1st AERO SQUADRON
By Captain Nancy Welz Aldrich, aviation writer*
The 1st Aero Squadron, or the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, is the oldest US military flying unit. It was formed March 5, 1913, and has an unbroken heritage of over 100 years! General John J. Pershing ordered the 1st Aero Squadron to become the first aviation unit to participate in military action.
In February, 1913, tension with Mexico was increasing. President William Taft ordered the 2nd Army Division to mobilize a defense against Mexico. On March 5, a small group of Officers and enlisted men were formed into the First Aero Squadron, assigned to the 2nd Division, which was commanded by Signal Corps Captain Charles de Forest Chandler. Nine airplanes were assigned to the squadron, which was formed into two companies. Company A had 3 pilots, 4 airplanes, and 24 enlisted men; company B had 3 pilots, 27 enlisted men and 5 airplanes. The pilots were all Army Officers, with the rank of 1st or 2nd Lieutenant.
While the airplanes were ‘cutting edge’ at the time, very little scientific testing had gone their development. Some of the airplanes were actually made by the pilots themselves. Crashes were common, and repair was time-consuming and difficult. The fatality rate was high among the pilots. Flight lessons were almost unheard of, and frequently consisted of general guidelines given on the ground, and individual practice. One of the early pilots, Capt. Benjamin D. Foulois, was given instruction from Orville Wright, by mail!
On March 9, 1916, more than 1,000 of Pancho villa’s horsemen crossed the border at Columbus, New Mexico and raided the town. 17 Americans were killed as they looted and burned the town. President Wilson immediately asked permission from President Carranza of Mexico to send troops into Mexico. Carranza reluctantly gave permission, “for the sole purpose of capturing the bandit Villa.” With that permission, Wilson ordered a “Punitive Expedition,” and told General Pershing to “pursue and disperse” Villa’s forces. Pershing thought this would be a good opportunity to use the airplanes, and ordered the 1st Aero Squadron to Columbus to set up operations. He planned to use the aircraft for observation support of the ground forces.
The greatest weakness of the Squadron was it’s lack of airplanes. Those observing operations in WWI in Europe, understood that an aviation squadron needed a minimum of 12 operational airplanes, 12 replacements, and a reserve of 12, 36 airplanes in all. The 1st Aero Squadron had only 8 Curtiss JN-3 airplanes, and was desperately short of spare parts.
The Squadron arrived in Columbus on March 15, only with 8 airplanes, 11 pilots, 82 enlisted men, and flew their first reconnaissance sortie on the 16th. That was the first time American aircraft were used in an actual military operation.
3 days later, on March 19th, the squadron was ordered to report ‘without delay’ to Pershing’s headquarters in Casas Grandes, Mexico. The pilots departed early that evening. Having little actually night flying experience, darkness proved to be a major problem for the pilots. One airplane made it to headquarters that night. The next morning 2 aircraft landed. One airplane had returned to Columbus, and 2 others were missing. They then discovered another problem that could not be overcome. These airplanes, with their 90 horsepower engines were no match for the mountains. They simply could not climb high enough to cross the 10,000 – 12,000’ peaks. In addition, the strong turbulent winds meant they could not fly through the passes. The frequent dust storms played havoc with the engines, making it almost impossible to fly, and the unrelenting heat de-laminated the wooden propellers!
Due to weather and maintenance problems, and the airplane’s lack of power, many missions simply could not be accomplished. Captain Foulois told General Pershing the Jennies “were not capable of meeting the present military service conditions.” He asked for “at least ten of the highest-powered, highest climbing, and best weight carrying aeroplanes” that could be provided. “I knew I was optimistic in thinking I would get the planes I wanted, but I was duty bound to ask for them,” Foulois is quoted as saying. While he doubted he would get adequate equipment, he continued to do what he could with what he had! It was decided that the planes would be used to carry mail and dispatches between US ground units and reconnaissance flights.
One of the biggest problems with the whole mission was the hostility of the Mexican people and government. The Mexican government refused to let the US troops use Mexico’s rail system to transport men and supplies. The Americans thought they were helping by chasing Villa, but Carranza’s forces, the Carranzistas, were very hostile.
With the shortage of supplies approaching critical, Captain Foulois was ordered to fly to the city of Chihuahua to ask the American Consul for help getting the needed food and medicine to the troops. Supposedly, Chihuahua was held by friendly forces, but Foulois was skeptical. The reports he had received from commanders in the field indicated they had been fired on by the Carranzistas. He decided to send two airplanes, each with a pilot and an observer. One plane would land north of the city and the other would land on the south side. The pilots were told to stay with the airplanes while the observers walked into town to contact the Consul. The pilots were to protect the airplanes, and fly them out of danger, if necessary.
