Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps

Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps

The Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps, was the name of the military aviation service of the United States Army from 1914 to 1918, and a direct ancestor of the United States Air Force. It replaced the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps and was succeeded briefly by the Division of Military Aeronautics, Secretary of War, and then the U.S. Army Air Service.

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


The Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps was created by the 63rd Congress (38 Stat. 514) on July 18, 1914, to replace the Aeronautical Division after earlier legislation to make the aviation service independent from the Signal Corps died in committee. The new law authorized a significant increase in size of U.S. military aviation to 60 officers and 260 enlisted men, but stipulated that most be volunteers from other branches of the Army than the Signal Corps, which by regulation limited their time of service away from their regular units to four years. The first funding appropriation for the Aviation Section was $250,000 for fiscal year 1915. It also decreed restrictions that officers detached to the section be unmarried and no higher in rank than 1st lieutenant, both of which led to a lack of discipline and professional maturity among the aviators that severely handicapped the growth of the service.

At its creation, the Aviation Section had 19 officers and 101 enlisted men. On [5 August 1914 it was organized into four subordinate organizations: the Signal Corps Aviation School, the 1st Aero Squadron, and the 1st and 2nd Companies of the squadron, totalling 16 officers, 92 enlisted men, seven civilians, and seven aircraft. Most of the air service was in Texas for the second time in three years, training to support Army ground forces in a possible war with Mexico over the Tampico Affair. The impending war was defused by the resignation of Victoriano Huerta four days before the Aviation Section came into being. The Aviation Section returned from San Diego, California, in April, 1915, when the Army massed around Brownsville, Texas, in response to civil war between the forces of Pancho Villa and the Carranza government. By December the Aviation Section consisted of 44 officers, 224 enlisted men, and 23 aircraft. 32 other aircraft had been destroyed or written off since 1909, one was in the Smithsonian Institution, and three were too damaged to repair economically.

Punitive expedition

Following Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916, the 1st Aero Squadron, commanded by Capt. Benjamin Foulois, was attached to General Pershing's Punitive Expedition. Using eight Curtiss JN-3s, a convert|90|hp biplane, the squadron flew aerial reconnaissance and liaison missions, but the airplane did not have sufficient power to fly over the Sierra Madre Mountains nor did it perform well in the turbulence of its passes. The planes could not be maintained and after just thirty days service only two were left. Congress voted the Aviation Section an emergency appropriation of $500,000 (twice its previous budget), and although four new Curtiss N-8s were sent to Mexico, they too proved inadequate to the mission and ultimately became training aircraft in San Diego.

A new agency was also created within the Aviation Section, the Technical Advisory and Inspection Board, headed by Captain Thomas D. Milling, and staffed by pilots who had attended engineering course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and civilian engineers, including Donald Douglas. The Board recommended a new squadron be equipped with Curtiss R-2s, using a convert|160|hp engine, but by the time they arrived in Mexico, operations were ending. In any event the aircraft were little better than their predecessors.

The Goodier court-martial

The War Department came under severe criticism, particularly Major Billy Mitchell, acting head of the Aviation Section while its chief was in Mexico. Mitchell defended the service, insisting that the U.S. firms did not produce better aircraft, but the outcry produced several long-term results, including instructing Mitchell in political tactics, participation in which ultimately resulted in his court-martial at the end of his career.

This followed revelations of serious mismanagement, disregard for flying safety, favoritism, fraud, and concealment of malfeasance in the Aviation Section's chain of command. [Johnson, Herbert Alan (2001). "Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation Through World War I", University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2627-8, p.117.] A student at San Diego, 2nd Lt. Lewis E. Goodier, Jr., had been seriously injured in a training accident, and while recuperating, had attempted to file charges against the school commandant (Capt. Arthur Cowan) for, among other things, fraudulently collecting flight pay when he was not certified to fly nor on flying duty. [Johnson, p.122.] He was aided by his father, Lt. Col. Lewis Goodier, Sr., judge advocate general of the Western Department in San Francisco. The charges were routed to the Chief Signal Officer at a time when Cowan's superior, Chief of the Aviation Section Lt. Col. Samuel Reber, himself an integral part of the accusations, was temporarily in command. Reber subverted justice by manuevering to have the charges against Cowan dismissed. [Johnson, pp.118 and 122.] Reber and Cowan then charged the elder Goodier with Conduct to the Prejudice of Good Order and Discipline for assisting his son in drawing up charges, specifying that he did so out of malice.

