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The Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps, was the name of the military aviation service of the United States Army from 1914 to 1918, and a direct ancestor of the United States Air Force. It replaced the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps and was succeeded briefly by the Division of Military Aeronautics, Secretary of War, and then the U.S. Army Air Service.

Lineage of the United States Air Force



The Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps was created by the 63rd Congress (38 Stat. 514) on July 18, 1914, to absorb and replace the Aeronautical Division after earlier legislation to make the aviation service independent from the Signal Corps died in committee. The new law authorized a significant increase in size of U.S. military aviation to 60 officers and 260 enlisted men, but stipulated that most be volunteers from other branches of the Army than the Signal Corps, which by regulation limited their time of service away from their regular units to four years. The first funding appropriation for the Aviation Section was $250,000 for fiscal year 1915.

The new law also decreed restrictions that officers detached to the section be unmarried and no higher in rank than 1st lieutenant, both of which encouraged a lack of discipline and professional maturity among the aviators that handicapped the growth of the service. Aggravating the situation, all 24 pilots previously rated as Military Aviators had their ratings automatically reduced to Junior Military Aviator (and therefore incurred a 25% reduction in flight pay) when requirements were changed to include three years experience as a JMA before qualifying for the higher rating. This placed them on the same level as newly graduated pilots, and none of those so reduced regained their ratings before 1917.

At its creation, the Aviation Section had 19 officers and 101 enlisted men. On August 5, 1914, the section was organized into the Aeronautical Department in Washington, D.C. with three officers and ten men; and in San Diego, the Signal Corps Aviation School, the 1st Aero Squadron, and the 1st and 2nd Companies of the squadron, totalling 16 officers, 91 enlisted men, seven civilians, and seven aircraft. Most of the air service was still on detached service in Texasmarker for the second time in three years, training to support Army ground forces in a possible war with Mexicomarker over the Tampico Affair. The impending war was defused by the resignation of Victoriano Huerta on July 15. The Aviation Section returned to Texas in April 1915, when the Army massed around Brownsvillemarker, Texasmarker, in response to civil war between the forces of Pancho Villa and the Carranza government.

By December 1914 the Aviation Section consisted of 44 officers, 224 enlisted men, and 23 aircraft.


Beginning in August 1915, the 1st Aero Squadron spent four months at Fort Sillmarker, Oklahomamarker, training at the Field Artillery School with eight newly-delivered Curtiss JN-2s. After a fatal crash on August 12, the pilots of the squadron met with squadron commander Capt. Benjamin D. Foulois and declared the JN-2 unsafe because of low power, shoddy construction, lack of stability, and overly sensitive rudders. Foulois and Capt. Thomas D. Milling disagreed, and the JN-2 remained operational until a second crashed on September 5. The aircraft were grounded until October 14, when conversions of the JN-2s to the newer JN-3 began, two copies of which the squadron received in early September.

Between November 19 and 26, 1915, the six JN-3s of the 1st Aero Squadron at Fort Sill (the other two were on detached duty at Brownsville) made the first cross-country squadron flight, to a new airfield built near Fort Sam Houstonmarker, Texasmarker. The Texas base became the "first permanent aeronautical station" on January 6, 1916, designated as the San Antonio Air Center. Ironically, the first "permanent" base was abandoned after several months and its remaining funding allocated to the establishment of a new training school on Long Islandmarker, New Yorkmarker. Signal Corps Aviation Station, Mineola (later Hazelhurst Field) opened on July 22, 1916.

On January 12, 1916, the strength of the Aviation Section stood at 46 officers (23 pilots) and 243 enlisted men (eight of whom were pilots). It was now organized into four subordinate organizations: The Aeronautical Division in Washington D.C., the Signal Corps Aviation School in San Diego, the 1st Aero Squadron, and the 1st Company, 2nd Aero Squadron, in Manila. It had 23 aircraft: four seaplanes based overseas at Manilamarker, two seaplanes and nine trainers at San Diego, and eight JN-3s in Texas. 32 other aircraft had been destroyed or written off since 1909, one was in the Smithsonian Institutionmarker, and three were too damaged to repair economically.

On November 1, 1915, the first aviation organization in the National Guard was created in the Aviation Detachment, 1st Battalion Signal Corps, New York National Guard, later called simply the "1st Aero Company". Consisting of four officers and 40 enlisted men, it used two leased aircraft to train until five aircraft were purchased for its equipment in 1916.

