Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps

Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps

Infobox Military Unit
unit_name=Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps

caption=A Signal Corps bi-plane prepares to land
dates=1 August 190718 July 1914
country=United States
branch=United States Army
role=Flying instruction
Aerial reconnaissance
size=(maximum, 1913)
18 pilots
100 support personnel
5–12 airplanes
command_structure=Office of the Chief Signal Officer
U.S. Army Signal Corps

The Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps (1907-1914) was the first progenitor of the United States Air Force, and as such is the first military air organization. A component of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Aeronautical Division did not contain any subordinate units during its existence.

Lineage of the United States Air Force

* Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps 1 August 190718 July 1914
* Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps 18 July 191420 May 1918
* Division of Military Aeronautics 20 May 191824 May 1918
* U.S. Army Air Service 24 May 19182 July 1926
* U.S. Army Air Corps 2 July 192620 June 1941
* U.S. Army Air Forces 20 June 194118 September 1947
* United States Air Force 18 September 1947–Present

Birth of the air arm

quote box2 |width=30em | bgcolor=#B0C4DE |align=left|halign=left |quote=

August 1, 1907
An Aeronautical Division of this office is hereby established, to take effect this date.
This division will have charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects. All data on hand will be carefully classified and plans perfected for future tests and experiments. The operations of this division are strictly confidential, and no information will be given out by any party except through the Chief Signal Officer of the Army or his authorized representative.
Captain Charles DeF. Chandler, Signal Corps, is detailed in charge of this division, and Corporal Edward Ward and First-class Private Joseph E. Barrett will report to Captain Chandler for duty in this division under his immediate direction.
source=J. Allen, "Brigadier General, Chief Signal Officer of the Army" [Hennessey, Dr. Juliette A. "The United States Army Air Arm, April 1861 to April 1917", USAF Historical Study No. 98 (1958), Appendix 1.]
The U.S. Army Signal Corps became associated with aeronautics during the American Civil War, when Thaddeus S. C. Lowe was named chief of the Union Army Balloon Corps. In 1898-99 the War Department accepted the report of an aeronautically-minded investigating committee that included Alexander Graham Bell and invested $50,000 cite book
last = McFarland
first = Stephen L.
authorlink = Stephen McFarland
title =
publisher = Defense Technical Information Center
year = 1997
year = 1997
location = Ft. Belvoir
pages =
doi =
id =
isbn = 0160492084
] for the rights to a heavier-than-air flying machine being developed by Samuel Pierpont Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Although Langley's Aerodrome failed embarrassingly, the Signal Corps later resumed its interest in aviation as a result of the success of the Wright Brothers.

All balloon school activities of the U.S. Army Signal Corps were transferred to Fort Omaha, Nebraska in 1905. In 1906, the commandant of the Signal School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Major George O. Squier, studied aeronautical theory and lectured on the Wright flying machine. One of his instructors, Captain William L. Mitchell, was also a student of aviation and taught the use of reconnaissance balloons. Squire became executive officer to the Chief Signal Officer, Brig. Gen James Allen, in July 1907, and immediately convinced Allen to create an aviation entity within the Signal Corps.

The Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps, consisting of one officer and two enlisted men, began operation on August 1, 1907, and became the progenitor of the U.S. Air Force. Captain Charles DeForest Chandler was named the chief of the new division, with Cpl. Edward Ward and Pfc. Joseph E. Barrett as his assistants. [John T. Correll, "The First of the Force", "AIR FORCE Magazine", August 2007, p. 46. Barrett deserted soon after the establishment of the Division.] On December 23, 1907, the Signal Corps issued Specification No. 486 and requested bids. A copy of the specification was sent to the Wright Brothers on January 3, 1908.

Acquisition of aircraft

In 1908 the Aeronautical Division, at the intercession of President Theodore Roosevelt in the acquisition process, purchased a nonrigid dirigible from Thomas Scott Baldwin for $6,750, and an airplane from the Wright Brothers for $25,000. Specification No. 486 required both types of airships be able to carry two persons. The dirigible had to be able to carry a load of 450 pounds and reach a speed of 20 miles per hour (mph) while the airplane's requirements were a load of 350 pounds, a speed of 40 mph, and a flying distance of at least 125 miles.

