Aviation's War Communique No 15

With first indications that pattern for victory is becoming clear, despite the tremendous job ahead, postwar problems of national and international scope — particularly airline policies — begin to demand attention.

The enemy is being badly hurt now. The end is sure, though the time is unpredictable. First hand observation by representatives of the administration shows the Russians murdering the German armies even more effectively than their communiques indicate. British and American overhead attack on Germany and its European production and transportation centers is devastating.

Signs of difficulty, though not necessarily weakness, are plain to military observers of Germany. The speeches of their leaders have the sound of defeat; they no longer display the Teutonic bluster. They have stopped their familiar threats of "a thousand to one"; they promise their people nothing but hardship and death. They talk of defense, and vow against capitulation; they inveigh against the Soviets, but leave the way open for peace with England and the United States.

Their defeats in Russia are due to exhaustion of manpower, to the rigors of winter, to the length of supply lines. A strong factor, of course, is the amazing unity and fighting spirit of the Russian people. Allied threats of invasions cause the Nazis to spread their forces all over Europe. Especially is this true in Southern Europe, from which an Anglo-American attack may come at any time the Axis may be pushed out of Africa.

The Russians, however, fully expect a renewal of Germany's attack in the spring, and are making all preparations to meet it. The Allies expect the Nazis to step up their U-boat war with the coming of better weather. Submarine action against the Allies is now worse than ever, despite constant air attack on Nazi construction pens. The United States is pressing its production of escort vessels to the limit, for the submarine is still one of the most "unbeatable" weapons in warfare. Of course it works both ways — our subs are weakening the Japs because they are unable to build merchant ships as fast as we can.

Not the least factor in the pressure on the Germans is the Anglo-American bombardment of Europe. The earlier attack by the Nazis on England was nothing by comparison. The arrogant and vindictive Goering tried to break England by plastering the cities. But the Allied attack is on rail and production centers, on waterfronts, and on every military concentration that can be found. Allied hedgehoppers cover the face of Europe like a pox, puncturing locomotives, oil tanks, and trucks by hundreds.

So effective is the air war against Europe that you can find high officials in Washington and elsewhere who believe Germany still may be beaten that way. That there is some support for this theory is shown by the fact that large orders for tanks and certain classes of transport and mobile weapons have been canceled, and the material and man-hours have been diverted to aircraft. The President keeps telling Hitler that we will hit him hard somewhere in Europe. Of course, it's a good idea to tell him that, regardless of the plans of Allied staffs.

If the general staff had in mind an all-air thrust at Europe, the problems involved would be tremendous. Until you take pencil in hand and start adding up, with the help of a military aviation authority, what it takes to run an air show, you may be inclined to think of aviation as a royal shortcut to avoid the grind of battle on the ground. Just recall that months ago the British mustered a few thousand-plane raids on Europe. At that time they talked about three-thousand-plane assaults. Since then the United States has established a second air force in England, but still there are no attacks anywhere near that scale.

It takes great supplies of men, oil, spares, food, airfields, and warehouses to sustain an air campaign. The casual observer wading through the figures is likely to feel he is having one of those nightmares in which he tries to run and can't. Fuel, for example, is a particularly hard problem. Combat air engines burn more than 50 gal apiece per hr, and planes probably average about two engines each. It is more than likely — and this is only informed guessing — that fuel is one of the worst of bad gremlins we have to deal with in the African project.

Not one of our aviation theatres — and we have a dozen or so — is nearer than 2,000 mi from home base, some of them are 6,000 or 7,000. Hitler, by contrast, is in no case operating more than 1,500 mi from factory to front. He is only a couple of hours from his British targets but, per contra, the British are only a couple of hours from some of theirs. Yet, after four years of war, and after the production of perhaps 200,000 planes to fight this war, we still read about 10, 50, 300, or so, taking part in an action.

Hitler had ten years to prepare the plant to build any number of airplanes necessary to overcome all opposition, but he made several serious miscalculations — the worst being that he would strike one stunning blow with the designs current at that time. Now, considering the huge task of designing and developing new models to meet those of his enemies, his Luftwaffe is so weak that many observers cannot help but express their surprise.

There must be a combination of reasons for this condition, but even War Secretary Stimson appears not to know what it is. He says that we may have overestimated Germany's capacity for producing airplanes in the first place; that Germany may be suffering a severe shortage of aviation gasoline; or that she may be gathering her air power for an offensive of which we are not yet aware. If we do not think any of these explanations is very convincing, we may assume that the secretary has a better one which he is keeping to himself.

