When the Alamo Liaison Group (ALG) was formed in 1981 by a group of San Antonio area aviators, the mission was to acquire and restore “liaison aircraft” that were flown by the U.S. military in World War II. The aircraft would be kept in flying condition, following their recovery and reconstruction, for the purpose of honoring those who operated them and all who served.
Led by Hardy Cannon, a Master Mechanic, ALG completed in 1982 the restoration of a 1941 Stinson L-1, a 1941 Taylorcraft L-2, a 1942 Aeronca L-3, a 1942 Piper L-4, a 1942 Stinson L-5, and a 1942 Interstate L-6. This collection of “L-birds” (L for liaison) represented the inaugural class in a succession of aircraft used principally by the Army Air Forces. 1
The most substantial of these aircraft, for reasons outlined herein, was the Stinson L-1 Vigilant. The L-1, as it is most commonly called, derived from Stinson Aircraft Company’s civilian Model 74. It was identified by the military as O-49, originally among the class of “observation” aircraft. In April 1942, the O-49 turned L-1, as the liaison designation ran ascendant to observation.
The roles of liaison aircraft required simplicity in every respect, beginning with manufacturing and aircraft deliveries in the field. The verity of improvised maintenance and the need for universality of pilot/crew operations weighed heavily in combat activities. The L-1 was a bear, when the Army demanded a cub.
Fortunately for the Army, succeeding L-birds would prove ideal. They were lighter and smaller, yet delivered results with greater and weightier outcomes. For the units employing them, demand for their services often outstretched the ability to supply them. Nevertheless, they were produced by the tens of thousands.
The L-1 was superseded in procurement by vast numbers of the Piper L-4 (in addition to similar Aeronca and Taylorcraft models) and the later model Stinson L-5 Sentinel. Nearly 4,000 L-5 examples were produced. Peak production of the L-4 was one aircraft every 20 minutes. Piper delivered over 19,000 of them between 1938 and 1947. The smaller L-birds earned the nicknames “puddle-jumper” and “grasshopper.”
The L-1 was by no means inferior. It was extremely well-built, well-equipped, and performed to the standard-setting Fieseler Storch that spawned its creation. The L-1 served with U.S. and Allied forces beginning 1941, and up to 1947 with the Royal Air Force. The proliferation of simplicity, and ubiquity, within the liaison function necessitated its demise. The L-1 was the largest L-bird used in World War II.
The Stinson L-1 Vigilant was used throughout the world, seeing service in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Alaska. Its primary missions included running supplies, transporting key personnel and medical evacuation. The L-1 was also used in diverse roles such as towing training gliders, spotting artillery, plus liaison and special espionage flights. Some L-1 aircraft were modified to perform amphibious air ambulance missions.
The Stinson O-49 / L-1 was conceived in response to a 1938 United States Army Air Corps competition for a two-seat light observation aircraft. When a German-manufactured Fieseler Storch was demonstrated at the Cleveland Air Races—a national air race competition taking place in the U.S. since 1920—the Air Corps revised its specifications in an attempt to match the performance of the impressive Storch.
Stinson Aircraft Company won the $1.5 million contract with the O-49 beating eleven competitors. A second contract was later awarded to Stinson, now a division of Vultee Aircraft Corporation, for the O-49A which had a slightly longer fuselage and other equipment changes. In all, 324 iterations of the Stinson O-49 / L-1 were built.
The Stinson Model 74, on which the O-49 / L-1 was based, was a high-wing monoplane with a single radial engine. It incorporated trailing-edge high-lift devices for low speed and high lift performance. The prototype aircraft was built with full-span leading-edge automatic slots manufactured by Handley Page, and slotted flaps. Both improved the airplane’s angle of attack and stall speed.
The aircraft was built of steel tubing and fabric, with the fuselage forward of the wing covered in sheet metal. Control surfaces and the empennage were fabric-covered stainless steel. The Lycoming power plant, capable of 295 hp, was hand-cranked inertia starting, and was fitted with a Hamilton Standard constant speed propeller. First flight of the Model V-74 / YO-49 designated prototype took place on July 15, 1940.
The Vigilant was capable of stopping in less than its own length, and could maintain stable flight at 31 miles per hour. Anecdotally, it was said to be capable of backwards flight in a strong headwind. While the lighter L-birds could achieve the same, this performance was stunning for the larger, heavier L-1.
Up to 17 L-1 and 96 L-1A aircraft were allocated to the British Royal Air Force under the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. 2 The RAF designated the aircraft the Vigilant Mk I and Vigilant Mk II respectively. In Canada, General Harry Crerar, Commander of the First Canadian Army in Europe during World War II, maintained a Vigilant for his personal use.
The ALG Restoration
Throughout the years a number of L-birds have operated from Cannon Field, home to the now renamed Alamo Liaison Squadron (ALS). These include actual L-birds with military history and other modern constructions that resemble the warbirds. The L-1 is a rarity, one that is difficult to replace or replicate. Fortunately, the first L-1 restoration, undertaken by ALG, still survives. Its history traced, it now rests at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage, Alaska.
