AIR FORCE HISTORY: In the beginning, with B.D. Foulois

  • Published
  • By Howard E. Halvorsen
  • Air Force Sustainment Center Historian

On Aug. 1, 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps established a small Aeronautical Division to take “charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects.”

At the time, there were few aeronautical “subjects” upon which to build. From the close of the Civil War until 1907, the Signal Corps had acquired only eight balloons, though two more were procured in 1907. A year later, the Signal Corps purchased a small dirigible, used at Fort Omaha, Neb., for the instruction of servicemen. But not until May 26, 1909, did Lt. Frank P. Lahm and Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois make their first ascent and qualify as the airship’s first Army pilots.

The Signal Corps began testing its first airplane at Fort Myer, Va., on Aug. 20, 1908, and on Sept. 9, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, flying with Orville Wright, was killed when the plane crashed. Subsequently, after more testing with a second, improved Wright Flyer, the Army formally accepted this airplane, identified as “Airplane No. 1,” on Aug. 2, 1909.

On Aug. 25, 1909, the Army leased land at College Park, Md., for the first Signal Corps airfield. On Oct. 26, 1909, at College Park, Md., Lt. Frederick Humphreys and Lt. Frank Lahm became the first Army officers to solo in a Wright airplane. Lt. George Sweet became the first Navy officer to do so on Nov. 3, 1909. Other flights happened also, including the Army’s Lt. Paul Beck, flying with Louis Paulhan at an air meet in Los Angeles, who dropped three 2-pound sandbags over a target to test the feasibility of using aircraft for bombing.

On Feb. 15, 1910, the Signal Corps moved flying training to Fort Sam Houston because of the windy winter weather at College Park, Md. On March 2, 1910, Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois made his first solo flight at Fort Sam Houston, Texas – the first military flight west of the Mississippi River. At the time, he was the only pilot assigned to the Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps and, thus, the only one with flying duty.

Benjamin Delahauf Foulois was born in Washington, Conn., in 1879. Enlisting as a private in the First United States Volunteer Engineers on July 7, 1898, he served in Puerto Rico until January 1899, when he was mustered out as a sergeant. On June 17, 1899, he enlisted as a private in the Regular Army and served with the 19th Infantry, rising to the grade of first sergeant. Going to the Philippine Islands in August 1899, he participated in campaigns on Luzon, Panay and Cebu. He was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry February 2, 1901.

He went on to serve all over the world and the United States and completed the Signal School, graduating in July 1908. Upon graduation, he was assigned to the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Washington, D.C. During this tour, General Foulois operated the first dirigible balloon purchased by the U.S. government. He was also one of the first three officers in the Army to operate the first military airplane purchased by the government from the Wright Brothers in 1909. He accompanied Orville Wright on the final trial flight from Fort Myer to Alexandria, Va., breaking three world records – speed, altitude and duration cross-country. During September and October 1909, he was the American Delegate to the International Congress of Aeronautics held in France. Afterwards, he transferred to Fort Sam Houston where he performed the first flight west of the Mississippi for the military as mentioned above.

His career proceeded apace with many changes in station during those early years of flight. By July 1914, he left San Diego, Calif., organized and assumed command of the First Aero Squadron at the Signal Corps Aviation School in 1914. The squadron moved by rail to Fort Sill, Okla., in the fall of 1915. The First Aero Squadron then moved to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, by air, marking the first unit cross-country flight.

Under the command of General Foulois, the squadron then participated in the Mexican Punitive Expedition (March to August 1916) with Gen. John J. Pershing, the supreme commander of the expedition. In September 1916, he was named Department Aeronautical Officer, Southern Department Fort Sam Houston, Texas. During this assignment, he initiated steps for the establishment of the present day Kelly Air Force Base.

His expertise was further used in making air war plans for WWI in Washington, D.C. to performing a myriad of duties advancing air power against U.S. and allied enemies in Europe during the war. After the war, his career proceeded at the same dizzying pace.

During his 37 years of active and 19 years of retired military aviation service, he accumulated a number of firsts such as:

1908 – First flight as a dirigible pilot

1909 – First observer on an aircraft cross-country

1910 – First military man to teach himself to fly; first and only military test pilot flying Old No. 1

1911 – First to fly more than 100 miles non-stop; first on an operational reconnaissance flight; first to test use of radio in flight

1914 – First commander of a tactical air unit (1st Aero Squadron); first commander of the first mechanized tactical unit in the U.S. Army (1st Aero Squadron)

1916 – First to use an aircraft in a combat operation (Mexico)

1918 – First chief of Air Service, AEF, 1st Army

1931 – First chief of Air Corps to be a military aviator

1933 – First Air Corps chief to be awarded Mackay Trophy

1962 – First Honorary Staff Member of Air Force Systems Command

1964 – First honorary member of the Aerospace Primus Club

In addition to the above list of firsts, a great number of honorary titles and awards were given to Gen. Foulois.

Not bad for a baby-faced Army private in 1898, ending a career as our first great military Airman nearly four decades later.