Webmaster for FirstAeroSquadronFoundation's (FASF) website. Also the CEO of the 501C(c)(3) aviation history-oriented FASF non-profit, which is dedicated to the Birth Place of American Airpower and Rebirth Place of American Civil Aviation in 1916 & 1917 in Columbus, NM.
We’re all familiar with that essential principle of invention to which both the Wright BrothersAND Bennie Foulois so beautifully adhered in order to achieve their creative genius.
Here, in the following short (10 minute 27 second) video, we see how amazingly vital that dictum of “think outside the box” (of established thought) really is when it comes to truly great inventions becoming functioning – and practical – realities.
How, in this instance, it actually gave us a “boxed wing” configuration, not to mention a startling new if not radical innovation in both air-frame design – – – and especially – – – in propulsion.
A new flying machine design possibly not too far from appearing at our local airport . . . in either, or both, a General Aviation, or new military aircraft design.
DO NOT FORGET TO OPEN THE VIDEO TO FULL-SCREEN SO YOU CAN FULLY APPRECIATE THE HD
But, thanks to long-time FASF member and retired United Air Lines Captain, Nancy Aldrich, a loyal Texan, and regular aviation author, we have this fascinating and little-known story of how an East Texas refinery – and one of its sharper engineers, Tim Palucka – helped change the war’s outcome – in our favor – by his use of an obscure French patent on gasoline refining.
Without further ado, here’s the tale:
87 Octane Aviation Gasoline vs 100 130 Octane Aviation Gasoline in WWII
(This is a declassified article by the British Society of Chemists (Declassified in 2014) )
“It has always puzzled me as to why the German Luftwaffe kept on using 87 Octane Aviation Gasoline while the Americans and British used 100 Octane Gasoline in their Spitfire Fighters and Americans used 130 Octane in our P-51 and other fighters. (see both aircraft below)
P-51 Mustang leads Spitfire in close formation flight
This morning I discovered the reason!
It seems that the German and British aircraft both used 87 Octane Gasoline in the first two years of the war. While that was fairly satisfactory in the German Daimler-Benz V-12 engine, It was marginal in the British Rolls-Royce Merlin XX engine in British aircraft. It fouled the spark-plugs, caused valves to stick, And made frequent engine repair problems.
P-51 Fighter in Flight
Then came lend-lease, and American aircraft began to enter British service in great numbers. If British engines hated 87 Octane gasoline, American, General Motors Built, Allison 1710 engines loathed and despised it.
ME 109 Messerschmitts escorting Nazi Heinkel Bombers
B-17E Flying Fortress
SUNOCO officials pour the billionth gallon of high octane aviation fuel produced during world war II
Something had to be done!
Along came an American named Tim Palucka, a chemist for Sun Oil (SUNOCO) in their South East Texas Refinery.
Never heard of him? Small wonder, very few people have. He took a French formula for enhancing the octane of Gasoline, and invented the “Cracking Tower” and produced 100 octane aviation Gasoline.
This discovery led to great joy among our English Cousins and great distress among the Germans. A Spitfire fueled with 100 Octane gasoline was 34 miles per hour faster at 10,000 feet.
The need to replace engines went from every 500 hours of operation to every 1,000 hours. Which reduced the cost of British aircraft by 300 Pounds Sterling. Even more, when used in 4 engine bombers.
The Germans couldn’t believe it when Spitfires that couldn’t catch them a year ago started shooting their ME-109 E and G models right out of the sky.
Of course, the matter had to be kept secret. If the Germans found out that it was a French Invention, They’d simply copy the original French patents. If any of you have ever wondered what they were doing in that 3 story white brick building in front of the Sun Oil Refinery on Old Highway 90, that was it.
They were re-inventing gasoline.
The American Allison engines improved remarkably with 100 Octane gasoline but did much better when 130 octane gasoline came along in 1944. The 130 Octane also improved the Radial Engined Bombers we produced.
The Germans and Japanese never snapped to the fact that we had re-invented gasoline. Neither did our “Friends” the Russians.
100,000 Americans died in the skies over Europe. Lord only knows what that number would have been without “Super-Gasoline”. And it all was invented just a few miles west of Beaumont, and we never knew a thing about it.”
Aha – – – but there’s much more to this story than just recited above. In 1935, 6 years before Pearl Harbor and his country’s entry into WWII, Jimmy Doolittle, had retired from the Army and was working for the Shell Oil Company. He saw the need for a higher octane fuel if we should enter another war. So, click here, for more on the important role he played in the fuel octane race, which is not mentioned in the opening story above.
Of course, most of you know what took place to make world history on March 16, 1916, but the successor to that early Curtiss JN-3, Jenny, also a special SR (Surveillance-Reconnaissance) aircraft, the Lockheed RS-71 Blackbird, also made its mark on aviation history.
