Wednesday, January 12, 2011


This month’s Rant is excerpted from my Flight Journal article in December 2009. Somebody put it on email (minus attribution) so I’m posting most of the main text.

Imagine that you are commander of a great air force. It has risen to global prominence, dominating all rivals. Its unprecedented success has come at a price, however. Your chief of staff lays a memo on your desk. "Last month's casualties, sir."

You pick up the first sheet. “Hmmm; 331 men killed, and 308 aircraft destroyed. That’s 11 people and 10 planes per day.”

“Uh, yessir. It’s still the ballpark average.”

"I’d like to see an improvement in bomber losses, those really add up."

“Were working on it, General. But it’s sad to think that 10 young men alive today will be dead tomorrow.

“You know that’s the price of doing business. Now, what about the overseas and combat losses?”

That’s right. From December 1941 to August 1945 the U. S. Army Air Forces lost 14,903 pilots, aircrew and assorted personnel plus 13,873 airplanes --- inside the continental United States. They were the result of 52,651 aircraft accidents (6,039 involving fatalities) in 45 months.

Think about those numbers. They average 1,170 aircraft accidents per month---nearly 40 a day. (Less than one accident in four resulted in totaled aircraft, however.) Those colossal losses cost the Axis powers nothing; not one 7.7 mm bullet.

It gets worse,

Almost 1,000 Army planes disappeared en route from the U. S. to foreign climes. But an eye watering 43,581 aircraft were lost overseas including 22,948 on combat missions (18,418 against the Western Axis) and 20,633 attributed to non-combat causes overseas.

Some spectacular losses were recorded in the air campaign against Germany. The best known was the 8th Air Force’s double strike against Regensburg and Schewinfurt in August 1943 when 60 B-17s were shot down among 376. That 16 percent loss rate meant nearly 600 empty bunks in England. In fact, during much of 1942-1943 it was statistically impossible for bomber crews to complete a 25-mission tour in Europe.

Pacific Theatre losses were far less (4,530 in combat) owing to smaller forces committed. The worst B-29 mission, against Tokyo on May 25, 1945, cost 26 Superfortress, 5.6 percent of the 464 dispatched from the Marianas.

On average, 6,600 American servicemen died per month during WWII, about 220 a day. At war’s end, over 40,000 airmen were killed in combat theatres and another 18,000 wounded. Some 12,000 missing men were declared dead, including a number “liberated” by the Soviets but never returned. More than 41,000 were captured, half of the 5,400 held by the Japanese died in captivity, compared with one-tenth in German hands. Total combat casualties were pegged at 121,867. But U.S. manpower made up the deficit. The AAF’s peak strength was reached in 1944 with 2,372,000 personnel, nearly twice the previous year.

If the losses were huge---and they were----so were production totals. From 1941 through 1945, American industry delivered more than 276,000 military aircraft. That number was enough not only for U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps but for allies as diverse as Britain, Australia, China and Russia. In fact, from 1943 onward, America produced more planes than Britain and Russia combined. And more than both Germany and Japan 1941-45.

Uncle Sam sent many of his sons to war with absolute minimum of training. Some fighter pilots entered combat in 1942 with less than one hour in their assigned aircraft.

The 357th Fighter Group went to England in late 1943 after training on P-39s. The group never saw a Mustang until shortly before its first combat mission. A high-time P-51pilot had 30 hours in type. Many had fewer than five hours. Some had one hour.

A future Thunderbolt ace said, “I was sent to England to die.” He was not alone. Some fighter pilots took off on their first combat mission with one previous flight in type. With arrival of new aircraft, many combat units transitioned in combat. The attitude was, “They all have a stick and throttle. Go fly `em.” When the 4th Fighter Group converted from P-47s to P-51s in February 1944, there was no time to stand down for an orderly transition. The group commander, Col. Donald Blakeslee, said, “You can learn to fly `51’s on the way to the target."

Meanwhile, many bomber crews were still learning their trade: of Jimmy Doolittle’s 15 pilots on the April 1942 Tokyo raid, only five had won their wings before 1941. All but one of the 16 copilots were less than a year out of flight school.

In WWII flying safety took a back seat to combat. The AAF’s worst accident rate was recorded by the A-36 Invader version of the P-51: a staggering 274 per 100,000 flying hours. Next worst were the P-39 at 245 and the P-40 at 188; and the P-38 at 139. All were Allison powered.

Bomber wrecks were fewer but more expensive. The B-17 and B-24 averaged 30 and 35 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, respectively----a horrific figure considering that from 1980 to 2000 the Air Force’s major mishap rate was less than 2.

The B-29 was even worse at 40; the world’s most sophisticated, most capable and most expensive bomber was too urgently needed to stand down for mere safety reasons. The original cadre of the 58th Bomb Wing was to have 400 hours of multi-engine time, but there were not enough experienced pilots to meet the criterion. Only ten percent had overseas experience.

Perhaps the greatest unsung success story of AAF training was navigators. The Army graduated some 50,000 during the war, and many had never flown out of sight of land before leaving for a war zone. Yet the huge majority found their way across oceans and continents without getting lost or running out of fuel---a stirring tribute to the AAF’s educational establishments.

As the training pipeline filled up, cockpit experience improved. By early 1944 the average AAF fighter pilot entering combat had logged at least 450 hours, usually including 250 hours in training. At the same time, many captains and first lieutenants claimed over 600 hours.

At its height in mid-1944, the Army Air Forces had 2.6 million people and nearly 80,000 aircraft of all types. Today the U. S. Air Force employs 327,000 active personnel (plus 170,000 civilians) with 5,500+ manned and perhaps 200 unmanned aircraft. The 2009 figures represent about 12 percent of the manpower and 7 percent of the airplanes of the WWII peak.

Whether there will ever be another comparable air war is doubtful, as fighters and bombers have given way to helicopters and remotely controlled drones over Afghanistan and Iraq. But within living memory, men left the earth in 1,000-plane formations and fought major battles five miles high, leaving a legacy that remains timeless.