On April 7, two planes took off for Chihuahua. Captain Foulois and Lt. Herbert A Dargue were in one plane, and Captain Dodd and Lt. Carberry in the other. Dodd landed on the north side of town without incident, commandeered a carriage, and went immediately to the Consulate. Consul Marion H. Letcher contacted some merchants, purchased the needed supplies and made arrangements for them to be shipped later that day.
In the meantime Foulois plane landed on the south side of town. As he got out of the airplane, townspeople who had seen the plane circling to land came running at him. He said, “Four Mexican rurales waved rifles at us excitedly when we landed. When Lt. Dargue got the plane stopped, I got out and yelled to him to take off immediately to join Lt. Carberry north of town and that I would meet him there.” Foulois started walking into town, ignoring the shouts and the people shaking fists as the airplane took off. Shots were fired, but the airplane got away safely. As he continued walking, he felt defenseless with only a Colt .45 against four Winchester rifles. He commented, “there was nothing I could do but put my hands up and pray. I did both.”
Captured, he was being taken to the city jail when he heard a voice in the crowd yell, “Do you need any help, Captain?” He responded, “Yes! Go get the American consul!”
Once at the jail, he was shoved into a cell and an iron door clanged shut. Captain Foulois had become the first American airman ever to be a prisoner of war! Somehow, he was able to convince the jail warden to send a messenger to General Gutierrez, the military governor. He describes what happened next, “A Colonel Miranda, the general’s chief of staff, showed up, took me in custody, and we marched several blocks to the headquarters. General Gutierrez was affable and agreed that I should not be detained any longer. I told him about the two planes north of the city and asked for guards to keep them from being harmed. Again, he was agreeable. I asked if I might visit the planes to reassure my men, and we were soon on our way.”
Upon arriving at the field north of the city, they found only Lt. Dargue there. When he had flown in, a large crowd of Carranzistas followed him. They crowded around the airplanes and began burning cigarette holes in the aircraft fabric. Dargue and Carberry tried to stop them, but then the crowd took out machetes and began slashing at the airplanes, and young boys began climbing on the machines trying to take them apart. The pilots decided they had to get the planes to safety and fired up the engines getting ready to take off. Carberry was able to escape, but his escape only made things worse for Dargue. The crowd ran after him throwing rocks. When he lifted off the entire top section of the fuselage behind the cockpit ripped off and damaged the vertical stabilizer. He cut the power and was able to land successfully.
Captain Foulois immediately had the guards take over and subdue the crowd. Lt. Carberry had landed just a few miles away at a smelting company, and returned a little later. The four pilots were taken to the US Consulate where they spent the night. The next morning they were able to make enough repairs to make the airplanes flyable, and took off.
The whole situation seemed absurd. Both sides were trying to locate and capture Pancho Villa, but they seemed to spend more time fighting each other. The further into Mexico the Americans penetrated, the more hostility they encountered. On April 12, a US cavalry unit actually got into a battle with a band of Carranzistas. They killed 40 of the Mexican troops, while two Americans died and six were wounded.
On April 14, only two of the airplanes were in a flyable condition. The 1st Aero Squadron had done all they could with the equipment they had. The bad news reached Washington and Secretary Baker asked Congress for a $500,000 appropriation to purchase 12 new Curtiss R-2 airplanes, equipped with Lewis guns, automatic cameras, bombs, and radios. On April 20, the 1st Aero Squadron was ordered back to Columbus. When they arrived Captain Foulois determined the 2 remaining Jennies were in such bad condition that he set them on fire to make sure no one could order him to fly them again.
The bad news only got worse. When the new planes arrived, they were not twelve R-2s but eight Curtiss N-8s. After testing them, Foulois declared all eight of them unfit for service. Eventually, the R-2s did arrive, but were not practical for the conditions. Every plane required alterations, mostly to the engines and propellers, due to the climate. However, on August 22, 1916 they were able to get 6 planes in the air and give General Pershing the first aerial review ever held by a US air unit.
The first attempt by the US military air unit could be considered a failure. But, it was a learning experience. While they had no success in finding Villa, Captain Foulois considered this a turning point in the development of American military aviation. He later became a Major General, and in 1931 was appointed Chief of the US Army Air Corps.
During this first US military air action, the 1st Aero Squadron flew 346 hours on 540 flights and covered more than 19,300 miles, performing aerial reconnaissance and photography, and transporting mail and official dispatches. More importantly, the military learned that the airplane could no longer be considered an experiment or an oddity, but could become a useful military tool.