Langley B-17s paved way for independent Air Force

Langley bomb crews pioneered Flying Fortress' war-making potential

When the first flights of B-17 bombers took off from Langley Field in 1937, the giant experimental planes filled the skies over Hampton Roads with a warlike rumble never heard before.

Most of that deafening roar came from their mighty Cyclone 9 engines, which generated as much as 24,000-horsepower all told and introduced the menacing aerial sound that became a World War II icon.

But some small part may have been the defiant growls of the rebellious Langley airmen, who had embraced the new Flying Fortress as their most promising weapon in a bitter war for independence.

Championed by Brig. Gen. Frank M. Andrews — who founded General Headquarters Air Force at Langley in March 1935 — the massive aircraft and the revolutionary bombing doctrine it embodied were stubbornly resisted by the War Department's General Staff, who dismissed the B-17 and the ideas behind it as "Andrews' Folly."

But even after being sacked in 1939, then sent to the same remote Texas post that air power advocate William "Billy" Mitchell had been exiled to in 1925, Andrews' determined campaign to redefine the combat role of Army aviation proved prophetic.

Within four months, the one-time cavalryman was summoned to Washington, D.C., by new Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, who made Andrews his top aide after a crucial visit to Langley Field had convinced him of the airplane's importance.

And by the war's end, the strategic power of the B-17 had not only played a defining role in the Allied victory but also opened the final door to an independent Air Force.

"The B-17s come here first — starting this progression in which a lot of the officers who figured out how to use them become notable figures in World War II," says William M. Butler, deputy command historian of Air Combat Command at what is now Langley Air Force Base.

"The Air Force became the Air Force because of the ideas about air power and bombardment that get started here."

Air crusader

Despite the destructive capability proven by Mitchell and Langley fliers off the Virginia capes in the 1921 and '23 — when they overturned the prevailing doctrine of battleship invincibility with a series of dramatic bombing trials — the Air Service remained a secondary arm of the Army well into the 1930s.

But molded by the insurrectionist views of Langley's Air Service Tactical School, its officers bristled at how the rapidly growing promise of air power was routinely belittled by the General Staff, which did not include any airmen.

"The Tactical School taught, and Air Corps officers as a rule believed, aviation could be decisive," writes Air Force historian Mauer Mauer in "Aviation in the U.S. Army 1919-1939."

"The General Staff and officers of the other arms could not accept this. ... As the War Plans Division put it: 'So far, well-organized nations have surrendered only when occupied by the enemy's army or when such occupation could no longer be opposed.'"

A 1928 graduate of the Tactical School, Andrews became a leading proponent of air power, writing on the airplane's role in national defense during later studies at the War College.

And like his fellow fliers, he was both impressed and disheartened by the pioneering flight of Italian Air Marshall Italo Balbo and a fleet of 24 flying boats in August 1933, when they flew from Italy to the U. S. and a triumphant welcome at the Chicago World's Fair.

Though the War Department dismissed the feat as a stunt, Andrews flew out with the 1st Pursuit Group from Selfridge Field near Detroit, greeting the Italians at the Canadian border with an aerial salute.

"Balbo and his men had clearly demonstrated that with proper aeronautical equipment and training, airmen would soon be able to fly long distances in adverse weather to reach any adversary's industrial heartland," writes DeWitt S. Copp in "Frank M. Andrews: Marshall's Airman."

"If the War Department failed to recognize what military leaders of other countries foresaw, U.S. air power could not keep pace. Andrews was determined to see this did not happen."

Power struggle

So poorly equipped and ill-trained was the Air Corps in early 1934 that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt commandeered it to carry the nation's airmail, it proved embarrassingly unequal to the task, losing a dozen airmen in weather-related crashes, Copp notes.

But the uproar in Congress led to a new board charged with charting the Corps' future — and a directive to reorganize that won support from Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Summoned to Washington, Andrews chaired the committee that recommended the creation of General Headquarters Air Force, which consolidated for the first time the command of all the Army's combat aviation units under a single officer.

Though such proposals had been quashed by the War Department since 1923, MacArthur not only agreed but also passed over 12 senior officers to make Andrews its commander.

He started with only 446 aircraft — just 176 of those classed as modern — and far short of the 980 the Army had approved, Copp writes.

He fielded fewer than half of the 1,245 pilots he needed and lagged just as badly in enlisted airmen.

Equally pressing was the need for a long-range heavy bomber capable of carrying out the independent combat missions that he and his officers saw as the defining role of an air force.

"Andrews is building on the ideas of Billy Mitchell and the airplane's power to penetrate deeply into the enemy heartland," historian John V. Quarstein says.

"And for that he needed a bomber that could fly high, fly far and deliver a tremendous bomb load hundreds of miles away from its base."

Pioneer bombers

Developed in response to a guileful Air Corps' proposal — which tried to deflect critics by specifying a long-range bomber capable of defending Hawaii, Alaska and the Panama Canal — the Boeing B-17 was the largest and most advanced contender when it arrived for a fly-off at Wright Field in Ohio on Aug. 20, 1935.

