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History Articles

100 years of mobility airlift

  • Published

By Erin Lasley,  Air Mobility Command History Office

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --  The year 2018 can be termed the year of the anniversaries. One hundred years ago the carnage of World War I drew to a close while in 1968 the Tet Offensive ramped up hostilities during the Vietnam War. In October 1993, US Army Rangers and Delta Forces strived to bring peace to Mogadishu, Somalia, while in the same year Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in ending apartheid in South Africa. Through the ups and downs of the last century, air mobility forces have played a key role in the world’s struggles and unity.

On September 7, 1918, as war raged in Europe, 18 American soldiers arrived at an airfield in Chanute, Illinois, not too far away from where Air Mobility Command Headquarters resides here. Some of the soldiers may have looked at the airplanes waiting for them with trepidation, while some of the more adrenaline junkies may have looked at the planes with excitement and glee. One thing was for sure, they were all going up for a ride that day.

It took several aircraft to transport the 18 soldiers roughly 16 miles from Chanute Field to Champaign, Illinois, but it was the first recorded American demonstration of troop transport by air and the start of mobility airlift.

A month later on October 3, mobility forces were called upon again, but this time in Europe and under heavy fire. Nine companies of the US Army’s 77th Division became surrounded by German forces in the Argonne Forest and were running low on supplies and food. Fending off German attacks and even Allied bombing, the 77th released carrier pigeons conveying messages requesting help and, unfortunately, faulty coordinates.

Airmen from the 50th Aero Squadron were sent out in DH-4s to search for the 77th and drop much needed supplies, but with the wrong coordinates, the airmen dropped supplies in German trenches and the 50th suffered casualties from German artillery. A pilot with the 50th, First Lieutenant Harold E. Goettler, and his spotter, Second Lieutenant Erwin R. Bleckley, went out twice searching for the 77th. On their second run, the pair narrowed down the 77th’s location, but both men were fatally injured during the rescue attempt and Lieutenant Goettler crash landed his plane close enough to Allied lines to relay their findings before he died. The 77th was finally rescued on October 8 after laying out markers for pilots to see. Both Goettler and Bleckley received the Medal of Honor and the 77th became known as the Lost Battalion.

After the war, mobility forces fell to the wayside as the Army concentrated their flying efforts on using aircraft to destroy sea vessels and bomb strategic military targets rather than developing airlift technology and practices. However, by June 1922, the Army Air Service began a program sponsored by the government to airlift passengers and materials within the US. Model Airways began a flight service between Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., and McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, and soon expanded its services to other airfields in the Midwest including Scott Field. Between 1922 and 1926, Model Airways flew over 1.2 million miles and transported over 1,200 passengers and 62,000 pounds of cargo. Though in today’s standards the Model Airways’ numbers seem paltry, the Army Air Service was still operating two seater DH-4 bi-planes to deliver passengers and cargo. Model Airways disbanded in 1926 after the Air Commerce Act barred government agencies from aviation business that private enterprises could provide.

As the US developed into a more isolationist country in the 1920s and the budget for the military was slashed, the Army Air Corps moved a vast number of its combat aircraft to the coasts for defensive measures. However, in the event of an emergency, these units could not wait for their support elements to travel by rail or road. It was imperative these elements arrive quickly by air.

In 1928 the Army Air Corps demonstrated its airlift capabilities by staging an exhibition. Using 14 bombers, the Air Corps airlifted 73,721 pounds of cargo and personnel. Later in 1930, Major Henry H. “Hap” Arnold led an exercise which airlifted 36,548 pounds of cargo using a Douglas C-1, three Fokker C-2As, and a Keystone LB-7 in 36 missions. Other exhibitions and exercises followed and demonstrated the Air Corps ability to sustain its units by air. An obvious conclusion in today’s world.  

