18-Apr-2023 Source: US Army
Some two decades after the first U.S. Army helicopter units arrived in Vietnam, Army Aviation became a branch on April 12, 1983. As the Army celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Aviation Branch this year, with a theme of “The 40th Anniversary of the Aviation Branch: Honoring the Past and Transforming for the future,” the voices of former and current leaders and aviators help tell the story of this “new” combat arm.
Air mobility and “sky cavalry”
Although Army’s aviation’s roots can be traced back to observation balloons used during the Civil War, and to the early 1900s the Army acquired aircraft from the Wright Brothers, it was in the 1950s that Army rotary-wing assets began to show their worth in air mobility when the H-13 Sioux and H-23 Raven deployed to Korea.
During the Korean War, the H-13 “Angel of Mercy” transported some 18,000 war casualties to forward deployed Army hospitals. The H-19 Chickasaw became the first true cargo and troop transport helicopter. Helicopters “earned their wings” in Korea.
Efforts of leaders like Lt. Gen. “Jumping Jim” Gavin, who penned an article for Harper’s magazine in the mid-1950s, helped advance the concepts of air mobility and “sky cavalry”. The idea of carving out a separate aviation branch was also surfacing, as was the need for airborne firepower. And during that era a new tradition was born: the naming of new Army helicopters to honor the strength and spirit of Native American tribes.
The Vietnam conflict (“America’s Helicopter War”) saw prolific use of the UH-1 Iroquois (“Huey”). By the end of the Vietnam conflict, more than 5,000 Huey helicopters had been introduced into Southeast Asia. In 1967 the AH-1 Cobra partially replaced the Huey’s gunship capacity. Army aircraft included the CH-47 Chinook, the OH-6 Cayuse, the OH-58 Kiowa, and the CH-54 Tarhe.
Rotary-wing aviation proved its value during conflict in Southeast Asia, but leaders questioned whether helicopters could survive and be viable in heavy combat in Europe.
Up to that point, being an aviator was like having an additional qualification: Army officers from various branches learned to fly and served in flying units until they returned to their control branch for subsequent assignments, according to Billy Croslow, command historian at the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence.
“This arrangement did not allow for the retention of corporate experience and saw critical assets and human capital wasted across different lines of effort,” Croslow said.
Thanks to the efforts of leaders such as retired Maj. Gen. Carl McNair Jr., who served as commandant of the Aviation School from 1980-1983, the branch was founded and soon carved out its own identity, at a time when the Soviet threat loomed large.
Going forward, Army Aviation would have its work cut out for it in developing new doctrine, tactics, materiel, and structure.
Army Aviation’s inventory in the 1970s and 1980s took on new airframes and modified versions of others, in its fleet of UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, D-model of the CH-47 Chinook, and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior.
The Army realized its need to develop doctrine and invest in new equipment, known as the “Big Five” weapons systems of the 1980s, as it shifted its doctrine from Active Defense to Air Land Battle.
“Active Defense was, in the words of the man who designed it, a crappy way to just lose slowly, and they had to come up with something more aggressive,” Croslow said.
At the same time the Army released new doctrine and invested in new systems, it had a new branch–Army Aviation.
“We’ve got to look at the Aviation branch formation as part of this big trend in history. We needed new weapons and we needed a new way to manage the people that would be using those new weapons,” he said. “The aviation branch creation was definitely cemented in the idea the Army had to fundamentally change everything.”
The first two of the “Big Five” weapons systems used in combat came from Army Aviation–the Apache helicopter and the Black Hawk helicopter, in Panama in 1989.
With Operation Just Cause, the U.S. Army spearheaded an attack that overwhelmed the Panamanian Defense Forces of Gen. Manuel Noriega, who was wanted by the U.S. for drug trafficking and racketeering.
Jaime Ambler, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter civilian standardization instructor pilot and instrument examiner at 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation Regiment, had immigrated to the U.S. from Panama as a teenager and returned to his homeland of Panama in the late 1980s as a U.S. Army warrant officer aviator flying the Black Hawk.
Ambler had earned his wings as a Huey pilot, with a little help from his friends. The warrant officer flight training at Fort Rucker around the time the branch was being formed was as an era marked by a strong sense of camaraderie, which helped Amber compensate for a language barrier. Being bilingual would come in handy as an aviator.
“The esprit de corps, the teamwork that was there, I think that’s what really helped me get through flight school because we were looking out for one another,” Ambler said. “Today you don’t see that as much. It’s more like, digitizing has separated us from straight down being raw, helping each other out. We encouraged and supported one another,” he said.
Ambler completed his Black Hawk helicopter qualification just in time for deployment to his homeland of Panama in 1989. Within months of his arrival there, the U.S. and Panama were at war. As a chief warrant officer three, he served during Operation Just Cause.
