While military airlift had its beginnings in the troop carrier squadrons in New Guinea, the modern airlift apparatus is a direct result of the development of the Air Transport Command during World War II. Essentially an airline in military uniform, the Air Transport Command started the war on a very small scale and finished as a gigantic organization larger than the entire United States commercial airline establishment.
Though there was an air transportation organization in existence within the US Army Air Corps Material Division before the war, the ATC was an outgrowth of the Ferrying Command, which was established to deliver US-built aircraft destined for Britain under Lend-lease from the factories on the West Coast to embarkation points on the East Coast where they were either picked up by British pilots or loaded onboard ships for the trip across the Atlantic. Prior to Pearl Harbor Ferrying Command depended upon the Air Force Combat Command for its pilots, who gained valuable experience as they flew a variety of airplanes across the country, and in some cases across the Atlantic as well. While aircraft delivery was their primary mission, Ferrying Command established passenger routes across the Atlantic in mid-1941, using converted B-24 Liberator bombers for the trips.
In the summer of 1941 Pan American Airways contracted with the US and British governments to deliver US-built airplanes to Khartoum in Sudan, using Miami as a point of embarkation. Soon after Pearl Harbor the route was extended by contract from Khartoum on to Cairo and Teheran. Eastern Airlines supplemented Pan Am out of Miami beginning in May, 1942. In February, 1942 Northwest Airlines began service to Alaska and was soon joined by Western and United Airlines on the route. Other airline contracts were let for transport services within the United States. Some of the contracts were let through Ferrying Command while others were with other military organizations. The profusion of contracts by so many different groups led the Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, L.W. Pogue, to propose that all airline operations be conducted under a single command reporting directly to the President of the United States and independent of both the Army and the Navy. Pogue's recommendation was not followed completely, but on June 20, 1942 General Henry H. Arnold, chief of staff of the Army Air Forces, established the Air Transport Command and made it responsible for all ferrying and transportation tasks except those necessary for combat operations. Those tasks were assigned to the Troop Carrier organizations.
The new ATC was established as a military airline, and in fact drew very heavily upon the airlines for personnel, both aircrews and administrative. Though the ATC commander was BGen. Harold L. George, a veteran military officer who was known as an expert in bombardment, his executive officer was Col. Cyrus R. Smith, who in civilian life was president of American Airlines. As ATC chief of staff, Smith was largely responsible for the development of the new military airline. The Air Transportation Division was commanded by Col. Robert J. Smith, who had come into uniform from his position as vice-president of Braniff Airlines. Dozens of other airline personnel served in executive positions throughout the new Air Transport Command.
With the country now at war, ATC soon found itself deprived of the services of the combat pilots who had been ferrying airplanes for its predecessor. Prior to the establishment of ATC, the Army Air Corps had begun calling up airline reservists for duty with the Ferrying Command. The first group of reservists began training at Morrison Field, Florida and were soon on their way to India to form the nucleus of the 1st Ferrying Group, the organization who would inagurate the airlift of supplies into China. In mid-1941 the Ferrying Command had been authorized to employ civilian pilots but the program was not implemented until early 1942. Non-airline civilian pilots were employed on a temporary basis in a 90-day trial period. If, at the end of the trial, a pilot was found competent for transport flying, he was offered a commission as a service pilot, a rating with qualifications that were somewhat lower than that of combat pilots. By the end of 1942 1,372 service pilots had been commissioned out of 1,730 who had been recruited for the program. By this time the number of available civilian pilots had dwindled, while more military trained pilots were available. In 1944, as pilot training programs were cut, a large number of civilian instructors were commissioned for duty with ATC. The Women's Air Service Pilots were also a part of the Air Transport Command ferrying division, until the WASPS were disbanded in 1944. A nucleus of experienced military pilots and aircrew personnel who had served with Ferrying Command on a temporary basis were made permanent members of ATC. General George also instituted the Civilian Pilot Training program, in anticipation of using it to provide a supply of men who could serve as copilots on transport crews. But the CPT proved less productive than anticipated, and only a few hundred graduates of the program took their places in ATC airplanes.
Not only were civilian pilots recruited, the airline industry was heavily involved in military operations under contract with ATC. While some airline pilots were called to active duty, their essential status made them exempt from the draft. Almost 90% of ATC's flying in 1942 was military contract flying by the airlines. As the war continued the ratio of airline contract flying to that performed by military crews dropped, until by the end of the war as much as 81% of ATC flying was by military crews.
