In rural South Texas one can expect to see wild fowl abuzz and limber legged sorts browsing afield. Vigilant of the San Antonio skyline in the near distance, on a certain nonwooded 30 aker plot, one is just as likely to encounter giant grasshoppers aloft.
The place is real, enchanted too, where its turf is storied with impressions. Tales of crosswind landings are accentuated in skidmarks. Other daring adventures of a benign sort scar its surface. The name of the plot is Cannon Field; it is home to Alamo Liaison Squadron.
Built on a mission the squadron, called “group” at conception, pronounced its purpose as twofold: Locate, purchase, restore and maintain in original flying condition a complete set of military liaison aircraft flown during World War II. Second, provide a facility for the permanent protection, display and operation of these storied aircraft. For now over 40 years the mission has stood.
What began in 1981, was Hardy Cannon and a team of collaborators formed the Alamo Liaison Group (ALG), expressly to begin collecting and restoring a particular type of warbird. The aircraft in quest were those constructed primarily of a tubular metal frame with wood supports and webbing, a selective use of aluminum, and an exterior cover of taught sealed fabric.
Whilst true warbirds, these aircraft were conceived as non-combatants, of civilian origins. Later when they saw service on the lines of battle they remained unarmed. Built purposely light in weight, the Army effectively deemed them disposable. They operated at low speeds and low altitudes, often directly over enemy lines. Expectations were that few would ever return.
Despite their fateful reckoning, many did survive. By 1982, ALG had completed the restoration of six such warbirds: a 1941 Stinson L-1, a 1941 Taylorcraft L-2, a 1942 Aeronca L-3B, a 1939 Piper L-4, a 1942 Stinson L-5, and a 1942 Interstate S-1B (L-6). These aircraft comprise the series of WWII liaison airplanes assigned military “L” designations and referred to collectively as L-birds.
Operating today under the name Alamo Liaison Squadron (ALS), a like-minded group of pilots, mechanics and nostalgists continues to fly and maintain L-birds. Comprising area residents, many of whom have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, squadron members through the years have followed their passion for “old airplanes.” ALS presently oversees a collection of aircraft including: L-2, L-3, L-4, L-5, and L-6 models, striving to keep them flying and serving Cannon’s original purpose.
At least one each of the series is owned by ALS, while others of varying make and model are owned by squadron members who base their aircraft at Cannon Field (53T), or nearby. All are flown by experienced veteran and volunteer pilots as the squadron performs flyovers and attends fly-ins to showcase their history. Cannon Field is the former residence and workshop of master mechanic and ALG mastermind Hardy Cannon who passed away in 1991.
Pilots and Grasshoppers
It was during the Second World War in 1942 that the U.S. Army Air Forces applied the term “liaison” to aircraft, so designating those intended for use chiefly in support of ground forces. The separate U.S. Air Force branch was still five years away from inception. Liaison aircraft were by definition small and lightweight, and carried a crew of two, perhaps three, including pilot. Initially, some were sorted under the army’s “observation” category (though later re-labeled liaison).
As early as 1941 liaison aircraft saw their first enlistments as the War Department sought contracts from “off-the-shelf” aircraft manufacturers including Taylor, Aeronca, Piper, Interstate, Rearwin and Stinson. By decree, liaison aircraft would operate from grass fields and improvised landing strips. Characteristic of this sort of flying, liaison aircraft became known as “puddle jumpers” and, more commonly, “grasshoppers.”
What did liaison aircraft and their pilots do? They served multiplicitous roles from the start, including: artillery observation, reconnaissance, aerial photography, medical evacuation, search and rescue, primary flight training, pilot proficiency, and transport of supplies, personnel and mail. Their pilots were regarded as daring and heroic, often asked to fly well within range of enemy guns. Further, it is told that the liaison pilot of WWII, while performing their official roles, additionally fulfilled many others that “just needed done.”
Despite the utilitarian profile of the L-bird mission, the liaison pilot under Army Ground Forces command was mostly overshadowed, often disparaged, by pilots under the presumed higher-value Army Air Forces command flying transport, fighter and bomber aircraft. It was the infantry and artillery units under which liaison pilots served who understood their real worth. WWII liaison pilots supplied troops with food, goods and ammunition. They located stranded soldiers and evacuated the wounded.
