August 2011

The Aerodrome
The Journal of the First Aero Squadron Foundation

August 2011Columbus, New Mexico

A Report to the Members of the First Aero Squadron Foundation

Our group is about four years old now, give or take a couple of months. We – that’s you and me and the other members – are either serious believers in our mission, or we have 20 bucks a year we don’t have any other use for. Either way, we have accomplished a surprising amount with damn little help from the outside. Some of the gains are due to individuals like historians John Deuble of Albuquerque and Dr. Roger Miller of Washington DC and Bob Worthington of Las Cruces (who has written about us nationally) and Peter Westacott of Norfolk UK, the internationally know aviation artist. Others have been joint efforts; many of them small things that led to big results. Some have been especially generous with cash; the late John D. Benham of San Antonio, for example. Part of our success has certainly been due to the efforts of folks like Sharan Maxwell, our retiring secretary, and Treasurer James Efferson.

Advisory Board members Pete Adolph of ABQ and Tom Willmott of Santa Fe are working hard to take that group to a more active level. Fellow Advisory Board Member Lyn Benedict of Roswell has been beating the bushes to find additional revenues. Because of them and others like them, we have managed a few more steps forward than backwards.

We now know the actual location of the old aerodrome with some precision. We have managed, with investor help, to purchase 60 acres of historic ground containing a part of the aerodrome as well as a major chunk of the old Columbus Airport, itself a historic site.

We own a couple of commercial lots near the Columbus “downtown.” We have given successful programs for the local public and are about to address a major international aviation history convention (see below).

We are also about to begin the payback of lenders. We owe a total of $50,000 to a number of folks who believe in the value of what we are trying to do and who have advanced us purchase funds at 0% interest. We have had our purchase surveyed and have laid out a plan for a 2000 ft+ landing strip. We have purchased a pair of informational signs and will be erecting them shortly. Largely through the writings of Historian Ken Emery in a regional monthly (also see article following) we are beginning to get the word out.

In spite of us being in the poorest end of the poorest county on one of the poorest states in the Union, we, working together, will get this job finished.

What is yet to be done? We need to design and erect a memorial to the men of the First Aero Squadron and to the Cradle of Military Aviation. We need to return the site to working airfield status, and create a hands-on “museum” that will put the American Public in touch with aviation’s past. We need to greatly expand the role of our speaker’s bureau so that we are able to reach significant numbers of young people, most of whom have no inkling of what happened in the early days. And, we need to be able to purchase the balance of the historic site as it becomes available. To do this we need some sizable investment… much more than dues at 20 bucks a pop will bring in. It is out there, mainly in the form of grant monies. We need to identify the sources, and then go after them.

By the way, we still need that 20 dollar dues money. Badly. So send in that check; we all will appreciate it. Or like AB member Bill Lafferty, send more if you can.

If you have someone you would like to create an aviation memorial to, you might consider this: your Foundation will be installing at least one airstrip, several hangars and a museum complex over the next several years. First consideration is usually given to the wishes of major financial contributors. Cash donations are always welcome, but so are in-kind, and certainly specific donations spaced over a period of time.

In July, I spent a week in San Diego with The International Cessna 170 Association, attending their annual convention. It is not so much a convention as it is a huge family get-together – 150 or so people, 30 Cessna 170s, the immediate predecessor of the ubiquitous 172, manufactured from 1948 through 1956. Among other things, my wife Mary and I attended the annual awards banquet where the speaker was Air Force General (Ret.) Robert Cardenas, one of our Advisory Board Members. Some of you may know that Bob was at the controls of the B-29 that carried Chuck Yeager aloft on his famous “sound barrier” flight. He is now 91, and still chuggin’ along, a very interesting man.

The sale of the novel Tracking Julie Stensvahl continues on Amazon, but is still available from the author (me) where two bucks from each sale goes to the First Aero Foundation. Autographed and dedicated copies make great gifts and can be ordered through the website, by copying the order form and sending it in with your check for $14.95 (incl. S&H). Last quarter this writer was able to turn over $130.00 to the general fund of FASF from the sale of books, and we have had a few more sales in this quarter. We are involved in a fund-raiser for the 170 Club as well right now, so be sure to write “FASF” somewhere on that order form.

On Thursday and Friday, November 13th and 14th, the League of World War One Aviation Historians will meet in Monterey, CA. We have been honored by being asked to speak at this meeting in the Casa Munras Hotel. If you live in the area, you might drop in to cheer on Historian Ken Emery and 2nd Veep Ric Lambart as they talk about the First Aero Squadron.

Notice to Airmen: there is depicted on sectional charts is a landing strip called “Stockyards” located on the border just 3 miles south of the Village of Columbus. It is deemed hazardous to use by local pilots because of the proximity of power poles to the runway, and the condition of the runway itself. If you fly in to visit us, be aware that the “First Aero Squadron” strip is part of an airpark and not the FAS Aerodrome. However, 122.9 is monitored, guests are treated kindly.

