Featherweight Airlift: For Want of a Nail


For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost;
and for want of a horse the rider was lost;
being overtaken and slain by the enemy,
all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail.

– Benjamin Franklin, The Way to Wealth (1758)

The U.S. Air Force operates and maintains the best airlift fleet in the world. The C-5 Galaxy, C-17 Globemaster, and C-130 Hercules provide an airlift backbone that spans the globe, and can move everything from people and ammunition to tanks and helicopters. Backed by air refueling capability and the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, airlift has been pivotal in conflicts worldwide, from the Berlin Airlift to Operation Nickel Grass, the Gulf War, and beyond. But this is not your grandfather’s airlift. The Air Force can haul more cargo, further and faster than ever before. But the needs to sustain long, low-intensity conflicts and the post-Cold War drawdown have shifted the airlift fleet entirely towards large and heavy, eliminating the small airlift was critical to Air Force capabilities from its founding in 1947 until the end of the Cold War.

Today, the smallest airlifter is the venerable C-130, a four-engine monster deservedly named “Hercules,” which has been in series production since 1954. If you want to lift a million rounds of small arms ammunition in one flight, the C-130 can do it. If you want to lift 75,000 rounds, loaded into magazines, the C-130 is still your airplane — despite the fact that your cargo is only 250 pounds. The Air Force has divested itself of its small liaison and observation aircraft, and with no small cargo airlifters in service, the “all big, all the time” airlift capability leaves critical niches unfilled. Not only is the Air Force missing a light cargo-hauling capability, but it is also missing the smaller aircraft previously used for a variety of missions. Even more that light airlift, featherweight airlift focuses on missions, payloads, and routes for which larger aircraft would be totally inappropriate. In a challenging environment, where fixed airfields and ground transportation are under attack or unavailable, how do you deliver a nail?


In World War II, competing military forces could deliver individuals or critical materiel using small aircraft. The British, cut off from continental access after the fall of France in 1940, still managed to deliver and extract agents via air, using the Westland Lysander. The most critical of all resistance tools, the shortwave radio, was often delivered by Lysander, along with their operators, since radios of the time were not user-friendly. The Special Operations Executive used the Lysander III SD, a special variant of what had been an observation aircraft with no armament but with a boarding ladder and external fuel.

Figure 1: One of the few flyable Lysanders remaining, V9367 is an ex-Canadian bird modified to look like the Lysander IIISD, the Special Operations Executive variant of the Westland Lysander (Photo under Creative Commons license by Alan Wilson)

The Fieseler F156 Storch (Stork) was extensively used in Europe and North Africa, and is memorable for a stall speed of 31 miles per hour, resulting in at least one documented case where the aircraft flew “backwards” into a headwind. Its short takeoff and landing capability is legendary, having rescued Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from mountain captivity in Operation Eiche in 1943. That takeoff roll, despite being overloaded and at high elevation, took only 250 feet. It remained in production until the mid-1950s in France.

Figure 2: One of the few remaining F156 Storch. Painted to match Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s aircraft, this Storch actually belonged to an Afrika Korps short-range reconnaissance unit in North Africa. (Air Force Museum)

Late to the party but not to be outdone, the U.S. Army also had their own light aircraft. The L-4 Grasshopper was the US Army Air Corps variant of the J-3 Piper Cub. The L-4 was mechanically identical to the J-3 and was used extensively in World War II and Korea, flown by all of the military services. Over 20,000 of them were built and thousands are still in civilian service. Copies of the Cub are still in production, more than 70 years after its first flight. All three of these aircraft conducted a variety of missions, including observation, reconnaissance, artillery spotting, infiltration, rescue and casualty evacuation. Some were even armed. Demand was insatiable – the vast majority of military pilot trainees received training in the J-3 Cub, and at peak wartime production a Cub was rolling off the production line every 20 minutes.