Punitive expedition

1st Aero Squadron Curtiss JN-3s at Columbus, New Mexico, March 1916.
Note red star insignia on upper rudder of foreground aircraft
Following Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexicomarker, on March 9, 1916, the 1st Aero Squadron was attached to General Pershing's Punitive Expedition. It consisted of 11 pilots, 84 enlisted men (including two medics), a civilian mechanic, and was supported by an engineer officer and 14 men. Eight Curtiss JN-3 (former JN-2s S.C. Nos. 41-45 and 48; and original JN-3s Nos. 52-53) were disassembled at Fort Sam Houston on March 12 and shipped the next day by rail to Columbus, along with the squadron's twelve trucks, one automobile, and six motorcycles. The JN-3s were reassembled as they were off-loaded on March 15, the date the first column marched into Mexico. The first observation mission by a JN-3, a biplane, was flown the next day, lasting 51 minutes.

On March 19, Gen. Pershing telegraphed Foulois and ordered the squadron forward to his base at Colonia Dublánmarker to observe for the 7th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. The ground echelon moved forward by truck, and the eight JN-3s took off at 17:10. None of the eight aircraft made Dublán that evening: one turned back to Columbus because of engine problems, and one was destroyed by scavengers after a forced landing in Mexico. Four that landed together at Ascensión (about halfway to Dublán) flew on to Dublán in the morning, where they were joined by the plane that had returned to Columbus and one that had landed on a road at Janos.

The squadron returned to Columbus on April 22, where it expanded to a roster of 16 pilots and 122 enlisted men. It continued to fly liaison missions for Pershing's force using detachments in Mexico until August 15, 1916. The 1st Aero Squadron flew a total of 540 liaison and aerial reconnaissance missions, flying with a flight time of 345 hours 43 minutes. No observations were made of hostile troops but the squadron performed invaluable services maintaining communications between ground units deep inside Mexico and Pershing's headquarters. During this expedition, a solid red star on the rudder became the first national insignia for United States military aircraft.

Their airplanes did not have sufficient power to fly over the Sierra Madre Mountains nor did they perform well in the turbulence of its passes, and missions averaged only distance from their landing fields. The planes were nearly impossible to maintain because of a lack of parts and environmental conditions (laminated wooden propellers had to be dismounted after each flight and placed in humidors to keep their glue from disintegrating), and after just thirty days service only two were left. Both were no longer flight worthy and were condemned on April 22. Congress voted the Aviation Section an emergency appropriation of $500,000 (twice its previous budget), and although four new Curtiss N-8s (numbers 60-63, and later designated JN-4s) were shipped to Columbus, they were rejected by Foulois after six days of flight testing. Although recommended for condemnation, they were shipped to San Diego, modified, and ultimately became training aircraft.

A new agency was also created within the Aviation Section, the Technical Advisory and Inspection Board, headed by Captain Thomas D. Milling, and staffed by pilots who had attended engineering course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technologymarker and civilian engineers, including Donald Douglas. The Board recommended a new squadron be equipped with Curtiss R-2s, which used a engine.

The first two were delivered on May 1, 1916, and the remaining ten (assigned numbers 64-75) by May 25. The R-2s were equipped with Lewis machine guns, wireless sets, and standard compasses, but their performance proved little better than that of their predecessors. Pilots were quoted by name in both the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune as condemning their equipment, but Pershing did not pursue the issue, noting they had "already too often risked their lives in old and often useless machines they have patched up and worked over in an effort to do their share of the duty this expedition has been called upon to perform."

The Goodier court-martial

Charges and countercharges

As a result of negative publicity regarding its airplanes in Mexico, the Aviation Section came under severe criticism in the spring of 1916, particularly Major Billy Mitchell, a General Staff officer acting as its head while its chief was on temporary duty in the office of the chief signal officer. Mitchell defended the department, insisting that the U.S. firms did not produce better aircraft, but the outcry produced several long-term results, including instructing Mitchell in political tactics, participation in which ultimately resulted in his court-martial at the end of his career.

This followed revelations of serious mismanagement, disregard for flying safety, favoritism, fraud, and concealment of malfeasance in the Aviation Section's chain of command. Commander of the 1st Aero Squadron's 2nd Company at San Diego, Capt. Lewis E. Goodier, Jr., had been seriously injured in a demonstration accident on November 5, 1914. Flying with Glenn Martin in a new aircraft undergoing a required competitive slow speed test, the aircraft stalled, and when Martin overcorrected with too much throttle, went into what was described as the first tailspin. Goodier suffered a nearly severed nose, two broken legs, a re-opened skull fracture, and a severe puncture of his knee from the drive shaft. The accident occurred amidst a series of fatal training crashes, all involving the Wright C pusher airplane, that resulted in six deaths between July 1913 and February 1914, and culminated in pilots refusing to fly pusher airplanes.

