When the Airlines Went to War

By Bossert, Phil | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

When the Airlines Went to War


Bossert, Phil, Air & Space Power Journal


When the Airlines Went to War by Robert J. Serling. Kensington Publishing Corporation, 850 Third Avenue, New York, New York 10022, 1997, 310 pages, $24.00.

When the Airlines Went to War is an excellent description of the indispensable role played by US commercial airlines in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War. It is an interesting, historically accurate, entertaining, and well-written book that offers many practical lessons for today.

Serling skillfully explains chronologically the contributions of the airlines, including many vignettes about unusual missions, tales of survival, and the interaction of various personalities. Several themes resonate throughout the book, including the impact of strong leadership both in private industry and the military; the role of professional organizations; the technological advance of aviation and the subsequent improvements in safety and utility; the importance of long-term planning; and the indelible link among the military, government, and industry.

Serling begins in the post-World War I period, when the fledgling US airline industry was disorganized, struggling, and unsafe. Former colonel and West Pointer Edgar Gorrell, Billy Mitchell's chief of staff in the American Expeditionary Force, is named the first president of the Air Transport Association (ATA) of America, which the major airlines formed in 1936. The purpose of the ATA was to give the airlines a unified voice in Washington, but Gorrell took it further by making it a clearinghouse for technological development and operational methods to improve air safety.

When the ATA was founded, the airlines had operated their own air traffic control system.

Gorrell changed that by lobbying Washington successfully for federal funds to build a modern control system, weather stations, and navigation aids. Also that year, Gorrell began working with the airlines to develop a plan for quickly mobilizing in the event of a national emergency. This plan was partially implemented in 1938, when a major hurricane ravaged the east coast, and was fully implemented just after Pearl Harbor, when FDR nearly nationalized the airlines. This plan was the precursor to the creation in 1951 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which today constitutes one-third of the total strategic airlift capacity of the US military.

At the beginning of World War II, the airlines initially turned over half their fleet of 359 aircraft to the Army Air Corps. But as crucial as these aircraft were, the experienced and skilled manpower provided by the airlines was just as important. …

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