“Before the invasion, they moved all the Americans from downtown back to base, and the families that were there they shipped them back to the States,” he said.
His leaders pulled Amber aside to talk with him, because he was being asked to fly a combat mission in the town where he grew up.
“I said, ‘Sir, I’m OK, I’m ready to go’,” Ambler said.
Ambler was eager to be part of an effort to restore a democratically elected government, and remove a dictator from power, because he grew up under that oppression.
“If you made five dollars at your job, the government would get a dollar. It was …’Are you going to argue about that? Then I’ll take two dollars, and you get three’. I lived under that regime,” he said.
Apache helicopters flew for approximately 250 hours mostly at night, and Black Hawks flew all over Panama during that invasion, Croslow explained.
“The rest of the Big Five didn’t even get a chance to be in that fight,” Croslow said.
As the Army attempted to remake itself with Air Land Battle doctrine, the Big 5 Weapons Systems, and creation of the Aviation branch, it was Army Aviation that was now starting to lead the way, in Panama and beyond.
Silencing the skeptics
It had made sense in the past for aviation assets to be separated by endites supported– Infantry had assault aircraft; Armor had air cavalry; Transportation had the Chinooks. Rotorcraft represented an extension of what could be done on the battlefield.
Leaders worried that if Aviation were a separate branch, it might cost the Army dearly by inevitably severing aviation’s connection to the ground Soldier.
Cautious Army senior leaders felt the Army needed general officers at the helm of this new branch who had a strong background in infantry.
Retired Maj. Gen. Rudolph “Rudy” Ostovich III, a former USAACE commander with a long list of assignments as an infantry officer on his resume, had served in Vietnam as both a fixed-wing pilot and a Huey driver. He served as the Aviation Center’s deputy commandant in 1985, shortly after the formation of the branch.
Ostovich was skeptical about Army Aviation becoming a branch, worried it might go the way of the U.S. Army Air Corps, which eventually dissolved. But the need for a branch was about more than machines–it was about growing professional people.
“We got to a point where the technology of the platforms we were flying were so advanced, if you were going to be a professional you couldn’t any longer just sort of check in and out every year or so, you had to be professionally developed,” he said.
The new branch quickly proved to be the right decision during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.
“I think that is probably case in point which defined the benefit of our branch and the skill of our aviation forces, and the capabilities of our flying machines,” Ostovich said.
The centerpiece of maneuver
A cross Ostovich bore as an Aviation general officer was the fact that aviation is not just a helicopter to support what an infantry officer is doing.
“It’s more than that. The aviation element of any maneuver force is a maneuver force of its own,” he said.
“I tried to sell the idea of our Apaches, which were A models in those days, that they were operating at a warp speed compared to tanks and infantry forces. And that differential speed made a difference on the battlefield. The schemes of maneuver could be designed to capture that speed and that range in a concept of operation that wouldn’t otherwise be available,” he said.
Not everyone agreed with him. Some believed helicopters would be vulnerable to ground attack and air defenses.
“And now it’s history,” he said. “Dick Cody for example was a young lieutenant colonel commanding an Apache battalion out of the 101st. His squadron fired the opening (shots) into Desert Storm with their attack of Iraqi air defense systems.”
Task Force Normandy paved the way for coalition attack aircraft to conduct a devastating campaign against Hussein’s military nerve center in Baghdad, according to Croslow.
For months before the ground forces maneuvered into Iraq in the early 1990s, Army aviation attack helicopters ranged Iraq and attacked their armor forces.
“Our ability to operate at night, our ability with range and depth, our ability to carry tank-killing munitions, etc., just proved itself within the early days of that war and all the way to the very end,” Ostovich said. “Extraordinary demonstration of this aspect of maneuver that an aviation force could bring to the battlefield. I’m very proud of what our guys did over there. It vindicated what I was trying to sell (doctrinally).”
The Aviation branch proved itself to be “everything and more than anyone expected,” and quickly became the centerpiece for the maneuver force, Ostovich said.
“We’ve seen that for the past twenty years of counterinsurgency operations. I predict that it is going to be the same in large scale combat operations,” he said.
Transforming and restructure have been recurring themes across Aviation’s history, and that was true as a new century dawned.
In the early 2000s, the Army studied a new full-spectrum combat aviation brigade design. The goal was to standardize the makeup of CABs through a modular design that delivered maximum aviation capability in the most timely and flexible manner.
The Full-Spectrum CAB design, which included attack, reconnaissance, lift and unmanned systems, provided the maximum aviation capabilities in the most timely and flexible manner.
In 2003, the branch brought into the fold the Army’s Shadow and Gray Eagle Unmanned Aircraft Systems, the “eyes of the Army,” whose operators, maintainers and technicians train at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
Organic UAS in the full-spectrum design supported the achievement of information dominance by providing the capability to quickly collect, process and disseminate relevant information to reduce the sensor-to-shooter timeline.
