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

Friday, April 24, 2020

Recommended: Raynal Bolling, Benjamin Foulois, Billy Mitchell, and the Birth of American Airpower in World War I

By Bert Frandsen, PhD, USAF Air War College

How did the United States create airpower in the Great War? The complete story is beyond the scope of this article, but an important part of the story can be told through the contributions of three key architects of American airpower: Raynal Bolling, Benjamin Foulois, and Billy Mitchell. These fathers of American airpower mobilized a combat aviation arm on a par with the other branches of the Army. They harnessed public enthusiasm for airpower, developed the mobilization plans that turned recruits into aviation units, procured the airplanes, learned the operational art from the airman’s perspective, and provided a vision that inspired the future emergence of an independent air force and airpower second to none.

Although the Wright brothers invented the airplane, the birth of American airpower did not take place until the United States entered the First World War. When Congress declared war on 6 April 1917, the American air arm was nothing more than a small branch of the Signal Corps, and it was far behind the air forces of the warring European nations. The Great War, then in its third year, had prompted the development of large air services with specialized aircraft for the missions of observation, bombardment, and pursuit. On the battlefield, machine guns kept infantry on each side pinned down. They sought safety in trenches but were still vulnerable to indirect fire from artillery that caused even more casualties through concussion, shrapnel, and poison gas. Consequently, each side
came to realize the importance of gaining command of the air. Air superiority provided the means for observing the enemy and directing accurate artillery fire on enemy trench lines and the depth of his formations. Thus, many believed that a “decision in the air” was required before a decision on the ground could be won.

In contrast to the European air forces, an American combat aviation arm did not exist. The Army possessed only 26 qualified aviators in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps.  Their assignment to the Signal Corps can be traced back to the Civil War when the Union linked observation balloons, the telegraph, and signal flags to provide intelligence on Confederate activity. As America entered World War I, the Aviation Section was equipped with a meager number of unarmed and obsolete airplanes. Some of the pilots had seen active service as pilots during the Mexican Punitive Expedition in 1916. The single squadron that accompanied this expedition, commanded by Maj Benjamin Foulois, consisted of eight aircraft—unarmed, under-powered, and unreliable. Consequently, the squadron proved useless for its observation mission and wound up serving as a courier service—a mission that reflected the Signal Corps’ ownership of the Aviation Section.

The paucity of American military aviation in 1916 stands in stark contrast to the country’s enthusiasm for airpower. Within months of America’s declaration of war, Congress passed an appropriation of $640 million, the largest appropriation in its history, to build a mighty air force. Headlines such as “GREATEST OF AERIAL FLEETS TO CRUSH THE TEUTONS” appeared in American newspapers. This unprecedented commitment of national treasure and enthusiasm for airpower is clear evidence that air-mindedness existed in America even at this early date.

Air-mindedness was stronger in civilian society than in the military. Just a few years before, even Billy Mitchell, America’s future prophet and martyr for an independent air force, had testified in Congress against aviation’s independence from the Signal Corps.  More to the point, resistance within the upper echelons of the Army to such a large appropriation for aviation was so strong that the Secretary of War, Newton Baker, bypassed the Army general staff when he took the proposed legislation to Congress. The public’s enthusiasm for airpower manifested itself in a Congress that exhibited an almost messianic faith in the airplane’s ability to deliver victory as reflected in newspaper headlines.   

Air-mindedness owed much to civic organizations, especially the Aero Club of America, which drew its leadership from the captains of industry. The Aero Club was a federation of aviation clubs from across America that sponsored flying exhibitions, issued pilots’ licenses, and promoted a nascent aviation industry.  Promoters of aviation envisioned growth of an aircraft industry as revolutionary as the automobile industry, which was then transforming American society. The efficiencies achieved by Henry Ford’s assembly line had only recently brought automobile prices within reach of the average American, and sales were skyrocketing. In contrast, aircraft production was so small that airplanes were made in shops instead of factories, but hopes for the future were high. The Aero Club was a powerful lobby and had been largely responsible for legislation establishing the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps in 1914. The Club also lobbied for the establishment of aviation units in the National Guard. [An attorney named Raynal] Bolling organized one of these units in New York.

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