NASA Model of SR-71 Touches down with Drogue Chute
While the Jenny flew into history by engaging in the first sustained U.S. combat operations using airplanes in March 1916, 74 years later, or 31 years ago today, the First Aero Squadron’s SR-71 Blackbird also flew into the history books. Here, below (only 00:24 sec. long), is the Blackbird flying very slowly with its landing gear extended for landing:
It was on March 6, 1990, that the SR-71 made the fastest flight by an airplane from Los Angeles, CA to Washington DC – in record-breaking time . . . and that record still stands unbroken to this date.
It made that flight in only 64 minutes!
Pilots Ed Yielding and Joseph Vida flew that transcontinental flight from Los Angeles, California, to Washington, DC, in a blistering 64 minutes – – – with an average speed of 2,144.8 MPH.
Here are some interesting facts along with several videos of that initially retired in 1990 First Aero speed machine, which was later put back into the skies by Congress in 1995, but later, in 1997, when it was finally cut from the USAF inventory by President Bill Clinton, effective in 1998.
Below is a short video (1:15 long) explanation at the Smithsonian SR-71 Display, but the moderator, Peter Jakab, Chief Curator at the Smithsonian Air & Space Center, made two misstatements. Can you detect either of them?
In 1976, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird broke the world’s record for sustained altitude in horizontal flight at 25,929 meters (85,069 feet). The same day another SR-71 set an absolute speed record of 3,529.6 kilometers per hour (2,193.2 miles per hour), approximately Mach 3.3. Both of these distinguished records still stand unchallenged.
And here’s Scott Willey, also at the Smithsonian, describing the coast-to-coast record (:45 sec.):
And, another video (1:13 long):
And now, some “sonic booms” behind several classic photos of the Blackbird in flight (:47 sec.):
If you’d like to see more about this all-time record-breaking flying machine, just enter “SR-71 Blackbird” in our FASF website’s search field to your right, and you’ll find much more interesting information, photos, and videos of the successor to the FAS Curtiss JN-3 of 1916. There are at least four other posts about this famous blackbird.
Here’s another short (5:21) video by a former Blackbird pilot, Colonel Rich Graham, on what goes into flying the speed machine.
Long-time Life Member of the FASF and also VP of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) Chapter 1570 in nearby Santa Teresa, NM, John Signorino,*was the special speaker at the local Daedalian Flight 24 meeting held at Fort Bliss’ Golf Club, yesterday. This was the first real meeting since early last year, all because of the restrictions placed upon social gatherings throughout Texas because of COVID.
Although many members are still not ready to attend regular meetings, the Flight did get a reasonable post-COVID turnout of 19 attendees. Johnhad been scheduled to give his address to the Flight late last Summer, but that and several other attempts to have him speak were all canceled because of pandemic restraints and the closing of our various venues.
Normally the Flight meets each month at the Old downtown El Paso Club, but the Club has remained closed ever since the first lockdown order in March of 2020. The Flight expressed their thankfulness to John for his patience at having been canceled so many times.
The main thrust of John’stalk was focused on his post-military experience with the EAA along with the founding of Chapter 1570, back in 2015. Since its beginnings, the Chapter has accomplished many notable achievements, but the one Johnfeels most significant is its highly successful Young EagleEvents. Except for 2020, because of the pandemic lock-downs, each previous year the Chapter has hosted at least one, sometimes even two Young Eagle Events. Here is one of our posts of one of the last, pre-COVID, flights.
It is this Young Eagle enterprise that John feels will help overcome the country’s looming severe shortage of pilots. How? Because it introduces the nation’s youth to the thrill and challenges of becoming a pilot while still quite young. This popular EAA youth program gives free airplane rides and introductions to flight to youngsters from 8 to 17 years old. It also gives grants and/or scholarships to young teenagers so that they can undergo actual flight training, often paying for the achievement of their Private Pilot’s License from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
While Drones are a huge new development in aviation, there will nevertheless still be a serious requirement for hands-on-aviators in the foreseeable future. Both the Airlines and U.S. Military services have expressed serious concerns about the coming shortage of new pilots. One of the major issues facing those who do want to become aviators is the current-day high cost of pilot training. When yours truly learned to fly back during WWII (1944), the cost was not all that significant.
Here, below, is a short (2:52 minute) video clip about John’stopic, YOUNG EAGLES.
