'Good men ... running around in circles' Benjamin Foulois, Billy Mitchell, and the flight for the future of the Army Air Service.

Author:Schrader, Karl R.


Benjamin Foulois never set out to become a key figure in the history of American aviation. In fact, his first encounter with a flying machine did not occur until he was twenty-eight years old. As one of America's original military aviators, he flew the U.S. Army's first dirigible balloon and its first airplane, learning to fly from early aviation pioneers, including the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss. He began thinking about the military uses of air power in 1907, years before the publication of the theories of William Mitchell, Giulio Douhet, and Hugh Trenchard. Foulois twice led the Army's air forces, as Chief of Air Service for the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I from 1917 to 1918 and again as Chief of the Air Corps from 1931 to 1935. After retiring from the Army, he continued his advocacy of air power through many speeches and lectures, and as head of the Air Force Historical Foundation. Foulois died in 1967, making him one of the few eyewitnesses of military aviation from its beginnings with the Wright Flyer to the technological triumphs of the Mach 3+ SR-71 and the globe-spanning intercontinental ballistic missile.

A majority of the scarce literature on Foulois' military career focuses on his years as the Chief of the Air Corps, and for good reason. His role in the infamous airmail fiasco of 1934 had many ramifications for both Foulois and the Air Corps, culminating in the creation of the General Headquarters Air Force in March 1935 and Foulois' dismissal as Chief of the Air Corps at the end of that same year. (1) Other mentions of Foulois in aviation literature mainly center on his early aviation experiences from 1908 to 1913 and his role in the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916.

The few references to Foulois' performance as Chief of Air Service during World War I are generally limited to his clashes with Mitchell, who famously disparaged Foulois' incoming staff by referring to them as carpetbaggers. (2) This statement was indicative of the animosity between the two early aviation pioneers, who continued to clash throughout the rest of the war and into the interwar years. The two men could not have been further apart in both upbringing and personality. Mitchell was born into wealth, the son of a United States Senator, and used his family connections to agitate for an independent air force in the court of public opinion. Foulois, in contrast was the son of an immigrant plumber and worked his way up the enlisted ranks to twice become the chief of army aviation, where he used bureaucratic maneuvering in the War Department and the halls of Congress to work toward the same result.


In Airmen and Air Theory, Philip Meilinger states, "All of us have a deep interest in knowing how others, perhaps like ourselves, have met challenges, dealt with failure, and accommodated themselves to victory and fame." (3) The story of the conflict between these two aviation greats during World War I and beyond can provide insight into the current debate over parallels between the early days of air power theory and the ongoing development of comparable theories of cyber power.

Taking Command in France

When Foulois took command of the fledgling Air Service in November 1917, he inherited an organization that suffered from internal confusion and division of responsibility. Gen. John Pershing gave Colonel Mitchell, acting as the Aviation Officer for the Expeditionary Forces in France, jurisdiction over the front-line areas known as the Zone of the Advance, and assigned Maj. Raynal C. Bolling jurisdiction over the Zone of the Interior. This arrangement effectively divided the responsibilities of the Air Service between two men, resulting in inefficiencies and confusion about the chain of command. On September 3, Pershing rectified the situation by appointing Brig. Gen. William Kenley, an artillery officer, as the Chief of Air Service, with command authority over both Mitchell and Bolling. (4) Pershing also moved the Air Service's headquarters to Chanmont, where it would be co-located with the headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces. (5)


After his arrival on November 12, Foulois spent two weeks inspecting Air Service facilities and units throughout France to assess the state of the Service, and then officially took over from Kenley as Chief of Air Service on November 27. Pershing also named Foulois a member of the Joint Army and Navy Aircraft Committee in France, his representative to the Inter-Allied Expert Committee on Aviation of the Supreme War Council, and the Commandant of Army Aeronautical Schools in France. (6) On December 12, Foulois announced the composition of his new headquarters, which he divided into eight sections: Policy, Administration, Technical, Training and Organization, Operations (Zone of the Advance), Balloon, Personnel, and Supply. (7) As part of the reorganization, Foulois removed Bolling from his position as Assistant Chief of Air Service, Lines of Communication, and appointed him as the chairman of the Joint Army and Navy Aircraft Committee, where he worked to coordinate industrial, military and naval activities in Europe and the United States. (8)