The dirigible was delivered first, in July 1908, after Baldwin submitted an extremely low bid to ensure receiving the contract ($25,000 had been budgeted). Baldwin and Glenn Curtiss flew the test trials and met all specifications except speed, which was just under the requirement. During August, Baldwin trained three officer candidates to fly the dirigible: First lieutenants Thomas E. Selfridge, Field Artillery; Benjamin D. Foulois, Infantry; and Captain Frank P. Lahm, Cavalry. Foulois was trained as the first dirigible pilot and prepared to move the ship from Fort Omaha to St. Joseph, Missouri, for a state fair exhibition. However the first solo ascent in the dirigible, and the first flight solely by army pilots, did not occur until May 26, 1909.

The Wright Brothers, who had been asking $100,000 for their airplane, then agreed to sell an airplane satisfying the requirements for $25,000 (they also received a $5,000 bonus for exceeding the speed requirement). The airplane was delivered to Fort Myer, Virginia, for trials. The first acceptance flight of the airplane was made on September 3, 1908, at Fort Myer, with Orville at the controls. Selfridge and Lahm were named official observers of the trials of the Wright aeroplane for September 1908. Both Lahm and Major Squier made acceptance flights as observers, and on September 13 Wright kept the airplane aloft for an hour and ten minutes. On September 17 Selfridge was flying as observer with Orville Wright when at 150 feet a propeller broke severing a wire to the rudder which caused the plane to crash. Wright was injured and Selfridge was killed, the first military airplane casualty. Orville Wright, along with Wilbur this time, returned to Fort Myer in June 1909 with a new though smaller & faster airplane. The brothers spent the better part of the month fine tuning the airplane and warming up for the final tests and also bad flying weather hampered much of July. For this year's acceptance trials both Lahm & Foulois(Selfridge had been killed the previous year) were named as official observers with the trials starting on July 27 1909. Lahm flew with Wright on July 27. On July 30 1909 Foulois & Wright in a final acceptance of the Wright aeroplane made a cross country flight of 10 miles to Alexandria, Virginia and back to Fort Myer. This flight broke all of the existing records for speed, duration with a passenger and altitude with a passenger. Pleased with the performance of this airplane the Army purchased it awarding the Wrights 5,000 dollars for each mile achieved over 40mph. The plane's best speed had been 45mph.

Airplane operations

First solo flights

On September 17, 1908, because he was under orders to travel to St. Joseph for the dirigible exhibition, Selfridge asked to take the place of a U.S. Navy observer, Lieutenant George Sweet, scheduled for a test flight. During the flight a propeller split and shattered, damaged the tail, and caused the airplane to crash. Wright was hospitalized and Selfridge killed in the first fatal crash of an airplane. Despite the accident, the Army renewed the trials in June 1909 using an improved model of the Wright airplane, with Lahm and Foulois as observers and President William H. Taft as a spectator during the final test.

The Army accepted the Wright airplane on August 2, 1909, designating it "Signal Corps (S.C.) No. 1", and Wilbur Wright began teaching Lahm and 2d Lt. Frederic E. Humphreys, Corps of Engineers, to fly it. Humphreys soloed on October 26, followed immediately afterward by Lahm. On November 5 both pilots were aboard the airplane, with Lahm at the controls, when it crashed in a low altitude turn. Although neither pilot was injured and the Wrights bore the expense of repairs, the crash ended flights until 1910. Both Lahm and Humphreys returned to duty with their respective branches. [Correll, "The First of the Force", p.48.]

Foulois and Beck

The dirigible service proved short-lived, as the corrosive effects of weather and the hydrogen gas used to lift the ship caused the gasbag to leak with increasing severity. The dirigible was condemned and sold at auction. Foulois had been a vocal critic of the dirigible, recommending that they be abandoned, and although one of the two candidates selected to be trained as an airplane pilot, he was banished from the program in October 1909 and sent to France as a delegate to the International Congress of Aeronautics. [Correll, "The First of the Force,' p. 48.]