Here are some photos taken at yesterday’s meeting. Virtually all local Daedalians are long-time members of the FASF, and John is one of the FASF distinguished LIFE MEMBERS because he gave full days of his professional helicopter pilot-time during our 2019 joint exercise with the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers‘ Geographic 3D Project Team when they spent a week in Columbus during June and July of 2019 3D mapping the historic 1916 Army Airfield’s topography and that of the surrounding Camp Furlong terrain. During that operation, John was directly responsible for the taking of well over 30,000 high-resolution photographs of our area from another Life FASF member, Mike McNamee’s, former (and fully-restored) Army “SCOUT” helicopter. Mike’s light-weight rotary-wing machine had several other affectionate nicknames: the “LOACH” and/or the “LITTLE BIRD.”
Col. Alan Fisher opens his first meeting as the Flight’s new Captain.
L to R: Alan Fisher asks Roger Springstead, Flight Chaplain, to give the meeting blessing.
Chatting before meeting begins are two long-time FASF members and also Aviation News Scouts, Virg Hemphill (L) and Jerry Dixon (R)
(L) Speaker John Signorino and FASF Trustee, Dr. Kathleen Martin, an oft-times guest of the Daedalians
Virg Hemphill, Flight Treasurer, gives his report to the group.
L to R: Alan Fisher, Julie Pitt, Mario Campos, Kathleen Martin, and Mark Pfluger. John Signorinois at the podium.
John Signorino describes the EAA Young Eagles
Captured in foreground during John’s presentation are Gerry Wingett, Mary Barnes, & Roger Springstead (back).
Col. Bob Pitt, Julie Pitt, Mark Pfluger, Mario Campos, Ulla & Col. Rice, Gill Gonzales+ on Screen, Yours Truly in 1955!
More of John.
John makes a point.
L to R: Colonel Fisher gives John a token of Flight 24’s appreciation.
John Signorino retired in 2012 from the military with 28 years of service. John enlisted in the Army shortly after high school at the age of 18. He began his career as an electronic technician working on land-based telephone communication and microwave relay stations. Six years after joining the Army he was selected to attend Warrant Officer Flight Training.
During John’s flying career he flew both helicopter and fixed-wing airplanes. He was qualified in the UH-1H, TH-67, AH-64A, C-12, RC-12H, and Dash 7. John served as an instructor pilot and a safety officer and served multiple tours in Korea, Iraq, Bosnia, and South America.
During his military career, John proved himself to be a self-motivated, take-charge individual who has held several significant and vital positions. John is an exceptional leader and trainer. While in various positions, he provided excellent leadership skills and direction that promoted the sharing and encouragement of new ideas. As a teacher and mentor, he helped to counsel others on numerous occasions and has willingly shared his vast wealth of knowledge and experience with less experienced personnel.
While in the Army, John was called upon to work long and arduous hours often under stressful conditions while maintaining an exemplary and professional manner. He has shown himself to be an exceedingly dedicated and superbly organized individual. He is a proven team player and does not hesitate to provide constructive suggestions to improve operations.
John has had an entrepreneurial mindset since he was a teenager. While in the military, he started two successful businesses. After retiring, John was selected to Oklahoma State University Veterans Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. In 2013, John opened a Pop-A-Lock franchise in El Paso which specialized in auto, residential, and commercial locksmith work.
John demonstrated that he learns quickly and is readily able to self-teach himself complex tasks. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Embry-Riddle University, where he majored in business management. He also obtained his MBA from Grantham University, where his academic focus was on project management.
John’s hobbies include motorcycles, hiking, and camping. He’s been married to his wife Mindy for 25 years. They have two children, a daughter, and a son, both of whom followed their father’s footsteps by joining the military right after high school. John and his wife currently live in El Paso, Texas.
John is an exceptionally active member of the local, Santa Teresa Chapter 1570 of the EAA and has been its Vice President since it first opened its doors in June 2015. He continues to fly both fixed and rotary-winged aircraft in the General Aviation field.
Video shows airplane engine on fire after pilot declares ‘MAYDAY’ just minutes into the flight.
A witness said, “We heard a gigantic boom and, as we did that, we saw a huge puff of smoke and then stuff started falling out of the sky.” Several of the passengers noticed that in parts of the ship some people clearly thought nothing of the sudden sound, likely thinking it was a normal gear retraction thud, of something otherwise normal, and were seen still reading their magazines and papers. One passenger on the right side actually used her phone to capture video of the damaged engine fire.
In the meantime, the flight crew maintained their professionally calm demeanor and notified Denver of their engine power loss. Denver, in return, gave them 1st priority to land on any runway of their choice. Below the video is a photo of the engine cowl ring which fell to earth right on the front doorstep of a suburban home, apparently doing no damage. None of the passengers or flight crew aboard the Boeing 777 were injured in the uneventful landing, nor, miraculously, was anyone hurt on the ground, although there was some property damage from the falling debris.
