Men and planes of World War I and a history of the Lafayette Escadrille.

AuthorHennessy, Juliette A.

[This article was originally printed in The Air Power Historian in two parts in 1956 and 1957. It is reprinted here as part of the 100th anniversary of World War I.]

The establishment of the concept of the airplane as a new and revolutionary weapons system was slow indeed. To many of the early believers in aviation as air power it must have been frustratingly slow.

It is true that even in the very beginning, following the Wright Brothers' invention, there were a few outstanding visionaries, among them, H. G. Wells, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and Prime Minister Jan Christian Smuts, who foresaw the tremendous potentialities of the airplane. Later on came such staunch advocates of Air Power as Guilio Douhet and Count Caproni of Italy. Still later we had our own disciples in Captain Paul W. Beck and in General Billy Mitchell. All were voices in a minority; they were considered by the more practical military men of the day as hopeless visionaries and daydreamers." The opinions of such as these could not be held in very high esteem by the conservative military mind.

Although the airplane was invented in America, it may be considered ironic that the United States was one of the slowest nations to really accept it. As a matter of fact, by the time of entry of the U.S. into World War I in 1917, the United States ranked seventh in strength as an air power. France, England, Italy, and even Russia outranked us in this category.

In spite of the proven capabilities of the airplane as a weapons system during World War I, crude though the systems and procedures may have been, and in spite of the proven potentialities of the airplane as a bomber in the strategic concept following World War I, it was not until World War II was well under way that the airplane actually came into its own.

Perhaps the slow growth of air power may be attributed to human nature and to the fact that the military mind has always been geared to tradition and is reluctant to change. For instance, the cavalry was actually outmoded when the first good repeating rifle was invented and was doomed when the Gatling gun of 1862 became a military weapon. Yet, the cavalry was considered a vital part of the military structure until just prior to World War II, when it had to be supplanted by tanks.

The pattern for conservation was followed by Congress, as evidenced by the scant attention paid to aviation prior to 1913. In March 1911, Congress allocated the first specific appropriation for Army Aeronautics in the amount of $125,000 for the following fiscal year; for the next year Congress allotted $100,000 for aeronautics.

Congress passed little air legislation and promoted very little interest in aviation. However in December of 1912, President Taft appointed a commission to report to Congress on a National Aerodynamic Laboratory. After three meetings the commission recommended the establishment of such a laboratory patterned after the one in Great Britain and to come under the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Then in January 1913, the Senate passed a bill authorizing the establishment of a National Aerodynamic Laboratory and on May 9, 1913 President Woodrow Wilson approved twelve advisory members. After much studying and investigation on the part of this committee, legal technicalities prevented the actual formation of the laboratory. It was not until about two years later on March 3,1915 that President Wilson was authorized by the Congress to appoint the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

Representative Hay as an Air Advocate

Representative James Hay of Virginia became an advocate of legislation to promote a better Air Service early in 1913. Representative Hay tried early that year to separate the Air Service and to give it greater stature and importance. The War Department did not favor the bill as introduced by Representative Hay. Many of the officers felt at that time that the air arm had not developed sufficiently to be placed in the Army line as a separate unit. Others objected because it made no provisions for certain captains and lieutenants already on active duty. These objections to a separate corps were upheld by the officers of the Air Service. In the face of such opposition from the officers most closely associated with aviation, the bill was abandoned by the Military Affairs Committee. This was one of a series of frustrating attempts through the years to make the air service a separate and distinct unit with its own command structure. It must be pointed out that Captain Paul W. Beck, later killed in a military accident, was one of the very few staunch advocates for a separate service.

On May 16, 1913, Representative Hay again introduced an air resolution, which became known as H. R. 5304. In many respects it was identical to his previous proposal. But again there was opposition from within the corps of officers to separate the Air Service and again Captain Beck was just about the only supporter of the bill. Captain Beck wanted aviation removed from the Signal Corps because he felt that if it remained under the Signal Corps it would probably never achieve any size or importance; further, he believed that the longer the Signal Corps had control of aviation the more difficult it would be to break away in later years. But as of this time, even the few staunch advocates for a separate air arm did not contemplate the airplane as a powerful war weapon of the future; apparently the main issue was the growth of the service rather than its importance to the Army, and to the country in particular.