Figure 3: U.S. Army L-4 Grasshopper in Normandy, 1944 (U.S. Army)

The L-4 Grasshopper continued in Korea, performing many of the same roles as it had in World War II, supplemented by the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, introduced in 1950. By the time Vietnam rolled around, it had been replaced with more powerful aircraft, like the Helio L-10A Super Courier, which added psychological warfare to its full menu of missions, and may also have been used to conduct missions behind the Iron Curtain. The last of the civil-derived observation aircraft, the Cessna O-2 Skymaster, entered service in 1967, and remained in service until the 1980s. By the time of the Gulf War, however, all of the light liaison aircraft were gone. This development coincided with the budget-cutting that degraded efforts to prepare for a major theater conflict. As the Air Force prepares again to defend allies in Europe and Asia, there is a clear niche that a liaison aircraft could fill.



Spreading Out

In World War II, thousands of combat aircraft were destroyed on the ground in Europe, and it mattered little – because there were thousands to go around. Aircraft production in the United States exceeded 96,000 aircraft in 1944, outproducing Germany, Imperial Japan, and Britain combined. Today, production rates like that are a fantasy – F-35 deliveries topped out at 91 aircraft in 2018. We cannot afford to lose aircraft, but we especially cannot afford to lose them on the ground.

The challenge we are trying to address revolves around the idea of distributed operations. The theory, and such it remains, is that adversary long range, precision attacks endanger airfield operations, and the combat aircraft that are reliant on those airfields. In order to survive, the Air Force would like to spread its fighter force out, operating from diverse and various airstrips, to limit the vulnerability of the force on the ground.

This is a revolutionary change in threat level; at the end of the Cold War, U.S. numbered air forces in Europe boasted 10 full-strength fighter wings, a Strategic Air Command Air Division, and airfields scatted around Europe. Furthermore, the Soviets had no long-range precision weapons. NATO partners boasted similar force structure, including Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force fighters forward-based in Germany. Today, U.S. Air Forces in Europe are are a shadow of their former self, with three fighter wings (two understrength), a mere handful of runways, and diminished NATO airpower. Add to that Russian precision capability, and massing forces on a handful of bases is an unacceptable risk.

But the force was not designed for that. We have not made an investment in agile combat support intended to maintain air operations in small, distributed force packages. Our support equipment is too heavy, purchased in insufficient numbers, and inadequately designed for distributed operations. In order to get the most bang for the buck when moving aircraft around, the Air Force also has to move airmen, parts, tools, and equipment around. Any realistic assessment of European combat operations must assume that ground transportation will be slow and laborious – the Russians understand interdiction as well as Americans do. The Air Force will also be unable to use C-130s and C-17s for operational support – there are not enough to go around and they will be tied up with the demands of the Joint Force.

Featherweight Airlifters

Not only is the Piper Cub still flying in numbers, but it spawned generations of more capable descendants. Over 19,000 Piper Cub were followed by 1500 P-11 Cub Specials and then by over 10,000 P-18 Super Cubs. The aircraft has been widely copied, and three U.S. factories manufacture flight-ready aircraft today, with even more building kits or providing modifications. In general, a Super Cub clone might be partially built out of carbon fiber, certified for  instrument flight, or even manufactured to look like a World War II warbird. The aircraft are used extensively as bush aircraft and are regular competitors in short takeoff and landing competitions. Their use as bush aircraft is pivotal. A typical clone aircraft can haul 500 pounds (plus the pilot) a distance of 800 or more miles and operate from a soccer field. A 500-pound payload is more than enough for a mechanic with tools and parts, or medical supplies, or rations and ammunition.

Figure 4: Nobody expects the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Aviat A1 Husky, built in Maine, is a unique Super Cub clone in that the aircraft is FAA approved for instrument flight (in weather or at night). The aircraft’s runway-free capabilities allow pilot Officer Isaac Bedingfield to provide a law enforcement presence in unexpected locations. This A1B is taking off from Old Harbor, Alaska (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

For Want of a Nail

The number of issues that can ground an aircraft is large, but the inventory of parts to resolve those grounding conditions is even larger, making an all-encompassing spare parts kit large and unwieldy. Many components (such as engines) are not necessarily repaired in the field. One of us was responsible for maintaining aircraft at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and Aviano Air Base in Italy. At those locations, the squadrons we sent maintainers on the road with as little as a carry- on suitcase to fix a broken jet. The Air Force has plenty of experience working through problems to sustain flying operations both home and abroad without the assistance of strategic airlift — which is normal even in peacetime.

