It was 11:05 a.m, and Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker of the American 94th Aero Squadron decided to fly one last mission. On that date, Nov. 11, 1918, nobody was supposed to be flying over the battlefields in France, but Rickenbacker wanted to see what the front looked like when at peace. For close to 20 minutes he flew low over the trenches of both sides, above grimy and war-weary men who had just begun to realize that they might live to see another day. Flying in his powerful Spad XIII, Rickenbacker had over an 18-month period witnessed the rapid transformation of U.S. Army aviation, going from an infantile force of a few dozen antiquated machines to a tremendous armada composed of thousands of aircraft. The rate of this transformation had been truly breathtaking. As we prepare to celebrate Veterans Day 2013, let us take an excursion through time to look at the challenges and triumphs of early Army aviation.
Army aviation began with a series of fits and starts during the Civil War, where both North and South experimented with balloons to provide observation platforms for battlefield commanders. Both sides even experimented with what could be best described as a helicopter. Yet, despite best efforts and support from some field commanders, these early efforts ran into a road block of insufficient technological advances to make the ideas truly practical. The Spanish-American War of 1898 provided another opportunity for balloons. While the United States deployed only one to Cuba it made several ascensions and participated in operations at San Juan Hill. Though seriously damaged during the action, this balloon had demonstrated its worth to Army commanders. Nevertheless, and despite successful balloon operations in Europe, congressional funding for Army aeronautics was parsimonious at best. But while the federal government quibbled over funding, civilians relished the sporting aspects of ballooning, leading to the founding of the Aero Club of America in 1905. This organization, a spinoff of the Automobile Club of America (part of the future AAA), would be crucial in providing the early basis for military aviation in the United States.
While ballooning was seen as a sporting activity by many, fixed wing aviation was another matter. The critical technical problem was the development of a reliable and lightweight engine that could provide sufficient horsepower to put a heavier-than-air machine into flight. The achievement of Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903 demonstrated that powered flight was possible, and soon the major military forces of the world became keenly interested in how powered flight could be applied to combat situations. While it is often stated in many historical works that the world’s military establishments pursued aviation with excessive caution, it must be understood that they were in fact far ahead of their civilian counterparts, for prior to World War I there was yet no theoretical civilian application for aircraft. Thus, it was the armies of the world that led the way in looking for applications of the new technology. Naturally, there were still a host of skeptics, with many stating openly as late as 1914 that the airplane would provide no more service than reconnaissance and liaison.
Despite the fact that the Wright brothers were from the United States, this nation was slower than others to adopt powered flight for its Army. It was in Europe, especially France and Great Britain, where the most aggressive experiments in aviation took place. Much of this was driven by the ever present military tension in that part of the world, and thus European governments were more willing to fund aircraft development. But for the United States, funding was minimal and training near nonexistent, with the first Army pilots receiving their primary instruction based on civilian standards. It was not until 1912 that the requirements for the rating of “military aviator” were established under the auspices of the Army Signal Corps. On May 27, 1913, the Army issued General Order 39 listing the first 24 military aviators in the Army, even though as of October 1912 they had but 10 aircraft in their inventory. In contrast, France alone had received more than 200 machines since 1911, and Great Britain’s aviation budget was eight times that of the United States in 1912. Even the air services of Russia and Italy were larger than that of the Army, with the latter having already conducted operational missions in North Africa in 1912. Clearly, the Army had a long way to go.
The list of these early Army aviators is laced with names that would later become storied figures in Army aviation. Among them was Henry “Hap” Arnold, a first lieutenant in 1912 who would rise to the rank of colonel by August 1917 to lead the Army’s technology development effort that would create among other things the powerful Liberty engine. He would later retire with five-star rank from the Air Force. Then there was Benjamin Foulois, a first lieutenant in 1912 who at one time was the only qualified pilot in the Army’s air service. He would rise to the rank of brigadier general in 1918 and serve in various aviation command positions in France during World War I. Another was Lewis Brereton, a newly minted second lieutenant in 1912 who commanded the observation squadrons in France during World War I, and near the end of the war suggested parachuting a select group of 1st Infantry Division Soldiers on the German-held fortress of Metz, making this the first proposed, though not executed, airborne mission in history. Brereton would later command the First Allied Airborne Army during World War II’s Operation Market-Garden conducted in September 1944, as well as a subsequent airborne assault across the Rhine River in early 1945.
In addition to the fame garnished by early Army fliers, as many as one-third of the original 24 would die in aviation accidents in just a few years, highlighting just how far into the envelope these men had traveled. This high accident rate of aviators aptly stresses the many challenges faced by these men in the pioneering days of powered flight. The complexities of flight and flying were not well-known or readily understood in those early, heady days, and while those promising Army pilots, like their counterparts in Europe, made up for lack of knowledge with enthusiasm, the latter could not often compensate for insufficient understanding of aeronautics and physics. For example, early pilots did not wear seat belts or safety harnesses, and many a budding aviator, or aviatrix in the case of Harriet Quimby, became fatalities simply by being haplessly thrown from a lurching aircraft. It was not until late 1912 that the safety harness was promoted by the Aero Club of America, too late to save Quimby and her passenger from their fatal fall over Boston harbor. Besides being thrown, some pilots were killed or seriously injured when their aircraft encountered strange flying conditions, oftentimes without any obvious indicators.
Other pilots were killed or suffered a variety of injuries from miscalculations, particularly when taking off or landing. One pilot, while flying a Burgess floatplane to Army maneuvers, attempted a steep bank immediately after takeoff. His wingtip clipped the water and sent the machine cart wheeling. He and his passenger swam to safety. Another pilot flipped his aircraft over while landing, driving him bodily into the ground with such force that his head made a 5-inch furrow in the turf. His helmet saved his life, though he suffered serious enough injuries to keep him off flight status for almost five years. “Hap” Arnold, who set Army altitude records, lost control of one aircraft over Fort Riley, Kan., which went into a terrifying spin from which he barely recovered in time to land. The incident so unnerved him that he refused to fly for four years. Ironically, this same aircraft, in a later incident similar to what Arnold experienced, would kill 2nd Lt. Henry Post in early 1914.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series. Part 2 will recall problems with Army aviation and the challenges of Army aviation leading up to World War I.