Long time FASF member, author, and aviation history contributor, Captain Nancy Welz Aldrich (at Left), who is a retired United Airlines International Pilot, and who also crewed on their Jumbo jets before retiring, remarked:
“Having seen the pictures and read the comments about United Flight 328, I thought I would comment. While I have never flown a Boeing 777, I am very familiar with United’s training programs. I worked several years as an instructor on the DC-10. Many hours are spent dealing with engine failures of different types, including loss on the runway, loss at liftoff, loss in flight, and while landing. In my opinion, the most difficult of these is losing the engine thrust just at liftoff. Let me emphasize that no pilot can make it through the company’s rigorous training without being able to handle an engine loss at every phase of flight. These pilots did an outstanding job in recognizing the problem and returning to DIA for a safe landing, and I applaud them!”
Just below, is a short (5 min) video depicting both the flight path of UAL 328 and of the actual communication that took place between the flight deck and the Denver Tower.
Channel 9 Local Denver Channel News – Well done news coverage of the incident by this local newsgroup. Their coverage includes an actual video of the burning engine. The video is 10:46 minutes in length.
One of the stranger tales from WWII. Peter During, an RAF Spitfire Fighter Pilot during WWII was shot down by German flak over Italy near the end of hostilities in the war. Although similar incidents were experienced during those closing war days by other captured Allied fighters, this story is unique because one of his Nazi captors had his personal camera along to record the events. Knowing his camera would be confiscated, he handed his camera to Peter at the last minute, which has enabled us to actually see and share those events as they occurred long ago. That was over 75 years ago! Peter was interviewed for this video in his South African home eight years ago. This wartime story is thanks to Tinus le Roux
A Louisiana native, Lemoineis a graduate of the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University in New Orleans. After graduating college, Lemoinejoined the Air Force Reserve where he flew the F-16 and accumulated one thousand hours including a combat tour in Iraq.
Mover later transferred to the Navy Reserve where he flew F/A-18A+ Hornets for four years. He currently flies the 737-800 for a legacy U.S. airline and T-38As for the Air Force Reserve as an Adversary Pilot.
In 2011, Lemoinereceived his Instructor Certification in Survival Krav Maga and his Brown Belt in 2012. He is also a Louisiana P.O.S.T. – 1 certified Law Enforcement Officer and former National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians certified EMT-Basic.
Lemoine lives in New Orleans with his two rescue dogs Sniper and Kaiser Von Ruff. When he’s not flying or writing, he enjoys volunteering with local law enforcement, working out, and running with his two dogs.
C.W. started a YouTube channel in 2018, hosting a weekly show called “MONDAYS WITHMOVER.” Since then, the channel has grown to over 293,000 subscribers.
This post is comprised of two (2) videos by “Mover” of FAS U-2 operations; Part I and Part II. Both videos consist of his interview with his friend, “Splint,” which first describes how “Splint” became a U-2 Pilot. Both video interviews are about a half-hour each.
Which is, of course, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (SR). But, not out of its famous “Birthplace” airfield at Columbus, New Mexico. No, now it’s continuing its SR work out of Beale Air Force Base (BAFB) about an hour’s drive North from the Capital of California, Sacramento.
In more modern times, the title of “Strategic” was substituted for “Surveillance” in the SR designation, but the mission basically remains unchanged, although the methods and equipment used by the FAS quickly show the immense changes science has made in how their SR mission is carried out.
While the FAS’s first combat airplane, the Curtiss Jenny, flew about 100 MPH at top speed, the U-2 flies at almost the speed of sound (Mach .7), and it also flies more than 7 times as high as could the Curtiss biplane of 1916 and 1917.
U-2 Dragon Lady in Flight
Today, at Beale, there are two aircraft used to carry out this vital security SR mission: the upgraded Lockheed U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane (at L), and the unmanned long-range drone, the Global Hawk (Below at R). On a daily basis, for a good twenty or more years, the FAS has been deploying its aircraft from Beale to the other side of the globe, especially to the Middleast.
Global Hawk Drone in Flight
Beale also remains the principal training base used by the FAS to ready its new pilots for both the manned U-2 and the ground-controlled Global Hawk.
Today we’ll look at some behind-the-scenes activities that few people understand are required in order to simply operate the U-2, which flies at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet. This high altitude is, of course, the reason its pilots must wear the same sort of protective personal gear as is worn by our astronauts.
Here, in the following 10:34 long video (after the photo of the SR-71 below) you will see how the U-2 even requires a “muscle car” chasing it down the landing strip just to help it safely return to earth, while a team of ground personnel is even required to help attach the “pogo” stick landing gear to the wings so that it can successfully taxi back to its hangar. This video will also show how the pilots must have assistance “suiting up” before each flight, and how they must similarly be helped un-suit themselves at its end.