H. R. 5304 was passed by the Congress on July 18, 1913 and was the most important measure yet approved on air legislation. It authorized the Aviation Section under the Signal Corps and provided many of the benefits which had been advocated. Then finally, this same Congress appropriated for the Fiscal Year 1914 $250,000, or twice as much as had heretofore been granted.

The Men--1913,1914

With the termination of 1913 official historical records indicate that there were twenty officers on duty at the Signal Corps Aviation School in San Diego. This was the only official school in existence for many years during those periods of early growth of military aviation. These twenty were:

1st Lt. T. F. Dodd, CAC

1st Lt. B. D. Foulois, Inf.

1st Lt. Harold Geiger, CAC

1st Lt. L. E. Goodier, Jr., CAC

1st Lt. R. C. Kirtland, Inf.

1st Lt. H. LeR. Muller, Cav.

1st Lt. W. C. F. Nicholson, Cav.

2nd Lt. J. E. Carberry, Inf.

2nd Lt. C. G. Chapman, Cav.

2nd Lt. V.E. Clark, CAC

2nd Lt. H. A. Dargue, CAC

2nd Lt. J. P. Edgerley, Inf.

2nd Lt. B. Q. Jones, Cav.

2nd Lt. T. D. Milling, Cav.

2nd Lt. J. C. Morrow, Inf.

2nd Lt. D. B. Netherwood, CAC

2nd Lt. H. B. Post, Inf.

2nd Lt. Fred Seydel, CAC

2nd Lt. W. R. Taliaferro, Inf.

2nd Lt. R. H. Willis, Jr., Inf.

By early February, 1914, only eighteen officers were on active duty with the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. Prior to this date eighteen other officers had been relieved from duty with the Aviation Section and twelve others had been killed. This meant that for a period from 1909 when the first flying machine was purchased by the Army until 1914, only forty-eight officers had been detailed to flying duties, or assigned to duties involved with flying.

A short tribute is hereby paid to the twelve officers who had been killed up until this date:

1st Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge

2nd Lt. G. E. M. Kelly

2nd Lt. L. W. Hazelhurst

2nd Lt. L. G. Rockwell

1st Lt. Rex Chandler

1st Lt. Joseph D. Park

1st Lt. Loren H. Call

1st Lt. Moss L. Love

2nd Lt. Perry C. Rich

2nd Lt. E. L. Ellington

1st Lt. Hugh M. Kelly

2nd Lt. Henry B. Post

Lt. Post was killed on February 9, 1914, in a Wright model "C" when he crashed into San Diego Bay. He had just reached a height of 12,140 feet for a new altitude record and which was about 500 feet higher than Lincoln Beachey's official altitude record. The accident investigators reported that from that altitude Lt. Post descended to approximately 1,000 feet without incident, and from about 1,000 feet to 600 feet at an increasingly steeper angle. At about that altitude the plane assumed a vertical nose-down position and crashed into the Bay.

This incident is recorded here because it was one of several which gave the "C" model quite a bit of notoriety and one of the concluding incidents which helped to condemn that particular airplane. The government had originally purchased six "C" models and five of them killed six men. The sixth one was destroyed in Manila Bay, when Lt. Frank P. Lahm had attempted a water takeoff and nose-dived into the Bay after he had attained a height of about fifty feet. Also this was the same model which nearly killed Lt. H. H. "Hap" Arnold at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1912.

All of the accidents in which the "C" models were involved had a common characteristic--the nosing over of the airplane as it picked up speed. An investigating board after the Post accident concluded that the elevator of the "C" was too weak and as the speed of the airplane increased, so did the angle of dive. This caused the airplane to nose over, and apparently the effect could not always be overcome by the pilots.

The actions of this investigation board were historic in another way. This board officially recommended that all future airplanes purchased by the Army be of the tractor type; this in effect, sounded the official death knell of the pusher-type airplane and which was not to be used again successfully until the B-36 of the mid-forties.

In the early days of the Aviation Section all the personnel assigned to aviation duties came from other line units of the Army such as the Infantry or the Cavalry. This was true also of the enlisted personnel who were assigned to the Aviation Section as a result of indicated desires or because of some mechanical aptitudes or abilities. Some of the enlisted men even learned to fly the airplanes, although there were no specific provisions in regulations authorizing...

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