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1910: The Beginnings of a Pioneering Airshow in California

From today’s “Fly’nthings” Post about early American Aviation – This was a century and 12 years ago!

           Dr. Lakshmi Vempati by PT-17 Stearman

Click on the above poster to go to the Fly ‘n Things website/blog. There you will find an intriguing post by blogger/aviator Dr. Lakshmi Vempati, (at Left) a woman who was born in India, and at the age of 10, suddenly became infected with the aviation bug. This, in turn, led to her immigration to the U.S. where she completed graduate degrees, culminating with her doctorate from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Dr. Vempati is a Private Pilot with her Instrument Rating and is currently advancing toward her Commercial license.  As an engineer, she has done work for both the FAA and NASA.  She is a Research Engineer and Analyst with experience providing extensive modeling, simulation, analysis, and software development assistance to the U.S. Government Aerospace agencies and other private-sector enterprises.

Here is the intriguing story about the above lead poster, which was first published this month by the Transportation History Site:

January 10, 1910

The first major airshow in the United States — as well as one of the earliest airshows worldwide — made its debut at Dominguez Field in Los Angeles County, California. Approximately 254,000 spectators turned out for the 10-day extravaganza, which was characterized by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the greatest public events in the history of the West.”

Charles Willard and A. Roy Knabenshue, inspired by an airshow that took place the previous year in the French city of Reims, selected the Los Angeles region for the show because of its agreeable January climate. Invitations went out to pilots of all sorts of aircraft — monoplanes, biplanes, balloons, dirigibles — to take part in the event’s various competitions.

The participants for the Los Angeles International Air Meet included such leading aviators of that era as Glenn Curtiss and Louis Paulhan. The Wright Brothers also attended, but did not participate; they showed up with lawyers in an attempt to prevent Curtiss and Paulhan from flying. Orville and Wilbur claimed that both of those pilots had features on their aircraft that violated the brothers’ patents. (Ultimately, however, Curtiss and Paulhan were each able to take to the skies after all; the former set a new airspeed record, while the latter broke records in flight endurance and altitude.)

Other aviation greats were likewise on hand for the Los Angeles International Air Meet. Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, who achieved acclaim as the Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War, attended the airshow with his nine-year-old granddaughter Florence Leontine Lowe; she would become world-famous as “Pancho” Barnes, an aviation pioneer who broke Amelia Earhart’s speed record in 1930 and eventually operated a bar and restaurant in the Mojave Desert that was frequented by such test pilots as Chuck Yeager and Buzz Aldrin.

Image Credit: Public Domain

For more information on the 1910 Los Angeles Air Meet, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1910_Los_Angeles_International_Air_Meet_at_Dominguez_Field

It took them 104 years, but the Army finally flew back home !

In February of 1917, the intrepid pioneer pilots of the First Aero Squadron (FAS), stationed at Columbus for 11 months, were ordered back east to be transported to the raging inferno in Europe that became known as WWI.

Since that time, the Army Air Corps, later to be known as the Army Air Forces, fought and won our way through another World War, this time the second global conflict.

Shortly after WWII ended, in 1947, Congress formed the United States Air Force (USAF), an entirely new and independent branch of the U.S. Military, but it did not abandon the Army Aviation Branch.

When the USAF began to grow its ranks, the now much smaller Army Aviation Branch, likewise did not sit still but also began its own regrowth.  Today, it has more pilots, almost entirely ROTARY WING, aviators, than does the USAF, although its inventory of Fixed Wing assets remains quite small.

Not since February 1917, 104 years ago, has the US Army flown into or out of their historic airfield in the small border town of Columbus, NM.

However, last month, on Tuesday, the 14th of December, that all changed, when the 501st General Support Aviation Battalion, stationed at Biggs Army Airfield (adjoining Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas), was led into the old Army FAS Airfield at Columbus by its commander, Lt. Colonel Jonathan Guinn.

Colonel Guinn personally flew the number 1 Boeing CH-47 Chinook twin-rotor helicopter into the Airfield, immediately followed by the 2nd Chinook.  Upon landing, the heavy helicopters discharged some 60 young Army Aviators, who then walked from the Airfield into town, to explore their history in the two museums dedicated to the 1916 Punitive Expedition, which as most of you know, became to first instance of sustained combat flying by the fledging new Army flying squadron.

Here, below, you will see that historic event from last December unfold by way of videos of their arrival – – – and of their departure – – – along with many (78) photos of the Airmen and Women who took part in the event.