While recuperating, Capt. Goodier assisted Capt. Townsend F. Dodd and 1st Lt. Walter Taliaferro in an attempt to prefer charges against school commandant Capt. Arthur S. Cowan for fraudulently collecting flight pay when he was neither certified to fly nor on flying duty. They were aided by Goodier's father, Lt. Col. Lewis Goodier, Sr., judge advocate general of the Western Department in San Franciscomarker, who in addition also preferred charges against former squadron commander Capt William L. Patterson for the same offense.

The charges were routed to the Chief Signal Officer at a time when Cowan's superior, Chief of the Aviation Section Lt. Col. Samuel Reber, himself an integral part of the accusations and also a non-flyer, was temporarily in command. Reber had the charges against Cowan and Patterson dismissed, then he and Cowan charged the elder Goodier with "Conduct to the Prejudice of Good Order and Discipline" for assisting in drawing up of charges against Cowan, specifying that he did so out of malice.

Goodier court-martialed

The resulting court martial proceedings, which began October 18, 1915, resulted in the conviction of Lt. Col. Goodier and a sentence of reprimand. Brig. Gen. E. H. Crowder, the Army's Judge Advocate General, ruled (after the preferring of charges against Lt. Col. Goodier but before his trial) that neither Cowan nor Patterson was criminally culpable of fraud because of legal technicalities. Although legally correct, the ruling put the Army in a bad public light for not only condoning obvious misfeasance but failing to correct it. Evidence also showed that at the same time Reber and Cowan had used Capt. Goodier's injuries as a pretext to have him dismissed from the Aviation Section while he was recuperating.

However the charge of malice allowed defense counsel wide latitude in its introduction of evidence, and documents including official correspondence describing numerous incidents that confirmed Capt. Goodier's original charges against Cowan became part of the court record, including support by the Chief Signal Officer of a pattern of retribution against officers on flying duty who fell in disfavor of Cowan.Senator Joseph T. Robinson immediately brought the matter before the United States Senate, introducing S.J. Resolution 65 in January 1916, calling for an investigation of malfeasance in the Aviation Section. Robinson conducted hearings and released to the public all of the documents held in evidence at the court martial. S.J. Resolution 65 passed on March 16, 1916, without opposition.

Report of the Garlington Board

While the Senate hearings were in progress, Chief Signal Officer Brig. Gen. George P. Scriven issued a statement accusing the young aviators of "unmilitary insubordination and disloyal acts" in an attempt to form an air service independent of the Signal Corps. Brig. Gen. Ernest A. Garlington, the Inspector General, was appointed by Army chief of staff Gen. Hugh L. Scott to head a board of investigation into the Aviation Section. The Garlington Board confirmed Goodier's allegations and also cited Scriven and Reber for failing to supervise the section adequately, holding them responsible for acquiring substandard aircraft. The Garlington Board's report, together with the Senate resolution and public criticism of the equipment used in Mexico, prompted Secretary of War Newton Baker to issue letters of censure to Scriven, Reber and Cowan. Reber was relieved as Chief of the Aviation Section on May 5, temporarily replaced by Capt. William Mitchell, and Cowan of his duties in July. Both were assigned non-aviation duties in the Signal Corps after extensive leaves of absence. Lt.Col. George O. Squier was recalled from duty as military attaché in Londonmarker and appointed Chief of the Aviation Section on May 20, with orders to reform it from the ground up.

On April 24, 1916, the General Staff appointed a committee chaired by Col. Charles W. Kennedy to make recommendations for reform and reorganization of the Aviation Section. Milling was named the representative from the section, over the objections of Foulois, who believed him to be too close to the previous Signal Corps leadership. The committee took statements from all 23 officers then on flying duty with the Aviation Section and found that 21 favored separation of aviation from the Signal Corps. Only Milling and Captain Patterson were opposed to separation—and Patterson was the non-flyer who had acquired his flying certificate through the censured actions of Cowan.

The Kennedy Committee recommended in July 1916 that aviation be expanded and developed, and that it be removed from the Signal Corps and placed under a central agency, in effect endorsing for the first time a call for a separate air arm. The recommendation was quickly attacked by Assistant Army Chief of Staff Gen. Tasker Bliss, who branded the air officers supporting separation as having "a spirit of insubordination" and acting out of "self-aggrandizement". The Kennedy Committee's recommendations were rejected by the War Department, but the issue of a separate Air Force had been born and would not die until separation was finally achieved in 1947.

