Vanished Arts

Oct. 1, 2007

As recently as World War II, the Army Air Forces had a military occupational specialty (548) for fabric and dope mechanic, and another (044) for canvas cover repairman.

While most of the aircraft of that era were made of aluminum, some trainers, gliders, and liaison aircraft still were cloth covered and “doped” with lacquer. Others had at least fabric-covered control surfaces. Some also retained wooden frames or plywood skins, so there was still an airplane woodworker specialty (550).

Today, the Air Force no longer even has reciprocating engine mechanics, but whole new families of specialties have grown up since World War II in fields scarcely envisioned in the era of fabric and dope mechanics—such as experts in unmanned aerial vehicles.

There is now an Air Force specialty code for navigators to fly Predator UAVs, noted Barry Craigen, chief of military classification at the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph AFB, Tex. “They don’t have to be an Air Force pilot. They just have to have an FAA certification of pilot.”

Predator navigator is a far cry from the first specialties unique to aviation. Looking back on the specialties that have come and gone in the Air Force provides an insightful look at how much has changed over the years.

The first airmen had basic skills—pilot and aircraft mechanic. The first pilots were trained by the Wright brothers until the Signal Corps’ Aeronautical Division set up schools to train its own.

Mechanics were another matter. Before the Army bought its first airplane, it had lighter than air vehicles and ground transports that required mechanics. Heavier than air flying machines were a totally new concept that demanded special skills.

By 1914, the Signal Corps had formalized the assignment of mechanics and had begun dividing them into specialties.

The NCO in charge was responsible for overall maintenance and, under him, other enlisted men had specific jobs. The No. 1 man was the “Oiler” who was in charge of the engine compartment. The No. 2 man was the “Wiper” who filled oil and fuel tanks and was in charge of lubrication. No. 3 was the “Cleaner” whose job was to take care of all controls except for the throttle. Nos. 4 and 5 were assistant cleaners, one of whom concentrated on all surfaces while the other tended to the fuselage, landing gear, and cockpit. A sixth man was a “Supernumerary” who filled in for the others and kept track of supplies and spare parts.

America’s entry into World War I created a need to train mechanics by the thousands.

The US government agreed that newly recruited air mechanics would be assigned to British flying schools before moving on to France.

Among the first jobs for the Americans were creating make-shift hangars and assembling new airplanes, which arrived in crates from the factories. The war ended shortly thereafter.

The Enlisted Pilots

By World War II, the number of specialties had increased sharply. Now there were power plant, super charger instrument, and automatic pilot specialists. There were fire control, sheet metal, and propeller workers.

When Congress created a new grade of aviation cadet to fill wartime needs in the 1940s, the Army launched a massive flight-training program. In time, the cadet program would expand to train nonrated officers in such fields as communications, armament, weather, and radar.

Congress soon invented a new rank, that of flight officer. It was the equivalent of a junior grade warrant officer but with flight pay. In theory, the rank was to be given to aviation cadet graduates who did not qualify as second lieutenants but, in practice, it was hard to tell why one cadet was commissioned and another made a flight officer.

The rank of flight officer did not last that long, and ended with World War II, but the cadet designation endured through the Korean War and into the 1960s, said Craigen. It was known by reporting identifier 99011, which was not deleted until March 1969. The Air Force then went back to requiring rated officers to have college degrees.

Enlisted pilots had a long history. In 1912, 1st Lt. Frank P. Lahm set up a flying school in the Philippines and, unable to attract enough officers, trained Cpl. Vernon L. Burge, one of the enlisted men who had been with Benjamin D. Foulois at Ft. Sam Houston, Tex. Thereafter, a number of enlisted men were trained as pilots. (Burge later became an officer and retired as a colonel.)

Only a handful of enlisted men trained as pilots through the First World War. In June 1941, Congress again authorized an enlisted pilot training program. Men between ages 18 and 25 who had graduated in the top half of their high school class could apply.

The sergeant pilots of Class 42-C finished training and graduated on March 7, 1942, half from Kelly Field and half from Ellington Field, Tex.

The era of sergeant pilots was short-lived. Such training ended in late 1942, when the qualification requirements for the enlisted pilot and the aviation cadet program were made equal. Yet in the short time the sergeant pilots program existed, almost 3,000 enlisted pilots had earned their wings with the Army Air Forces and its predecessors. A small number of enlisted men also had been trained and served as navigators and bombardiers.

“Those who received their ratings in World War II and stayed in the USAF were allowed to continue on with their flying jobs,” said Barry L. Spink, an archivist with the Air Force Historical Research Agency. The last enlisted pilot on active duty, said Spink, was MSgt. George Holmes, who retired in 1957.