As I write this we have received a generous contribution from Dorothy Benham of Blanco, TX. Dorothy is the widow of John D. Benham, an early and ardent supporter. All of us involved in the FASF thank you and the others like you.

As I read this over, I am struck by this: at my advanced age, I am frantically beating the bushes for money. And to think mom wanted me to be a doctor…

Bill Wehner, President


Ken Emery is a member of the FASF Board of Trustees and its official Historian. Also by profession an archaeologist, Ken has done in-depth research into the operations of the original First Aero Squadron and lives of its pilots.

Robert Henry Willis, Jr.
1886 – 1918

By FASF Historian Ken Emery

Robert Henry Willis was born in Williston, South Carolina.  He attended The Citidel (often called the West Point of the South) and graduated the First Honor Graduate of the Class of 1908.  He was commissioned a 2ndLt. and then assigned to the 6th Infantry at Helena, Montana.

On January 1, 1910, the 6th was sent to the Philippines where Willis served, primarily on Mindanao, until his outfit returned to San Francisco in the summer of 1912.  While there, an aviator gave him a ride over the bay and he fell in love with flying.

He was accepted into the Signal Corps Flight School at San Diego and, after a long furlough, started training in 1913. He received both the F.A.I. airplane pilot certificate and the Military Aviator rating in December.  In 1914, the Aero Club of America rated him an Expert and he received his J.M.A. rating in November.

The reorganization of the First Aero Squadron on July 1, 1915 has Lt. Willis listed as a member. (He may have been a Capt. according to one source.)  He moved with it to Fort Sill, OK; Fort Sam Houston, TX; and to Columbus, NM in the aftermath of the Villa raid.

On March 19, 1916, at about 5:15 P.M., the squadron took off for Casas Grande, Mexico.  In the gathering gloom, the formation quickly broke up in the gathering dusk.  Four of the planes landed at Ascension, Mex.; one returned to Columbus while three others flew south blindly.  At one point Willis and Gorrell almost collided as they zeroed in on a fire that they thought might mark the landing strip.  Finally, out of gas, Willis was forced to land 5 or 6 miles south of Pearson (now known as Mata Ortiz).  His plane, #41, suffered severe damage and he abandoned it and hiked north.  Hiding during the day and walking at night, it took him 2 days to reach Casas Grande.  He returned with a squad a few days later to find that the plane had been stripped.  Only the engine was salvageable.

Willis, as an observer with Lt. Dargue in #43, crashed in rough country in the hills west of Chihuahua City, Mex. on April 19th.  The plane landed on a 45 degree slope, bottom side up.  Dargue was banged up a bit, but Willis suffered a 3 to 4 inch gash in his scalp and he was hanging from the plane caught by his ankle which was severely bruised.  The airplane was a total loss so they burned it and started walking to San Antonio, Chih., 65 miles away.  It took nearly two days.  A few days later, they were in Columbus and Willis was sent to the base hospital at Ft. Sam Houston.  He spent nearly three months recuperating and it was discovered that he had walked to San Antonio with a broken ankle!

After a short return to Columbus he was posted to Washington, D.C. to be part of the committee to select machine guns for the U.S. Army.  He was its Recorder and received a letter from the Board’s President commending him for his outstanding work.  He then served for a time inspecting airplane factories in Buffalo, Boston and New York.  During this time in August, 1917, he became a Lieutenant Colonel and sailed for France on October, 29th.

On September 1, 1918, his orders came to become Chief of Air Service of the Seventh Army Corps.  A few days before he was to report, he accidentally shot himself with a pistol.  He was buried with full military honors in the cemetery at Remiremont, France.

Thus his promising military career was cut short.  One can only speculate as to what he might have achieved.  The letter to Willis’ father from General Pershing best summarizes his character.

August 17, 1920

Dear Mr. Willis:

I have your letter of July 20th, regarding your son Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Willis, Jr., who lost his life during the World War.

I knew this young officer as a member of the small group of aviators on duty with the American Punitive Expedition in Mexico, where I had ample opportunity to observe his work.  Being imbued with the ideals of the true soldier, his service was in keeping with the high standards of our army, and I was pleased to have him as a member of the flying corps in France.  Colonel Willis was a man of pleasing personality and an officer in whose ability I had the greatest confidence and I was deeply grieved to learn of his untimely death.

With sincerest sympathy in your great loss, believe me.

Sincerely yours,

John J. Pershing

See this same article under ARTICLES, but with photos of the airman.

Robert Henry Willis, Jr.1886 – 1918
Born: Williston, South Carolina
Died: Remiremont, France
Served: U.S. Army (1908 -1918)
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Chief of Air Service, Seventh Army Corps
(died prior to assuming position)

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