Finding crews was one problem, finding suitable airplanes was another. In 1941 there were NO military transports in existence, so the military was forced to purchase airplanes that had been designed for the commercial airlines and adapt them for military use. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the War Department had already made a heavy committment to purchase Douglas Aircraft's DC-3 and DC-4, but both airplanes had been designed for passenger transportation and neither possesed true military capabilities, though both performed admirably during the war. The C-47 version of the DC-3 would do yeoman's service during the war, especially with Troop Carrier, but it was considered to be too slow and lacking in payload for overwater transportation. Led by C.R. Smith, who was now a brigadier general, ATC decided to pen its hopes on the Curtiss C-46, which was also an airline design. More than 450 C-46s had been ordered by the Army before the war, but only two were in existence by Pearl Harbor. Testing on domestic routes by the airlines indicated that the C-46 had excellent performance. But when the airplane entered service with ATC, a number of defects emerged - particularly a tendency for the airplane to explode while in flight! But hundreds of C-46s were put to use by ATC.
For 4-engine transports, the C-54 was on order but not yet available. Prior to the war Ferrying Command operated a few modified B-24s, and after Pearl Harbor some LB-30 Liberators were repossessed from Britain and converted for transport use. While two went to Australia where they served with Troop Carrier forces, five were put to work on a route between California and Australia. A special transport version of the Liberator came into being as several B-24Ds were converted to become C-87 transports. The C-87s and C-46s were responsbile for a good portion of the ATC misison until the advent of the C-54.
As the war progressed, the Air Transport Command developed a route structure from the United States to every theater of the war. Routes went from the East Coast to England by way of Canada, from the West Coast to Australia by way of Hawaii and the South Pacific Islands, from Miami and other East Coast bases to North Africa, across Canada to Alaska and into the Aleutians and south into Central and South America. The longest of the ATC routes, and the longest in the Allied supply line, was the route to China and the CBI theater of war. The route to China went south out of Miami to Natal, Brazil, then across the Atlantic to Africa and on across the Middle East to finally arrive in India, which was the rear area for the CBI.
ATC transports were used primarily to carry "high value" items of cargo such as aircraft parts and other material that was too crucial to spend long periods in the cargo holds of ships traversing the U-boat infested waters of the Atlantic and other oceans. Ferrying of combat aircraft was perhaps the most important ATC mission of the war. Returning ATC transports moved USAAF combat crews who were rotating home while some airplanes were configured as air ambulances for the transport of patients from the war zones. Air rescue and weather reconnaissance became part of the ATC mission as more and more airplanes began plying the skies along the command's far-flung routes.
The most famous ATC mission of the war, and the only one that came close to a combat mission, was the airlift effort over the Himalayan Hump from India into China. Resupplying China by air became a major priority at the very beginning of the war. In February, 1942 President Roosevelt instructed General Arnold to commandeer 25 DC-3s from the airlines and to use them as the nucleus for an air supply line into China from India. A group of airline reservists began training in Florida in March and were soon on their way to India to become the 1st Ferrying Group. They were preceeded by a group of ten Pan Am DC-3s that were sent to India to carry fuel into China from India to refuel the Doolittle Raiders. Colonel Caleb Haynes was placed in command of the Assam-Burma-China Ferry Command, which at the time consisted of four US Army C-47s and the Pan Am DC-3s.The Pan Am and Army transports were put to work supporting the Allied effort to hold Burma, as well as to airlift supplies into China proper. A route was drawn up from India into Myitkyina, an airfield in Burma, from which supplies could be barged and trucked into China, with plans for the air route to be extended to Chungking when the airplanes were available. But Burma fell to the Japanese in early May, 1942 and China was cutoff from the rest of the world except by air.
With Burma in Japanese hands, the only route into China was north out of India's Assam Valley across the eastern reaches of the Himalaya, then east into China. While the route kept the transports relatively free from enemy attack, it led over terrain that was higher than any in the United States in a region that was characterized by violent storms, with snow and ice in the higher altitudes at which the transports had to fly to cross the mountains. Flying the Himalayan Hump would turn out to be some of the most dangerous flying in the world. But in mid-1942 there was another problem that severely hampered the planned airlift to China - the Japanese now held Burma and were advancing into parts of India. The few transports that were in the CBI at the time were not sufficient to support the combat operations in the theater and at the same time maintain a constant flow of supplies into China. To alleviate the situation, the Tenth Air Force contracted with China National Airways Corporation, a Chinese airline owned in part by Pan American, to transport supplies to China, thus freeing the military transports for combat operations in support of British, Indian and Chinese troops who were still on the ground in the Naga Hills in northern Burma and those who were combating the advancing Japanese in the eastern reaches of India. When possible, the 1st Ferrying Group transports and those of the Tenth Air Force Troop Carrier units in the region airlifted supplies into China, but the bulk of the mission at first fell to the CNAC.
