BY JAMES P. BUSHA Not all warbirds had huge engines and breathed fire from multiple gunports. Some were designed to serve ground troops in a manner no other airplane
could muster. Enter the Grasshopper.
In the summer of 1941, with a world war knocking at America’s door, the U.S. Army
was itching for a “low and slow” observation plane. The Army wanted one that could
loiter near and over the hidden enemy and, when spotted, could then coordinate
with artillery units to rain destruction down upon the foe. During the Louisiana war
games of 1941, three of the big names in aviation—Taylorcraft, Aeronca, and Piper—
showed up to play, each with a proven, off-the-shelf candidate, in hopes of winning
a lucrative military contact. The Stinson L-1 Vigilant, already on line, significantly
dwarfed the civilian entrants. Needless to say, “bigger” was not better, as the little
“grasshoppers” won the day.
As with all military aircraft, the three contenders were given alphanumeric
designations with their fresh coats of Army green paint. The original military letter
code for an observation aircraft was “O,” but it was changed to “L” (for “liaison”)
in 1942. The “L-birds” were all fabric covered, similar in length and wingspan, and
carried a pilot and observer seated in tandem surrounded by a glass greenhouse. The
same well-built and proven “bulletproof engine,” the Continental A- 65, powered
most of the early models, until the purpose-built Stinson L- 5 arrived with a bigger
airframe and bigger Lycoming O-435 190hp engine.