Leonardo da Vinci
Americans love aircraft. They captivate us, from the crowds that throng to airshows to the children in the airport lounge to the toddler whose finely-cut dinner is “flown” noisily into her mouth on Air Fork One. The Union Army saw its first aviation advantage with the balloon corps in 1861, and the Wright Brothers built and flew the first controllable, powered heavier-than-air airplane some forty years later. Since that fateful day in 1903, aircraft and later spacecraft firmly embedded themselves in our national character, as American aviators accomplished a long string of first-ever accomplishments with ever-improving machines, pushing to the absolute limits of aerodynamic flight and beyond. Like aviation in the 1930s, spaceflight captured America’s imagination when more than half the US population watched the live broadcast of Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Even today, with more than a decade of actively flying jets in my rearview mirror, NASA’s Seven Minutes of Terror fills me with awe of the people who put Curiosity on Mars. The allure of flight has not faded with the passage of time; the United States is an Airpower Nation.
The public is still entranced by aviation technology, even as that technology has become so firmly embedded in our daily lives that it is taken for granted. But the technology is not the aircraft, the aircraft is not airpower, and by focusing on the “what” and the “how” and the “by whom” we often miss the “why”. Why is the United States so uniquely fascinated by airpower, and why, among the pioneering countries that developed it, have we gained such an intimate and enduring partnership with it?
We have embraced airpower as an instrument of national policy. Experience in the Civil War left the American officer corps suspicious of static warfare, a position only reinforced by the French and British experience in World War I. Airpower offered a solution – the ability to move over the battlefield rather than simply across it, although it would take a great deal more evolution before that was a realistic possibility. After earning our spurs in World War I, war-surplus aircraft became the foundation of America’s aviation growth, leading to an aviation enterprise that would underpin a massive airpower expansion in World War II. Land and carrier-based aircraft were an essential component of our warfighting strategy against the Axis, demonstrating a co-equal status with land and naval forces, who themselves have their own aviation components. An independent Air Force, now approaching its 68th birthday, grew directly out of that experience and the country has never looked back. The key aspect of aviation is perfectly in line with national character – it is always looking to the future, is often cutting edge, and is constantly evolving.
Roughly three quarters of the earth is covered by ocean. Exactly one hundred percent is covered by air. With enough thrust we can go right through the atmosphere and park satellites just outside it. Whether traveling through the air or perching above it, we can see further, communicate more widely, move faster, surmount obstacles that were once uncrossable, and get to places that once were beyond reach. Do you need to make a phone call where no phone line has ever been laid? A satellite phone will do it. Lost? GPS can tell you where you are and a phone app can tell you where to go. Need to be on the other coast for a meeting tomorrow morning? Air travel is the answer. Rush a donor kidney from the Midwest to the East Coast? Air transport will deliver it right to the hospital roof. The key advantages of airpower are constant – airpower is flexible, its global, fast, and terrain agnostic.
Airpower was uniquely suited to challenges faced by the United States at the dawn of the 20th Century. The United States is a vast country protected by large oceans, with friendly neighbors to the north and south. Traveling coast-to-coast was a major undertaking, and not reasonably assured until the Pacific Railroad. In 1860, just moving mail across the country took 10 days with the Pony Express – in 1921 the first load of transcontinental airmail completed the San Francisco to New York trip in 60 hours. By contrast, today in Europe, a person can breakfast in London, hop a train for lunch in Paris, and be in Brussels in time for dinner. In North America, travelling overland between the three capital cities would take days, not hours. Air travel shrank the immense distances within the United States. Air Mail fundamentally changed domestic and international communications; air cargo and air travel transformed business and transportation.
Naval power established the United States as an emerging power at the end of the 19th Century – and half a century later airpower cemented our position as one of two Global Powers, with unmatched worldwide reach. Airpower visionaries, operating on a shoestring budget, conceived, tested, and built the framework that would result in the greatest demonstration of airpower capabilities ever attempted. In World War II, airpower hunted U-Boats in open ocean, hammered the Nazi industrial machine, prepared the ground for amphibious assaults from Torch to Sicily to the D-Day landings and supported the ground forces advancing into Germany. It harried Japanese forces across the entire Pacific and deep into the Asian mainland, enabling the defeat of Imperial Japan without an invasion of the home islands. Airpower’s combat effects were matched by a pioneering spirit in the area of aerial logistics, where cargo was hauled over the Himalayas, across the breadth of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and up the island chains. American ingenuity and drive combined with technology to solve problems as they arose, and the inherent flexibility of air forces served us well. The Far East Air Force conducted regular transport of outsized cargo in New Guinea, cutting trucks in half to load them on airplanes and welding them back together at the destination. After the War, when the Soviets blockaded Berlin, airpower supplied the entire Allied sector for over a year, conclusively demonstrating to a hungry population that military airpower was not just a force for destruction.