What happened next depends upon one's point of view. By rights, the airlift of supplies from India into China was a theater mission and should have been controlled by the theater commander, which in this case was US Army Lt. General Joe Stillwell. But China maintained a major political lobby in the United States, while American manufacturers who had contracts with the Chinese government were eager to get their supplies into China. Frank D. Sinclair, who held the position of Aviation Technical Advisor with China Defense Supplies, Inc, went to the CBI on behalf of his employer and made "a study" of the operation. Sinclair's report, in which he accused the Tenth Air Force leadership of a "defeatist attitude," was passed to C.R. Smith. Sinclair believed that with "125 transports" assigned to the Hump project alone, it would be possible to airlift 10,000 tons a month to China. Sinclair believed that there should be "singleness of purpose" in regard to getting supplies to China, a view he shared with Smith. Smith recommended to General Arnold that ATC be given responsbility for the airlift of supplies into China, and that all control should be under ATC Headquarters in Washington, DC. Neither Sinclair nor Smith took into consideration the fact that the whole military situation in the CBI at the time was in doubt, and that the assignment of 125 airplanes to the theater solely to support a non-combat operation would be folly. Yet Washington directed Stillwell that as of December 1, 1942 responsibility for the airlift to China would transfer from Tenth Air Force to ATC.
When ATC took over the airlift, the combined Tenth Air Force and CNAC transport force was starting to make headway toward reaching the tonnage goals that were being set for the China airlift in faraway Washington. After the transfer to ATC, tonnage levels actually DECLINED, and it would be nearly a year before the airlift would even come close to reaching the goals that had been set for the first months of ATC operation. The problem was not lack of airplanes and/or crews, but ran much deeper. CNAC airplanes operating over the same routes as the ATC transports were proving far more efficient than the military transports. CNAC transports were lifting on an average MORE THAN TWICE as much tonnage per airplane than the ATC crews were, even though ATC was flying airplanes that afforded twice the tonnage of the CNAC DC-3s in many instances as well as C-47s of comparable capability. At the same time, Troop Carrier squadrons in the theater were proving more efficient in their first months of operation than the ATC crews were, even though they were newly arrived in the theater.
The ATC pilots and aircrews were not rookies. In fact, as a group they were very experienced former airline pilots with a great deal of flying time. But they approached things from a civilian outlook, and they were not happy about the conditions under which they were living in India. In the summer of 1942 USAAF chief of staff Maj. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer visited the CBI along with Eddie Rickenbacker, who was himself an airline executive but who was not affiliated with ATC. They reported problems in the ATC effort, and recommended that the Hump Airlift be transferred back to Tenth Air Force. ATC commander Maj. Gen. Harold George attempted to place the blame on "past practices" that had been inherited from the 1st Ferrying Group. Rickenbacker believed the relative inexperience of many of the newly assigned ATC pilots, most of whom were service pilots, in the operations found in the region was part of the problem while the limited number of airfields, a lack of adequate weather forecasting facilities, a shortage of maintenance personnel and a lack of radio aids were others. Rickenbacker's recommendation that the airlift be removed from ATC was not accepted in Washington and the airlift remained an ATC responsibility.
In early January, 1943 shortly after ATC took over the airlift, the ATC India/China Wing commander, Col. Edward H. Alexander, complained that the C-47s and DC-3s with which his command was equipped were "not suitable" for operations on the Hump route. In early March the first C-46s left for India to replace an equal number of C-47s. Fifty C-87 four-engine transports were also promised. But deliveries were slow, and when the C-46s reached India they proved to be suffering from a number of problems that made them deficient for airlift operations without major modifications. ATC initiated the Hump Airlift with eleven C-87s and 76 C-47s. The monthly goal was 4,000 pounds, but it was not until late in the year that it was reached. Sinclair had said in his report that 10,000 tons a month were possible with 125 airplanes assigned. But it was a year before the ATC apparatus reached that goal.
Though the ATC transports were in a non-combat status, some were occasionally diverted from China airlift duties to support of the Tenth Air Force Troop Carrier Command. This happened in early 1944 when Japanese advances into India threatened the surface supply lines into the Assam Valley, and when the airlift bases themselves were even threatened. A Japanese offensive in China overran many of the Fourteenth Air Force bases later in the year, but by that time the Allies were beginning to make headway in Burma, and the war was turning against Japan. ATC historians use these diversions as one explanation for why the Hump Airlift did not live up to expectations.
In the spring of 1944 the Allies invaded Burma from the air. A massive Troop Carrier Command operation airlifted glidertroops into Burma, then kept them supplied by airdrop and airlandings on two hastily prepared jungle landing strips. BGen. Frank Merrill's "Marauders" advanced across northern Burma and captured the airfield at Myitkyina, though the Japanese in the nearby town held out until August. The capture of Myitkyina had a profound effect on the Hump Airlift; it afforded the return to the more southerly route into China as well as an enroute supply base and refueling stop. Previously, the otherwise capable C-54s were unsuitable for Hump duties because of altitude limitations. Now they could be used on the southern routes while the C-87s and C-46s continued operating across the Hump.
