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The 75th anniversary of the founding of the United States Air Force (USAF) occurred on September 18, 2022. The “birthday” of this branch of the United States armed forces was and is being celebrated by millions across the nation and the world. FreightWaves also celebrates this anniversary and salutes the men and women who currently serve and those who have served our nation as members of the United States Air Force and its predecessors.
However, before the USAF was created, the military’s flying operations were handled by the U.S. Army on land and the U.S. Navy by sea.
As noted by James M. Lindsay in a blog post on the Council of Foreign Relations website (cfr.org), on September 18, 1947, Supreme Court “Chief Justice Fred Vinson swore in Stuart Symington as the first Secretary of the Air Force, officially founding a new branch of the U.S. military. General Carl A. Spaatz became the USAF’s first chief of staff eight days later on September 26, 1947.”
Orville Wright made aviation history near Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, with the world’s first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight on December 17, 1903. Roughly 10 months later, on September 20, 1904, his brother, Wilbur Wright, made the first circular flight of a powered aircraft. Wright was piloting the Wright Flyer II airplane at Huffman Prairie, a “patch of rough pasture in southwestern Ohio.” The flight lasted 96 seconds.
Less than three years later (August 1, 1907), the U.S. Army Signal Corps formed an Aeronautical Division. It was put in “charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines and all kindred subjects.” The Aeronautical Division was the first heavier-than-air military aviation organization in history and the beginning of what eventually became the USAF.
The Aeronautical Division purchased the first powered military aircraft from the Wright brothers in 1909 (the Wright A Military Flyer), created schools to train its aviators, and started a rating system to qualify pilots.
In Galveston, Texas, on March 5, 1913, the Chief Signal Officer designated the assembled men and equipment as the “1st Provisional Aero Squadron.” Capt. Charles DeF. Chandler was selected as squadron commander, and the squadron began flying activities a few days later. It was re-designated as the 1st Aero Squadron as of December 8, 1913. This was the “first military unit of the U.S. Army devoted exclusively to aviation.” It is now designated as the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, and it has remained active continuously since its creation. The squadron was assigned a role in the Punitive Expedition of the Mexican border in 1916, and therefore became the U.S. Army’s first air combat unit.
The U.S. Congress gave statutory authorization for the Signal Corps’ Aviation Section, and President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation into law on July 18, 1914. The act directed the Aviation Section to operate and supervise “all military [U.S. Army] aircraft, including balloons and aeroplanes, all appliances pertaining to said craft, and signaling apparatus of any kind when installed on said craft.” In addition, the Aviation Section would also train “officers and enlisted men in matters pertaining to military aviation,” (all facets of the Army’s air organization and operation). The Aviation Section was composed of 60 officers and 260 enlisted men.
World War I began in Europe in August 1914. At that time, the 1st Aero Squadron was the U.S. Army’s entire tactical air strength. It had 12 officers, 54 enlisted men, and six aircraft. By December 1915 the Aviation Section had grown to 44 officers, 224 enlisted men, and 23 airplanes. However, the nations at war had larger air forces than the United States at that time.
Congress appropriated $500,000 for the Aviation Section on March 31, 1916. Congress also passed the National Defense Act, increasing the number of personnel authorized in the Aviation Section. Then, on August 29, 1916, Congress appropriated over $13 million for military aeronautics and $600,000 for the acquisition of land to be used for airfields. These appropriations were influenced by the possibility of U.S. entry into the European war.
At that time, the Aviation Section “consisted of the Aeronautical Division, the Signal Corps Aviation School at San Diego, the 1st Aero Squadron (then on duty with the expeditionary force in Mexico), and the 1st Company, 2d Aero Squadron, on duty in the Philippines.”
According to the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), by October 1916, expansion plans for the Aviation Section included 24 squadrons (seven for the U.S. Army, 12 for National Guard divisions, and five for coastal defense), as well as balloon units for the field and coast artillery. By December 1916 the seven U.S. Army squadrons were either organized or were in process. The 24 squadrons were formed by early 1917, but the 1st Aero Squadron was still the only one fully organized and equipped. Plans for further expansion of the Aviation Section were incomplete when the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.
The Aviation Section’s inefficiency mobilizing for World War I caused the War Department to create an organization that became the foundation of the Army’s Air Service in April 1918.
World War I – United States Army Air Service
On May 20, 1918, President Wilson signed an executive order that transferred aviation responsibilities from the Signal Corps to two agencies under the Secretary of War – the Bureau of Aircraft Production and the Division of Military Aeronautics. The War Department officially recognized these two Army agencies as the Air Service of the U.S. Army on May 24.
The first U.S. aviation squadron entered combat in February 1918, and was manned mostly by pilots who had previously volunteered as aviators with the French. American-trained squadrons soon joined the fighting.
Most American aviators flew French planes, since U.S. aircraft production was still behind schedule. Training was extremely hazardous, causing twice as many deaths as combat. Additionally, new U.S. pilots faced experienced German foes, resulting in heavy losses when American flyers first began aerial combat.
Despite the various challenges, American pilots steadily improved; 71 U.S. Air Service pilots shot down at least five aircraft, earning “ace” status. Former race car driver Eddie Rickenbacker led all Americans with 26 “kills.” U.S. aviators helped beat back the German offensives in the spring of 1918, and helped control the skies in the final Allied offensives of the war.
By November 1918 (just prior to the armistice), the American Expeditionary Force’s air forces were organized into 14 groups – “seven observation, five pursuit and two bombardment.”
The Air Service engaged in combat for only nine months – between February and November 1918. On Armistice Day (November 11, 1918) there were 740 U.S. aircraft assigned to squadrons at the front. This was only about 10% of total Allied aircraft. Despite their relatively small numbers, the Air Service had conducted 150 separate bombing attacks, and had dropped approximately 138 tons of bombs. In total, Air Service pilots downed over 750 enemy aircraft and 76 enemy balloons. It lost 289 airplanes and 48 balloons during combat.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the Air Force Historical Research Agency, the Council on Foreign Relations, military.com, veteran.com, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), worldwar1centennial.org, and of course the United States Air Force for information and photos that contributed to this article.
Part 2 of this article will appear tomorrow and cover the time “Between the wars (1919-1939).”