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NEWS | Aug. 11, 2022

Editorial: The Rise of the U.S. Air Power, 1903-1941: The Wright Brothers, World War I and Interwar Innovation

By Stuart R. Lockhart 305 AMW/HO 87th Air Base Wing

The birth of powered flight, courtesy of Orville and Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio, is a decidedly American story. For centuries, mankind had dreamed of breaking free from the hold of gravity to take to the air to soar the heavens like the birds. While flight in the form of tethered balloons had existed prior to their world-breaking attempt on 17 December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, it took the innovativeness, patience, resilience, and ingenuity of these two self-taught bicycle makers to allow man satisfactory control over the forces of pitch, roll, and yaw to make the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft. While there had been many similar attempts prior to their 1903 flight, the Wrights were the first to do so successfully. Their success changed the world forever!

At first, many observers believed that the invention of the airplane would promote peace in the world. Characteristic of this attitude was that of Dayton’s Mayor Edward Burkhart. When he honored his city’s most famous sons and their accomplishments in June 1909, he stated, “With the perfect development of the airplane, wars will be only an incident of past ages.” There is some irony in Burkhart’s words – the U.S. Army bought their first aircraft from the Wrights that same year, the first military organization in the world to do so. From the beginning, the Wright Brothers saw their invention being marketed almost solely to the U.S. government.

Interestingly, the U.S. Army initially expressed indifference toward the new invention and stated on 24 October 1905 that no further action on their part would be taken "until a machine is produced which by actual operation is shown to be able to produce horizontal flight and to carry an operator." This skepticism proved short-lived. In December 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps issued Specification 486 for constructing a flying machine under military contract. Two months later, on 8 February 1908, the Army awarded their contract to the Wrights -- the first procurement of an aircraft for the service in its history.

Additional testing began, including the carriage aloft of radio equipment and machine guns. With greater numbers of flights came greater numbers of mishaps including the first military fatality from a flying accident. 1st Lt Thomas Selfridge died from injuries he sustained during a demonstration flight flown by Orville Wright at Ft. Myer, Virginia, on 17 September 1908. One characteristic of early aviation pioneers that has proven timeless was their tenacity in the face of adversity. They believed in what the airplane “could” achieve with greater time, energy and exploration. Often, mythology trumped reality. The services also trained their initial cadre of pilots and on 5 July 1912, Captain Charles DeForest Chandler and 2nd Lieutenants Thomas DeWitt Milling and Henry H. Arnold became the first qualified “Military Aviators.” This front rank of pilots included many future leaders of military aviation organizations. Chandler was the first head of the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps of the U.S. Army, while “Hap” Arnold would achieve five-star general rank and command the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.

The spirit of nationalistic competition between the European nations that were characteristic of the years prior to the start of World War I saw advances and developments in aircraft design and development at a rapid pace, more so overseas than in America. The British and French especially showed the most significant interest in acquiring evolving versions of the Wright Flyer. The prevailing opinion was that the aircraft was a means for reconnaissance and observation only. Limitations in the carrying capacity of the frail craft of the time made this view nearly universally accepted. The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 changed all of that.

War is often that event that spurs the development and evolution of technology, and in the case of the airplane, this generalization is correct. World War I did more to develop aircraft than the impact of aircraft on the outcome of the war itself. While aircraft at the start of the war had all of the appearances of being only a generation removed from the original Wright Flyer, by the end of the war in 1918, modern concepts of what an aircraft should look like took shape. While propellers, rotary, and reciprocating engines were the norm with structures made of wood and covered with cloth fabric, the capabilities of what an aircraft could do, hold and carry underwent a remarkable transformation during those four years of combat. Air forces consisting of only a handful of aircraft and pilots in 1914 expanded many times over by the end of the war. Likewise, in the first major conflict in which aircraft were used on a large scale, virtually every major role of military aviation was developed from reconnaissance to fighters to bombers to attack.

While these observations were generally true of the European powers, the development of American military aviation and industry lagged behind. While the U.S. was still at peace, the first American military use of aircraft occurred during the 1916 Mexican Expedition. The 1st Aero Squadron, under the command of aviation pioneer and military aviator #5, Captain Benjamin Foulois, supported Brigadier General John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition against Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. On 16 March, Foulois and Captain Townsend Dodd flew the first American military “sortie” south of the border over Mexico in the illusive search for Villa. This first operational use of aircraft in the U.S. Army did not end well. Within two months, all six aircraft assigned to the squadron had been destroyed due to a combination of high altitudes, severe weather, and hot, dry conditions.

