By Robert F. Dorr
A Stinson L-5 Sentinel aircraft is a proud part of activities at Culpeper Regional Airport in Virginia where the volunteers of National Capitol Squadron (NCS) of the Commemorative Air Force preserve and fly historic World War II aircraft. The L-5 aircraft type is contemporary with the founding of organic U. S. Army aviation on June 6, 1942. During World War II and thereafter, the term "organic Army aviation" distinguished soldiers with wings from members of the Army Air Forces, or AAF, which later became the U.S. Air Force. Unlike AAF aircraft, Army planes were assigned to ground battalions, brigades and divisions. They supported infantry, ferried the brass around the battlefield, and pulled artillery-spotting duty.
The heaviest and sturdiest Army airplane in this category was the L-5. These aircraft were known briefly as observation planes, during which time the Sentinel was briefly called the O-54 in one version and the O-62 in another. From 1942 onward they were "liaison" aircraft and the L-5 designation stuck. The Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps called the same plane the OY although in everyday conversation it remained the L-5.
It was the second most common liaison plane in Army service during the war, being outnumbered only by the similar but lighter Piper L-4 Cub.
The Stinson company of Wayne, Michigan, maker of the L-5, was peopled with pioneers, including Katherine Stinson who learned to fly in 1911 and received the fourth U. S. pilot's license issued to a woman. With brother Eddie Stinson at the helm, the firm built tri-motored transports in the 1930s and observation craft in the 1940s.
The first prototype L-5 made its maiden flight at Wayne on June 28, 1941. A six-cylinder horizontal opposed air-cooled Lycoming O-435-C engine provided power. Early tests showed an exceptional ability to land and take off from small, unpaved strips.
L-5s began to reach Field Artillery units in 1943. A single L-5 was on the scene when Allied troops landed at Anzio, Italy, in 1944. Former Captain A. W. "Dutch" Schultz of Clear Lake, Iowa, carried out artillery spotting missions in the plane. "You could be a sitting duck in this airplane if the enemy decided to gain a victory," Schultz said later.L-5 pilots made up for their lack of armament and armor with stealth, agility, and innovation. "We didn't call it 'nap of the earth flying' then," said former First Lieutenant Rod Betz of Tucson, Ariz. "That's the term they use today. But we tried to hug the terrain, to use natural elevation to shield ourselves from their eyes and their guns."
After the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944, L-5s suddenly were everywhere. Some were equipped to lay field telephone wire as American troops marched across Europe. Others were rigged to carry a stretcher to evacuate wounded. An L-5 took "Old Blood and Guts," Lieutenant General George S. Patton on a tour of the battlefront on August 8, 1944.
From 1942 on, Stinson manufactured 3,608 L-5s. They eventually served in all U.S. military service branches and in all combat theaters. L-5s were in action when the Allies crossed the Rhine River to begin the final assault on Germany in 1945, and were busy on Okinawa where the last great ground battle with Japan was fought. The Army retained only a few L-5s in the postwar years, but the aircraft served well into the 1950s with other service branches.The L-5 has a wingspan of 34 feet and weighs about 2,300 pounds when fully loaded. Its maximum speed is 128 miles per hour at sea level.
About 100 L-5s are still flying in civilian hands today. The one operated by the Commemorative Air Force's NCS squadron at Culpeper is is painted to represent "Gayle Ann," an L-5 used for artillery spotting duty by the 25th Liaison Squadron, Thirteenth Air Force, in the Philippines in 1945. Pilot Staff Sergeant Jerry Felter and observer Captain Leo Kellett flew the real, wartime "Gayle Ann."
The Culpeper L-5 is currently grounded for engine maintenance and is expected to be back in the air at the end of March. "This is living history," said Dan Haug, unit leader of the National Capitol Squadron. " Our squadron hopes to honor those who served, educate citizens about our military heritage, and inspire young people to see a future in aviation."
Learn more about the NCS squadron by finding them on Facebook or by going to this web site: http://www.nationalcapitolsquadron.org/
Robert F. Dorr