The Army published its “UAS Roadmap” in 2010 , the Army’s first synchronized effort to form a comprehensive UAS strategy for the next quarter-century by focusing on unmanned aircraft, emerging technologies, system interoperability, commonality, and most importantly continued support to the warfighter.
The Army’s experiments with arming the Gray Eagle Unmanned Aircraft System proved successful.
“It worked so well that by the end of 2010 they had deployed four Gray Eagles with hellfire missiles on them,” Croslow said. “This was a transitional moment. It was a turning point.”
Unlike small UAS, “that’s a big aircraft carrying a hellfire missile that has to be managed very carefully in terms of airspace, deconflicting altitudes, that sort of thing. That’s the turning point where the Army began to arm UAVs. That’s a critical part of our branch and also an unsung part,” Croslow said.
With the CAB redesign, aviators and UAS operators became better synched to support the ground commander’s mission and save lives.
Enduring meets Future
In 2004, at the same time the branch supported the warfight in Iraq an Afghanistan, it was developing a new combat aviation brigade design.
The balancing act of working organizational design change with one hand and maintaining the combat power to respond to contingencies with the other, is something Army Aviation would have to do again.
In 2014, facing a perfect storm that included reduced end strength, fiscal constraints that pre-dated sequestration, and equipment obsolescence issues, the branch set out to rebalance the force structure into a smaller, more capable and sustainable aviation force.
This time, it was the largest restructure that Army aviation had ever done in its history.
Replete with hard decisions, the Aviation Restructure Initiative looked to avoid an indiscriminate ‘salami slice’ cut that would have taken away five aviation brigades. Instead leaders vied for the branch to have the ability to make its own choices in having to reduce cost and address fleet obsolescence and sustainment issues.
With the divestment of the Kiowa, the Army still maintained a requirement for an armed aerial scout helicopter, which would have to be filled in the interim by Apache helicopters teamed with UAS.
The UH-72A Lakota, already in the Army’s inventory, would replace the single-engine TH-67 and OH-58A/C as the aircraft for initial training.
Modernization plans for the AH-64E, UH-60M, CH-47F and fielding of Gray Eagle were kept, but fielding time frames were adjusted.
The branch took a hard look at closing capability gaps through disciplined investment of savings gained from divesting legacy aircraft and reduced structure.
Key capability gaps included increased speed, range and payload; the ability to fly and fight in all environments, weather and visibility conditions; and agile survivability solutions to stay ahead of emerging threats; expeditionary, survivable UAS that are runway independent; fully networked air-ground connectivity.
The bottom line with restructuring was to get the best possible equipment in the hands of Aviation Soldiers as quickly as possible and ensure a modernized force that’s organized to meet the combatant commander’s demand.
With the branch serving in combat, developing future aircraft, and at the same time making upgrades to the enduring fleet, leaders were concerned the Army needed to move quickly to meet the future fight.
“We cannot wait twenty-five years for Future Vertical Lift. We must close those key gaps now,” said retired Lt. Gen. Michael D. Lundy, when he commanded USAACE in 2015.
More than flying machines
After the events of September 11, 2001, the Nation would see two decades of protracted conflict in the Middle East with the Global War on Terror, and Army aviation was in high demand.
“At the start of Iraqi Freedom, Army Aviators executed Deep Attack missions that facilitated the mechanized thunder run to Baghdad. A few years into operations in Afghanistan, Special Operations Aviators inserted the team that brought justice to Osama bin Laden,” Croslow said.
“Aviators flew missions across the spectrum of combat operations during the Global War on Terror, leveraging their sensors to locate targets and extracting wounded comrades that fell on the field,” Croslow said.
Among those nonrated aircrew members with 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment was Command Sgt. Maj. James D. Wilson, who serves as the Aviation branch command sergeant major.
Wilson’s 23 combat deployments with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment included initial operations into Afghanistan in 2001, and initial operations into Iraq in 2003. Multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan spanned 15 years, and multiple contingency operations, all with the 160th.
In looking back across years of deployments, it all boils down to the vital importance of Army training, for Wilson.
“Why do we train so hard? During combat operations when things go bad, we react in the way that we are trained. That’s what I learned and on multiple occasions, I don’t even remember what I did or what I said, I just did what I was trained to do. That’s why we train so hard,” he said.
What also stands out to him are the incredible aircraft he knows by hand as a nonrated aircrew member.
The materiel bookends of Wilson’s combat experience eventually found a home at USAACE, as did Wilson. A UH-60 aircraft that has provided hands-on Aviation maintainer training for years at AIT at Joint Base Langley Eustis, Va., and a UH-60 on display in the U.S. Army Aviation Museum are “much more than just airframes” to him.