On the heels of the foray into Mexico ending, the U.S. declared war on Germany and the Central Powers on 2 April 1917, thus entering World War I. No section of the American military saw as much expansion as that in aviation. Soon after the American entry into the war, the French government, with some prompting by an American liaison officer by the name of Major William “Billy” Mitchell, requested the delivery of 4,500 airplanes, 5,000 pilots, and 50,000 mechanics from the U.S. The American General Staff, on learning of this request, thought it was outrageous. President Woodrow Wilson and Congress, on the other hand, voted for a $640 million appropriation to meet it, the largest single appropriation in U.S. history. The issue for America in expanding its air power to meet the demands of the war was not will, but capacity. The country did not have the industrial capability and craftsmen to meet the demands of such expansion. Consequently, 80% of the aircraft used by the U.S. Air Service in combat were provided mainly from French sources.

Once America entered the war, however, their record of accomplishment in the air began. While the U.S. role in combat was limited to only about the last six months of the conflict, by the time of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, far more aviators were celebrities than their ground or naval counterparts. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, well beyond his early and later notoriety in auto racing and commercial aviation, was forever known as America’s “ace of aces” with 26 “kills” to his credit and among the most highly decorated heroes of the nation. He shared glory with other luminaries like 1st Lieutenant Frank Luke, the “Arizona balloon buster,” and second highest scoring ace with 19 victories. Both airmen received the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. While the ranks of military pilots of the period were overwhelmingly white and male, a number of the combatants had pilots of color in their ranks. This included the first African-American fighter pilot, Eugene Jacques Bullard, who flew in combat as a member of the French air service.

At senior levels, airpower zealots like Colonel Billy Mitchell, in tactical command of all U.S. Air Service units in France, were determined to show what airpower could achieve on the battlefield. In September 1918, he planned and led nearly 1,500 Allied aircraft in one of the first coordinated air-ground offensives in history during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. Mitchell was promoted to Brigadier General by the time of the Armistice and would use his position and prominence to advocate for an expanded role for military aviation going into the post-war period. After the war, his aggressiveness and public pronouncements to advocate for a greater commitment toward the field of aviation and its expanded role in the nation’s defense were where Mitchell ran into trouble, leading to his public court-martial in 1925 and retirement from the service the following year. While Mitchell’s role as a proponent for military aviation within the service was cut short, perhaps his greatest legacy was the vision he instilled in his “apostles” such as Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz, Ira Eaker, and the staff of the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) at Maxwell in the 1930s who continued his legacy of seeking an independent path for land-based aviation. That path began soon after Mitchell’s retirement with the passage of the Air Corps Act, giving greater autonomy to the nation’s aviators. To be sure, Mitchell shares a place among the great airpower theorists of the period, including Italy’s Giulio Douhet and Britain’s “Father of the Royal Air Force,” Lord Hugh Trenchard.

As the decade of the 1920s came to a close and the 1930s opened, aircraft of the era held much in common with the technology of World War I. As the new decade proceeded, however, change came quickly with the advent of better, more efficient, and powerful aircraft engines, the transition from biplanes to monoplanes of cantilever design, the reduction of drag through such features and retractable landing gear, and the use of metal throughout aircraft construction, replacing wood and cloth. The idea that “the bomber will always get through,” in the words of Britain’s Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, predominated the thinking of airpower proponents as the capability of multiengine aircraft surpassed that of period fighters. When the most advanced aircraft of the time in the form of Boeing’s four-engine Model 299 (later called the YB-17, the forerunner of World War II’s “Flying Fortress”) fused with a device like Carl Norden’s Mark XV bombsight, the Air Corps had the means at hand to make “precision” strategic bombardment against an enemy’s vital industries a reality and along with it, the path to independence for American aviation. The lessons stemming from such conflicts as the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39 had yet to disprove these firmly held air power theories, and it would take the experiences of another world war to do so.

At the time of America’s entry into World War II, Orville Wright still hoped that the airplane would be an instrument of peace. In an April 1942 letter to Henry Ford, he wrote: “I quite agree with you that the aero plane will be our main reliance in restoring peace to the World.” Later, after the end of that war, he expressed sadness with the level of destruction wrought by aircraft and their employment in the bloodiest human event in history.

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a 5 part series on the history of the U.S. Air Force from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Historians.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official guidance or position of the Department of Defense or the United States (U.S.) Government.