As air operations ramped up over Syria in 2015, F-16s from Aviano were the first unit tasked with generating offensive combat operations out of Incirlik Air Base. Initially, the Air Force sent a few C-17s worth of people and parts as the F-16s were deployed in significant numbers. Soon, Aviano’s 31st Fighter Wing faced difficulty supporting combat ops in Incirlik due to a lack of parts on-hand and customs issues at Incirlik. C-17 and C-130 support was requested but denied. The cost of airlift wasn’t worth the relatively small amount of items we needed to move. Therefore, the primary method of airlifting parts to Incirlik was the contracted “rotator”, which moves personnel from Baltimore to Ramstein to Aviano to Incirlik once a week.

Even at home base, parts may not be available. In one case, an F-16 was not flyable due to a damaged part for an ejection seat – systems that are known for being in short supply even at the home installation. Naturally, Aviano did not have the desired part on hand, grounding the jet. To make the challenge worse, the needed part was classified as hazardous cargo, typical for explosives, chemicals, and pyrotechnics. Moving hazardous material throughout Europe by air, rail, road or water is a long process which drove the delivery estimate for the part past 90 days. Fortunately, there is an F-16 wing at Spangdahlem, Germany, and it had the necessary part already inside E.U. borders. The logisticians found a C-17 scheduled to fly from Ramstein (90 minutes’ drive from Spangdahlem) to Aviano that already had been cleared with the required hazard classification and had the part added to the manifest. Using previously scheduled airlift, the part arrived in three days and the jet was flying a day later.

In yet another recent case, a small package of Aviano F-16s was deployed on 48-hour notice to an undisclosed location on a 21-day taking. Six months later, they were still there. Supporting the operation was a challenge in the months to follow due to the initial logistical movement — whatever could be packed and loaded on a pair of C-17 for 21 days of operations. After the initial deployment, all logistical support was pieced together by either DHL shipping or the occasional contract flight that flew in near the location. The time lag to get parts on-site severely impacted aircraft readiness while deployed.

All of these challenges were encountered in a peacetime environment, with established logistical supply lines, processes, and reliable points of contact.  With parts on hand, aircraft can be kept at higher levels of readiness. Since this is likely to be impossible during distributed operations, the next best option would be the ability to rapidly deliver parts, tools and personnel, and there is no faster way to do this than by air. Here, the short-field capabilities inherent in the Cub-class aircraft come in handy — as does the possibility of doing it on automotive fuel.


If open war comes again to Europe, the “normal” methods of supporting airpower operations will face severe challenges. FedEx and DHL services will be limited. Communications will go down. Russian units will target surface transportation across the continent. Refugee flows may further choke roads and possibly rivers. The loss of a bridge here or a ferry there will have outsized consequences. Distributed combat operations will become exponentially harder and rely more on air. There won’t be enough airlift to go around, whether it be the mighty C-17 or the workhorse CH-47 Chinook. For many small payloads, even the Chinook would be a waste of airlift assets that could be delivered just as well by featherweight airlift. Viewed as a necessary complement to light airlift, featherweight will not just be nice to have. It may very well become essential for modern warfare.

Figure 5: A very special airlift. South Vietnamese Maj, Buang Ly lands an O-1 Bird Dog with his wife and five children aboard the USS Midway as Saigon fell to Communist assault on 30 April, 1975. The Midway’s crew pushed nine Vietnamese helicopters overboard to make room at the behest of Midway Captain Larry Chambers (U.S. Navy)



Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently assigned to Air Combat Command.

Lt. Col. Jeremy “Maestro” Renken is an instructor pilot and former squadron commander in the F-15E Strike Eagle, credited with over 200 combat missions in five combat deployments. He is a graduate of the USAF Weapons Instructor Course and is currently an Air Force Fellow assigned to Air Combat Command.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.


Image: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force