Landing an hour early after a nonstop 2,100-mile flight from Seattle, the gleaming four-engine prototype flew longer, higher and — by averaging 232 mph — faster than its two-engine competitors, writes Phillip Mellinger in Air Force Magazine.

But when it stalled and crashed on a later take-off after the crew failed to unlock its rudder and elevator controls, it was scrubbed from the trials, prompting Chief of Staff Gen. Malin Craig to cancel Andrews' preliminary order for 65 and fund 133 Douglas B-18 medium bombers instead.

Desperate to acquire the weapon they considered essential, Andrews and his allies in Congress and the Army exploited a loophole, enabling him to bring 12 Flying Fortresses to Langley for experimental testing.

The first arrived on March 1, 1937 — and by August the 2nd Bombardment Group could field an entire squadron.

"The B-17 would become one of the most successful aircraft in military aviation history," Quarstein says.

"And it all started here because of Andrews' vision and what he did at Langley."

Even before his 12th plane arrived, the GHQ commander staged an epic nonstop flight that spanned 20 cities and 1,200 miles, giving his fliers an unprecedented training exercise as well as national attention.

In February 1938, Col. Robert Olds — a key figure in the Air Corps' so-called "Bomber Mafia" — sparked still more headlines with a marathon 11,952-mile flight to and from Argentina.

Among his officers was Lt. Curtis E. LeMay, who had previously served as the lead navigator during an August 1937 exercise in which the B-17s — with Andrews on board — had located and "bombed" the USS Utah off the fog-shrouded California coast.

The future Air Force chief showed his skill again in March 1938, when he led Langley bombers from New York and — with NBC Radio, the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune riding along — intercepted the Italian passenger liner Rex 700 miles out in the cloudy Atlantic.

Dramatic photographs of the B-17s flying over the ship appeared the next day on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

"Not only were they showing that they could sink ships far off the coast but also that they could and maybe should be the force responsible for defending the coast," Butler says.

"They were really extending their mission."

Loss and legacy

Such public challenges to the status quo provoked mounting anger in Washington, which immediately ordered Andrews' bombers to venture no farther than 100 miles from land.

Six months later, Gen. Craig offered to make his rebellious officer the Chief of the Air Corps if he would drop the B-17, but Andrews refused, Copp writes.

That probably sealed his fate — and he may have felt like he had nothing more to lose when his description of the U.S. as a "sixth-rate air power" made national headlines in January 1939.

"There were few dry eyes," Copp reports, describing the anger and sorrow of Andrews' airmen at his farewell Langley review, after which he was posted to Billy Mitchell's old place of banishment in Texas.

Still, his exile lasted only until Craig retired in July 1939, when the personal, nine-day tour Andrews had given the previous year to Brig. Gen. Marshall — then the War Plans chief — paid a landmark dividend.

Swayed by the tremendous advances in capability and training he saw as Andrews piloted him from field to field, the new chief of staff fought to make the defiant airman his top aide — and the first flier on the General Staff.

"Under our present scheme ..., the operating personnel have very little contact with the powers that be," Andrews had told his new boss.

"We know our stuff, but we can not get it across."

With the nation's entry into WWII, Marshall not only listened but also entrusted Andrews with increasingly important missions, including reorganizing the defense of the Caribbean and the Panama Canal and leading American forces in the Middle East.

He was chief of U.S. forces in Europe when he died in a May 3, 1943, plane crash.

Four months earlier, however, Andrews' determined belief in the power of the B-17 and long-range strategic bombing had been confirmed by the Allies' decision to mount a devastating if costly air offensive against Germany.

By the war's end, his original Langley squadron of 12 B-17s had spawned the production of more than 12,700 others.

And his long crusade for an independent Air Force finally triumphed in 1947.

"Today, when American bombers fly a successful mission in any theater of war, their achievement goes back to the blueprints of the General Headquarters Air Force," wrote Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, head of Army Air Forces and first General of the Air Force, praising Andrews and his crucial Langley legacy.

"Our operations were based on the needs and problems of our own hemisphere, with its vast seas, huge land areas, great distances, and varying terrains and climates.

"It we could fly here, we could fly anywhere, and such has proved to be the case."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

Langley centennial

The Daily Press has been honoring Langley Air Force Base's 100th centennial celebration with a special look at its history over the past week. You also can go online to www.dailypress.com/langley100 to see unique content that you can find only on our website.

Today's online features

A photo gallery and archival video depict the B-17s that paved the way for an independent Air Force.

The evolution and importance of the B-17 in war is discussed by a local historian in a podcast

Coming tomorrow

Go aboard a plane with the U.S. Army's Golden Knights parachute team (weather permitting) for a special look at the air show, as well as other coverage of the last day of events at Langley Air Force Base..

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