He recently paused for a photo with trainees in front a UH-60 at JBLE that he served as a nonrated aircrew member on for his first combat mission, and even all these years later the emotion and the memory still got to him.
“They bring us home,” Wilson said. “Even on the worst nights, or when they’re damaged or things are not going right with them, they still got me home every time.”
“They become more than just a machine, they become part of you, almost like a family member. When you see one going to a museum, it’s great, but when you see one going to an end you don’t understand, it’s very difficult for us to watch,” he said.
Parts he installed are likely still on the aircraft at JBLE and the Museum, but the aircraft are much more than an assembly of parts.
“They become almost like a person to you,” Wilson said. “They all have different personalities, little quirks that are unique to them. Pilots and crew chiefs and maintainers alike have aircraft that they will never forget,” said Wilson.
One of the important initiatives for maintainers that Wilson has seen gain momentum during his tenure at USAACE is the Aviation Maintenance Training Program.
The AMTP tracks an army aviation maintainer from the time they graduate from AIT all the way through until they become a first sergeant in the branch, he explained.
“It tracks tasks that we do on the helicopter, and we’re certified in those tasks. We never had that before. It gives the commander an idea of what the makeup of his maintainer force is,” Wilson said.
Wilson said Aviation has carved out a distinct identity in the last 40 years.
“Having an aviation branch has allowed army aviation to build its own identity as a professional aviation force. After we separated the air force and the army aviation assets, the army struggled to find that,” Wilson said.
“What it did is also allowed the branch chief – a two-star general, myself – a nominative command sergeant major, and Mr. Lewis – a command chief warrant officer, to not just do USAACE training, but to go out every day and fight for all aviation Soldiers, in decisions that are made,” he said.
“It allows us to transform, allows us to take care of people, in line with the priorities of people, readiness and taking care of Soldiers and families,” Wilson said.
It also gave him a better understanding of what the Army National Guard and Army Reserve contribute as part of the total force.
“It takes all of us to achieve what the American people expect of us,” he said.
In 30 years of service, change has been a common theme, Wilson said.
“The Army is always changing, and sometimes that is frustrating. Leaders have to be adaptable, and they have to be vocal about influencing that change in the right direction,” he said.
“I’ve seen many changes. I’ve seen us go in complete circles and get back to exactly where we were at, but that’s because we are always trying to adapt. We have to be a learning institution and continue to change with it, or we will become irrelevant,” he said.
To be successful in an ever-changing environment, it falls on leaders to ensure Aviation Soldiers understand the ‘why’.
“The environment drives the equipment, the technology, which drives the training requirements, which drives changes to doctrine. In all of that we have to be flexible, and because we’re in a fiscally constrained environment we have to lot of times move stuff around. That is what is frustrating to Soldiers: We no longer have the resources to do this, so we need to do that. The only way to win is to continue to invest in the education and the professionalization of our force so they understand the ‘why’. That’s very important,” Wilson said.
As the branch celebrates its history, and transforms for the future, leaders continue to emphasize the commitment Army Aviation has to the Soldier on the ground.
“We see, smell and feel the battlefield as a foot Soldier,” said Maj. Gen. Michael C. McCurry, USAACE and Fort Novosel commander.
“When that Soldier needs to know what’s just over the hill, we go find out. When that Soldier needs to be placed in a better tactical position, we put them there. If they’re running low on ammunition, we deliver. If that Soldier needs an extra little bit of fire power, we bring it to bear on the enemy. And God forbid, if that Soldier is wounded on the field of battle, we’re coming to get them,” McCurry said.
For aviation professionals, that commitment to the ground force is considered sacred.
“We will always remember that we exist for one reason and one reason only, and that is for the warfighter on the ground. We call it a sacred trust. The minute that ever changed, if we ever became so separated from the rest of the Army that we forget why we exist, we don’t need to exist. We need to always remember why we are here, and that’s to help the warfighter on the ground achieve the objectives and win wars,” Wilson said.
“We may be aviation,” Wilson said, “but we are Soldiers first.”
Once again, transformation is front and center as the force prepares for Large Scale Combat Operations of the future and develops new doctrine and embraces new technology and platforms, including Future Vertical Lift, as it continues to increase the lethality and survivability of the whole combined arms team.
Army aviation’s current focus areas include placing people first through tough, realistic LSCO-focused training; growing ready Soldiers who are highly trained, disciplined and fit; mastering the fundamentals of aviation maneuver and fires, and fostering an aviation warfighter culture.
In the decades since the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, Army Aviation as a branch has been tested and proven, leading the way in combat, providing those critical capabilities for Soldiers on the ground in harm’s way.
Through a blend of technological, tactical and doctrinal solutions, and by producing the finest military aviation professionals in the world, the branch has proven its responsiveness to the needs of the ground commander and its enduring commitment to the Soldier in the ground fight.