The resulting court martial proceedings, which began October 18, 1915, resulted in the conviction of Lt. Col. Goodier and a sentence of reprimand. [John, p.129.] However the charge of malice allowed defense counsel wide latitude in its introduction of evidence, [John, p.116.] and documents including official correspondence describing numerous incidents that confirmed Lt. Goodier's original charges against Cowan became part of the court record, including support by the Chief Signal Officer of a pattern of retribution against officers on flying duty who fell in disfavor of Cowan. [Johnson, p.130.]

Senator Joseph T. Robinson immediately brought the matter before the United States Senate, releasing to the public all of the documents held in evidence at the court martial. [Johnson, p.131.] After hearings—and the criticisms of the handling of the Air Service in Mexico— letters of censure were given to Brig. Gen. George P. Scriven (the Chief Signal Officer) and to Reber and Cowan, both of whom were relieved of duties with the section. [Johnson, p.132.] Lt.Col. George O. Squier was recalled from duty as military attaché in London and appointed to head the Aviation Section, with orders to reform it from the ground up.

On April 24, 1916, the General Staff appointed a committee chaired by Col. Charles W. Kennedy to make recommendations for reform and reorganization of the Aviation Section. Milling was named the representative from the section, over the objections of Foulois, who believed him to be too close to the previous Signal Corps leadership. The committee took statements from all 23 officers then on flying duty with the Aviation Section and found that 21 favored separation of aviation from the Signal Corps. [Johnson, pp. 132-133.] Only Milling and Captain William Patterson were opposed to separation—and Patterson was a non-flyer who had acquired his flying certificate through the censured actions of Cowan. [John, pp. 130 and 133.]

The Kennedy Committee recommended in July 1916 that aviation be expanded and developed, and that it be removed from the Signal Corps and placed under a central agency, in effect endorsing for the first time a call for a separate air arm. The recommendation was quickly attacked by Assistant Army Chief of Staff Gen. Tasker Bliss, who branded the air officers supporting separation as having "a spirit of insubordination" and acting out of "self-aggrandizement". [Johnson, pp. 134-135.] The Kennedy Committee's recommendations were rejected by the War Department, but the issue of a separate Air Force had been born and would not die until separation was finally achieved in 1947.

National Defense Act of 1916

The Aviation Section reorganized with the inclusion of a new Aeronautical Division, November 4, 1915, to supervise all flying and training operations. On January 12, 1916, the Aviation Section after its reorganization consisted of 46 officers (23 pilots), 243 enlisted men (including 8 pilots), and 23 aircraft. Four aircraft were seaplanes stationed in the Philippines, two were flying boats, nine trainers at San Diego, and eight field service aircraft, all with the 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico. It had four subordinate organizations: The Aeronautical Division in Washington D.C., the Signal Corps Aviation School in San Diego, the 1st Aero Squadron, and the 1st Company, 2nd Aero Squadron, in Manila.

On November 1, 1915, the first aviation organization in the National Guard was created in the Aviation Detachment, 1st Battalion Signal Corps, New York National Guard, later called simply the "1st Aero Company". Consisting of four officers and 40 enlisted men, it used two leased aircaft to train until five aircraft were purchased for its equipment in 1916.

On June 3, 1916, in anticipation of possible U.S. entry in the war in Europe, Congress adopted the National Defense Act (39 Stat. 174), provisions of which increased the size of the Aviation Section to 148 officers, allowed the President to determine the size of the enlisted complement, and established the first reserve components for aviation, the Signal Officers Reserve Corps (297 officers) and The Signal Enlisted Reserve Corps (2,000 men). On August 29 Congress followed with an appropriations bill that allocated $13,000,000 (more than 17 times the previous combined allocation) to the military aeronautics in both the Signal Corps and National Guard. By December 7, 1916, the force still consisted of a total of only 503 personnel.

The Aviation Section's poor showing in Mexico also showed that the U.S. aviation industry was not competitive in any respect with European aircraft manufacturers. No American-manufactured airplane had a vital function, none were mounted with weapons, and all were markedly inferior in speed and other performance characteristics. Further, U.S. companies were distracted by protracted legal battles and in-fighting over licenses and royalties while their European counterparts had been energized by the needs of the battlefield.