Response to World War I

National Defense Act of 1916

George O.
Squier, Chief of the Aviation Section, USSC 1916-1917
On June 3, 1916, in anticipation of possible U.S. entry in the war in Europe, Congress adopted the National Defense Act of 1916 (39 Stat. 174), provisions of which increased the size of the Aviation Section to 148 officers, allowed the President to determine the size of the enlisted complement, and established the first reserve components for aviation, the Signal Officers Reserve Corps (297 officers) and The Signal Enlisted Reserve Corps (2,000 men). On August 29, Congress followed with an appropriations bill that allocated $13,000,000 (more than 17 times the previous combined allocation) to the military aeronautics in both the Signal Corps and National Guard. By December 7, 1916, the force still consisted of a total of only 503 personnel.

The Aviation Section's poor showing in Mexico also showed that the U.S. aviation industry was not competitive in any respect with European aircraft manufacturers. No American-manufactured airplane had a vital function, none were mounted with weapons, and all were markedly inferior in speed and other performance characteristics. Further, U.S. companies were distracted by protracted legal battles and in-fighting over licenses and royalties while their European counterparts had been energized by the needs of the battlefield.

The Aviation Act (40 Stat. 243), passed July 24, 1917, authorized the transfer of aviation support functions from the Aviation Section to newly established organizations within the Office of Chief Signal Officer (OCSO). Procurement of aviation supplies went to a new Engineering Division effective April 6, 1917. The construction and maintenance of airfields became the province of the Construction Division on May 21, renamed the Supply Division on October 1. On January 24, 1918, the Supply Division created a subordinate Material Section to take on the responsibility for procurement from the Engineering Division. Research and design of airplanes was assigned to the Aircraft Engineering Division on May 24, 1917, redesignated Science and Research Division on October 22. Lumber contracts for materials to build airplanes were the responsibility of the Spruce Production Division, November 15, 1917.

Failures of expansion

Curtiss JN-4 trainer
In its final year as a component of the Signal Corps, from April 1917 to May 1918, the Aviation Section developed into parallel air forces, a training force in the United States and a combat force in Europe. At the time of the declaration of war on Germany by the United States in April, 1917, the Aviation Section consisted of 65 regular officers, 66 reserve officers, 1,087 enlisted men, and 55 airplanes (all trainers), with 300 on order. The service had 36 pilots and 51 student pilots. By comparison, the United States Navy's air service had 48 officers, 230 enlisted men, and 54 powered aircraft.

Of its seven authorized squadrons, the 1st was in the Columbus, New Mexico, the 2nd in the Philippinesmarker, the 7th was training to be deployed to the Panama Canal Zonemarker, the 6th was newly formed in Hawaiimarker, and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th were not yet formed. Six reserve squadrons were being organized for coast defense.

In the United States the Aviation Section was nearly overwhelmed with the problems of rapid expansion to fight a modern war---the recruitment and training of pilots and mechanics, the production of airplanes, the formation and equipping of combat units, and the acquisition of air bases---while overseas a second force developed as part of the American Expeditionary Force, absorbing most of the experienced leadership of military aviation and taking over much of the expansion responsibilities except aircraft production. This second force, the Air Service of the AEF, used European-built aircraft and training facilities and forced the separation of aviation from the Signal Corps.

Part of this separation occurred when the Aviation Section failed in its most pressing need, the production of new airplanes. Under pressure from the French, the Wilson administration set up a production plan to develop a force of 6,000 pursuit planes; 3,000 observation craft; and 2,000 bombers, a ratio established by General John Pershing. Despite pronounced resistance from the Army general staff, $640,000,000 was funded by Congress to meet this goal (45 times the budget of the preceding year) when Brig. Gen. George O. Squier, Chief Signal Officer and former head of the Aviation Section, appealed directly to the Secretary of War.

An Aircraft Production Board was set up under the chairmanship of an automobile manufacturer, Howard Coffin of the Hudson Motor Car Company, but the airplane of World War I was not suitable to the mass-production methods of automobile manufacturing and Coffin neglected the priority of mass-producing spare parts. Though individual areas within the industry responded well---particularly in engine production, with the development of the Liberty engine, of which 13,500 were produced---the industry as a whole failed. Attempts to mass-produce European models under license in the U.S. were largely failures. Among pursuit planes, the SPAD could not be engineered to accept an American engine and the Bristol F.2 became dangerous to fly using one.

Because of this failure, President Wilson determined that the Chief Signal Officer was too overburdened by tasks to supervise the Aviation Section and removed it from the Signal Corps. An interim organization, the Division of Military Aeronautics, created April 28, 1917, replaced the Aviation Section on May 20, 1918, reporting directly to the Secretary of War. As the administrative headquarters of the air force, however, the Division only lasted four days, and was itself subordinated to the new Army Air Service, created May 24, 1918.