Aerial gunners are still hanging on as a specialty, though the emphasis has shifted from air-to-air combat, to defending the aircraft, to attacking ground targets. Although a machine gun had been fired from an airplane as early as 1912, it was not until World War I that back-seat observers in the DeHavilland DH-4 used a Lewis gun in combat. Most gunners were enlisted men, and in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, American gunners shot down an estimated 94 enemy aircraft.

With the buildup to World War II, the Air Force began training as many as 3,200 gunners a week. They manned flexible guns and turrets in the B-17, B-24, and other bombers.

When the B-29 came along, the gunner was removed from the guns and instead aimed from a central gun control station.

Another breed of enlisted gunners developed from the Vietnam experience, when the Air Force outfitted transports as flying gunships.

There now are about 350 airmen classified as aerial gunners (1A7X10) for Air Force Special Operations Command’s AC-130 gunships—less than one day’s worth of bomber gunner production at the height of World War II.

During the war years, the Army Air Forces needed pilots so badly that female pilots helped fill the need. They were not, at the time, even considered to be in service. Known as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), they were essentially civil servants.

The WASPs flew most of the aircraft in the inventory at the time but were barred from combat, and, when there were enough male pilots available, the women were sent home. It would be decades before the WASPs were even recognized as veterans.

When the Air Force became a separate service, it rejected the Army’s idea of having women in a separate corps. Females were known as WAFs (Women in the Air Force) and, theoretically at least, were on an equal footing with men. They had their own director, however, a ceiling on the ranks, and limits on their use in combat. Women would not return to the cockpit until 1976.

Specialty Pilots

Some of the prominent specialties of World War II have completely fallen by the wayside, with the bombardier being the most prominent example. Like pilots and navigators, most bombardiers were trained under the aviation cadet program and commissioned as second lieutenants. By the Korean War, no more bombardiers were being trained as such.

Those who held the rating and remained in the Air Force were reclassified as aerial observers and designated as bombardier navigators.

In 1951, the ratings of service pilot, glider pilot, liaison pilot, and balloon pilot, along with those of bombardier, no longer were considered current aeronautical ratings.

Service pilots were fliers who had amassed large numbers of flying hours in civilian life but had not completed military flight training. Typical were airline pilots too old for combat but ideal as flight instructors.

Glider pilots were trained primarily to land the cumbersome, powerless aircraft that carried airborne troops into battle. Many were men who washed out of pilot training but still could handle the basics of landing a glider.

Liaison pilots flew light aircraft, often off-the-shelf civilian craft, as couriers, aerial spotters, and chauffeurs for ground officers. The training was minimal, and such pilots could be either officers or enlisted members.

Balloon pilots were largely a carryover from World War I’s tethered balloons and dirigibles. By World War II, the Air Force no longer was training balloon pilots, and the rating soon was declared obsolete.

Interestingly, however, the art of ballooning was revived in the 1950s and 1960s as the Air Force sought information on how humans would react in space, and sent men to record altitudes.

In August 1960, Capt. Joseph W. Kittinger Jr. rode to an altitude of 102,800 feet in a balloon, bailed out, and fell to 18,000 feet before opening his parachute and landing.

After flying three tours in Vietnam and spending 11 months as a POW, Kittinger retired and made the first solo trans-Atlantic balloon flight, covering 3,500 miles in some 83 hours. If the balloon pilot rating hadn’t been made obsolete, he easily could have claimed it.

Today, one of the trends affecting Air Force specialties is the shift of many noncombat duties to civilian employees or to contractors. Communication units at the base level are now primarily manned by civil service or contractor personnel. “The comm [airmen] will be very heavily engaged in electronic warfare, in cyberspace,” said Craigen, as the more rudimentary tasks are contracted out.

More skills have been civilianized than ever before. “In many cases, you look at an air logistics center where they overhaul the aircraft, and those are civil service,” Craigen said. At Randolph, civilians overhaul the T-38s, “but we still have aircraft maintenance officers.”

In the end, the aim is not to make specialties obsolete but to match specialties to the Air Force’s requirements. “We are looking at building an Air Force [with] breadth of experience,” said Craigen. “So instead of looking at people with a narrow specialty, you have people who can do various things without going to a new tech school.”

To that end, USAF is looking to merge its life support equipment and survival equipment AFSCs, because “there is so much overlap between the two.”

The Air Force hasn’t completely abandoned noncore tasks however. Craigen noted that at Randolph, “we still have food service officers. … Baking and cooking is just part of this ‘services’ enlisted career field today.”

Bruce D. Callander is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. He served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War and was editor of Air Force Times from 1972 to 1986. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “State-of-the-Art Teaching,” appeared in the March issue.