hp or better. With more horsepower than other fighters, they can do the same things and carry the guns and the range and the safety equipment. And, there are fighters readying for production which no one talks about.

That is about the only way a reasonable man can add up the fighter story. If you are still not satisfied, you must remember that we have been in actual war only ten months. The only way any armed force can learn about war at any given time is to be in it, clear up to the neck, and feel the heartache about failures, and things that don't work the way the tests indicated they would.

With watching the war three years, and being in it ten months, we've got the world's best medium bombers, everybody agrees; we've got the B-17 which can go out and fight and come home so many times that all observers are amazed, we are certainly not bested in dive bombers, in torpedo bombers, in trainers. And who would say that we are not plumb top in transport? — which is no less a weapon in this war than a fighter plane. Except for the effect on the air arm personnel, it seems to be a good thing that we have critics with enough guts to stand up and say their say. Not one responsible person has even hinted that the critics should be piped down — even under any emergency law that might be invoked. The editors happen to know that the Air Force itself hasn't even suggested any such thing. What the Air Force actually did was start telling its story, in the press and on the air, ballyhoo style, just as everybody else does in this country.

And to complete this report, notice briefly the other main developments in the world war the last few weeks: British planes came to the East coast of the United States to join in the hunt for submarines that are dropping their supplies to the bottom of the ocean. This is a long step indeed since those shaky days when the British sent puddle jumpers out over their waters to scare submarine commanders — and did it, to some extent.

While Hitler and the Japs are striving might and main to,join forces across Asia, British-American and Soviet air powers have already joined forces in the air over Germany. Thus Germany is in an air scissor and will be in a ground scissor too, when the Allies attack on the West.

Brazil went to war — with an air force of several hundred planes which will be much help in connection with her Navy, in relieving the United States of heavy patrol duties. Many Brazilian pilot students are being trained at home and in the United States, and big Brazilian aircraft plants are going to work on American designs. Brazil is larger than the United States, her material riches are equal to ours, and she can in time build and operate strong air forces, for defense and for duty abroad.

In Colombia, just south of the Panama Cana1, great jungles contain rubber plants that would alleviate our shortage if we could get at them. There was a plan developing, at this writing, to build airports and haul the gum out in airplanes. The question was whether it could be done before we could make synthetic rubber in quantity.

Two or three months ago, a high Naval officer told Aviation editors that the Japanese seemed to have had about ten standard carriers when the war started, and no one knew how many converted flat-top steamers. He said he thought they had lost six of their regular carriers. If so, the Nippon fleet is seriously crippled. This information seemed to be borne out when huge bamboo rafts were cited in action, serving as floating wheeled-plane bases.

Prettiest picture in the air is the performance of Boeing B-17 bombers. A Boeing official told the writers why — the Germans know it, for they now have possession of at least two B-17s. The Fortress, said the builder, gets up high, quite out of reach of much AA and aerial attack. It has lots of big guns, pointed all directions, to hold off attackers. It is swift, and it is maneuverable; it can be thrown around like an overgrown fighter. And — remember those Boeing 247 transports that flew ten years on the airlines are now in war service? This official told us he is building the B-17 with the same ruggedness. You can shoot it to pieces but the pieces stay together.

This article was originally published in the October, 1942 issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 10, pp 98-99, 286, 289.
The original article includes photos of an F4F taking off from a carrier, four men instrumental in training the Brazilian Air Force, and Gen Eisenhower with his strategic planning staff.
Photos not credited.