Don’t forget that the all-time record-speed-setting jet, the SR-71 Blackbird, (Below) was additionally flown by the FAS. The Blackbird was also stationed at BAFB before its retirement in 1966.
SR-71 Blackbird in Flight
The second, 8:22 long video, on the “Dragon Lady” was produced by your editor on a special visit to BAFB on the centennial of the FAS’s birth in 2013. It is used again here since what it portrays is still unchanged from what one would witness were they to visit the base, today.
New to that small cadre of aviation historians who have accurately and carefully chronicled the saga of the First Aero Squadron (FAS) is a gentleman – and aviator – from Albuquerque, NM, Daniel G. Sharpes.
We are happy to announce thatMr. Sharpeshas become an active member of the FASF!
Danhas done his research exceptionally well, and his colorfully descriptive style makes it an enjoyable experience to jump back in time to when American Air Power was born, right here in Columbus, NM, exactly 104 years ago this coming March 16, 2021.
Let’s learn a bit about this new article’s author:
Born down the street from the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dan Sharpes applied his interest in aviation to supporting the X-29, C-17, and Airborne Laser programs as well as several R&D efforts. His Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in aero-engineering enabled him to study the aerodynamics of forward-swept wings and v-tails. Dan retired in 2019 from his military and civilian duties and is currently pursuing a history degree as well as offering flight instruction in his personal Cessna 172.
So, without further ado, let’s followDan’s story of the adventurous days of the First Aero’s introduction to actual warfare, on March 16, 1916 . . . you will find a special PDF version of this story at the bottom of the page for easy downloading:
”The Failed Mission of the First Aero Squadron in Mexico”
By Daniel Sharpes
Webster, M.L. “Curtiss Flying Jennies Pursue Pancho Villa Across Northern Mexico,” (ref. 1)
In his January 2013 message to “Airmen and Airpower Advocates,” General Mark Welsh III wrote of how the United States Air Force provides “Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power” (ref. 2). But that has not always been the case. In the years before World War One, a time in aviation history that has long interested me, the initial deployment of U.S. military aviation revealed deficiencies that far outweighed capabilities. Though it was barely eight years after the Wright brothers made their first public flight, not only was it the airplanes of the First Aero Squadron that were put to the test but also the pilots, mechanics, and all the logistics needed to successfully augment Army operations outside the United States.
The squadron’s primary mission was “… to provide aerial reconnaissance for the six assigned cavalry regiments” (p. xi, ref. 3) of General Pershing’s Punitive Expedition. On March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa had attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing 19, and President Woodrow Wilson gave orders to capture him dead or alive.
Captain Benjamin D. Foulois (ref. 4)
Three days later, the First Aero Squadron, led by Captain Benjamin D. Foulois (Fuh-LOY), was on its way. Unfortunately, less than five weeks after entering Mexico, the First Aero Squadron limped back to the U.S. Of the eight planes that departed, only two returned and, after landing, Captain Foulois burned both to ashes. To explore why the mission ended this way I will look at seven factors: (1) Army and Congressional support, (2) the mission the squadron was called on to perform, (3) the officers and men of the squadron, (4) the aircraft of the squadron, (5) their operating environment, (6) the maintenance and logistical difficulties, and (7) the challenges of flying in Mexico.
Each aspect will contribute to explaining why the 1st Aero Squadron failed to provide the ordered reconnaissance support.
Support by the Army and Congress
What was the state of Army aviation in 1916 and how did it get that way? Todd Phinney, in “Airpower and Terrorism,” wrote,
“… in 1913, just three years prior to the Mexico campaign, when “[compared] to what other governments invested in their military air effort . . . the United States came in thirteenth in the world rankings.” (ref.5, p. 6)
Such a poor showing was due to a lack of support within the War Department (now the Department of Defense) and Congress. In his memoir, Foulois recalled,
“The War Department was in the process of estimating the budget for fiscal year 1916 when war broke out in Europe. An Army request for a little more than $1 million for the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps was submitted to Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison, who promptly reduced the estimate by $600,000 and sent an estimate for $400,000 to the Congress. This was done at the same time that Germany appropriated $45 million; Russia, $22.5 million; France, $12.8 million; Austria, $3 million; and Great Britain $1.08 million. Even Italy had appropriated $800,000 for military aviation in its prewar budget. … The Congress … on March 4, 1915, only $300,000 was slated for military aeronautics.” (ref. 6, p. 118)
Further clipping the wings of the Aviation section were the staffing constraints put in place by Congress two years before Villa’s raid:
The public’s view of the mission (ref. 7, p. 25)
“One of the most troublesome provisions of the Act of July 18, 1914, was that specifying that only unmarried lieutenants of the line under thirty years of age could serve in the aviation section. The result was that the section was being filled with young, inexperienced second lieutenants, leaving no one with age and experience to command an aviation organization. Still, another irrational proviso was one that required an officer on aviation duty to return to troop duty as soon as he was promoted to the grade of captain …” (ref. 6, pp. 118-9)
Supporters of Army aviation clearly understood the situation. This editorial cartoon was published in Aerial Age Weekly on the same day First Aero Squadron aircraft began to arrive in Mexico (ref. 7, page 25).
