Remembering close air support's humble beginnings

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott Elliott
  • Air Force Print News
Even the most complex of systems often begin with a simple idea.

Case in point: close air support.

While today's soldier can expect aerial support from fighter aircraft, specially designed gunships and helicopters -- even heavy bombers dropping laser guided munitions from several miles away -- the evolution of close air support can be traced back to a single guy with a rifle.

On Aug. 20, 1910, 2nd Lt. Jacob Fickel carried a .30-06 Springfield rifle aboard an aircraft piloted by Charles Willard. Taking careful aim from an altitude of 100 feet, Fickel scored two hits on a 3 foot by 5 foot target at the Sheepshead Bay Race Track, near New York City.

Fickel repeated his demonstration in Boston a month later, using an Army semiautomatic pistol. In further Army tests, Lt. Myron S. Crissy dropped a 36-pound bomb from an aircraft, hitting a 20-foot target at Tanforan Racetrack, in San Francisco, on Jan. 15, 1911, and, on June 7, 1912, Capt. C.D. Chandler test-fired a Lewis machine gun from a Wright aircraft over College Park, Md.

Internationally, military commanders also experimented with aircraft as a weapon. Those tests included dropping bombs on enemy troop concentrations during the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912, direct support of ground troops by the British during the World War I Battle of Arras and the German tactic of using multiship formations controlled by infantry commanders using wireless radios.

The British took the first major technological step in close air support in early 1918, by producing the first aircraft designed specifically for that purpose. The Sopwith Salamander featured 640 pounds of protective armor plating and two machine guns mounted at a slight downward angle to strafe enemy trenches.

The years between the World Wars were rife with advances in both aviation technology and military airpower doctrine. In America, Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell published his "Provisional Manual," which described the use of special attack squadrons to be committed to decisive infantry actions only. The practical result of Mitchell's manual was the formation of the 3rd Attack Group in 1921.

Although the 3rd AG was the only specialized ground-attack aircraft unit in the world, budget restrictions, the lack of practical experience and senior-leader disinterest caused the 3rd to flounder. Internationally though, several wars in the 1930s, including British colonial conflicts, the Italian conquest of Ethiopia and the Spanish civil war, demonstrated the role of aircraft in close air support.

Ground support had few advocates in America; the main focus was on pursuit (fighter) aircraft and bombers. World War II changed that -- quickly.

The German Luftwaffe's successful blitzkrieg tactics provided unquestionable proof of the aircraft's value in support of ground troops. The Allies answered with advances of their own in tactics, technology and armament. One of the most valuable improvements was in command and control.

By the early 1940s, radios had been aboard aircraft for about 30 years but their effectiveness in the control of close air support was limited. Besides using radios more effectively, Maj. Gen. Elwood Quesada, commander of the 9th Fighter Command, began employing experienced pilots as ground controllers.

Another World War II American innovation was the forward air controller. FACs flew small reconnaissance aircraft whose main weapon was the radio. These "Horsefly" aircraft were able to communicate directly with Allied fighter-bombers to strike mobile targets.

The use of FACs has continued through the years, and technology has advanced to the point that the Air Force is using unmanned aerial vehicles and space-based assets in its ground support missions.

During the war on terrorism, several Air Force special operations members were called upon to join forces with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance troops in the fight against the al-Qaida. Using laser-guidance and global positioning systems, these front-line airmen, at times riding horses, were able to direct air strikes with pinpoint precision.

Air Force engineers, scientists and tacticians are examining UAVs, the F-22 Raptor and several new types of munitions for possible use in the ever-developing close air support mission.

And to think it all started with a single guy and rifle.