It`s a Blast! Aerial Images WWII Liaison Aircraft



It`s a Blast! Aerial Images WWII Liaison Aircraft
It’s a Blast!
WWII Liaison Aircraft
The Voice of General Aviation
Aerial Images
July 2015
Cessna Conquest I
An Easy
Step Up
Bargains abound for the
likable turboprop p. T–2
Cessna Conquest I | SubSonex Sport Jet | Breitling Jet Team
South American
Coming to America
July 2015 | Volume 58 | Number 7 |
Having a Blast
A glider transition to a jet—
and a whole lot of fun.
By Dave Hirschman
Little Airplane, Big Job
The World War II L-bird
is the poor man’s warbird.
By Barry Schiff
Portfolios: Adam Senatori
Patterns in the landscape by a
former airline pilot and CFI.
Meet the Breitling
Jet Team
Inside the workings of the
American Tour airshow
with the men from France.
By Julie Summers Walker
ON THIS PAGE: The Breitling Jet
Team—in their L–39 Albatrosses—
perform a loop during the Sun
‘n Fun airshow. Photo courtesy
Breitling Jet Team. AOPA PILOT | 1
66 | AOPA PILOT July 2015
Little airplane,
The poor man’s warbird
A claim that small tube-and-fabric liaison airplanes were the
most feared American aircraft of World War II seems incredulous, almost laughable. But those aware of the facts argue
persuasively that the claim is true.
L-5 Sentinel has a
instrument panel (right)
and was designed to
accommodate a litter
patient (bottom).
At a time when there were no satellites,
helicopters, or drones, liaison airplanes—
L-birds—would fly over the next hill, scout
for the enemy, and assist in his destruction.
They were the eyes of the artillery. The
pilot of an L-bird would call for firepower
to be directed at the appropriate grid position shown on his chart, and then observe
the results. He would then call out successive aiming corrections on the radio to help
the gunners zero in on the target. Soon, as
many as 100 large-caliber guns would rain
upon the enemy. These little airplanes and
their pilots were responsible for an incredible number of battlefield victories, but went
largely unnoticed by the public.
Although their low altitudes and airspeeds made L-birds easy prey for ground
fire, the enemy often was unwilling to take
a shot. He feared that the firing flash from
his guns would expose his position and
increase his vulnerability.
L-birds were the smallest and lightest
airplanes of the war. In addition to being
effective artillery spotters, they served in
an almost limitless variety of other roles.
These included intelligence gathering, supply delivery, courier service, transport and
ferry service, casualty evacuation, photo
recon, search and rescue, dropping surrender leaflets, and more. There wasn’t much
that L-birds didn’t do, and they did it all
while avoiding enemy aircraft. It is claimed
that no American liaison airplane was ever
shot down by a fighter.
The last recorded aerial battle in the
European Theater of Operations, however,
68 | AOPA PILOT July 2015
involved two liaison airplanes. In late April
1945, Lt. Duane Francis and his observer,
Lt. Bill Martin, were flying a Piper L–4
Grasshopper named Miss Me over Germany.
The pair spotted and opened fire on a
Fieseler Storch—a German observation
airplane—with their pistols, forcing the
German crew to land and surrender. It’s
alleged to be the only airplane shot down
during World War II with handguns.
Six models were used as L-birds during
the war. The Stinson L–1 Vigilant was a
relatively large, capable, 295-horsepower
airplane, but it was too complex and difficult to maintain easily in the field. It took
several men just to push it around on the
ground. Only 352 were built.
The tandem-seat Taylorcraft L–2
(1,500 built) was much lighter, simpler, and
far more practical, but most of these were
used stateside in the Civilian Pilot Training
Approximately 3,000 similarly small
Aeronca L–3 Defenders were built and used
in the Pacific Theater and the Philippines.
This was the forerunner of the postwar
Aeronca 7AC Champion. It often was confused for the Piper J–3 Cub because, like the
Cub, its engine cylinders were not cowled.
The Piper L–4 Cub was produced in
the greatest numbers (5,424 built) and used
in all theaters of the war, including North
Africa. It was identical to the civilian J–3
Cub except that it had more windows for
better visibility. The Taylorcraft, Aeronca,
A group of pilots dedicated to honoring and keeping alive the memory of
the L-birds and their pilots was formed in 1981. Calling themselves the
Alamo Liaison Squadron, their purpose is to purchase, restore, fly, and
maintain liaison airplanes. Their operations are based at Cannon Field, a
2,900-foot grass strip south of San Antonio, Texas. Membership is open
to anyone interested in these airplanes. The squadron has conducted an Lbird fly-in—the Blue-Bonnet Picnic—at Cannon Field every year since 1983.
Widespread thunderstorm activity in the area preceding the 2015 event
prevented many L-birds from attending, although that didn’t dampen the
enthusiasm of the group that was there.
The fly-in is open to the public, has a comfortable hometown feel, and is
unabashedly patriotic. A modest airshow followed the pledge of allegiance
and the singing of The Star Spangled Banner. A pair of bagpipers played
Amazing Grace as a missing-man formation of L-birds putt-putted above the
runway in remembrance of two recently passed squadron members.
A tall observation platform on the field that could be mistaken for some
sort of control tower was built by a local Boy Scout to satisfy his Eagle Scout
service-project requirement.
L-pilot Jesse Bonilla flew low over the grass strip in a Taylorcraft L–2 and
dropped several small parachutes, each containing small packages of candy.
After the all-clear signal was given, children that had been waiting impatiently
near the runway’s edge were allowed to race out to retrieve the goodies. This
event honored the original Berlin candy bomber, Col. Gail Halvorsen.
The squadron also participates in community events and other airshows.
