When most of us think of Army fixed wing aviation, we think of the venerable UH-1 ‘Huey’ whomping around. Or maybe the battle-proven UH-60 Blackhawk cutting along in a formation. Of course, there is the CH-47 Chinook, the twin-rotor behemoth that shakes the ground, and the agile and deadly AH-64 Apache.
But there is much more to the U.S. Army aviation fleet than tactical helicopters. Are helicopters significant? Yes! They are the backbone of the fleet. In fact, all Army aviators (pilots) go through rotor-wing training first and are helicopter pilots to start with; they then transition to fixed-wing later if assigned.
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So, what is the Army fixed wing fleet for? And what aircraft do they use and why? Let’s take a look at the Army’s fixed-wing fleet and operations.
A Primer On Army Fixed Wing Aviation
From the dawn of power flight through World War II (WWII), the Army and the Navy were the prime movers of military aviation; there was no Air Force. In fact, there would not have ever been an Air Force as we know it if it weren’t for WWII. While the ‘Great War’ (WWI) saw limited use of aviation assets, WWII was the catalyst that revealed that airpower was pivotal. Aerial dominance needed to be achieved for theatre superiority, and the mission became too large and too diverse to any longer be under the Army’s umbrella.
However, the Army still had demands for aviation not in the Air Force’s wheelhouse, such as:
- Utility transportation
- Close air support
- Vital ground support
- Aerial intelligence
The Army formed aviation brigades that would be part of the combat division, so they were the direct support wing of a division; no need to request outside assistance from an Air Force unit that might be hundreds of miles away. With all that said, the Army has maintained a robust fleet of fixed-wing aircraft assets presently totaling around 340.
To understand the full history of Army Fixed Wing Aviation, we explore its involvement in war, specifically:
- USAF breaks away from USAAC after WWII
- The Korean and Vietnam Wars shift focus to rotor wing aviation
- Army Fixed Wing Aviation reorganizes during Vietnam War under Reorganization Objective Army Division (ROAD)
1947: The USAF Becomes Its Own Entity
In WWII, the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) grew exponentially, transitioning to the U.S. Army Air Force just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It began the war with a little under seven thousand aircraft and about 150,000 personnel in 1941, to about 80,000 aircraft and almost two and one-half million airmen. It obviously shrunk tremendously after the war, but the reality was that the Air Force would become a standalone service.
The Air Force became its own branch of service in 1947, taking all of their tactical assets with them. This left the Army’s aerial resources mostly gutted, save for some fixed-wing aircraft used primarily for light transport, VIP movements, and aerial observation. As the years passed, we saw this remaining the main purpose of Army fixed wing aviation. The biggest difference would be airframes.
Korea to Vietnam: Rotor-wing Focus
Sadly, peace did not last long. Within five years, we were in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war with communist Korean and Chinese forces.
By the Korean War, the Air Force flew a blended fleet of jet and propeller-driven aircraft for tactical operations. The Air Force did use helicopters a little bit, but it was only for search & rescue operations Helicopters don’t fit well into the Air Force’s doctrine—slow, low, and no range. The Air Force prefers to have significant stand-off from the front lines, which is not congruent with helicopter operations.
However, the opportunistic soldiers in the Army saw great potential in helicopters. Helicopters solve the Army’s main pain points: in fil and extraction of soldiers into hostile areas with great precision. The invasion of Normandy, or Operation Neptune, relied heavily on airborne units to reach beyond the beachheads of Normandy. However, paratroopers ended up missing their jump zones everywhere. Helicopters ensured that soldiers would land exactly where they needed to.
Helicopters also solved the age-old problem of getting triage patients to field hospitals. Korea was the first widespread use of medical evacuation helicopters, which became much more prevalent in Vietnam. Also, the advent of turbine engines may have doubled or even tripled the capabilities of helicopters practically overnight. The Army took complete command of rotary-wing operations and wrote the doctrine on their use in combat. But there were still some gaps in operational coverage that Army rotary-wing assets couldn’t conduct and were outside of the Air Force’s wheelhouse as well.
Army Fixed Wing Aviation undergoes changes through Reorganization Objective Army Division (ROAD)
Following the Korean War, many higher ups in the Army determined Army Aviation was not fully capable of supporting ground combat operations. Moving off the Pentomic structure, the U.S. Army implemented the Reorganization Objective Army Division, or ROAD, achieving more improved operations, specifically:
- Increase in overall Army aircraft
- Elimination of observation aircraft
- Replacement of observation aircraft with light observation helicopters
- Simplification of fixed-wing fleet to OV-1 Mohawk and CV-2 Caribou
ROAD paved the way for the aforementioned rotor-wing focus in the Vietnam War, relying more on helicopters than fixed-wing aircraft. Still, ROAD empowered Army aviation operations by reorganizing them into three distinct categories:
- Company-sized organizations focused on one type of aircraft
- Company-sized organizations focused around several aircrafts
- Small aviation missions containing one or more aircraft
This set in motion the modern Army Fixed Wing Aviation, giving function to the U.S. Army’s fleet separate from that of the U.S. Air Force.