Liaison pilots held the ranks of enlisted men, and sometimes commissioned officers—these being pilots of the Army Air Force who happened to fly liaison aircraft and missions. Remarkably, the majority of liaison pilots were ordinary soldiers simply trained to operate their unassuming small airplanes. Though often exposed to dangers, and performing invaluable feats to assist advancing ground forces, liaison pilots did not enjoy the same benefits of rank awarded most pilots. Army Air Force pilots slept in beds in relative safety, while liaison pilots slept on the front line in tents with their troops.
That the feats of lesser decorated, albeit brave pilots not be forgotten, ALS rounds out its mission with a third directive: to preserve the stories, and their telling, of the liaison pilots.
Fleet and Maintenance
From the start ALS has been a self-supportive, privately financed, all volunteer organization. Members are dedicated to building, restoring, maintaining, demonstrating and flying liaison aircraft. Individual memberships support and promote the continued operations of the L-bird flying museum, so recognized by the Texas Historic Commission.
As ALS members play play an active role in flying the L-bird collection, they also perform the necessary work to keep them flying. Over the years, numerous aircraft have been brought back to life at the hands of ALS members. Though liaison aircraft were selected and built for simplicity, their method of construction is distinctly a learned skill. Artisans of experience and talent, such as Hardy Cannon, were a vanishing breed postwar as “all-metal” airplanes were being built in earnest. ALG in its founding was one of the progenitors of a popular rebirth of “tube-and-fabric” aircraft that persists today. Liaison-type aircraft, old and new, are now highly sought after as reconstruction projects and nostalgic flivvers. They are desired by aviators of all ages and in particular by backcountry adventure seekers.
Events and Flyovers
The aircraft of Alamo Liaison Squadron are operated by veteran pilots practiced in the art of tailwheel flying. During the year, squadron pilots perform flyovers at area events such as the Poteet Strawberry Festival and various Veterans Day celebrations. An annual Cannon field fly-in takes place and typically includes both flying and static aircraft displays, a Candy Bomber Drop (reenactment of the exploits of famed USAF pilot Gail Halvorsen a.k.a. “Uncle Wiggly Wings”), flour bombing contest, missing man formation flyby/tribute, and medevac demonstration.
While U.S. airbases once welcomed the public, today the amount of preparation and pre-clearance makes flying into these events scarce. However, in the past ALS participated often in military exhibitions in San Antonio, a.k.a. Military City USA. “Most of the collection joined Armed Forces Week aircraft displays at Randolph Air Force Base recently,” said an excerpt from local newspaper Express-News in 1982. ALG members flew the planes there at their own expense. A similar sortie took place as recently as 2009.
On November 14, 2014, ALS performed a fly-by routine during the “Salute to Veterans” celebration taking place at Fort Sam Houston’s MacArthur Parade Field. The flight of four L-birds included vintage Piper L-4 and Taylorcraft L-2 aircraft along with two contemporary Legend Cub liaison replicas. The event was hosted by U.S. Army North–Fifth Army. A similar flyover took place on July 5, 2017, in celebration of Independence Day.
Box Seat Over Hell
Following his WWII service, and later the founding of ALG, Hardy D. Cannon wrote and published Box Seat Over Hell: The True Story of America’s Liaison Pilots and Their Light Planes in World War Two. Written for and about those who flew, Cannon recounted stories of courage and man’s romance with the sky. With the author’s artistry and imagination in restoration similarly put to work in writing, Box Seat Over Hell portrays the toll inflicted on the souls of those who flew the inexorable liaison aircraft.
The first liaison group formed was the 25th Liaison Squadron, comprised of thirty-two airplanes, enough sergeants to fly them, fifteen officers, one hundred enlisted men to maintain the planes, and assorted necessary pieces of equipment. The only thing the 25th lacked was a description of its mission. They were not [yet] artillery spotters and they were not supposed to be aerial ambulances… they were simply “liaison,” a catch-all word in the Army that can mean anything.