General Funston, who commanded General Pershing to take the First Aero Squadron into Mexico, is considering the U.S. Aviation Corps. From its neck hangs the sign, “Wings Clipped in Congress” and on its left leg is a ball and chain. Mexico’s volatility is represented by a simmering volcano and armed Mexicans can be seen along the ridge-line between the Rio Grande River and the volcano.
With support like this, the squadron faced an uphill struggle to succeed even before they arrived at Camp Furlong in Columbus, New Mexico.
The First Aero Squadron’s Area of Responsibility (ref. 3, p. xii)
“On 12 March, the Army ordered Foulois and the 1st Aero Squadron to deploy to Columbus in support of Pershing’s expedition” (ref. 8, p. 28). Seven days after Villa’s raid, Foulois and his deputy, Captain Townsend Dodd, made the first aerial reconnaissance by United States military aircraft ever made over foreign territory, the first of few successful missions. Orders came soon after that flight to deploy to Casas Grandes, about 125 miles south of the border.
This was the first of several deployments that would split up elements of the squadron, as shown in the map (ref. 3, p. xii). Each deployment required packing equipment and personal gear, driving on roads many today would consider rough even for off-road vehicles, setting up the squadron, and re-establishing operations. These moves, mandated to support the mission, kept any sort of consistent operational tempo from developing. The result was that efficient practices and procedures never had the chance to be established or mature.
This constant commotion is an important factor in understanding why the squadron failed in its mission.
The Officers and Men of the Squadron
To get reconnaissance information to General Pershing, Captain Foulois relied on 11 officers, 82 enlisted men, one civilian mechanic, and a medical officer with three hospital corpsmen. (ref. 6, p. 126). Not enough can be said in praise of the non-flying members of the squadron and their efforts to keep the airplanes in the sky. His officers, all pilots, were similarly dedicated. However, that could not overcome their aviation inexperience. If we were to judge Pershing and his pilots by today’s standards, at the time they left for Mexico, none would have passed a modern private pilot exam.
Their commander, Foulois, learned to fly using “… mailed instructions from the Wright Brothers in a Wright Model A (Signal Corps No. 1) biplane …” (ref. 3, p. 9).
Of the other eleven pilots, only one had night flying experience, a shortcoming that made itself known on the squadron’s first flight into Mexico.
Captain Foulois recalls:
“On the morning of March 19, I received telegraphic orders to move the squadron to Casas Grandes, a small town about 125 miles south of the border, for immediate service. By five-thirty that afternoon all eight planes were in the air headed for Ascension, about 60 miles to the south, where we planned to stay overnight. … By the time we reached Ascension, the sun had gone down and I could see only four planes in my formation. … By the time the fourth plane landed, it was dark.” (ref. 6, pp. 126-7)
That no other planes arrived at Ascension also speaks to their limited formation flying skills as several planes got separated from the rest. Planning and executing a cross country flight was another hard lesson not entirely learned by recent experience when, in the weeks before the Expedition, the squadron flew from Oklahoma to Texas. They got lost on the way.
Experience is the best teacher, but its lessons are often expensive and harsh. Fortunately, none of the aviators were seriously injured while deployed but the First Aero Squadron eventually lost all its planes.
The Aircraft of the First Aero Squadron
To give some perspective on the maturity of aviation, when the squadron deployed, not even eight years had passed since the Wrights made their first public flight in 1908. The industry in the United States hadn’t grown much since then for reasons outside the scope of this paper. That lack of maturity revealed itself in the planes they flew, Curtiss JN-3’s. One is on display at the Pancho Villa State Park in Columbus, New Mexico (ref. 9).
The JN-3 on display at the Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus, NM (ref. 9)
Numerous problems with the aircraft became obvious very quickly:
“Each plane carried a different type of compass …” (ref. 10)
They “… could not fly over the 12,000-foot-high mountains, nor could they withstand the gusty winds, rain, hail and snow that were prevalent in the area.” (ref. 10)
“Their wheels bogged down in the deep sand, and the hot, dry air quickly dried out the wooden planes. Especially troublesome were the propellers, which delaminated in the dry heat … and only a propeller laboriously carved from dried native wood proved successful. The pilots soon learned to carry a spare propeller, stored in a humidity-controlled box strapped to the side of the fuselage, on every mission.” (ref. 10)
On one flight from the city of Chihuahua, when “Lt Dargue attempted to (take off), the top of the fuselage came off and he was forced to land.” (ref. 11, p. 195)” On another flight, as “… they attempted to take off, the top of the fuselage blew off, damaging the rudder.” (ibid., p. 196)”
The engines were unreliable. It was not uncommon that they failed in flight and over ground that often resulted in landings better called controlled crashes.
