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Army Combat Branches: Aviation

Army Combat Branches: Aviation. The army aviation combat branch consists of those aircraft so essential to the day‐to‐day operations of ground forces that they are placed under the command and control of a ground commander. In the United States, modern army aviation dates from the efforts of the field artillery to obtain adequate aerial observation just before World War II. The War Department approved the air‐observation‐post program on June 6, 1942. Each firing battalion of field artillery received an artillery air section of two light planes, usually L‐4s, flown and maintained by field artillerymen. Eventually, air sections of varying strength joined all field artillery staff echelons from division to theater level. The Department of Air Training at the Field Artillery School, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, provided advanced training for field artillery pilots and aviation mechanics. Air observation posts, as the Army designated the aircraft, were most important in providing observed fire for field artillery and transportation for commanders and staff officers in the battle zone.

The success of the program led the War Department to expand it to the other ground combat branches in July 1945. Renamed Army Ground Forces light aviation, it received legislative sanction in the National Security Act of 1947, which also created an independent Air Force. In 1949 the Department of the Army renamed the program Army aviation. Not until 1983 did the specialty become a separate branch of the Army.

During the late 1940s, the Army obtained limited numbers of helicopters as well as a slightly larger fixed‐wing aircraft. The Army used helicopters during the Korean War to perform front‐line evacuation of wounded soldiers. A controversy with the Air Force over the procurement of cargo helicopters, however, delayed until December 1952 the deployment of the first of two transportation helicopter companies that eventually saw service in Korea. During this period, the Army expanded its aviation training base. In January 1953 the Department of Air Training became the Army Aviation School. It moved to Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 1954. In the aftermath of the war, the Army experimented with armed helicopters. The development of turbine‐powered helicopters made possible the creation of an airmobile division, recommended by the Howze Board in 1962.

After testing the concept, the Army deployed the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to Vietnam during the summer of 1965. Helicopters gave the U.S. Army great tactical flexibility, but were not sufficient in themselves to win the war. Army pilots refined techniques of aeromedical evacuation and developed new skills in all‐weather and night flying. The armed helicopter proved itself as a close fire‐support weapon and in the waning stages of the Vietnam War demonstrated an ability to kill tanks when outfitted with anti‐armor rockets.

This development and the invention of techniques that allowed helicopters to survive in areas with significant anti‐aircraft defenses were among the factors that led the Army to adopt its Air‐Land battle doctrine. Helicopters played a significant role in post‐Vietnam operations in Grenada, Panama, and Somalia.
[See also Airborne Warfare; Transport and Supply Aircraft.]


Christopher C. S. Cheng , Air Mobility: The Development of a Doctrine, 1994.
Edgar F. Raines, Jr. , “Maytag Messerschmidts” and “Biscuit Bombers”: The Origins of Modern Army Aviation During World War II, forthcoming.

Edgar F. Raines, Jr.

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