Grasshopper pilots not only handled some of the most difficult missions of the war, they also handled some of the most treacherous and hair raising. They flew in every theatre: from the desert when, in the super heated air, it was a real struggle to get airborne; in the arctic, where they fought to stay on course through williwaws and boreal storms, and where if they got lost they were almost guaranteed a frigid death. They flew over jungles with aircraft so overloaded they barely maintained altitude, with engines screaming, to clear the tree tops. These pilots were not the “glory boys” of the Air Corps. They were never given the recognition or the medals of the bomber pilots.
Hardy Cannon was a gunner on a B-17 then, following an injury sustained on a combat mission, served in maintenance on numerous types of airplanes. Afterwards he came to San Antonio, married, taught school, and at one time was part owner of the largest postwar civilian flight school. A dedication plaque on a tall observation platform at Cannon Field records it was erected from 1991–1992 in his memory.
It took, “Canvas and wood and courage,” said ALS lifetime member, Bob Salter. “Small light and slow as they are, these planes are still a roaring connection with our greatest generation. Their almost insurmountable challenges. Their selfless sacrifices.” He continued, “The book’s title says it all. There is no small amount of awe imagining those days in riding tandem with the past.”
L-Bird, The Little Plane That Did
Further chronicling stories of L-birds and the roles they played in WWII is a movie short available on DVD titled L-Bird: The Little Plane That Did. Narrated by Cliff Robertson and produced by Emmy award winning director Brian Shipman, the compilation includes rare footage of the Brodie landing system by which L-birds landed at sea aboard carrier ships.
It’s hard to believe such a small airplane could cause so much chaos, death and destruction. But it did. It’s even harder to understand how such a remarkable story could go untold for half a century. At the start of WWII, many officers thought the little planes were a joke. But before the war was half over, field officers wouldn’t go anywhere without them. Using L-birds as spotters, the U.S. Army was able to place its artillery with pinpoint accuracy. Anything that moved under the watchful eye of an L-bird pilot was immediately blown away.
History on the Wing in San Antonio
A longtime duo of San Antonio TV news personalities revealed the little known group’s activities in recent years. Excerpts from their interviews follow with the story initiated by the forenamed Bob Salter, a reporter, air medical helicopter pilot, and former TV anchorman.
“This is history on the wing,” Salter began. “It looks like it’s barely moving. Isn’t that incredible,” queried an onlooker. “These airplanes are designed to fly very slowly, to land at very slow speed, and to take off at very slow speed,” responded Gene Jensen, ALS squadron leader.
“So it did not require a runway?” queried Salter. “No, just any patch of road, no matter how rough. Or an open field, a section of beach close to the water,” Jensen followed. “These airplanes were used for virtually anything you’d use a Jeep for. Their first military assignment was to direct artillery fire. With an eye in the sky and a radio, they could direct fire on the ground. For the first time, artillery became really effective.
“This is a true Piper Cub, a 1939 model. It was so universally safe to fly, almost anybody could fly it with the simplest of introductions. Many of them were delivered in a crate to the military with an instruction book to put them together, usually by a couple of young soldiers with some experience in motorcycle maintenance. And of course it usually meant he was a little bit daring,” Jensen invoked. “It’s very simple, as far as airplanes go. Very easy to repair. Being made of fabric over a frame, if they got damaged whether it was battle damage or just mistakes, one could repair it very very simply.
“Over 10,000 of them were built during World War II. They didn’t even send a 100-hour inspection list with them, because they never expected them to last a 100 flying hours.” Salter bantered, “But here it is nearly 80 years later still flying. This is in no small part due to the dedication of volunteers, whose passion it is to wrench time backwards.”
“So how is it these L-birds are not combat planes, but combat so often found them?” asked Salter. “The ambulance version, whereon the whole side folds down and the back door opens, allows for a stretcher behind the pilot. It was the very first air extraction ambulance. This allowed them to quickly get an injured, a seriously injured soldier, back to the M.A.S.H. hospital,” Jensen answered.
Months after Salter’s visit in 2015, he passed away in his sleep at the age of 61. In September 2016, Katrina Webber, a reporter for San Antonio’s KSAT 12 where Salter spent most of his career, visited Cannon Field for more. Her interview was titled Life Along the Loop: Group’s pastime involves flying high, elevating history – Alamo Liaison Squadron shares history of WWII combat planes.