The propellers, so essential to flight, soon became a flight risk. The hot, dry air dried out the glue holding the laminated wooden blades together, making them useless for flight. Another kind of failure occurred twice, the first “… almost resulted in tragedy when one blade of his plane’s propeller flew off, immediately throwing his machine out of balance. The excess torque nearly ripped the engine from its mounting with only a few wires below the machine holding it in place.” (ibid., p. 196).
What a First Aero Squadron propeller looks like after failing in flight (ref. 12, p. 781)
It should come as no surprise that, of the eight JN-3’s deployed from Camp Furlong, only two returned about 30 days later. On their return, Captain Foulois stripped them of all useful parts and then burned them to ensure no one would be able to fly them ever again. It’s no wonder he recalls in his memoir,
“Pershing … said that he would have no quarrel even if my officers had expressed public disapproval of the old wrecks we had to fly. “They have already too often risked their lives in old and often useless machines which they have patched up and worked over in an effort to do their share of the duty this expedition has been called on to perform,” he wrote.” (ref. 6, p. 134)”
Without airplanes, the First Aero Squadron could not have existed. But with the planes they had, even the few successes they experienced were not enough to call their mission accomplished.
To say the environment in which they flew was brutal is an understatement. The planes, “…on account of their low power, could not climb fast enough in case of emergency, the Mexican atmosphere being so rare …” (ref. 7, p. 24f). Why was this? The density of the air at the altitudes they had to fly robbed the aviators twice. First, the propellers could not grab as much air as at the lower altitudes common in the U.S. This reduced the ability of propellers to create thrust. Then, the engines lost power as the reduced oxygen in that thin air meant less fuel could be burned. Hence, the engines could not make their rated horsepower.
Winds were another factor. They proved to be a threat to flight safety:
Though this photo was taken in Columbus, NM, the winds were just as dangerous on the ground (ref. 3, p. 151)
“… one of the airplanes crashed on landing because of high winds, injuring its pilot and damaging the airplane beyond repair.” (ref. 8, p. 29f)
More than thin air and high winds worked against the JN-3’s. Foulois recalled these circumstances:
“I looked up just in time to see Lieut. Tom Bowen get caught in a vicious whirlwind just as he touched down and end up in a pile of splinters and cloth. He suffered a broken nose, cuts, and bruises; the plane was a total wreck.” (ref. 6, p. 128)
“The dust in the air was so thick that the snow was actually brown by the time it hit the ground. … Between March 27 and 31 … we all encountered severe rain, hail, and snowstorms. By the end of our first ten days of operations, it was obvious that our six planes were incapable of fully performing the task assigned. Their low-powered engines and limited climbing ability with the necessary military load made it impossible to operate them safely in the vicinity of the mountains.” (ref. 6, p. 129)
The struggle of planes of the First Aero Squadron to fly in the high Mexican air made mission success just as much a struggle.
The Maintenance and Logistical Challenges
A squadron machine shop at Satevo, Mexico (ref. 3, p. 130)
The dedication and ingenuity of the seven men needed to keep each plane flying cannot be praised enough. To protect against damage from the sun, “wetted canvas tarps (were) draped over the engine and its propeller for protection from the sun.” (ref. 3, p. 47). Invention overcame necessity as “… Curtiss did not design the propellers for a hot, dry climate … the squadron developed a method for manufacturing its own propellers on site. American aircraft companies later used those techniques for all future wood propellers.” (ref. 8, p. 31). One of the tricks they used was to develop, in the field, an Airplane Propeller Storage “Humidor” (ref. 3, p. x). Just as the humidors used by the Albuquerque Isotopes keep the baseballs from drying out, the squadron’s humidor preserved the propellers, at least for a little while.
To keep them flying, however, the mechanics needed spare parts but the supply line for those parts proved to be shaky. For one thing,
Loading supplies needed in Mexico (ref. 3, p. 109)
“As the Squadron planned to maintain its own supply lines during the operation, it was assigned 12 trucks and one automobile for transportation purposes. However, all of these vehicles soon fell prey to either the demands of the Quartermaster Corps or the guns of Mexican bandits.” (ref. 13, p. 190).