Why Does the Army Have A Fixed-Wing Fleet?
The Army’s fixed-wing fleet exists for a couple of reasons:
- VIP Transport Aircraft missions
- Special Electronic Mission Aircraft (SEMA) assignments
- Mission Support Aircraft assignments
Army Fixed Wing Aviation and VIP Transportation
First, Army fixed wing aircraft conduct VIP transportation with the fleet. Some argue that most VIP transportation can be handled commercially, but the point of it isn’t about transporting general officers in CONUS; the purpose is to transport GOs around warzones safely.
As an extension of VIP transportation missions, Army fixed wing aviation conducts necessary Transport Aircraft Missions. Designated the U.S. Army Priority Air Transport, or USAPAT, the Transport Aircraft Missions entail:
- Planning, coordinating, and conducting international airlift of U.S. Army Senior Leaders, DOD Executives, Congressional Delegations, and Combatant Commanders
- Serving as the U.S. Army Proponency for C-20 and C-37 Executive Jet Aircraft
- Employing all assigned aircraft in support of contingency operations within the JFHQ-NCR Joint Operational Area
But this is just one part of the fixed-wing fleet mission.
Special Electronic Mission Aircraft (SEMA) Assignments
Formally, there are three fixed-wing missions:
- Special Electronic Mission Aircraft (SEMA)
- Transport Aircraft
- Mission Support Aircraft
These missions are conducted with a fleet of around 340 aircraft made up of:
- Eight missions
- Sixteen unique designs
- Thirty-five series
The entire fleet comprises commercially-derived aircraft, so parts are readily available and are not unique, making support simple to procure.
They also conduct light cargo transportation (UC-12) and a lot of intelligence and electronic warfare work.
Mission Support Aircraft assignments
Army fixed wing aviation has supported special missions since its inception. One of the earliest ISR support missions occurred in March 1916, when eight Curtiss R-2s were sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to aid General “Black Jack” Pershing in pursuit of infamous revolutionary Pancho Villa.
Mission Support Aircraft have come a long way. Today, ISR is being conducted by high-powered Challenger 650s and state-of-the-art E-11s, capable of executing the most complex special missions (unlike that failed attempt in 1916).
This begs the question: why not outsource the ISR work to the Air Force? The best reasoning given is a difference in information requirements between the branches. The Air Force procures different types of intelligence than the Army, based more on aerial threats. The Army knows best what intelligence it needs to gather, so they handle its own aerial ISR, which makes sense.
The Army Fixed Wing Aircraft Fleet
The Army fixed wing fleet is robust. In fact, it’s a lot bigger than many Air Forces in the world. In fact, when broken down by military branches around the world, only one branch outpaces U.S. Army Aviation for number of military aircraft: the U.S. Air Force.
The Army fixed wing fleet is as diverse as it is robust, boasting craft such as:
- C-12 Huron
- UC-35 Citation
- C-26 Metroliner
- C-37 Gulfstream V
Undoubtedly, the C-12 Huron is the backbone of the Army fixed wing fleet. A multi-purpose Swiss Army Knife of airplanes, theC-12 starts life as a Beechcraft Super King Air (King Air 200, 300, 350).
From there, the derivatives are almost endless. However, the most common versions by far are the C-12A, C, D, U, and S. These are all standard passenger transport aircraft, although the D-model includes a larger cargo door for loading pallets. The passenger door is still there; it is framed inside the large cargo door.
Unlike the C-12 platform, the UC-35 is a commercial, off-the-shelf aircraft painted in Army livery and delivered straight to the field. It is a Citation V jet, which is commonly available and has a great logistics chain.
While not deployed in nearly the same scale or numbers as the C-12, the Fairchild C-26 Metroliner still sees action as a VIP general transport aircraft. The Air Force employs a reconnaissance version, theRC-26B, for drug interdiction work, but Metorliners are used primarily as passenger carriers. They are highly capable aircraft with a capacity of up to19 plus crew.
C-37 Gulfstream V
The Army has a small fleet of C-37s, totaling four. These are military derivatives of commercially available Gulfstream V jets, although they are outfitted with electronic countermeasures equipment for self-defense.
The Army C-37 fleet is entirely housed at Andrews Air Force Base and is only available for the highest levels of military leadership.
Parting Thoughts on Army Fixed Wing Aviation
This is not intended as a detailed synopsis of the entire fleet; many less-common airframes were left out. Instead, it is a primer on what the Army fixed wing fleet is made up of and how it came to be. The U.S. Army fixed wing fleet will remain an important part of Army aviation for years to come, but the fleet is aging. It needs a steady supply chain and a full inventory of parts to take the current fleet further into the 21st century. Government Procurement, operated by Greenwood Aerospace is up to the task and will provide the logistical support required for safe flying and high mission-capability rates.
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