Click on the below photo’s centered boxed arrow to start the PowerPoint Show of the historic event, but remember, that, except for the opening and closing short videos, the other pictures will change to the next frame at regular intervals of  8 seconds per slide. Again, the entire show has 78 separate photos and two separate videos.

We suggest you use FULL-SCREEN for viewing since the photos are otherwise quite small.

 Should you want to stop the show at any point, simply use your computer’s space bar,  To restart the presentation, then tap the space bar once again.  Remember, the two end piece videos are just under 2:00 minutes each.  The entire show, if not paused, is only 14:16 long.

 

 

 

FASF VOLUNTEER, GORDON TAYLOR, HITS THE 80 MARK

Thursday, October 7th, FAS Airfield Volunteer, Gordon Taylor, celebrated his 80th birthday at the Columbus Library in downtown Columbus.  Gordon is one of the town’s volunteer fixtures, so the party held in honor of his birthday was well attended, as locals dropped by throughout the morning to pay their respects – – – and to enjoy the cake and other celebratory treats.

That of course meant that other FASF volunteers and old-timers were also part of the well-wishing group of Gordon’s friends.  Pictured below are several of them, who were there at the time your webmaster dropped by to shake the birthday boy’s hand – – – and snap some photos.

Mr. Taylor is currently the President of the Columbus Library Board of Directors and an accomplished commercial photographer, designer and artist.  He is a long-time resident of the Columbus suburb, City of the Sun. 

Columbus Librarian, Maria Constantine Ehlers, invites one and all to enjoy the many offerings of the library, which regularly holds events at which local artists (Columbus has long been an artist’s haven) both show and sell their creations.  She reports that Gordon is now in the process of creating a book of his photographic work for publication.  Incidentally, don’t forget that the Library has been a long-time supporter of the FASF, and is listed under its Local Business Supporters right here.

To see any of the below photos in full resolution, simply click on it.

FASF Volunteer, Gordon Taylor Turns 80

L to R: Local sculptor Tarás Mychalewych has jovial conversation with longtime FASF member, Mayor Bruce Salas

      Jeane Canfield, one of the FASF’s founders, celebrates with Steve Zobeck, dual Columbus – Michigan citizen.

FASF’s Home Town Celebrated Founding Day Over Weekend

    Mayor Bruce Salas

After several less than exciting false starts, Mayor Salas‘ idea of starting a new day on which Columbus will celebrate it beginnings – now called Founding Day – was a great success two weekends ago.  If you’d like to guess when that historic date was, just go to the end of the post/story.

Other old time FASF members in addition to Mayor Salas also played an active role in helping the event go over the top.  July McClure, our Recording Secretary and Aerodrome Editor busily entertained the crowds at the East end of town in front of her Tumbleweed Theater. Another long-time member and major donor, our FASF landlord, Norma Gomez, also answered many questions thrown her way by a number of festival attendees as well as participants and caballeros.  Your  Webmaster took the Mayor aside for a five minute interview about the event, which appears below.  Click in the lower right of the screen to view the video full-size.

All in all, the festive celebration was a genuine step back in time to the late 19th Century, when the streets of Columbus were as actively used by horses as by its citizens.  Here are some photos taken of the occasion.  If you’d like to see them full size and in high resolution, simply click on them:

                        FASF Office the Chamber of Commerce (White Building) & Tumbleweed Theater (yellow)

                                                              Looking West along Broadway Avenue

    This was back then, above – and below is today: 1916-Ravel Bros. Mercantile Store Downtown Columbus

                                                              City Hall and Sheriff’s Office complex

                                                         A look down Broadway to the West in 1916

                                             Broadway blocked off for the Horse Parade- Looking to the West

            To East: The Railroad Depot and the railroad to El Paso in 1916 – Today’s Depot is the Historical                        Society’s Museum.  Today that railroad is the bed for NM State Route 9 to El Paso, Texas!

                                                                            Columbus Court House

                                          Former Mayor Philip Skinner’s Los Milagros Hotel

                 Celebrants and horsemen chatting outside the Restored Senior Center Facility

                                     View inside the Senior Center where Free lunch was provided for all . . .

                                                            Sheriff’s Team Joined the party in the Park

                                                Visitors enjoying lunch outside the Borderland Cafe

After the parade there were still many horses to be loaded for their trip home . . .unless they were among those who rode to Columbus.                                                              COLUMBUS WAS FOUNDED ON JUNE 18, 1891!

El Paso Daedalians Have NMSU AFROTC Cadets to Luncheon

This past Wednesday, at El Paso’s Fort Bliss golf club, Daedalian Flight 24 entertained some of the upper class AFROTC Cadets from New Mexico State University’s (NMSU) Detachment 505.