The aviators were able to work around this liability, ferrying supplies in the empty observer’s seat. Those supplies that didn’t fit in the forward cockpit were, as shown, tied to the outside of the planes! (ref. 14, p. 52)
Foulois described another of the difficulties:
“During the entire Mexican campaign, one of the most frustrating conditions under which we operated was the refusal of the Carranza government to let us use the railroads for transportation or visit the villages for supplies. The available motor-truck and pack-train supply were far from adequate, to put it mildly.” (ref. 6, p. 129)
Ingenuity and creative techniques are key to success but doing more and more with less and less does not result in being able to do anything with nothing. If an army marches on its stomach, airplanes fly with their parts. An unpredictable supply line compounded the squadron’s lack of success.
The Challenges of Flying in Mexico
Before any flight can occur, a pilot needs to know two things: where they are and where they are going. Again, Foulois wrote,
“We went down there to perform a service we knew nothing about, with no maps and with no knowledge of the situation whatsoever.”
Using their maps to plan a mission from San Geronimo, Mexico (ref. 3, p. 49)
The one map that there was of the area was next to useless. It was made by the Mexican Central Railroad in the late 1880s (ref. 8, p. 29). The First Aero Squadron adapted and overcame by putting the camera intended for reconnaissance to another use:
“Owing to the lack of topographical maps for Chihuahua, Mexico, the squadron’s aircraft photographed the terrain with aircraft-mounted Brock Automatic Aerial Cameras. These sequential, glass-plate negatives were enlarged and printed on paper; and then they were pieced tougher to form a mosaic map.” (ref. 3, p. 49)
Planning a Reconnaissance Mission, San Geronimo, Chihuahua, Mexico, April 1916 National Archives. Working in barely primitive conditions, they developed the negatives and printed maps in the field.
The Mexicans themselves presented another challenge. There were three groups, those fighting for Villa, those fighting for Carranza (who had asked President Wilson for help in capturing Villa), and the non-combatants. All of them opposed the American presence in Mexico. On a diplomatic flight to Chihuahua City, Foulois was captured and taken to jail by a mob who wanted to kill him. I leave it to the reader to learn of his adventure from his memoir (ref. 6). More than once mobs threatened to destroy aircraft that had landed away from their bases and on at least four occasions the ‘non-combatants’ used First Aero Squadron vehicles and their operators for target practice. Not only that, but the forces supporting Carranza were also seen as threats. One of the successful reconnaissance flights showed that rumors of his forces moving to attack a smaller US Army column were just that, rumors.
Hostility from those the US was trying to help has its modern parallel. Both then and now, it made success hard to achieve.
Todd Phinney, in his thesis, nicely summed up the situation of the First Aero Squadron:
“Untested aviation procedures, maintenance problems, crashes, a hostile climate, and an indigenous population proved formidable obstacles.” (ref. 5, p. 6).
These obstacles were so significant that on April 20th, Foulois and the squadron were ordered back to Columbus. After barely a month of operations, their mission was ended.
Though the First Aero Squadron did fail to consistently provide reconnaissance information to the Punitive Expedition, their failure led to significant positive outcomes:
“… the War Department and Congress increased the FY 1917 aviation budget from the initial April 1916 request of $1.2 million to $13.9 million, which the president signed into law on 29 August 1916.” (ref. 8, p. 32)
The technological shortfalls revealed in Mexico were documented and presented to aeronautical engineers and scientists at a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1917 (ref. 15). Those lessons learned were taken back to the airplane designers and manufacturers to improve the safety and performance of the next generation of aircraft.
The experience gained by the aviators and maintainers of the First Aero Squadron was applied less than a year later in France as part of the American Expeditionary Force.
There is no shame in failure but there is shame in failing to learn from it. The disappointments experienced by the First Aero Squadron were learned both by the Army and Congress. As a result, the banner of the First Aero Squadron can proudly be included as a part of an Air Force that today provides “Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power.”
What is believed to be the original Standard for the First Aero Squadron (ref. 16)
For those of you who would like to either download or read the original PDF version of Dan’s narrative and be able to use the PDF’s navigating tools, we’ve included the PDF copy right below for your convenience.
Thanks to Tuan Tamvan and his YouTube series, we get the opportunity to watch the incredible F-22 Raptor do things heretofore unimaginable. Prior to this fighter’s entry into the new 5th Generation class of air weapons, the faster the fighter, the less maneuverable it was. But this new machine turned those old rules of combat expectations on their ears. And it is not just fast, but it can cruise supersonically without the use of its afterburner! It can fly straight up and then hang there as though a helicopter, then choose to slide backward and yet still controllably maneuver while in that “slide.”
But enough chatter, it’s time to see this all for yourself.
Don’t forget to keep your speakers turned on and to use this video’s hi-res imagery at your full-screen setting. Tuan’s video is only about 11:00 minutes long.