The United States Air Force’s pioneers



 

 

I n last week’s column about the Air Force’s history I did not discuss the people who built the new service. One was General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold, who—as a lieutenant—was an early Army aviator whose career led him to become Chief of the Army Air Forces before and during World War II.

Health problems forced his retirement, effective June of 1946. Hap Arnold passed away in 1950 but lived to see his dream of the United States Air Force come to pass.

But the story began with Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois, appointed to head the Army’s Aeronautical Branch in 1908. He tested the Army’s first airplane, a Wright Flyer, which he assembled and flew at Fort Sam Houston. Foulois made his first solo takeoff, first solo flight and had his first crash all on the same day!

Later Foulois commanded the 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico during the pursuit in 1916 by General John J. Pershing of Pancho Villa. He commanded the Air Service, part of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe in 1917 during the First World War. Foulois clashed several times with Brigadier General William L. “Billy” Mitchell, who commanded air combat units.

After the war Foulois rose to the rank of major general and the position of Chief of the Army Air Corps in 1931. He held that position until his retirement in 1935. He died in San Antonio in April of 1967.

Billy Mitchell advocated an independent Air Force and a series of statements led to his court-martial (in San Antonio). He left the service, continuing to speak out and died in 1936. He was a colorful and forceful advocate for airpower; an air prophet considered the father of the Air Force.

The first Chief of Staff of the Air Force was General Karl A. Spaatz, a World War I fighter ace who in World War II commanded U.S. Air Forces in Europe. Spaatz eventually became Chief of the Army Air Forces, until the 1947 designation of the Air Force as a separate military service. Spaatz had also been a test pilot and military aviation pioneer between the World Wars.

These four pioneer airmen weren’t alone in building our Air Force, and many officers and airmen have followed; each helping define the new service and what its roles would be.

WARREN DOMKE is a columnist for the Pleasanton Express.

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