“When it comes to firsthand memories of WWII, Gene Jensen can muster only fuzzy images. He was still a young child when the United States and its allies declared victory,” led Webber. Jensen replied, “My first and only memories are the soldiers coming home at the end of the war.”
Despite the generation shift, Jensen has made it his mission to ensure others know all about that era, as well as some of the aircraft that made significant contributions toward that victory. A Korean War veteran and former B-52 bombardier Jensen, and other ALS members share their knowledge of WWII with the use of restored L-birds.
“What we’re trying to do is preserve the story. This is the story about the little bitty guy that really never got told,” Jensen said. “These planes did the simple tasks, looking over the hills, directing artillery fire, dropping supplies.” Restorations at ALS come as close to the original as possible. Patchworks of paint, stars and bars, and other markings that dressed them years ago are visible today. Even a simulated bullet hole decal gives reference to the L-bird’s past.
“The sacrifices service members made in the past can be used as a guide in the present and future. If one understands the history here and how diligently these people served, in rather really simple ways,” Jensen advocated, “then service, even sacrifice, is a positive human experience.”
DeRidder Louisiana Vintage Flight
In November 2016, a reporter for KPLC TV in Louisiana, Maranda Whittington, met with Jensen representing ALS. Sharply defiant in his best recollection and silvered age, Jensen assured, “I don’t remember not wanting to fly.” The story, titled WWII plane flies into DeRidder Saturday, alludes to the five hours Jensen spent flying from San Antonio to DeRidder, for a special reason. “This is the historical starting point for these airplanes,” he professed. “Such planes were used during the Louisiana Maneuvers here in the 1940s. It was their proving ground before being shipped overseas by the thousands. Flying this plane reminds me that some qualities are best never forgotten.”
Reflecting on Four Decades
San Antonio Express-News printed in 1982, “Checking the gas is simple on this spotter plane. The gauge is a wire attached to a cork.” The floating wire is clearly visible from both inside or outside the cockpit. Liaison is conceivably a misleading term to describe what the what the light two-place airplanes actually did in their wartime service. Their contribution was in their versatility. “Low and slow, that’s how they flew in directing artillery fire or spotting enemy troops and tanks. They could land on any road, in any field. One landed on a fishing pier in Manila and took off again later from the same pier,” the newspaper article exclaimed.
The first specialized liaison airplane, the Stinson L-5, is represented at ALG. Before helicopters revolutionized battlefield casualty removal, a medevac configured L-5 allowing a litter onboard served in this capacity. The newspaper article further recorded, “The group’s rarest acquisition was a tangle of tubing, wires and rotted canvas, the L-1 [also manufactured by Stinson]. The largest of the liaisons used, it was one of four known to exist, found in the Alaskan wilderness.”
A newsletter of the San Antonio Real Estate Association noted two years later as ALG acquired additional property at Cannon Field for a runway expansion, “The group of area businessmen, bankers and retired military personnel… maintains the only complete set of flying WWII liaison aircrafts which were built between 1939 and 1945.” In 1984, this included the rare and then flying L-1 Vigilant. ALG at the time had formed a more complete set of L-birds than that maintained by the Army Aviation and Air Force Museums. The organization was 50 strong, and the non-pilot members (half or so in number) were flight training in the 40-year-old planes they restored.
Little Airplane, Big Job
AOPA Pilot writer Barry Schiff, along with photographer Mike Fizer, paid a visit and flew the squadron’s aircraft during the ALS annual picnic in April 2015. The upshot was an article, “Little airplane, big job – The Poor Man’s Warbird” published in the July 2015 edition of the magazine. Schiff wrote: “A group of pilots dedicated to honoring and keeping alive the memory of the L-birds and their pilots… is unabashedly patriotic.” Emphasizing further, “A claim that small tube-and-fabric liaison airplanes were the most feared American aircraft of WWII seems incredulous, almost laughable. But those aware of the facts argue persuasively that the claim is true.”
