Although America’s military has used aircraft to win wars for much less time than ships or rifles, military aviation emerged roughly about the same time as the battle tank — making the history of military aviation more than a century old.
In the early decades of that history, there was no Defense Logistics Agency, and so there was no DLA Aviation to ensure military aviators had ready supplies of critical parts and systems they rely on.
But as military aviation grew and evolved, so too did its logistical support — including what ultimately became DLA Aviation.
World War I
For most of the 20th century, until DLA was created in 1961 as the Defense Supply Agency, each military branch handled its own supply contracts and secured its own munitions.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, three years after it began, U.S. military aviation consisted of 109 mostly obsolete aircraft scattered among the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps and the Navy.
But U.S. aircraft and pilots still ended up making a crucial contribution to Allied victory, said Russell Lee, chair of the Aeronautics Department of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
“The first military role for airplanes was reconnaissance of troop movement and artillery spotting,” Lee said. “Fighters were needed to protect the recon planes. Soon they operated in force, and the idea quickly grew of control of the air over the front. British pilots flying single-engine airplanes dropped bombs on zeppelin bases in 1914. Fighters strafed trenches, road convoys and other targets.
“But between 1917 and 1918, the Germans introduced ground-attack aircraft specially designed for this purpose,” Lee said — meaning that American pilots joined the war when the skies were at their most dangerous.
American planes were flown largely by volunteer pilots — among them, Quentin Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, who joined the Army Air Service and died after being shot down over France on Bastille Day in 1918.
Supplying and maintaining planes in the early days was also far different from today. Aircraft maintainers themselves were required to make many replacement parts.
Army Air Corps Brig. Gen. Frank Lahm, himself recognized by the Air Force as the nation’s first military aviator, described the Army Signal Corps Aviation School’s stringent testing of would-be maintainers in 1915, as war in Europe raged with American pilots volunteering to fly for the French and the British in his 1957 article “The Men and the Machines,” from the journal Air Power Historian:
“The first part of the examination required the student to make fittings, ribs, spars, struts, skids and wires; assemble, disassemble and align an airplane; prepare the plane for shipping; stretch cloth on the wing frames and dope it; remove, repair and replace tires. The second part required the candidate to clean the engine, grind the valves, adjust the clearances, time valves and spark; clean magnetos; locate and repair firing systems; adjust the carburetor and locate and adjust ordinary troubles. In addition, the student had to pass a physical examination.”
Those who passed muster still had to undergo rigorous training, Air Force Capt. Barbara L. Harris noted in her 1991 thesis, “Challenges to the United States Tactical Air Force Aircraft Maintenance Personnel: Past, Present and Future.” As of August 1917, the maintainer course “involved ten weeks of instruction in such areas as electricity, airplanes, gasoline engines, magnetos, motorcycles, motor trucks, office work and telegraphy,” Harris wrote.
In addition, “the actual training turned out to be the least of the Air Service’s problems,” Harris noted. “The biggest problem by far was recruiting enough mechanic candidates from the civilian sector. The average American mechanic was unfamiliar with the detailed and delicate type of work demanded of aviation mechanics.”
Compounding the problem, “Many of those civilians possessing the needed skills had been drained off by the draft, enlistments and war industries” Harris explained.
“To counter this, the Air Service launched an aggressive two-week recruiting drive early in December 1917,” she wrote. “Approximately 50,000 recruits signed up, only one-half of the total that would be needed for the War. The United States had hoped to recruit these mechanics as relief forces for the Allies.”
World War II: Army Air Corps
The Army fully integrated aviation units into the military with the creation of the Army Air Corps in 1926. The years leading up to World War II provided leaps in aviation technology and tactics.
During the war, a new facility opened in Richmond, Virginia, to support warfighters: the Richmond General Depot, under the command of the Army Quartermaster Corps. The depot received, stored and supplied quartermaster, medical and engineering items with the support of more than 8,400 employees, supplemented by 1,200 German prisoners of war housed on a camp next to the depot.
With the support of such depots, the U.S. entered the war with the best in propeller technology with the American P-51 Mustang, a single-engined fighter-bomber aircraft that played a vital role in aerial combat throughout WWII.
“[The P-51 Mustang] is pervasive in popular culture and aviation history,” Lee said. “It’s a really important plane because of its technology, history and the impact it had … you could argue that the Mustang was the peak of propeller-driven aircrafts. It was the fastest and had the best performance.”
The P-51 Mustang faced off against another vital aircraft in aviation history, the Messerschmitt Me 262 — the first operational fighter aircraft to use a jet engine, making it much faster than its adversaries.
“It led the way to further fighter aircraft development,” Lee explained — not only due to its jet engines but also its wing design.
The P-51 lacked the swept-wing technology of the Me 262, in which the wing joins the fuselage at an acute angle, rather than in straight to the side. This delays the shock waves and accompanying rise in drag that occur near the speed of sound, to improve performance.
Another iconic World War II aircraft, the Army Air Corps’ B-29 bomber, was used to drop the newly developed atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan near the end of the war.
“Perhaps the most famous B-29s were the 65 examples of the Silverplate series, which were modified to drop atomic bombs,” Lee said.
To save weight, these planes were stripped of all guns, except those in the tail. The modified B-29, the Enola Gay, dropped the first bomb, called Little Boy, on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945. Another B-29, Bockscar, dropped the second bomb, called Fat Man, on Nagasaki three days later. The pilot of the Enola Gay, Army Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets, picked his Silverplate aircraft straight off the assembly line.
Between 1944 and 1960, 3,970 B-29s were built. And in 1947, the Army Air Corps was made into a separate branch of the military — the U.S. Air Force.