This gave the Cadets a good chance to get to know an active duty Air Force pilot, the luncheon’s presenter, along with a number of Daedalian former USAF, Navy and Marine aviators, as well.

Many of the Daedalians, all of whom are long time FASF members, also entered the USAF from ROTC units.  The guest visit was arranged by FASF member, Air Force Academy graduate, and Daedalian Flight Commander, Colonel Alan Fisher. 

Uniquely enough, well over twenty years earlier, Col. Fisher had been the Air Force Commander of these Cadet’s own AFROTC Detachment 505 at NMSU.

The guest speaker, Major Max Weaver, USAF, is from Arizona. He was raised in a family that valued service; his father served in the US Army and both his parents were police officers. In high school Maj Weaver joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) which gave him his first actual flight experience flying in CAP unit Cessna 172s. After High School, he majored in Foreign Area Studies at the Air Force Academy and spent a semester abroad in Nanjing, China where he learned their Mandarin dialect. He graduated with honors and was commissioned in 2011.

Next he attended joint Undergraduate Pilot Training with the Navy at Naval Air Station (NAS) Whiting Field, flying the Texan T-6B II.  See below photo.

U. S. Navy T-6 III Trainer

Maj. Weaver earned his wings in the T-1 “Jayhawk” at Vance AFB in 2013.  Photo below:

USAF Multi-engine Trainer, Beechcraft T-1 Jayhawk

His first post flight training assignment was flying the C-17 Globemaster at McChord AFB, Washington.  He accrued over 1,000 hours in the C-17 and saw duty in Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Japan, and many other countries delivering mission critical cargo and supporting Presidential operations.  Globemaster III photo below.

McDonnell Douglas C-17 Globemaster III

In 2016 he began training on the MQ-9 “Reaper” at Holloman AFB, NM. His next assignment was to Ellsworth AFB, SD where he flew the Reaper Drone a total of 1,100 hours. These Close Air Support missions were flown in Iraq and Afghanistan to support ground forces fighting ISIS in the liberation of Raqqa and other territories.  Reaper photos below.

he USAF MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV – or Drone)

The Reaper has also been found useful in fighting forest fires.

As can only be experienced as a UAV or Drone pilot, Major Weaver flew all of these combat missions from a safe haven at an Air Force Base in the continental U.S. In 2020 he was transferred to Holloman AFB as an MQ-9 instructor pilot. He currently serves in that capacity and also as a Wing Flying Safety Officer while instructing students in the Air Force’s largest MQ-9 formal training program.

In his presentation to the Daedalians and guest AFROTC Cadets, he used the projector screen to show us some of the aircraft in which he accumulated his flight experience . . . including the Reaper.

Here, below, are some of the photos from Wednesday’s event.  To see them in full high resolution simply click on the photos:

                               Colonel Fisher, Daedalian Flight Commander, greets arriving members and guests.

L to R: Cadets Preston Kaplan and Patrick Sambrano waiting be be introduced.

L to R: Colonel Mario Campos, Cadets Sukarno, Malone, Baca, Soliz, Kaplan and Sambrano.

L to R: Mayre Sue Overstreet, with Col. Bob Pitt, Larry Spradlin, and Colonel Mario Campos

L to R: Charlie Overstreet, his brother, Lane (a former AF fighter & bomber pilot, PAA pilot), and Roger Springstead

L to R: Pete Brandon pours water for Colonel Pitt, whose head of hair is at right.

L to R: Cadet Dzaki Sukarno and USAF Pilot to be, Cadet Joshua Soliz

Roger Springstead, Lane Overstreet, Virg Hemphill, Jerry Dixon, Charlie Overstreet, Cadets Sukarno, Soliz and Mayre Overstreet

Flight 24 Captain Colonel Alan Fisher opens the meeting

USAF Cadet Dzaki Sukarno explained his Cadet status and USAF intentions.

L to R: Mayre, Charlie and Lane Overstreet, Cadet Soliz, Roger Springstead Virg Hemphill and Cadet Sukarno

L to R:  Cadet Kaplan and Larry Spradlin listen to Cadet Sambrano speaking – while Shelly Schlick serves Larry

                 Major Weaver puts his beloved C-17 Globemaster III on screen to describe his experiences piloting it

Next Major Weaver  showed slides of what it looked like from a Tanker aircraft while refueling the C-17

                Daedalians and guests listen intently as Major Weaver related his USAF career path to date

After his presentation, Colonel Fisher (R) presented Major Weaver (L) with a token of our appreciation for his talk

FASF Aviation News Scout and Daedalian, Virg Hemphill (R) engaged in USAF banter with Major Weaver (L)

Cadets posed with Major Weaver after the luncheon . . . L to R: Kameron Baca, Patrick Sambrano, Joshua Soliz, Maj. Max Weaver, Dzaki Sukarno, Preston Kaplan and Daniel Malone.