The introduction of a new category of aircraft prompted challenges for the military. Through innovation, American liaison squadrons were able to overcome their challenges. Liaison aircraft were comparatively slow and short range aircraft. Flying them across the English Channel, for example, required advance planning and for some supplemental fuel. Operations in the Pacific required considerably more preparedness. Hence, the the aforementioned Brodie landing system was conceived. Born of the Landing Ship, Tank (LST) naval vessel first developed during WWII to facilitate direct-to-shore tank landing operations, a converted LST was used with L-birds.
These ships were in size (length ≈300 ft x beam 50 ft) large enough for an L-bird to land and takeoff from, however impractical given the entire deck would be required. A launch platform was constructed easily enough in the available deck space, but landing would be difficult at best. The experimental, and appreciably successful, Brodie landing system was developed to “retrieve” a slow flying plane by wire on cranes hung laterally abreast the ship then lower them onto the LST deck.
Other liaison centric innovations, the stuff of legend, also emerged from WWII. Charles Carpenter, brazenly dubbed “Bazooka Charlie,” was an Army Major assigned to the 1st Bombardment Division in France. He created an ad hoc gunship of his L-4 by mounting M1 Bazookas under its wings. According to postwar lore, he used them successfully to take out a tank.
In today’s backcountry-centric flying world, the hanging of gun cases, fishing poles, and even bicycles under the wings can been seen giving nod to the creativity and innovation of Bazooka Charlie.
Like the larger cabined L-5, an ambulance configuration of the Piper Cub was also built. It was able to accommodate a stretcher with a convertible “turtledeck” aft fuselage. Designated HE-1, then later AE-1, 100 examples were delivered to both the Navy and Marines for use at remote air stations beginning in 1942.
The AE-1 was derived from the Piper J-5C, a rare Cub built with a wider two-passenger rear seat and pilot in front. This slightly bigger passenger compartment, with seat removed, gave the AE-1 the ability to carry, theoretically, two stretchers (see photo). The AE-1 had a 75-hp engine, compared the 65-hp in the kindred J-3 and L-4 models.
A vital medevac service employed by all L-birds involved the dropping of supplies, medical or otherwise, via parachute as illustrated in a period Piper Cub ad. Delivery of supplies via parachute was common in military aviation and the L-birds were no exception.
Conversely, the light and low flying L-birds could retrieve terrestrial items in a decidedly low-tech but effective manner. Another Piper Cub ad illustrates the airplane swooping down with a fish hook to retrieve a message and “speed it to headquarters.”
STOL is What It’s All About
A pair of L-bird replicas, 2006 and 2008 Legend Cubs, that have flown with ALS are but a sampling of what liaison-type aircraft look like today. Some copies are known as Carbon, Savage and Patrol, some as Bush, Boss and Bear, others as Super, Patriot and even the Mother-of-all-Cubs. Each is still a Cub of the liaison-type in its unique form. Such imitations of the low, slow flying L-birds are ubiquitous and laudatory, and a testament to the Cub’s merit. When the military desired a short take off and landing aircraft, they got one that proved its worth.
Among the things changed with contemporary copies… tires got fatter, HP made ’em go faster. Digital avionics facilitated navigation, communications and systems monitoring. The list of betterments is long. However, the essence is the same. Flying into a makeshift landing zone. Experiencing the unknown. All it takes is a heroic pilot and a field-wise mechanic. The rest is history in the making, where anything is possible owing to the enduring L-bird.
Still Flying Here, 80+ Years
Summarizing the golden anniversary of L-birds, H.G. Frautschy, long time editor of Vintage Airplane magazine, penned in the June 1992 edition of Sport Aviation magazine, “The idea had not come to Bill Piper in a sudden inspiration… [army officers, mid 1940] had been experimenting with a civilian Piper Cub they had rented from Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio, TX.” Over 80 years later, the liaisons, the grasshoppers, the Cubs and Flying Jeeps are still doing just that—flying at Cannon Field, a certain nonwooded 30 aker plot within viewing distance of downtown San Antonio.
The group seeks to perpetuate, in the memory and hearts of the American people, the spirit in which the liaison pilots, their crews and the airplanes served in the defense of a nation. – Alamo Liaison Squadron