Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Spring 1918: The U.S. Air Service Takes Off, Part I

By Patrick Gregory

Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker

On 29 April 1918, Lieutenant Edward V. Rickenbacker of the U.S. Air Service was to score the first of the air victories that would, within a few short months, catapult him to the status of America’s "Ace of Aces" in World War I. For many, Rickenbacker, the All-American hero, came to symbolize his country’s air effort, but it had taken a long time to bring the Air Service to the point in spring 1918 when his and others’ squadrons would finally make their mark in combat, as Patrick Gregory reports.

"Eddie" Rickenbacker was already a very public figure—and a dashing figure at that—before he even set off for wartime France. A career as a racing driver had seen him take part in the first Indianapolis 500 race and set the auto speed record at Daytona Beach, Florida, at an astonishing 134 miles per hour. By 1917, though, he was anxious to get to Europe, and to use his speed skills in America’s war effort. 

Beginning as a driver for General John Pershing’s AEF staff officers, Rickenbacker acted as chauffeur for, among others, the man credited with developing the doctrine of American air power in the war, Colonel—later General—"Billy" Mitchell. Within a few short months, Rickenbacker had joined the nascent U.S. air effort. Yet for him, as for his colleagues, building that capability would be a long drawn-out process.


American aviators had already been in action over the front in different guises in the years preceding, first in ones and twos with the French Air Service and British RFC. Then in 1916 and 1917 that became more organized with the Lafayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps units of volunteer American pilots. But it would not be until 1918 that the U.S. Air Service was in a position to operate as a stand-alone force.

When America entered the First World War in 1917, U.S. military aviation found itself in a parlous state. Both men and machines were in chronically short supply. The fledgling Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, as it was still then officially described, could boast only 131 officers, mainly pilots and student pilots. But of those 131 only 26 were deemed fully trained, and none of those had had proper combat experience.

Aircraft under construction in 1918 at the Dayton Wright Airplane Company, Dayton, Ohio
(Photo: US National Archives—17340798/Wikimedia Commons)

A flurry of activity saw Congress voting through an appropriations bill for a hefty $640 million to try to bring the service up to speed, and plans were drawn up to both manufacture and try to buy in prodigious quantities of new military aircraft. As this was happening, a large pilot-training initiative got under way in both Europe and the U.S.

It was an ambitious rebuilding program, and one that would take time to bear fruit. The first new recruits of the training schools began to come on stream early in 1918, but matching men up to machines and organizing them into fully rounded U.S. Air Service squadrons was a slow process.


Guaranteeing a steady supply of aircraft would remain an ongoing problem for the service. At the outset, the Aircraft Production Board and its successor had drawn up plans to manufacture what aircraft and engines they could in the United States and to deliver them into theater or to flying schools. The JN-4 "Jenny" trainer and American-adapted De Havilland DH-4 reconnaissance bombers with U.S.-built Liberty engines were the most successful product of that drive. The 12-cylinder Liberty was a particular success story. But the planes were slow to come on stream. Of the total 11,760 planes produced in America, of all types, only around 1,200 combat aircraft ever reached Europe during the Great War.

It had always been understood, and planned, that the bulk of fighter aircraft would be bought in and supplied by the Allied nations in Europe. But even that conveyor belt remained faulty. A plan signed off in late summer 1917 by Pershing with the French Air Ministry had promised 5,000 service aircraft and 875 trainers by June 1918. In fact, by the time that date came along less than a quarter of the total had been delivered.

Continued with Part II tomorrow. . .

Source: Originally presented in Centenary News, 29 April 2018, by Permission of the Author


  1. War correspondent Don Martin started reporting on American airmen’s exploits on April 17, 1918 (published April 18 in the New York Herald): “American war cross awarded to 2 lieutenants who downed 2 Boche aviators in 2 minutes,” about Lt. Alan F. Winslow and Douglas Campbell. This was followed on May 2, 1918, by: “Brooklyn Man Downs Air Foe in Lofty Fight.” about Lt. James A. Meissner. Those dispatches were included in the April 17 and May 2 postings on my daily blog Further air war reports by Don Martin are coming up.

  2. But not 'rebuilding' - there was essentially nothing there to build from. This was the initial building of what would become the Army Air Force - and while we did start with the Wright Flier and had a couple of airplanes in the Mexican incursion, there was no infrastructure, no plans to expand, and no apparent awareness that Europe was way ahead of our poor efforts.