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World War 1 Airpower and the Conduct of War

eddie rickenbacker logistics and maintenance

The Supply Chain Behind Fighter Pilots

One of our readers - thank you! - sent us a very interesting article on what airpower did to the conduct of war. (Moved it into the third dimension, for one thing.) While many of the war's fascinating stories are from the fighter pilots, there was (and is!) much more to air power than that, and the numbers tell their own amazing stories. The fighter pilots were actually in a perfect position to see the importance of maintenance, logistics, and supply.

Modern Warfare, Aviation, and Supply

Interesting points from the article (The Genesis of Modern Warfare: The Contribution of Aviation Logistics, from the book Changing War: The British Army, the Hundred Days Campaign and the Birth of the Royal Air Force, 1918 edited by Gary Sheffield and Peter Gray) included:

  • Modern warfare began in WWI with the start of being able to plan the war around shooting something, fairly accurately, at an enemy who wasn't in sight. Delivering weapons in three dimensions was impressive, but was really only a technological addition to a whole new theory of warfare. Weapons could now be delivered across great horizontal distance by artillery, from above by bomber aircraft, or from below by submarines (at least they started below, although they still had to surface to shoot).
  • "The large numbers of high-performance aircraft operating on the Western Front in 1918 bore little resemblance to the few, underpowered, unreliable and generally ineffective machines of 1914."
  • Aviation was critical to intelligence, and not just as artillery observers; the aerial photography of 1917 allowed mapmakers to create 1/20,000 and 1/10,000 maps covering the entire Western Front.
  • British aviation went from 66 airplanes and 1000 men in August 1914 to 1800 airplanes and 51000 men by November 11th, 1918. Only about 4100 of those men were combatants, the other 92% were support. 
  • Airplanes, like new software, needed frequent repair and updates. But software gets updated at the speed of electrical signals; airplane updates had to be shipped and then trucked to the front lines over weeks or months.
  • Aviation changed logistics from a service concentrating on food, clothing and ammunition for troops, to a delivery service for a huge number of specialized, high-value parts and technical information from the home country to the front line.
  • And the front-line aviators moved around a lot. One group of squadrons moved to a different airfield three times a month, on average, in 1917. (You can't just return an airplane part, shrug your shoulders and say, "No forwarding address.")
  • Regarding aircraft maintenance, one pilot wrote, "The mechanics are working frightfully hard at present as there are beaucoup crashes and buses to repair and very little time to do it in. No workshop or anything and all work has to be done in the open or in a sort of extempore hangar."
  • It took over 240 personnel (some in uniform, some civilian) at a variety of aviation support sites to support one serviceable front-line airplane.
  • What the RAF learned from WWI about logistics led directly to victory in the Battle of Britain in the next world war.

Rickenbacker and Air Transport Command

The US also learned something from WWI logistics. In April 1942, WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker took seven hours of Hap Arnold's time to explain to him that "Replacement parts were not getting to the bases, planes were sitting idle on the ground and men who needed and wanted training were sitting on the ground along with them." Rickenbacker called for an inventory system and an air transportation system. As head of Eastern Air Lines, "I hereby pledge any part of all of our fleet. This will be the nucleus of a military air transportation system which is already long past due."

The combat officers listening to Rickenbacker "could not have cared less about hauling carburetors and fan belts. But by 6:00 they had come to realize that, without those spare parts delivered efficiently and swiftly by air, the combat wings would suffer." And that's how a fighter pilot started what became the Air Transport Command, now the USAF's Air Mobility Command.

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