When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917,
military aviation consisted of fewer than 1,200 men, some 250 airplanes, and 5 balloons under Signal Corps control to provide observation and courier service for infantry, cavalry, and artillery. By the Armistice the Army had received about 11,000 planes of the 27,000 ordered. Of these, some 7,800 were trainers, the majority the famous JN-4D (Jenny), of which the Army acquired more than 5,000.
A young man who enlisted in the Army as a flying cadet began training with two months in ground school at one of eight universities. He next went to an Army flying school for an eight-week course. If successfully completed, he received a pilot’s rating of Reserve military aviator (RMA) and a commission as a second lieutenant. During the war eighty-six hundred cadets graduated from primary schools in the United States.
My grandfather was one of those young men. Two months before the armistice he graduated, ready to go. But in December, just after the Great War ended he was discharged "for the convenience of the Service." The government was concerned about what might befall him when he walked out the gate with his back pay, the sixty-dollar bonus voted by Congress, so they also gave him transportation money at five cents a mile from the demobilization center to his home. He was informed that the railroads offered a reduced rate of two cents a mile if he bought his ticket within twenty-four hours, was told of dangers lurking in the city, and advised to go straight home.
This history, from the Kelly Field year book, puts the Army Signal Corp's ideas about aeroplanes in perspective. (Images are clickable to see enlargements).
by LT H. D. Kroll (1919)
THE magical development of aviation deserves recognition as one of the most remarkable achievements of the age. Automobiling, it is true, had also a remarkably rapid growth in popularity, once officially recognized as plausible, but when the great cost of experimentation in aviation is considered; aside from the element! of personal risk, the steady advancement from a stage of delicate experiment to one of scientific accomplishment is indeed worthy of the world's plaudits.
Although private experimentation had been going on along various lines of aeronautics for some years previous, no Government had ever regarded aviation as feasible or of any important military value until the United States Signal Corps began making exhaustive tests and trials with heavier-than-air machines in the early part of the 20th century. Even at that time the United States Government was too skeptical to invest much money in the exploitation of this new branch of warfare, and confined its experiments to the making of trial flights with civilian pilots.
In these early days flying was of course largely a matter of conjecture. There were few fixed rules or stereotyped axioms as to the handling or behavior of an airplane under various conditions and natural stresses. Therefore, in these first feeble efforts at the conquering of the air, many men laid down their lives in vain efforts to prove their contentions or to learn more about the various tricks of air currents and the way in which to avoid them.
Some of the attempted explanations and arguments pro and con concerning aviation which were published in these early days are interesting and show beyond doubt that the pilots of that time were giving serious thought to the difficulties encountered and to methods of overcoming same. Claude Grahame-White, the pioneer British flyer wrote the book on aviation early in the year 1911 in which he made reference to "air pockets" and in which he admitted that only exhaustive experimentation would solve the problems of flying. In this same volume he cautioned pilots against taking unnecessary risks by submitting their machines to "undue strains."
From 1911 to 1916 many fatalities occurred. The first member of the United States Army to lose his life in an airplane accident was Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who was killed while flying with Orville Wright at Fort Meyer, Virginia, September 17th, 1908. At this time America was taking her first steps in aviation. Had she continued her efforts there is no doubt that she would have been a leader in aeronautics when the world war engulfed her, instead of an apt pupil subservient to the teachings of the Allies. However, lack of public interest and a consequent lack of funds, prevented this government from developing the Air Service as it should have done, and in 1912, France, always an interested spectator, forged ahead with an appropriation of $5,000,000 to put the Air Service in that country on a practical basis.
From that time on France far outdistanced America, and Great Britain later did the same. But the fact still remains that had it not been for America's pioneer experimentation, the wonderful success of the other nations in the air would have been impossible of accomplishment. But even with the wonderful strides that were being made, a great handicap still existed in the unconquered "tail-spin," the queer and unexplained antic which caused the death of so many experienced flyers.
Again it remained for America to step forward, explain the existing difficulty and effect a remedy. This was accomplished in 1917. when Mr. Sperry, the instrument maker, in an article on the subject, explained the cause of the tail-spin and the way to avoid it. He also explained how it was possible to come out of a spin in safety. After this pilots in general realized that the epoch of uncertainty in aviation was past, and from that time to the present flying has increased by leaps and bounds.
Shortly after Mr. Sperry's article was published Major John McDonnell, in charge of the Government Flying Field at Randolf Field, began a course of instruction in the tail-spin, and today pilots with little experience are every day executing it successfully and with little danger.
Even until the latter part of 1916 the United States Army had but twelve pilots. When the ArmistIce was signed in November, 1918, the U. S. Air Service contained over 9000 qualified flyers in addition to Scores of bombers, photographers and observers. Thus is seen at a glance the remarkable development of the Air Service, for the rapid strides that were made by America were only similar to those made by the other great powers of the world. With practical!y nothing to build on, this Government alone developed in little more than a year one of the greatest of modern sciences.
In this development much of the credit must be given to the civilian instructors--men who early in the great game of aviation had staked their all on the success of their dreams, and who, now that the opportunity came to realize their greatest ambitions, threw away both money and national prominence to answer their country's call in her hour of need. Their work stands today as a growing monument to their patriotism and self-sacrifice. No more hazardous occupation was ever undertaken by man than the gradual instruction of raw recruits and their moulding into Air Service pilots by these heroic civilian pioneers of aviation. All honor to them therefore, the men who first opened the eyes of the world to the possibilitIes of air travel and who later by their own efforts, built from the flimsy structures of pioneer aviation one of the greatest and most valuable scientific achievements of modern times.