He returned in November 1909 as the only officer detailed to the Aeronautical Division. At that time he had only 54 minutes of training in the Flyer and had not soloed. Foulois was assigned to move the flying program to Fort Sam Houston, an Army post near San Antonio, Texas, because of inclement winter weather at College Park. Foulois and eight enlisted men disassembled S.C. No. 1, shipped it to Texas in 17 crates, and reassembled it after building a shelter on the cavalry drill field at "Fort Sam." On March 2, 1910, after training himself, Foulois made his first solo and crashed the S.C. No. 1 on its second landing. He flew the repaired craft five times on March 12, and received written instruction by mail from the Wright Brothers. [Correll, "The First of the Force", 49.] Until 1911 Foulois remained as the Army's sole aviator and innovator. He installed a leather seat belt strap on the S.C. No. 1, then bolted wheels from a piece of farm machinery on the landing skids to provide the first landing gear.

In March 1911 near Fort McIntosh at Laredo, Texas, Foulois and Wright instructor Philip O. Parmelee demonstrated the use of airplanes in support of ground maneuvers for the first time. The United States in early 1911 gathered virtually the entire Regular Army as a show of force to Mexican revolutionaries, forming "the maneuver division". The S.C. No. 1 was not sufficiently airworthy for the reconnaissance and messaging missions it performed, and for a nominal fee of one dollar, Foulois rented the Wright B Flyer privately owned by Robert J. Collier, owner of "Collier's Weekly". Foulois and Parmalee crashed the rented airplane in the Rio Grande River on their second mission. [Alfred F. Hurley and William C. Heimdahl (1997). "The Roots of U.S. Military Aviation," "Winged Shield, Winged Sword". Air Force History and Museums Program. ISBN 016049009X. p.18]

Two additional airplanes were received at Fort Sam, a Curtiss 1911 Model D designated Signal Corps No. 2, and a new Wright Flyer that became S.C. No. 3, both with wheels rather than skids. Foulois then undertook training of a small group of pilot candidates on the Curtiss machine in April 1911, three of whom were trained by Glen Curtiss at North Island, San Diego, California, in January. Pilot candidates were divided into separate sections because the flight controls on the two types were markedly different.

Foulois' most proficient pilot was Paul W. Beck, a captain of Infantry, who was named as commander of the provisional aero company over Foulois. On May 10 another of Curtiss' students, [ 2nd Lt. George E.M. Kelly] , was killed when S.C. No. 2 crashed while landing. Foulois, who was a mustang officer and a combat veteran of the Spanish-American War, was quick-tempered and abrasive in personality. He blamed the crash on improper maintenance of the Curtiss D, and indirectly, on Beck. The board appointed to investigate the crash disagreed, and Foulois was again banished from the program. Beck took over from Foulois as instructor, and moved the school back to College Park, where S.C. No. 1 was retired from service and sent to the Smithsonian Institution. [Correll, "The First of the Force," p. 49.]

Beck's tenure as head of the flying program lasted only a year. On1 May 1912 he was returned to the Infantry by Article IV, Paragraph 40, AR 1910 (the "Manchu Law"), an Army regulation that limited an officer's temporary assignment out of his branch (including all aviation officers except those in the Signal Corps) to a maximum of four years in any six-year period. Beck was possibly the first advocate of an air service separate from the Army ground forces, and as such was often at odds with the Chief Signal Officer (head of the Signal Corps), whose office included the Aeronautical Division.

Appropriations and growth

In 1911 the Aeronautical Division received its first direct appropriation for aviation ($125,000 for Fiscal Year 1912, half of what was proposed), formed its first flight training school on 3 July, and flew its first two operational sorties, using an airplane rented for one dollar (which crashed at the end of the second flight) to surveil the border with Mexico. Three airplanes were added to the inventory: a Wright B Flyer (S.C. No. 4), a Burgess-Wright Flyer (S.C. No. 5) and a Curtiss D (S.C. No. 6), and a seventh, a Wright B Flyer designated S.C. No. 7, was assembled at Fort McKinley in the Philippines and used by Lt. Lahm to make the first flight of an American miliatry airplane outside the continental United States on 21 March 1911.