During the 1930s, those devoted to air transportation continued to strive to prove the potential of airlift mobility. Though Major Hugh J. Knerr was given permission by Chief of the Air Corps, Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, to form the 1st Air Transportation Group under the Air Corps Materiel Division in 1932, most of the funding for the Air Corps went towards combat aircraft. When Brigadier General Hap Arnold requested funds to purchase more transport aircraft in 1938, the Secretary of War denied his request simply because the secretary thought the planes were too expensive. The Secretary pushed the Army Air Corps to convert old bombers into transport planes and then used the money saved to purchase new B-18 bombers which were unpopular among aircrews.

To prove airlift’s worthiness, Brigadier General Delos C. Emmons oversaw an airlift exercise in 1938 which transported 42 planes and 945 men from airfields in California to unfamiliar airfields in New England. General Emmons used 16 converted bombers and took eight trips to transport all the passengers and, with war looming in Europe, senior leaders in the Air Corps quickly took notice of the rapid mobility exercise and the ability to quickly transport soldiers by air.

Once the war did flare up, airlift was split into two camps in November 1942: the Air Transport Command (ATC) and the Troop Carrier Command. While ATC was responsible for ferrying military aircraft within and outside the US and transporting War Department materiel, mail, and personnel excluding troop carrier units, the Troop Carrier Command airlifted combat forces into the heat of battle.

During WWII, both the ATC and Troop Carrier Command more than proved their worthiness to the war effort. For ATC, nowhere was this more evident than the treacherous mountain route over the Himalayan Mountains known as The Hump. After the Japanese blocked the Burma Road in 1942, Allied planners needed another route to resupply the Chinese army. In order to supply the Chinese with much needed war materials and humanitarian aid, the Tenth Air Force and the ATC repaired and created air fields in India and China contributing to the defeat of the Empire of Japan. In October 1942, ATC was given responsibility of the China-Burma-India airlift over The Hump and flew an average of 10,000 tons of supplies into China every month. By the time Brigadier General William H. Tunner took over command in 1944, ATC aircraft were transporting 30,000 to 65,000 tons a month to the war weary China.

While ATC was transporting vital war materiels and passengers around the world, the Troop Carrier Command was taking part in some of the most historic battles of the war. On the night of June 5 and the early morning of June 6, 1944, the IX Troop Carrier Command transported paratroopers of the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions into battle. In those dark hours, thousands of Army paratroopers jumped out of over 900 C-47s and other aircraft and nearly 100 gliders over Normandy, France, beginning Operation Overlord. A few months later on September 17, the Troop Carrier Command carried out a larger operation known as Market-Garden. Over 2,000 C-47s, gliders, and other aircraft dropped over 20,000 men as well as artillery, vehicles, and equipment into Holland.

In April 1945, troop carrier planes flew over 16,000 sorties, most in combat zones, and evacuated over 35,000 wounded from the battlefield in Europe. Aircraft in the IX Carrier Command delivered over 44 million tons of freight and nearly 8 million gallons of gasoline to the European front during that same month.

By 1948, the ATC and the Naval Air Transport became the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) which would be the responsible organization for all strategic airlift operations. Barely a month later MATS would face its first challenge in Germany after Soviet forces blockaded Berlin from the rest of the world and then would build its forces back up during the Korean War.

Through the Korean War and the beginning of the Vietnam Conflict, MATS mission evolved from a strategic airlift operation to a strategic combat airlift operation. In January 1966, MATS was redesignated the Military Airlift Command and between 1974 and 1975, both strategic and tactical airlift were consolidated under MAC. By June 1992, MAC and the Strategic Air Command were inactivated and mission elements of both were formed into Air Mobility Command (AMC). This new organization revolutionized rapid global mobility by combining airlift, air refueling, and aeromedical evacuation.

US military airlift started in a small field in rural Illinois ferrying a few soldiers to the next town over and grew through the fire of war to repel the advancement of aggression. Today, AMC employs airlift not only as a war fighting tool, but also as a humanitarian resource that brings aid and hope to millions around the world impacted by devastation.