Member, John “Cabi” Cabigas, Pilots James May Into Space

“Cabi” Cabigas, USAF

Long-time FASF member, John “Cabi” Cabigas, (at Left) flew the famous BBC Commentator, James May, into Space in the First Aero’s Dragon Lady, and did it at the First Aero Squadron’s current location at Beale Air Force Base (BAFB) North of Sacramento, CA. Of course Cabi conducted that great space adventure while still on active duty with the USAF as one of the famed Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady Instructor Pilots.  Here is a short 30 minute summary of that memorable flight’s full documentary, which had, as its central figure, TV Journalist, James May,   Most of the full-length documentary was made by the BBC, but some was shot by the USAF.

Here, below, is another flight aboard the Dragon Lady, but without either Cabi or James May.  It is only :10 minutes long, but the resolution of the video is higher.  But if you’d like to see both Cabi and James May, you’ll only see them in the first video above.  In the meantime, Cabi advises that Amazon Prime has the full documentary in high resolution, should you be able to view that version:

If you click right here, you will get chance to witness Cabi again, as your webmaster interviews him, along with his fellow Dragon Lady Instructor Pilot, Bill Williams.  Both gentlemen were video-taped at the 100th Anniversary of the First Aero Squadron’s birth, held at Beale AFB, CA. 

Cabi lives nearby the Air Force base and keeps himself busy flying his own classic 1940 J3 Cub, which has a mighty 65HP engine to help it race aloft.  Your reporter soloed in one of them – sans brakes and tail wheel – back in 1944.  Since retiring from active duty in 2010, Cabi has remained an active member of his local chapter of the EAA and belongs to other aviation groups, as well.

When he graduated from San Jose State University in the AFROTC, he had also gained his FAA Certification as an A&P mechanic!  That in and of itself was quite an unusual accomplishment.

Major Cabigas’ USAF Pilot career spanned just shy of a quarter century, and involved 18 years of working with the Dragon Lady.   He holds a FAA Certified Flight instructor (CFI) Rating along with both a Commercial and Airline Transport Pilot License.  His activities with the EAA are largely motivated by his interest in sharing his love of aviation with the many Young Eagles who are lucky enough to get an airplane ride with this accomplished Air force Pilot, an American military aviator who was actually born in the Philippines!

MAKS-2021 (Russia’s) International Aviation and Space Salon

The MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon is the official title of Russia’s annual International Air Show . . . just per chance the name, “Salon” threw you off the headline’s meaning.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, lauded his nation’s new entry into the Air Power world of their new SU 35 5th Generation Fighter.  It was manufactured by the country’s renown aircraft maker, Sukhoi The annual event opened Tuesday (July 20, 2021) in Zhukovsky, outside of Moscow.

Several Russian aircraft manufacturers unveiled other prototypes and currently operational aircraft, including new fighter jets, one that features stealth capabilities and other advanced characteristics, which, like the U.S. F-35, will be offered to foreign buyers.

The event also included competitions and air demonstrations by other visiting countries as well as by the host nation.

The following are some insights into the big Air Show events by way of several videos produced by Russian’s International Television platform, RTRT’s sister News agency, available via the Internet, also with International distribution, is known as RUPTLY or Daily Motion (streaming TV).

Stay posted for our usual coverage of the world’s largest Airshow event, held each year in Oshkosh, WI, AirVenture 2021, which is occurring simultaneously with this Russian MAKS “Salon” 2021.  AirVenture is usually personally covered by a number of FASF members, who are also active members of the event’s host, the EAA.

The below MAKS video is only 2:06 long and is summary of Rotary and Fixed Wing as well as Fighters doing their aerobatic maneuvers on air show day 2.

And, here below, are some clips of the opening day’s Air Show, 23:16 long, including various airborne ships strutting their capabilities:

And for those of you who love Rotary Wing Aircraft, here is a 8:22 long Russian Helicopter manufacturer, Rosoboronexport’s, pitch for these novel ships, including the latest offshore Mi-171A3; multipurpose (including fire-fighting) Ka-32A11M; and Ansat-M, passenger Ka-62 and the military combat ship, the Ka-52K:

FINALLY: Are These Our New 6th Generation Fighter Jets?

