Senior Memoirs August Reading
WHAT GOES WITHOUT SAYING circa 1965
Air Force Manual 2-4 stated that Tactical Airlift was to deliver and recover forces in a combat zone at any level of conflict, in any terrain, any climate, any combat condition, and as far forward as necessary. That meant that Tactical Airlifters were to airlift personnel, supplies and equipment on a sustained basis … by any means feasible. It further stated that this must be accomplished in sufficient size and mass, and be performed with precision timing. That’s quite a job description!
During World War II airlift operations usually ended in disappointment or disaster. For example, during the Sicily invasion a night air drop operation due to fear of enemy fighters, became an airborne trooper’s nightmare. D-Day, another night drop, resulted in paratroops being scattered throughout Normandy.
Formations of troop carrier airplanes, flying V’s in trail, were utilized throughout the war. A “V’s in trail” formation consisted of a lead airplane with an aircraft perched off each wing, followed by a similar threesome, positioned slightly higher and following a short distance behind. These formations flew straight and level at a constant airspeed. This tactic was supposed to put paratroopers and material on a drop zone quickly and efficiently. It usually did neither in actual combat, as military historians are quick to relate. Unfortunately, the Air Force continued this practice for almost 20 years after the war ended in 1945.
The Vietnam War finally proved that “V’s in trail” formations were easy targets for ground fire. A new delivery method had to be developed. Tactical aircraft needed to fly closer to the ground and new formation tactics were required. The resulting airlift operation was called “Offset in Trail”. This required formation aircraft to fly at 300 feet above the ground or lower and follow at 7 second intervals. In this formation the second plane moves close in behind and from the right of the lead, the third aircraft closes in behind number two from the left, and so on back to form a line of “offset” aircraft. This formation is usually comprised of no more than eight planes. Each plane would move in until they felt the wake turbulence of the plane in front of them … and then eased it out a few feet to get into the smoother air. It was tricky flying. There was a concern that that the rough ride would prove detrimental to the paratroopers riding in the back. After all, the goal was to get them to the drop zone in fighting condition. Some troopers had problems with airsickness even under normal flight conditions.
Stateside practice was mandated to perfect these techniques. At the 911th Troop Carrier Group in Pittsburgh we had C-119 Flying Boxcars. We started slowly. With single ships flying low level throughout western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio under the watchful eye of Pittsburgh Tower radar, we played “can you see me now” as we flew close to the ground, down valleys and along the rolling countryside. At times I could read the street signs as we jinked along at 150 to 200 knots. Soon we progressed to three ship low level practice.
Then came the day when we put together our first full “Offset in Trail” mission. The formation was to fly our standard airdrop route in eastern Ohio that would culminate in an actual air drop in an abandoned strip mine just inside the Pennsylvania line.
It was a beautiful afternoon, blue skies and clear smooth air. We started down the route, hugging the ground and maintaining close “in trail” position. I was assigned to the last ship … number 7, to observe the spacing and evaluate the overall effectiveness of the operation. Our boss, Colonel Dye, was in the lead ship.
I watched intently as the formation thundered noisily along the countryside. About half way through the route the lead aircraft passed over a large dairy farm … the colonel was flying very close to the ground and he startled the cows! As the second aircraft passed noisily over them the panic in the herd heightened. Each subsequent marauder enhanced their terror. By the time I flew over them, almost close enough to grab a tail, they were in full stampede heading for the open doors of a large red barn. I watched intently as the herd of thirty or more cows raced into the barn … and then I could see them no more!
I have often wondered what happened after the distraught cows streaked into that barn … perhaps we should let that go without saying. The base telephone never rang with a complaint … we certainly did not ask any questions and continued to develop our skills at this lifesaving formation technique.
Tactical airlift procedures have altered over the years. However, variations of the “Offset in Trail” technique are still in use by the Air Force today. The objections of the National Dairy Association not withstanding!
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