The aircraft was constructed in 1941 as an O-49A Vigilant, a lengthened (by 13 inches) version of the original O-49. It was later configured as a model L-1F which included amphibious Edo floats and an ambulance configuration. Only five conversions done were done this way. The aircraft was put into service in 1941 with the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) as serial number 41-18915. It was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps on December 22, 1941.
After serving in several southern states, 41-18915 was shipped to Alaska for service with the 11th Air Force at Fairbanks and Anchorage in 1944. This aircraft was stationed in Nome, participating in search-and-rescue operations as part of the Lend-Lease Act from 1942–1945.
Following WWII, 41-18915 was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It gained its civilian registry of N704 and was operated in Anchorage, Alaska from 1947–1953.
The ‘L-1A’ was later registered as N704E by Lawrence E. Flahart of Anchorage, Alaska on December 6, 1953 (until 1972). On July 1, 1974, a certificate of airworthiness for N1ZS (L-1F s/n 41-18915) was issued.
The L-1F floatplane was withdrawn from use between 1977 and 1981 by James Harrower of Anchorage, Alaska. It was subsequently bought by Bill Stratton and, with floats removed and wheels installed, flown to San Antonio, Texas on May 27, 1982. Stratton also purchased what existed of L-1 N1377B s/n 41-19015 (Harker) for spare parts.
San Antonio Express-News article by Joe Fohn, May 28, 1982: One of the group’s rarest acquisitions consists of a tangle of tubing wires and rotted canvas. Four known. It Is an L-1, the largest liaison plane used and one of four known to exist anywhere. ALG members found it after it had lain for decades in the Alaskan wilderness. Within a year, Stratton said, they hope to have it flying alongside the other five planes. Stratton said the group wrote to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Air Force Museum for a photograph of an L-1 to guide restoration. “The picture they sent us was our plane. It had the same tail number,” Stratton smiled.
The aircraft underwent restoration by ALG in 1982. It was stripped down to the airframe and sandblasted to bare metal so every part could be inspected. Reassembly followed as each part was refinished and installed (Vintage Airplane magazine February 1984). The L-1 then began flying again, as a landplane, to airshows and events:
Hill Country Recorder September 19, 1984: The ALG L-1 was the only restored plane of its type left in the world. Restored in the markings of Bellows Field, Hawaii, December 7, 1941.
Dave Smith of International Liaison Pilot and Aircraft Association, San Antonio, Texas, registered the aircraft in April 1985 (until 1992).
Express-News October 18, 1987, by Nora Lopez: They were called called the “Jungle Angels” during World War II since they swooped down from the heavens bringing medical supplies and hope to the wounded… All six “L-birds” were on display Saturday… there was the Stinson L-1. (The event took place on Saturday 17th. This was the Sunday edition. On the following Monday, the infamous “Black Monday” stock market crash occurred.)
N1ZS (118915) was registered in April 1992 (until 1995) to Dave Smith of San Antonio, Texas.
Karl S. Johnstone of Anchorage, Alaska, registered the aircraft on June 26, 1998.
“The Alaska Aviation Museum purchased 41-18915 from Alaska Judge Karl Johnstone in 2001” (per museum facebook). “The aircraft was donated to the Museum by Karl S. Johnstone in 2002” (per museum website). “It is the sole survivor of approximately 400 L-1s manufactured during WWII.” (per museum website). Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage-Lake Hood, Alaska, registered the aircraft on January 29, 2003.
Restoration began in 2015, and was completed in summer 2016. Alaska Aviation Museum opened the exhibit of its recently finished Stinson L-1 aircraft on September 21, 2016.
- The liaison class would continue to evolve into the 1960s. As warbirds go, the L-birds were generally smaller and often unarmed. They were optimized for specific tasks and all featured short takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities. Others carrying the L-bird moniker include:
- L-7 Universal/Monocoupe/Luscombe pre and post-WWII
- L-8 Interstate Cadet model S-1A (L-6 was model S-1B1)
- L-9 Stinson 3-seat, yet smaller than L-5
- L-10 Ryan 3-seat, only one served
- L-11 Bellanca 31-50 Senior Skyrocket, only one impressed
- L-12 Stinson Reliant, two each of the SR.5A and SR.7B
- L-13 Stinson-Vultee/Convair with folding wing
- L-14 Piper 3-seat
- L-15 Boeing with its unique tailboom and dual downward-mounted stabilizers
- L-16 Aeronca Champion/Champ with slightly better performance than the L-3 Chief
- L-17 Ryan Navion
- L-18 & L-21 Piper Super Cub, a higher performing L-4 Cub
- L-19 Cessna Bird Dog was all-metal
- L-20 de Havilland Canada Beaver 7-seat, similar in size to L-1 with higher payload
- L-24 & L-28 Helio Courier 6-seat
- L-60 Czechoslovakian Brigadýr 4-seat
- Lend-Lease was enacted to aid U.S. allies in the war against Germany, with the donation of nearly 9,000 combat aircraft flown from Great Falls, Montana to the Eastern Front via Canada, Alaska and Siberia. ↩