Rules of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) were adopted, including standards for the certification of pilots, and Lts. Henry H. Arnold and Thomas D. Milling became the first two Army pilots to be FAI certified. On 23 February 1912 the U.S. Army established its own military aviator rating and issued the first five (of 24) to Lt. Arnold, Capt. Chandler, Lt. Milling, Capt. Beck, and Lt. Foulois in July 1912. The Aeronautical Division also dispatched Captain Chandler, Lt. Milling, and a detachment of Curtiss JN-3 airplanes to Texas City, Texas to train in anticipation of possible war with Mexico. The provisional unit organized on 5 March, the 1st Aero Squadron, became the first official unit of the air force on 8 December 1913.

In 1912 the division purchased a Wright Model C airplane, to be used as a "speed scout." The first one crashed at College Park soon after delivery, killing 2nd Lt. [ Leighton W. Hazelhurst] , who had been among the first class of student pilots, and Allen L. Welch, the Wright Company instructor who had taught Arnold to fly on June 11, 1912. Arnold himself was nearly killed in the Model C in November, when the plane stalled. Although unhurt, Arnold was aware that he was almost the fourth pilot death in the Signal Corps that year, and he quit flying (as did four other pilots).

Flight pay and accelerated promotion for pilots were approved by the United States Congress in 1913, when the Aeronautical Division grew from 14 to 18 pilots. Following testimony from Captain Paul Beck, legislation was proposed by Representative James Hay (Dem-Virginia, and chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee) to make aviation independent from the Signal Corps and a separate branch within the Army, but the bill did not reach the floor of the House. Appropriations for aviation fell to $100,000, in part because the Signal Corps had spent only $40,000 of the Fiscal Year 1912 funding.

The "Army Air Forces Statistical Digest (World War II)" (Table 3, "AAF Military personnel--number and percent of US Army strength") listed the strength of the division at 51 officers and men on November 1, 1912, and 114 on September 30, 1913. In the following year Congress increased the size and prestige of Signal Corps aviation by enacting a law established an Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps to replace the Aeronautical Division on July 18, 1914.

Chiefs of the Aeronautical Division

*Captain Charles DeForest Chandler (August 1, 1907-June 30, 1910)
*Captain Arthur S. Cowan (July 1, 1910-June 19, 1911)
*Captain Charles DeForest Chandler (June 20, 1911-September 9, 1913)
*Major Samuel Reber (September 10, 1913-July 17, 1914)

Military aviation pioneers

*2nd Lt. Frederick Erastus Humphreys, first to solo, 26 October 1909
*1st Lt. Thomas Etholen Selfridge, first death (passenger), 17 September 1908
*Orville Wright, first flight instructor injured, 17 September 1908
*1st Lt. Benjamin Delahauf Foulois, third solo pilot, first Army instructor pilot
*1st Lt. Frank Purdy Lahm, second solo pilot, and first Army aviator overseas
*Capt. Paul Ward Beck, first advocate of a separate air service
*1st Lt. Henry Harley Arnold, first FAI certified, second Military Aviator Rating
*1st Lt. Thomas DeWitt Milling, second FAI certified, first Military Aviator Rating
*2nd Lt. George E. M. Kelly, first pilot fatality, 1 May 1911
*Cpl. Vernon L. Burge, first FAI certified enlisted pilot, 14 June 1912
*2nd Lt Leighton W. Hazelhurst, second pilot fatality, 11 June 1912
*Allan L. Welch, first flight instructor fatality, 11 June 1912
*Eugene Burton Ely first to fly off shipboard, 14 November 1910 and first to land on shipboard 18 January 1911

ee also

*Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps



*Bowman, Martin W., "Background to War", "USAAF Handbook 1939-1945", ISBN 0-8117-1822-0
*Correll, John T. "The First of the Force," "AIR FORCE Magazine", August 2007, Vol. 90, No. 8, the Air Force Association, Arlington, Virginia
*Heimdahl, William C., and Hurley, Alfred F., "The Roots of U.S. Military Aviation," "Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force" Vol. I (1997), ISBN 0-16-049009-X
*Lienhard, John H., [ Inventing the Air Force] , "The Engines of Our Ingenuity" Episode 1974. (Includes panoramic photo of the entire Aeronautical Division -- three aircraft -- in flight, 1911.)
*"2005 Almanac," "AIR FORCE Magazine", May 2005, Vol. 88, No. 5, the Air Force Association, Arlington, Virginia
* [ Paul W. Beck, The Early Birds of Aviation]

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