The Aviation Act (40 Stat. 243), passed July 24, 1917, authorized the transfer of aviation support functions from the Aviation Section to newly established organizations within the Office of Chief Signal Officer (OCSO). Procurement of aviation supplies went to a new Engineering Division effective April 6, 1917. The construction and maintenance of airfields became the province of the Construction Division on May 21, renamed the Supply Division on October 1. On January 24, 1918, the Supply Division created a subordinate Material Section to take on the responsibility for procurement from the Engineering Division. Research and design of airplanes was assigned to the Aircraft Engineering Division on May 24, 1917, redesignated Science and Research Division on October 22. Lumber contracts for materials to build airplanes were the responsibility of the Spruce Production Division, November 15, 1917.

World War I

In its final year as a component of the Signal Corps, from April 1917 to May 1918, the Aviation Section developed into parallel air forces, a training force in the United States and a combat force in Europe. At the time of the declaration of war on Germany by the United States in April, 1917, the Aviation Section consisted of 65 regular officers, 66 reserve officers, 1,087 enlisted men, and 55 airplanes (all trainers), with 300 on order. The service had 36 pilots and 51 student pilots. By comparison, the United States Navy's air service had 48 officers, 230 enlisted men, and 54 powered aircraft.

Of its seven authorized squadrons, the 1st was in the Columbus, New Mexico, the 2nd in the Philippines, the 7th was training to be deployed to the Panama Canal Zone, the 6th was newly formed in Hawaii, and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th were not yet formed. Six reserve squadrons were being organized for coast defense.

In the United States the Aviation Section was nearly overwhelmed with the problems of rapid expansion to fight a modern war---the recruitment and training of pilots and mechanics, the production of airplanes, the formation and equipping of combat units, and the acquisition of air bases---while overseas a second force developed as part of the American Expeditionary Force, absorbing most of the experienced leadership of military aviation and taking over much of the expansion responsibilities except aircraft production. This second force, the Air Service of the AEF, used European-built aircraft and training facilities and forced the separation of aviation from the Signal Corps.

Part of this separation occurred when the Aviation Section failed in its most pressing need, the production of new airplanes. Under pressure from the French, the Wilson administration set up a production plan to develop a force of 6,000 pursuit planes; 3,000 observation craft; and 2,000 bombers, a ratio established by General John Pershing. Despite pronounced resistance from the Army general staff, $640,000,000 was funded by Congress to meet this goal (45 times the budget of the preceding year) when Brig. Gen. George O. Squier, Chief Signal Officer and former head of the Aviation Section, appealed directly to the Secretary of War.

An Aircraft Production Board was set up under the chairmanship of an automobile manufacturer, Howard Coffin of the Hudson Motor Car Company, but the airplane of World War I was not suitable to the mass-production methods of automobile manufacturing and Coffin neglected the priority of mass-producing spare parts. Though individual areas within the industry responded well---particularly in engine production, with the development of the Liberty engine, of which 13,500 were produced---the industry as a whole failed. Attempts to mass-produce European models under license in the U.S. were largely failures. Among pursuit planes, the Spad could not be engineered to accept an American engine and the Bristol F.2 became dangerous to fly using one.

Because of this failure, President Wilson determined that the Chief Signal Officer was too overburdened by tasks to supervise the Aviation Section and removed it from the Signal Corps. An interim organization, the Division of Military Aeronautics, created 28 April 1917, replaced the Aviation Section on May 20, 1918, reporting directly to the Secretary of War. As the administrative headquarters of the air force, however, the Division only lasted four days, and was itself subordinated to the new Army Air Service, created May 24, 1918.

Chiefs of the Aviation Section

*Lt. Col. Samuel Reber (July 18, 1914-May 5, 1916)
*Lt. Col. George O. Squier (May 20, 1916-February 19, 1917)
*Lt.Col. John B. Bennet (February 20, 1917-May 20, 1918)


*Bowman, Martin W., "Background to War", "USAAF Handbook 1939-1945", ISBN 0-8117-1822-0
*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
*Johnson, Herbert Alan (2001). "Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation Through World War I", University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2627-8.
*Mortenson, Daniel R., "The Air Service in the Great War," "Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force" Vol. I (1997), ISBN 0-16-049009-X
*"2005 Almanac," "Air Force Magazine", May 2005, Vol. 88, No. 5, the Air Force Association, Arlington, Virginia
*"Army Air Forces Statistical Digest (World War II)" (Table 3, "AAF Military personnel--number and percent of US Army strength")

ee also

*Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps
*Division of Military Aeronautics
*United States Army Air Service

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