The Defense Supply Agency: The Solution for Coordination
In World War II, the military learned firsthand the difficulties of logistics in the modern age, when each service branch operated under its own procedures.
According to the DLA Aviation Public Affairs archives
, the second Commission on Organization of the executive branch of the government, headed by President Herbert Hoover, recommended centralizing management of military logistics support and introducing uniform financial management. Integrated management of supplies and services began in 1952 with the establishment of a joint Army-Navy-Air Force support center to control identification of supply items.
The commodity manager agencies, called “single managers,” were established to buy, store and issue supplies, manage inventories and forecast requirements. The Army managed food and clothing; the Navy managed medical supplies, petroleum and industrial parts; and the Air Force managed electronic items. In each category, the single manager was able to reduce its investment by centralizing wholesale stocks.
The problem with the single-manager system was the each manager still operated under the procedures of its parent service, and customers had to use as many sets of procedures as there were managers.
These single-manager agencies were consolidated into the Defense Supply Agency, which began operations Jan. 1, 1962. The eight single-manager agencies became DSA supply centers, some of which became what are now the DLA major subordinate commands.
One of those MSCs is DLA Aviation in Richmond.
Korea and Vietnam: War in the Air, On the Ground
Aviation technology advanced quickly by the early 1960s — and it would be tested by the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
“In Korea, we saw the ending of the supremacy of the propeller driven-aircraft and the dawn of the combat jet aircraft,” Lee said. “The F-86 saw its combat debut in Korea … When we got to the F-86, we had pretty much reached the ultimate in combat aircraft and high-performance aircraft design, from there on it’s pretty much incremental changes. The big revolution had happened: the swept wing, the turbojet engine.”
In addition to the advancements in jet aircraft, helicopters began to make a presence on the battlefield.
During these conflicts the concept of helicopter medical evacuations was solidified with the iconic imagery of Army helicopters landing under fire to rescue the injured and escape from danger.
To meet the logistical demands of the ever-evolving forces, DSA expanded and acquired new technologies as well.
The Richmond General Depot changed its name many times and again to Defense General Supply Center in 1962 to represent its new role in the organization. During this time, it acquired four new computer systems that processed more than 4,500 requisitions a day. The center became home to one of the largest data processing facilities on the East Coast.
With the conflicts of Vietnam and Korea deescalating, the Cold War that was looming in the background came to the forefront as DSA supplied the warfighters that stood watch over the looming threat.
Expanding Air Support: The Defense Logistics Agency
In recognition of 16 years of growth and expanded responsibilities, Jan. 1, 1977, officials changed the name of the Defense Supply Agency to the Defense Logistics Agency. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 identified DLA as a combat support agency.
About the time the Cold War was coming to an end, the U.S. military faced its first conflict with the support of the expanded DLA - the Gulf War, in which the United States faced the world’s fourth-largest land army: that of Iraq.
The Boeing F-16, used by the Air Force and Navy, prevailed during this conflict and proved to be effective and cost efficient with its single jet engine.
Lee explained that today F-86’s predecessor, the F-16, is a brilliant aircraft for various reasons, including low production cost due to its use of a single turbojet engine.
“In any hostile environments that we expect in future conflicts, losses could well be significant,” Lee said. “It may come down as it has in the machine age to a war of attrition. That’s how we won World War II. We had [vastly more] Sherman tanks. It wasn’t the best tank on the battlefield, but it was a tidal wave of steel against the less numbered but superior German tanks.”
In 1996, the Defense General Supply Center’s name changed to Defense Supply Center Richmond. Shortly thereafter, agency leaders started talking about supply chain management.
With the conclusion of the Gulf War, the military downsized until the attacks on the World Trade Center and the following operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East called the warfighters to arms once again.
Iraq and Afghanistan: New Battlefields, New Aircraft, Battle-Tested Support
Faced with new enemies and a new battlefield, the military revealed a technology in the works since World War I, unmanned aerial vehicles. Although the modern conception emerged in the 70s as reconnaissance vehicles, the war on terror saw more and new uses of UAVs than any previous conflict.
As the military still relies on modernized F-16, the advancement of technology leads to new aircraft designs and concepts.
“Moore’s law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years,” Lee said. “Essentially, technology will keep getting smaller, and when you have a set frame like the F-16, you can fit more technology into [it] and keep that plane viable.”
In 2006, the new aircraft that has emerged from Moore’s law is the F-35 Lightning II, the U.S. military’s next-generation aircraft.
The DLA Aviation archives explain that DSCR’s mission expanded greatly between 2007 and 2009 with the implementation of Base Realignment and Closure 2005 legislation. The activity privatized its supply, storage and distribution management of tires; its packaged petroleum, oil and lubricant products; and its compressed and liquefied gases. It also broadened its mission as a supply chain provider beyond its traditional wholesale role when it moved into consumer-level retail supply logistics.
As part of an enterprisewide branding campaign, Defense Supply Center Richmond became known as Defense Logistics Agency Aviation in 2010. Defense Supply Center Richmond remained the name of the installation and the home of DLA Aviation’s headquarters.
Positioned alongside its military customers, DLA Aviation manages industrial support activities at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia; Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma; Hill Air Force Base, Utah; Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina; Naval Air Station North Island, California; and Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida.
The activity’s business functionality consists of six basic core processes representing key functions in supply chain management that enables DLA Aviation to interact with, support and meet warfighter requirements. These processes are: planning, procurement, order fulfillment, financial management, technical and quality (ensuring parts meet specifications and are free of defects) and customer relationship management.
Although DLA Aviation was not always known as such, the activity and its dedicated workforce has a history of ensuring the U.S. military stays airborne by providing support and new technology to the warfighters.