Foulois' reorganization of the Air Service marked the first of many conflicts with Mitchell, who noted in his memoirs, "A more incompetent lot of air warriors had never arrived in the zone of active military operations since the war began." (9) Foulois rejected Mitchell's inference that the Air Service needed experienced pilots in the headquarters positions rather than executives with direct commissions by noting, "We had no planes to fly, no organization to train them, and no facilities to sustain air operations." (10) Foulois' first priority was to build a supply and training infrastructure in France, and he built his staff with this goal in mind. Mitchell also states, "The competent men, who had learned their duties in the face of the enemy, were displaced and their position taken by these carpetbaggers." Again, Foulois disputes Mitchell's assertion, noting that the only officer that he displaced was Mitchell himself, whom Foulois replaced with Col. Robert Van Horn, a nonflyer with extensive experience in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. Foulois states that he placed Mitchell in command the Air Service components of the 1st Corps in order to place him under the tight disciplinary control of the 1st Corps commander, Gen. Hunter Liggitt, and to give Mitchell a chance to prove himself as the commander of a corps-level aviation unit. (11)

Foulois and his group of "carpetbaggers" did the best they could at the monumental task organizing, training, and equipping the Air Service, considering their many handicaps including shortages in materiel, manpower, facilities, and most importantly aircraft. Even before he left for France, Foulois knew that he would have to populate his staff with many non-flying officers who possessed the necessary executive experience to put together a giant logistics and training organization from scratch. As Foulois explained:

The lack of knowledge on the part of the General Staff, A.E.F., of the many complex problems involved in the technical, industrial, and tactical organization and development of the Air Service activities, both in the Service of Supplies and in the Zone of the Advance, made it absolutely imperative that the Air Service representatives charged with the co-ordination of our Air Service activities with the policies of the Commander-in-Chief, as announced from General Headquarters, should be men of broad military experience, with General Staff training, and men whose reputations in the Army were such that their views and opinions would carry weight, and receive full and serious consideration. (12)


Foulois was loath to place pilots on his staff because experienced aviators were in short supply at the beginning of the war, and he felt that they could better serve the Air Service as commanders of tactical units on the front. However, Foulois did recruit two pilots for his staff, Lt. Cols. Townsend Dodd and Charles Chandler. His selection of Dodd to head the Supply Section was "absolutely necessary during the first few months of our development, due to the fact that he was at that time the only officer in the Air Service, A.E.F. (Flying or nonflying) who had had practical experience in the problems of supply, maintenance, and repair of aeroplanes, engines, transportation, etc." (13) Similarly, Foulois recognized Chandler's skills and experience as a balloon officer and placed him in charge of the Balloon Section of the Air Service.

These conflicting views on the optimal composition of the Air Service staff were among the greatest philosophical differences between Foulois and Mitchell during the war. Mitchell firmly believed that non-aviators had no business commanding flying activities either in the Zone of the Advance or in the Zone of the Interior. In a memorandum to Foulois, Mitchell states, "As to the non-flying officers of superior rank in the Air Service, these in fact have and are exercising direct command over the training and practical use of tactical air units. This is well known to be wrong ..." (14) In addition, he also objected to Foulois' use of non-aviators as Section heads on the Air Service, stating "In my opinion, non-flying officers should not be entrusted with work they cannot possibly know anything or very little about. It puts the lives of all in the air in jeopardy and creates an extremely bad morale among the flying personnel who have to do the fighting." (15) Mitchell, like many of the other aviators in the Zone of the Advance, believed that "the men who actually did the work in the air...

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