Early American Aircraft Development and World War I

he Flyer takes off from Kill Devil Hill, with Orville Wright at the controls, while his brother Wilbur looks on, on December 17, 1903.
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While human warfare dates back to at least the 15th Century BC, when the Battle of Megiddo was fought between Egyptian forces and a group of Canaanite vassal states led by the king of Kadesh, air combat is barely more than a century old. The Wright brothers made the first flight in history in 1903, and just years later, in 1911 aircraft were first used for warfare when Italy used planes to bomb Libyan tribesmen. In World War I, aerial warfare played a major for both sides: dogfights first took place in 1914, and by 1918, the British and German were making widespread use of bombers to attack each other's cities. By the end of World War I, more than 65,000 airplanes had been built.

The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk

On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright piloted first powered airplane flights in history over the windy beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wright brothers made four flights that day, with Orville taking the first flight that lasted a mere twelve seconds and traversed 120 feet. Wilbur piloted the longest flight, which covered 852 feet and lasted 59 seconds. They chose Kitty Hawk due to the constant winds of the Outer Banks that helped to lift their aircraft off the ground.

Aeronautical Division Created

On August 1, 1907, the United States established the Aeronautical Division of the Office of the Chief Signal Caller. This group was placed in “charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects.”

In August 1908, the Wright brothers made the initial test flights of what they hoped would become the Army's first airplane, the Wright Flyer. This had been built to military specifications. In order to be awarded a military contract for their aircraft, the Wright brothers had to prove that their planes could carry passengers.

First Military Casualty 

On September 8 and 10, 1908, Orville conducted exhibition flights and carried two different Army officers for a plane ride. On September 17th, Orville made his third flight, carrying Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge, who became the very first U.S. military personnel to be a casualty from an airplane crash.

In front of a crowd of 2,000 spectators, Lt. Selfridge was flying with Orville Wright when the right propeller broke causing the craft to lose thrust and go into a nosedive. Orville turned off the engine and was able to an altitude of about 75 feet, but the Flyer still hit the ground nose-first. Both Orville and Selfridge were thrown forward; Selfridge struck a wooden upright of the framework, causing a fractured skull which led to his death a few hours later. In addition, Orville suffered several severe injuries which included a broken left thigh, several broken ribs, and a damaged hip. Orville spent seven weeks in a hospital recuperating.

While Wright was wearing a cap, Selfridge was not wearing any headgear. Had Selfridge been wearing any type of helmet, he more than likely would have survived the crash. Due to Selfridge's death, the U.S. Army required their early pilots to wear heavy headgear which was reminiscent of football helmets from that era.

On August 2, 1909, the Army chose a revamped Wright Flyer, which had undergone much more testing as the first powered fixed-wing aircraft. On May 26, 1909, Lieutenants Frank P. Lahm and Benjamin D. Foulois became the first U.S. serviceman to qualify as Army pilots. 

Aero Squadron Formed

The 1st Aero Squadron, also known as the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, was formed on March 5, 1913, and it remains as America’s oldest flying unit. President William Taft ordered the unit organized due to increasing tensions between the U.S. and Mexico. At its origin, the 1st Squadron had 9 airplanes with 6 pilots and approximately 50 enlisted men.

On March 19, 1916, General John J. Pershing ordered the 1st Aero Squadron to report to Mexico, making it the first U.S. aviation unit to participate in military action. On April 7, 1916, Lt. Foulois became the very first American pilot to be captured, even though he was only held for a day.

Their experience in Mexico taught both the Army and the U.S. Government a very valuable lesson. The Squadron’s main weakness was that it had too few airplanes to properly conduct a military operation. World War I taught the importance of each squadron having 36 total airplanes: 12 operational, 12 for replacements, and 12 more in reserve of 12. The 1st Aero Squadron consisted of only 8 airplanes with minimal spare parts.

In April 1916 with only 2 airplanes in the flyable condition in the 1st Aero Squadron, the Army requested a $500,000 appropriation from Congress to purchase 12 new airplanes – the Curtiss R-2’s that were equipped with Lewis guns, automatic cameras, bombs, and radios.

After much delay, the Army did receive 12 Curtiss R-2s, but they were impractical for the Mexican climate and required alterations. Those alterations meant it took a little longer, until August 22, 1916, to get 6 planes into the air. As a result of their mission, the 1st Squadron was able to greet General Pershing with the first aerial review conducted by a U.S. air unit.

US Aircraft in World War I

When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, the country's aircraft industry was mediocre in comparison to Great Britain, Germany, and France. Those countries had been involved in the war from the onset and had learned firsthand about the strengths and weaknesses of combat-ready aircraft. Despite more than ample funding provided by the U.S. Congress around the start of the war, Americans entered at a disadvantage due to the lack of practical combat experience.

On July 18, 1914, the U.S. Congress replaced the Aeronautical Division with the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. In 1918, the Aviation Section then became the Army Air Service. It would not be until September 18, 1947, that the United States Air Force was formed as a separate branch of the U.S. military under the National Security Act of 1947.

Although the U.S. never reached the same degree of aviation production experienced by their European counter-parts countries during World War I, starting in 1920 numerous changes were made that resulted in the Air Force becoming a major military organization in time to help the United States prevail in World War II.

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Kelly, Martin. "Early American Aircraft Development and World War I." ThoughtCo, Dec. 13, 2022, thoughtco.com/early-american-aircraft-development-wwi-4059593. Kelly, Martin. (2022, December 13). Early American Aircraft Development and World War I. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/early-american-aircraft-development-wwi-4059593 Kelly, Martin. "Early American Aircraft Development and World War I." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/early-american-aircraft-development-wwi-4059593 (accessed May 28, 2023).