As the 20th Century wore on, airpower was called on more and more often to support national security efforts worldwide. Operation NICKEL GRASS in 1973 kept the Israeli Defense Force in the fight in the face of mounting losses. ELDORADO CANYON struck Libya in response to Libyan sponsorship of terrorist attacks, JUST CAUSE in Panama and URGENT FURY in Grenada were spearheaded with airborne assault. Combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia opened with air attack. Countless humanitarian relief operations delivered aid by air and evacuated people from harm’s way both internationally and domestically. In Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia, the US undertook operations to simultaneously deliver both humanitarian aid and aerial firepower – the “no-fly zone” was an invention intended to deny a country control of its own air to prevent interference with humanitarian operations. Today the vast majority of countries that encounter US airpower eagerly await its arrival, while our adversaries fear its mere presence over the horizon.
Most of us never personally view the application of national airpower, but it is there, every day around the clock. If you send a Mayday call from your foundering sailboat offshore, the Coast Guard will be overhead long before the cutter arrives. Government agencies fight fires, survey the environment, patrol the borders and monitor the weather using aircraft. Medical evacuation aircraft stand ready, descendants of the JN-4 “Jenny” ambulance conversions from World War I. Airpower evacuation of battle casualties saved lives in every conflict since Korea, and civilian MEDEVAC helicopters transport accident victims who might otherwise never make it to a hospital alive, making the most of the first critical hour after injury. Every minute of every day tankers and airlift aircraft are airborne somewhere and combat aircraft hunt our enemies in far-flung corners of the world. Like air, airpower covers the globe.
Airpower resembles air in another respect. Like air, it largely passes without notice – until it isn’t there. Air travel in the US was shut down for three days after 9/11, an impact that rippled through the economy and caused over five billion dollars in direct losses to the airlines alone. In combat operations, the demands on airpower often outstrips the supply of air transport, reconnaissance and aerial fires. My own experience on patrol in Iraq was punctuated by long, exposed hours where I knew we needed airpower to check our flanks, and we didn’t have it and were too far down the priority list to get any. Fortunately, in the absence of their own airpower, the enemy couldn’t capitalize on our situation – they were as ignorant of our dispositions as we were of theirs and flanks anchored in thin air went unmolested. In Afghanistan, I found that minor engagements ended when air showed up. Forward Operating Base Wazi Kwah in Paktika was a three-day road journey from the nearest major base at Sharana – but airborne fighters could be overhead in just over ten minutes if we called. Even fighters scrambled from Kandahar could arrive 25 minutes after their landing gear retracted. And we also knew that whatever happened, skilled aviators would be enroute to evacuate our wounded the moment we made the request. That kind of availability is directly related to over a century of intense investment in airpower.
It paid off. It continues to pay off. The job of aviators is to solve the problems others are unable to solve. Our country’s reliance on airpower has been purchased with an enduring investment in the people and the infrastructure needed to build, develop, maintain and employ it. The newest airplane rolling off the production line trails behind it an invisible history stretching all the way back to the Wright Brothers. Pilots stepping out onto the flightline are the beneficiaries of a heritage that began before their grandparents were born. Aviation remains an American enterprise, requiring legions of skilled individuals for the design, testing, maintenance and operation of aircraft. To say that it has been an investment well worth making is to state the obvious; the need for continuous investment should be equally so. Beware the budgetary analyst who declares that airpower is a luxury we cannot afford, or the enthusiast who mistakes the airplane for airpower, asserting that any individual aircraft is indispensible. What has been proven indispensible is our commitment to airpower, not the individual pieces of hardware. It is only through a continuing commitment to the future of aviation that we remain, and will remain, an Airpower Nation.
Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E, Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions over 10 combat deployments. An irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.