But the difficulties that beset the building of air forces are not enough to stall the great industrial and manpower of the United States. Our production is past 6,000 per month, and of all the vast factories and millions of workers and mountains of metal and supplies going into the war production machine, more than 40 percent is now devoted to aircraft.

Nevertheless, our troubles are many: We have irresponsible absentee workers by the thousands every day; our engine production gets ahead of plane output; we still cannot deliver forgings and castings fast enough; "change orders" come from the front so fast that often only 10 or 20 planes are made alike; we set up modification centers to keep from stopping the production line, and the centers burn up the man-hours; then we have to drop a model entirely and start on another one. That will happen several times in 1943. Not the least of problems is the oracle at Washington from which all programs flow. Some of the best managers from industry — not bureaucrats — are there, but the demands on them are almost too much for human wit at its best.

The very mountainous proportions of the aircraft program in the war are becoming more and more of liability for peace, and some bosses can't resist taking an eye from the immediate goal for an occasional glance into the future. It is rather appalling to think that nearly half the industrial power of the United States has been converted to aviation; that before the war ends it may be more than half. It's going to be a morning after the night before when the show is over and a great deal of this plant capacity has to get back to egg beaters, wheelbarrows, dollar watches, or what have you.

Nothing much is being done about that, as they say, except that the boss must lean back and give it a couple of thinks now and then. As we have reported before, the aircraft people are aware that they are qualified, by new techniques and familiarity with new materials, to make a large number of old things in very new and interesting ways. And when the time comes they will — they will have to.

Operation of airplanes, come peace, is of immediate national and international interest, and steps have already been taken to meet swift turns of events. Complicated events, too. It so happens, that because the United States is on the other side of the world from the war and because we are manufacturers, our chief role has been the Arsenal of Democracy. In that capacity, we needed a lot of airlines to girdle the world. We established them forthwith. Meanwhile, England, Holland, Italy, France, and Germany have neither the time for airlines nor the airplanes to equip them. So the war will end with the American flag on airways all over the world.

This situation, like Topsy, "just growed," and since the war started there has been little, if any, time to consider its implications. For another thing, even though Pan American Airways began foreign operations about 17 years ago, the country still lacks a foreign aviation policy. For several years before the war, the government indulged in small-time horse trades with England, France, Germany, Italy, and Holland, on who could run an airline where. Before bigger things showed up, there were times when conniving over a Toonerville line to some Pacific atoll was good for a three-day run in Washington's bars.

At any rate, we had no policy when the war started and, as of now, all deals are off. We have the airlines. This situation began to disturb the British a few weeks back, so that certain MPs felt obliged to warn Britain against our monopoly, and even went so far as to recommend boycott of our lines. Washington was caught flat footed, with no plans and no basis from which to make a reply. The President quickly appointed an interdepartmental committee to study the matter and make recommendations. Its deliberations thus far have been strictly secret. This committee has matters on its mind for heavier than Britain's fears, although the administration certainly does not want any quarrel with England about airlines. The committee has to decide what the United States will stand for when it goes to the peace table,

For centuries, the nations have held that the seas are free to all. No country, attaches any claim to the ocean. But the air is different — it goes right over the land, all of which belongs to somebody. Shall the aircraft of the various nations be allowed to take any route they wish, over other countries, or do all countries have sovereign rights in their overlying air, not to be intruded upon? This is the biggest question that has come before aviation since the barnstormers started work without law, license, or rules. We certainly wouldn't expect the Mexicans, for instance, to allow us to run a railroad across their country. Is an airline entirely different?

When the President's committee decides this question, the final answer will still be a long way off, because we can only recommend to the international air commission (or whatever name) which will be part of the final peace machinery. The Russians and the Argentines and the Portuguese and the Greeks will all have their ideas, too.

Whether we have freedom of sovereignty of the air, we shall have to decide whether we have freedom of entry. That is, can anybody start an airline to any port in the world. You can practically do that with steamships — if you want to. Would the low-wage countries drive us out of the air, as they drove our merchant ships off the seas'?

It is a safe guess that our government does not intend to try to harness the planet's air operations, just because the war threw them into our lap. We couldn't follow up such a policy even if we wanted to. But, since the future of the United States in world air commerce is being made now, we ought to watch all the plays.

This article was originally published in the March, 1943, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 42, no 3, pp 90-91, 370, 373-374.
The original article includes a photo of FDR at work on a Clipper en route to Casablanca, the pilots of the Clipper, and the crew of the B-17F The 8 Ball.
Photos credited to US Navy, International News, Press Association.