Page:A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force.djvu/7

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.


tions. 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.

2