AIR FORCE HISTORY: The early years of American air combat

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

The Lafayette Escadrille, which became operational in April of 1916, was established as a squadron of mostly American volunteer pilots flying and fighting for the French Air Service during World War I. The planes, mechanics and the pilot uniforms were French, as was the commander, Capt. Georges Thenault. The squadron was originally named the Escadrille Américaine. For reasons of international diplomacy, the unit was re-named to honor the French military hero who aided the American Army during the American Revolution.

William Thaw was the first to get a commission. He had a hydroplane while still at Yale and legend has it he was the first man to fly beneath a bridge. It was said he had the face, physique, and drinking habits of a Hemingway; after being wounded his arm froze in the crooked position. Victor Chapman and Kiffin Rockwell, both of whose fathers had been officers in the Confederate Army, were already in France after joining the Foreign Legion at the outbreak of war. James Hall and Charles Nordhoff wrote “Mutiny On the Bounty” together when not in combat. And who can forget the Black Swallow of Death, Eugene Bullard? He, like so many of the early American pilots in France, had also been fighting on the ground with the French Foreign Legion. Unlike his comrades, he had been wounded so horrifically that it was thought he would never walk again. That he did, but was no longer fit to be an infantryman. Thus, he took to the skies to become the first black fighter pilot in history.

They were quartered in a sumptuous villa next to Roman baths and shocked and impressed the French pilots with their parties that usually ended in sacking the entire hotel. Their mascot was a pet lion cub named Whiskey. Later, a second was adopted named Soda. Kiffin Rockwell chalked up the first victory, but did not survive the war. In fact, four of the original seven were killed in combat. The squadron grew in numbers as time went on – but when the United States came into the war with their own air forces every member of the Lafayette Squadron was rated “unfit for combat.”

President Wilson had told his people to not only be neutral in body, but also in mind. However, after news stories of German atrocities and the covering the Escadrille Lafayette during one of the greatest battles of all time, Verdun, most Americans were no longer neutral in mind. Isolationist Americans were not willing yet to go in body to the fight, but in mind they were rooting for their new American heroes.

Sources include:,, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Tinker Take Off February 17, 2017, Eugene Bullard, The Black Swallow of Death and the world’s first black fighter pilot.