A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force/The Genesis of American Air Power

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A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force by Stephen L. McFarland
The Genesis of American Air Power

They shall mount up with wings as eagles.
Isaiah 40:31


The Genesis of American Air Power

Americans took to the skies at an early date. Benjamin Franklin considered the possibility of using balloons in warfare in 1783, only days after the first successful hot-air balloon flights in France. John Sherburne, frustrated by the Army's ineffectiveness during the Seminole War of 1840, proposed using balloons for observation above the wilderness that hid the adversary. John Wise, dismayed by the prospects of a long and costly siege of Veracruz during the Mexican War, suggested using balloons in 1846 for bombing defending forces, three years before Austria actually did so against Venice.

John LaMountain and Thaddeus Lowe successfully launched manned reconnaissance balloons in support of Union operations during the American Civil War. In late June 1861 Lowe's map of Confederate positions in Falls Church, Virginia, was the first significant contribution of manned flight to American warfare, although the Union lost the battle at Bull Run in July. The map allowed Lowe to report after the battle that the Confederates were not advancing on Washington. He was thus able to help prevent panic following the defeat. In September he demonstrated the balloon's potential when he directed artillery fire at Confederate


By means of such balloons as the Intrepid, shown being inflated during the Civil War battle at Fair Oaks outside Richmond, Virginia, in the spring of 1862, the Union Army conducted reconnaissance missions over enemy territory in America's first use of air power.
positions. He went on to establish the first U.S. "air force," the Balloon Service of the Army of the Potomac, although weather, technological limitations, bungling, and military opposition prevented further development and exploitation.

His Civil War experience convinced Brigadier General Adolphus Greely of the Army Signal Corps that the balloon's capabilities had been unrealized. As part of a special section formed in 1892, his one balloon directed artillery fire during the Battle of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War and reported the presence of the Spanish fleet at Santiago de Cuba Harbor. This limited success with lighter-than-air balloons (enemy ground fire destroyed the section's balloon in Cuba) encouraged Greely and the Army to give Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, $50,000 in 1898 to build a powered heavier-than-air flying machine. The spectacular failures of Langley's Aerodrome launched over the Potomac River on October 7 and December 8, 1903, soured Army opinions on the practicality of flight for several years. When Orville and Wilbur Wright succeeded in the world's first powered, heavier-than-air, controlled flight on December 17, 1903, the Signal Corps expressed no interest. Establishing the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps on August 1, 1907, the Army ignored the Wrights and their achievement. It preferred experimenting with the steerable airship or dirigible, then being perfected in Europe. The desertion of a private cost the Aeronautical Division half of its enlisted strength, but did not prevent the Army from ordering its first nontethered airship, Dirigible No. 1, for $6,750 in 1908.

The Wrights' successes came to the attention of others, however, and President Theodore Roosevelt directed the Army to entertain bids for an aircraft in late 1907. Meanwhile, intrepid airmen pressed on. Lieutenant Frank Lahm became the first officer to fly in an aircraft in early September 1908. Not even the death of Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, America's first military aviation fatality, killed in what the New York Times called a "wreck of bloodstained wood, wire, and canvas," could stop the advance of military aviation. On August 2, 1909, the Army awarded the Wrights $30,000 for delivering Aeroplane No. 1, and a $5,000 bonus for exceeding specifications. The Aeronautical Division now had one aircraft, but no pilots, ground crews, or training establishment. Wilbur Wright taught Lieutenants Frank Lahm, Benjamin Foulois, and Frederic Humphreys to fly. (He included Humphreys as a passenger on the world's first night flight.) Penury soon reduced America's air force to one pilot (Foulois) flying one much-damaged, much-repaired aircraft.

The Wright Military Flyer during flight tests held at Fort Myer in northern Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., 1908. Orville Wright was at the controls. The Flyer is shown over a gate and wall of nearby Arlington National Cemetery.

This was America's air force until Congress approved $125,000 in 1911 for its expansion, despite the objection of one member: "Why all this fuss about airplanes for the Army? I thought we already had one." In Wright and Curtiss aircraft early Army flyers began stretching aviation's limits with bomb-dropping, photography, and strafing while forming their first unit, the 1st Aero Squadron, on December 8, 1913. These achievements convinced Congress to give the Army's air force official status on July 18, 1914 as the Aviation Section, Signal Corps, which absorbed the Aeronautical Division and its 19 officers, 101 enlisted men, 1 squadron, and 6 combat aircraft.

Orville Wright's first flight in 1903 had lasted twelve seconds; by 1916 flights of four-hours duration had become possible. This progress was soon tested. Brigadier General John Pershing pursued Pancho Villa in Mexico from 1916 to 1917 to bring the Mexican revolutionary to justice for attacking an American border town, Columbus, New Mexico. Captain Benjamin Foulois, with ten pilots and eight aircraft of the 1st Aero Squadron, straggled against winds, storms, and high mountains to locate Villa; but a series of disasters, some comic, some tragic, stood in vivid contrast to aerial achievements on the Western Front of the Great War in Europe that had begun two years earlier.