North American P-51 Mustang. See more ­flight pictures.
Peter M. Bowers Collection

Both Great Britain and the United States began World War II convinced that a tight formation of heavily armed bombers could fight their way through enemy fighters and deposit bombs precisely on key enemy targets. They believed that if this was done often enough, the enemy would collapse from within, and no general engagement of armies would be required.

­The British learned their lesson by December 18, 1939, when 12 out of 21 Vickers Wellington bombers were shot down in a daylight raid on Wilhelmshaven, Germany. The RAF Bomber Command turned to night bombing, focusing on the Ruhr (a German industrial district), in an attempt to inflict severe damage on German industry. However, a 1941 analysis of RAF bombing revealed that only one of the ten attacking bombers got within five miles of targets in the Ruhr. All thoughts of precision bombing were abandoned, and the Royal Air Force turned to indiscriminate area bombing to attack Germany.

Flight Pictures

Despite the British experience, the United States believed it could send its Boeing B-1­7s and Consolidated B-24s in unescorted formations to targets deep in Germany to conduct precision daylight bombing. However, the battered and overextended Luftwaffe proved that it could not do so without unacceptable losses at Regensburg, Schweinfurt, and elsewhere.

The British never won their air battle against Germany, taking horrendous losses even through the 1944 Battle of Berlin. The United States found the answer to its problem in the North American P-51 Mustang, used as a long-range escort fighter. By February 1944, the USAAF had defeated the Luftwaffe in the air and on the ground, and U.S. bombers could range over Europe unimpeded except by the heavy antiaircraft artillery.

The defeat of the Luftwaffe allowed the United States to establish the complete air superiority necessary for the invasion on June 6, 1944, and for the subsequent ­defeat of the Nazi army. Air power was more than influential in the war in the Pacific. It was decisive.

­In the Pacific, the overwhelming strength of the United States was applied with increasing ferocity in 1943. Dozens of new aircraft carriers filled with new fighters such as the Grumman F6F and Chance Vought F4U were dispatched. The Japanese were unable to match the United States in building ships or aircraft or in training pilots and were continually forced back. Ultimately, they were forced to rely on Kamikaze tactics in 1944 and 1945 as U.S. carriers drove the assault home.

The USAAF began bombing Japan with B-29s in 1944 and accelerated the pace in 1945, by which time it had achieved true air superiority. Its B-29s were able to range over Japan with little to fear from either Japanese fighters or antiaircraft. The B-29 low-level raid on Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945, was devastating, killing more than 70,000 people. The same punishment was meted out to other major Japanese cities, but the Japanese still would not surrender. It seemed probable that an invasion would be inevitable until August 6, 1945, when absolute aerial supremacy was demonstrated for the first time with the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, another atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, and on August 15, the Japanese finally surrendered. Their decision to do so made an invasion unnecessary and undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of American lives. Ironically, it probably saved as many as six million Japanese lives. Perhaps two million would have been military casualties in an invasion, and another four million might have died of starvation, for Japan was gripped in famine.

No food imports were possible because its shipping had been destroyed, and its rice harvest was the worst in years. Another million people, from Korea to Formosa to the former Dutch East Indies, were starving under Japanese rule.

Post-war Air Force Reduction

The Lockheed XP-80 was the first operational jet fighter.
The Lockheed XP-80 was the first operational jet fighter.
Peter M. Bowers Collection

The "outbreak of peace" brought about the swiftest demobilization in history. On V-J ­day, August 15, 1945, the Army Air Forces had 2,253,000 personnel and 70,000 aircraft. Within two years, those numbers had plummeted to approximately 30­0,000 personnel, with 4,750 aircraft fit for combat. Military aircraft production in the United States, which had reached a peak rate of 100,000 per year in 1944, fell to about 700 in 1947. Companies that had employed as many as 100,000 workers were forced to cut back to a few thousand.

Despite this, new designs flourished. The jet age had arrived, along with new jet fighters such as the Lockheed P-80 and the North American P-86 and new bombers such as the North American B-45 and the Boeing B-47.

The war revolutionized flying. Airfields were built all over the world, and new means of navigation and communication made long-distance flying possible. New four-engine transports such as the Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed Constellation became available, and in Great Britain, de Havilland was working on a jet airliner unlike anything the world had ever seen.

There were also new political problems. The Soviet Union had not demobilized and instead brought East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary behind its "Iron Curtain." By 1948, a Cold War was going on, with the most obvious signal being the Soviet blockade of Berlin in April of that year. In a stunning application of air power, the United States elected to supply Berlin with all its necessary food and fuel by air with the Berlin Airlift. It was a tremendous diplomatic victory, for it succeeded admirably, and the Soviet Union was obliged to lift the blockade.

A pattern emerged that would persist for another four decades--the Soviet Union would use client states to extend its influence. The first of these was North Korea, which on June 25, 1950, invaded South Korea with the intention of unifying the two countries under Communist rule. The United States led the United Nations to intervene, and for three years, air power was the only means by which the badly outnumbered United Nations was able to contain the huge mass of North Korean and Communist Chinese forces.

The Korean War cast a pall on the economy, particularly on general aviation. Some 35,000 private planes were produced in 1946; by 1953, that number had fallen to 3,788. The bleak outlook was broken only by the brilliance of some of the new designs, which included the Beech Bonanza, Ryan Navion, Cessna 120, and the Globe Swift.

­Unknown to all but a very few, a revolution was brewing. It would come on October 4, 1957, in the form of Sputnik, a simple Soviet satellite that signaled the dawn of a new era in flight. For the next chapter in flight history, check out Jets and Rocket Flight.