The spring of 1944 also brought an expansion of the ATC Hump force as the Twentieth Air Force arrived in India with the first B-29s, with the intention of staging missions against Japan from advanced bases inside China. Twentieth Air Force brought with them 20 C-87 transports, which were assigned to ATC and dedicated for B-29 support. ATC also received a new group of C-46s specifically for B-29 support. At the same time the B-29 "MATTERHORN" force included a number of converted B-24s fitted with internal fuel tanks and designated as C-109s. The assignment of the B-29s to the CBI led to a dramatic increase in tonnage across the Hump as ATC now had priority and was finally able to get the airplanes and support it needed. When the B-29s moved out of China to the Mariannas in late 1944 their airlift support remained in India and transferred to ATC. Then, in the spring of 1945, as ground combat operations in the theater wound down, two B-24 groups (7th and 308th), the 443rd Troop Carrier Group, the 3rd and 4th Combat Cargo groups and two squadrons from the 1st CCG all transferred to ATC control. While the formerly tactical crews were very unhappy to be finishing out the war under ATC, they made a major contribution to the total Hump tonnage, and were to a large extent responsible for the record amounts of cargo carried by ATC during the final weeks of the war.
While the Hump Airlift was not particularly dangerous in terms of combat operations - though a few ATC transports were intercepted by Japanese fighters and shot down - the terrible weather over the Himalaya region ,coupled with the high altitudes of the airfields in the Assam Valley and at some of the destination fields in China, led to a very high accident rate. This was especially true in the C-87s and C-109s, due to the much higher takeoff and landing weights the crews operated at. Liberator-type transports suffered an accident rate that was 500% higher than that of C-54s and other ATC transports in the ATC system. So many airplanes were lost on the Hump - the CAF Hump site says more than 600 - that the northern route into China was known as "The Aluminum Trail."
While the Hump effort is the most famous and was undoubtedly the most difficult of the ATC missions, other routes required great skill and effort on the part of the crews who were assigned. The Alaska route went north out of Great Falls, Montana across Alberta, the Yukon and Alaska to Anchorage, over terrain that was not exactly the most hospitable in the world. Initially, the Alaska route was seen as a means of resupplying American installations in Alaska and the Aleutians, but the major mission turned out to be ferrying airplanes from the United States for delivery to the Soviet Air Force at Ladd Field outside Fairbanks. More than 8,000 airplanes were delivered over the route. Most were Bell Airacobras and Kingcobras, along with A-20s, B-25s and C-47s. ATC personnel were based at Edmonton as well as other Canadian bases. A major mission for ATC pilots at the enroute bases was search and rescue for Ferrying Command pilots and crews who were forced down in the remote wilderness. Much of the transport along the route was an airline responsibility, with Northwest Airlines and Western Airlines operating the routes under contract. The ATC Alaska Wing was equipped with a number of single-engine C-64 "Norseman" light transports, which were equipped alternatively with pontoons, skis and wheels, depending the season. The C-64s were used to resupply stations along the Canadian pipeline as well as for search and rescue work.
Air Transport Command began the war as an organization with heavy civilian influence. A large number of the staff officers were airline personnel who had been commissioned as Army officers. Much of the command's strength came in the form of airline flight crews who were in military reserve status, while other pilots were civilians pilot who were commissioned on the basis of their civilian flight experience. As the war continued, the ranks of ATC were swelled with the assignment of former combat personnel who had completed their overseas tours in B-17s and B-24s, who came back to ATC assignments. By 1944 it became apparent that the large numbers of pilots and aircrew who had been thought necessary to win the war were overestimated, so many of the civilian instructor personnel at training bases were released for active duty as ATC pilots. At the same time, more and more military trained pilots were assigned to ATC as the war continued to turn in the Allies favor and there was less need for them in combat units.
When the war ended, Air Transport Command was the largest airline in the world, with routes that led literally all over it. But ATC had not developed a true military mission, and post-war plans left its future in doubt. Some military officers who had served in ATC felt the command should be converted into a national airline, while civilian airline personnel who went back to the airlines felt that the military's transport needs could be best served by contract with their employers. When the USAF was created as a separate service in 1947, a Military Air Transport Service was established to support the new Department of Defense, with responsbility for its support falling to the Department of the Air Force. MATS continued to function as a military airline until it was finally replaced by the Military Airlift Command in 1965. By that time military transport had advanced to the point that the C-141 "Starlifter" offered true military capabilities. After the Gulf War, MAC became Air Mobility Command, and now operates C-141s, C-5s and C-17s, along with the C-130 mission which evolved through the Troop Carrier Command. AMC also is responsible for issuing military contracts to the nation's airlines.
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