They make flybys over local parades and schools, and they frequently are
called upon to fly missing-man formations to salute recently passed military
veterans. The L-birds are low and slow, and lack flash, fire, and thunder, but
these heroes of World War II are always appreciated.
Gene Jensen is a squadron leader, retired Air Force officer, and curator of
the small L-bird museum at Cannon Field. He has lived in the only house on
the airport for the past 15 years. Jensen estimates that only about 100 World
War II liaison airplanes survive in airworthy condition. The squadron has a
dozen of them and the rest are scattered about the country. The rarest L-bird
is the Stinson L–1 Vigilant; only one remains. A liaison airplane is the most
affordable way to own a warbird, and operating one is certainly economical.
A Grasshopper typically sips only four gallons per hour in cruise flight. Some
owners of small postwar taildraggers paint them to look like liaison airplanes,
as an homage to the little airplanes that did a big job.
STINSON L-5 Sentinels
(above and below) were
the most utilitarian of the
L-birds. Members of the
Army Junior ROTC (left)
were selected to serve as
the honor guard at the
2015 fly-in. AOPA PILOT | 69
and Piper aircraft were powered by fourcylinder, 65-horsepower Continental
engines and were known as Grasshoppers.
The rugged Stinson L–5 Sentinel (4,481
built) was commonly referred to as the
“flying Jeep.” It was the most utilitarian of
the L-birds and used mostly in the Pacific
and Asia, as well as during the Korean
War. It was roomier—it could carry a litter
patient—and more powerful. High-ranking
officers (including generals Bradley, Clark,
Eisenhower, Patton, and Stillwell) used
them for transportation. On D-Day plus one
(June 7, 1944), an L–5 became the first Allied
airplane to land in France (on Utah Beach).
When Hermann Göring, once the second most powerful man in Germany,
surrendered to the Allies, he was removed
in an L–5.
The last of the wartime L-birds was the
Interstate L–6 Cadet, but only 350 were
built. Altogether, more than 14,000 liaison
airplanes contributed to the war effort.
WWII-era L-birds and their civilian equivalents
Type: L–1
Manufacturer: Stinson
Civilian version: None
Type: L–3
Manufacturer: Aeronca
Civilian version: 7AC Champ
In 1942 the Army was in dire need of gliders
to train pilots to fly the Waco CG–4A assault
glider. Grasshopper manufacturers simply
removed the engines from their L-birds;
added a third seat ahead of the other two
tandem seats, to preserve the center of gravity; and steamlined the nose. The result was
the Aeronca TG–5, Taylorcraft TG–6, and
Piper TG–8 training gliders.
L-birds were delivered to war zones
in crates and assembled in as few as three
hours. Although they were considered disposable, their pilots didn’t quite feel that
way. Many L-pilots, as they often were
called, flew the same airplane in combat as
the one in which they had learned to fly as
civilians. They went aloft to seek the enemy
armed with only a Colt .45 automatic pistol, and occasionally hand grenades or a
pilfered carbine—and seldom received the
credit they deserved. Unlike those who flew
other warplanes (commissioned officers),
most L-bird pilots were given the rank of
staff sergeant upon completion of flight
training and served out the war as enlisted
men. They wore silver wings like those of
other Army Air Forces pilots, but with the
letter L superimposed on them.
L-bird pilots seldom had the luxury of
using real airports. They frequently landed
in jungle clearings; on trails or narrow,
twisted roads; on the slopes of hills; and in
parking lots. They landed in places where
other airplanes and pilots feared to tread.
70 | AOPA PILOT July 2015
Type: L–5 Manufacturer: Stinson
Civilian version: Stinson Voyager
Lacking a runway or something that could
be used as one, pilots often opted for open
fields, preferably those where animals were
grazing, because these provided some assurance that the areas were clear of land mines.
According to L-bird authority and
author Hardy Cannon, some L-birds even
operated from wooden “runways” laid out
on jungle treetops. Such facilities could
accommodate only five Grasshoppers at a
time. Fuel, oil, and supplies had to be hauled
to the treetops in preparation for a mission.
Takeoffs and landings were separated by at
least 10 minutes to give the trees enough
time to stop shaking.
Type: L–2
Manufacturer: Taylorcraft
Civilian version: DCO-65
Type: L–4
Manufacturer: Piper
Civilian version: J–3 Cub
Type: L–6
Manufacturer: Interstate
Civilian version: Cadet
Some LSTs (naval vessels used to directly
land vehicles, troops, or cargo during
amphibious operations) were modified
with 16-foot-wide, 200-foot-long plywood
runways laid out six feet above the ships’
main decks. These enabled L-pilots to take
off at sea and fly over Pacific islands being
invaded. But these improvised runways
could not accommodate landings, so there
was no returning. Pilots had to land wherever else possible, and sometimes it was not.
Necessity being the mother of invention,
this problem led to an imaginative solution,
the Brodie Landing System, developed by
Army Air Forces Capt. James Brodie. The
system featured a 500-foot-long cable suspended parallel to and off one side of a ship.
The idea was for the pilot to use a tall hook
mounted atop his airplane to snag a sling
hanging at the beginning of the cable. The
airplane then slid along the cable, which had
a braking mechanism, and came to a stop
while suspended above the ocean.
Takeoffs and landings usually were
made with the ship operating full speed
ahead and into the wind. But when the wind
was calm, an LST could give a pilot only an
eight-knot headwind advantage.
It can be difficult to envision this seemingly Rube Goldberg apparatus, but you can
best understand and appreciate its ingenuity by watching it in action. Go online (www. and type “Brodie Landing
System” in the YouTube search window.
Brodie’s system also was installed on
land, where terrain was too rugged to
accommodate normal takeoffs and landings.
It allowed the pilot of an L-bird to take off
and land without its wheels ever touching
the ground.