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The United States Air Force flew Dr. Roger G. Miller to Columbus, New Mexico, to deliver this 58 minute presentation in commemoration of the Birth of American Air Power. Dr. Miller’s fascinating slide show included many before unseen 95-year-old archival photographs taken in Columbus during the launching of America’s first sustained military aviation operation.
This Army aircraft engagement was part of the legendary “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico sent out of Columbus in retaliation for the nighttime March 9th, 1916 raid on the town by Mexico’s revolutionary General Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his troops. Before Villa’s three hour attack was over, he had lost almost a quarter of his some 400 men to the fierce American gunfire that ensued from the local Army garrison’s soldiers, but many buildings had been burned to the ground by the invaders and 18 U.S. soldiers and civilians had been slaughtered.
Not only was the retaliatory Army campaign considered the launching of what is now the world’s greatest Air Power, but many give the military engagement credit for instigating what also became the leading civil aviation power in the world. While the early Columbus aircraft deployment is best known for its military contribution, the subsequent entry of the United States into Europe’s World War I had a great deal to do with the postwar explosion of civil aviation in the states as well.
Why? Because the veritable Curtiss “Jenny” biplanes used out of the Columbus airfield were mass-produced by the United States and Canada for several years during WWI in order to train thousands of young American and Canadian men to be military pilots. The Great War was soon concluded in 1918, and because the thousands of Jennys were no longer needed, they were quickly sold by the government as surplus at the end of that deadly conflict.
Many young Army and Navy pilots, who were fortunate enough to come home intact from the bloody fields and skies above Europe, had fallen in love with the exciting experience of flying and they enthusiastically purchased the surplus biplanes for as little as $200. It was these sturdy “Jenny” aircraft that quickly became the backbone of U. S. civil aviation, as they were soon profitably carrying “Airmail” for the Federal Government. They were also flown all across the states from the Atlantic to the Pacific by the ex-military pilots in what has become known as the American “Barnstorming” era.
It was these same Barnstorming young pilots who gave thousands of Americans their first taste of flying aloft in their noisy open-cockpit machines, which in turn helped incite America’s love affair with powered flight. It was only a matter of a few more years before some of these young aviators were able to convince the government to subsidize their use of newer and larger aircraft to carry passengers between cities. Because there weren’t yet enough passengers willing to forgo their trips by the much safer railroads, the new “Airline” entrepreneurs cleverly also bid to carry the U.S. mail on their passenger planes. It was this federal subsidy to carry the airmail that enabled the fledgling airlines to turn a profit. Thus began what also soon became the world’s leading civil aviation “power.”
Dr. Miller’s presentation is a colorful and exciting introduction into that great historical military experiment which is considered to be the Birth of American Air Power. Although the Wright Brother’s are universally given credit for the first successful powered flight in 1903, the United States quickly fell behind the Europeans in aircraft innovation and development. In fact, while the veritable “Jenny” airplane made a fine flight training aircraft (over 8,000 of them were mass-produced), it proved no match for any of the military airplanes used in the Great War, resulting in the Curtiss Jenny biplane being restricted to non-combat pilot training in the United States and Canada. When our pilots arrived to battle the Germans in that bloody conflagration, they were compelled to fly either the significantly superior French or British flying machines.
Soon after the end of hostilities on the Continent, however, things quickly changed, with the lessons of the “war to end all wars” taken to heart, American aircraft manufacturers sprung up around the country in a fierce competition to produce better, safer – and faster – airplanes. The U. S. soon leapt ahead of the European nations in its capacity to produce genuinely safe modern airplanes – – – for both civilian and military purposes. And, with virtually no lapses, the United States has successfully maintained that position of world leadership in both aviation and its evolution into space flight.