As those of us who try to stay abreast of the latest military aviation news well know, there is constant rumoring about what might be afoot in international Research and Development programs towards being the first nation to foist a 6th Generation Jet Fighter on the world stage.

Here, below, is a quick 10:38 minute long video clip of what w might expect on the American scene:

And, here’s another peek at what’s going on behind that “TOP SECRET” obscurity barrier.  This “Military Notes” video tell its “computer generated voice-over” story in only 6:15 minutes, with an extra add-on of some 1:50 seconds unnarrated current USAF flight line video coverage.

 

3/16/16, then 74 yrs later, 3/6/90, the FAS made New History

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.):

To see who the (only 86) pilots were who actually flew the Blackbird operationally, here’s that listing.  Do any of you know which of the FASF Advisors was one of those select few pilots?

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.

 

Aviator-Historian Chronicles the Birth of American Airpower

  Daniel G. Sharpes, Aviator, and Historian

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 that Mr. Sharpes has become an active member of the FASF!

Dan has 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 follow Dan’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 Mission

                                          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.

The Weather

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.

Conclusion

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)

Bibliography

  1. Webster, M.L. n.d. “Curtiss Flying Jennies Pursue Pancho Villa Across Northern Mexico,” Warfare History Network. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2015/07/23/curtiss-flying-jennies-pursue-pancho-villa-across-northern-mexico/?mqsc=E&utm_source=WhatCountsEmail&utm_medium=warfare_history_full%20Warfare%20History%20Daily%20Military%20Games%20Warfare%20History%20Daily%20Military%20Games&utm_campaign=Games%20Commentary%207%2F23%2F2015.
  2. Welsh, Mark A., III. n.d. “Global Vigilance, Global Reach, Global Power for America,” U.S. Air Force. https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/images/airpower/GV_GR_GP_300DPI.pdf.
  3. Deuble, John L., Jr. 2016. An Illustrated History of The 1st Aero Squadron at Camp Furlong Columbus, New Mexico 1916-1917. Signature Book Printing
  4. Quinn, Ruth. 2013. “American Military Aviation Takes Off with First Aero Squadron. This Week in History: 9 March 1916..” U.S. Army. March 1, 2013. https://www.army.mil/article/97537/American_Military_Aviation_Takes_Off_with_First_Aero_Squadron__This_Week_in_History__9_March_1916_/
  5. Phinney, Todd R. 2007. “Airpower versus Terrorism: Three Case Studies.” Air University Press, 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep13776.13
  6. Foulois, Benjamin D., and Carroll V. Glines. 1968. From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
  7. 1916, “First Aero Squadron to Mexico.” Aerial Age Weekly, March 20, 1916. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101048986168&view=1up&seq=24
  8. Schrader, Karl R. 2012. A Giant in the Shadows Major General Benjamin Foulois and the Rise of the Army Air Service in the World War I. Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University Press
  9. New Mexico State Parks. 2015. “Welcome to Pancho Villa State Park.” Accessed 25 October, 2020. https://youtu.be/3XqgcWUwNxM
  10. Glynn, Gary. n.d. “1st Aero Squadron and the Pursuit of Pancho Villa.” History Net. https://www.historynet.com/mexican-expedition-1st-aero-squadron-in-pursuit-of-pancho-villa.htm.
  11. Hines, Calvin W. 1965. “First Aero Squadron in Mexico.” American Aviation Historical Society Journal, 10, no.2 (Fall 1965): 190-197.
  12. 1916. “Millions for Army Aviation,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 11, 1916. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101048986168&view=1up&seq=538
  13. Hines, Calvin W. 1965. “First Aero Squadron in Mexico.” American Aviation Historical Society Journal, 10, no.2 (Fall 1965): 190-197
  14. Smith, John J. and James J. Sloan, 1969. “The 1st Aero Sqdn., U.S.A.S.,” Journal of the American Aviation History Society, 14, no. 1: 52-54. https://www.aahs-online.org/journals/files/141051.pdf
  15. Clark, V. E., T. F. Dodd, and O. E. Strahlmann. “SOME PROBLEMS IN AIRPLANE CONSTRUCTION.” SAE Transactions 12 (1917): 40-64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44716155.
  16. Aldrich, Nancy W. n.d. “The 1st Aero Squadron – A History.” First Aero Squadron Foundation. https://firstaerosquadron.com/articles/the-1st-aero-squadron-a-history/

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.

Click to access the-first-aero-squadron-in-mexico-mission-unaccomplished-2.pdf

 

 

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