Chiefs of the Aviation Section

  • Lt. Col. Samuel Reber (July 18, 1914 — May 5, 1916)
  • Lt. Col. George O. Squier (May 20, 1916 — February 19, 1917)
  • Lt.Col. John B. Bennet (February 20, 1917 — May 20, 1918)

See also


  1. Heimdahl, William C., and Hurley, Alfred F. (1997). "The Roots of U.S. Military Aviation," Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force Vol. I. ISBN 0-16-049009-X, p. 28.
  2. Air Force Historical Study 98. Hennessy, Juliette (1958). The United States Army Air Arm, April 1861 to April 1917, p. 109.
  3. Hennessy, p. 110.
  4. Hennessy, p. 111.
  5. Hennessy, p. 120. The organization of the aero squadron into two companies lasted only until April 1915, when it changed to 12 sections, including a section for each of its eight aircraft.
  6. Heimdahl and Hurley, p. 30.
  7. Hennessy, p. 124.
  8. Hennessy, p. 147.
  9. Hennessy, p. 149.
  10. Hennessy, p. 95. The site had been approved in April 1913 but was delayed by lack of funding.
  11. Hennessy, p. 160.
  12. Hennessey, p. 167, note.
  13. Hennessy, p. 177.
  14. Hennessy, p. 156.
  15. Captains Foulois and Townsend F. Dodd, 1st Lts Joseph E. Carberry, Thomas S. Bowen, Carleton G. Chapman, Harbert A. Dargue, Edgar S. Gorrell, Walter G. Kilner, Ira. A. Rader, Arthur R. Christie, and Robert Henry Willis, Jr.
  16. Heimdahl and Hurley, p. 31.
  17. Hennessy, p. 173.
  18. Johnson, Herbert Alan (2001). Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation Through World War I, University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2627-8, p.117.
  19. Hennessy, p. 123.
  20. Hennessy, p. 103.
  21. Johnson, p.122. Cowan's total flight experience was 24 minutes of "grass-cutting"--flying in short, straight hops just above the ground.
  22. Hennessey, p. 144.
  23. Johnson, pp.118 and 122.
  24. Johnson, p.129.
  25. Hennessy, p. 144. Patterson was actually made commander of the first company of the new 2nd Aero Squadron, and although he learned to fly solo, never earned a Military Aviator certificate.
  26. Hennessy, p. 144.
  27. Johnson, p.116.
  28. Johnson, p.130.
  29. Johnson, p.131.
  30. Raines, Rebecca Robbins (1996). Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, US Army center for Military History, pp. 165-166.
  31. Raines, p. 165. Reber went to France during World War I, but was not assigned any Signal duties. He retired in 1919 after 37 years in the Army and joined the newly-created Radio Corporation of America.
  32. The official history of the United States Air Force published in 1998, Winged Shield, Winged Sword, is much more sympathetic to Cowan, stating "Cowan's subordinates were manuevering to depose him, allegedly because he played favorites and ignored safety. Actually the root of his departure from the air arm was the mutual misunderstanding between pilots, understandably concerned with safety, and a non-flying manager determined to get the most efficient use from the obsolescent machines entrusted to him." (Heimdahl and Hurley, p.30). However, the official history completely omits the court martial and Secretary Baker's actions as the reason for the "departure".
  33. Johnson, p.132.
  34. Johnson, pp. 132-133.
  35. Johnson, pp. 130 and 133.
  36. Johnson, pp. 134-135.

  • Bowman, Martin W., "Background to War", USAAF Handbook 1939-1945, ISBN 0-8117-1822-0
  • Heimdahl, William C., and Hurley, Alfred F., "The Roots of U.S. Military Aviation," Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force Vol. I (1997), ISBN 0-16-049009-X
  • Hennessy, Juliette A. (1958). The United States Army Air Arm, April 1861 to April 1917, Air Force Historical Study No. 98. Air Force History Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.
  • Johnson, Herbert Alan (2001). Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation Through World War I, University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2627-8.
  • Maurer Maurer (ed.) (1978). The U.S. Air Service in World War I, Volume I: The Final Report and A Tactical History
  • Mortenson, Daniel R., "The Air Service in the Great War," Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force Vol. I (1997), ISBN 0-16-049009-X
  • "2005 Almanac," Air Force Magazine, May 2005, Vol. 88, No. 5, the Air Force Association, Arlington, Virginia
  • Army Air Forces Statistical Digest (World War II) (Table 3, "AAF Military personnel--number and percent of US Army strength")

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