September 18th marks the 74th birthday of the United States Air Force. Or, at least, the 74th anniversary of the adoption papers being signed.


The Air Force’s Conception

When Orville and Wilbur Wright first loosed the surly bonds of gravity in their flying machine in 1903, the U.S. Army was already using hot air balloons to provide over-watch on battlefields. The Civil War was the first time an American military had used airpower, in the form of lighter-than-air balloons, to perform command and control functions on a battlefield.

Thaddeus Lowe
Thaddeus Lowe, Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps.

Thaddeus Lowe became the first chief aeronaut for the Union Army in 1861. He organized the Balloon Corps to provide mapping, reconnaissance, and tactical superiority over the Confederate Army. The Balloon Corps remained a civilian organization due to clerical misunderstanding. It remained in service until Lowe resigned in 1863.



After seeing and understanding the usefulness of air superiority, the U.S. Army Signal Corps stood up a War Balloon company at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1893. The Company’s inventory consisted of a single, hand-sewn, balloon. In 1898, that balloon was used in the Spanish-American War in a reconnaissance and observation role, helping to map out the famous Battle of San Juan Hill, which caught then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt up in its tide. The Balloon Corps had a hand in raising Roosevelt up as a war hero, eventually leading to his election as U.S. vice president, under the presidency of William McKinley, in 1901.

After the Spanish-American War, the Balloon Corps was disbanded. In 1907, the Chief Signal Officer of the Army, BG James Allen, officially established the Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps, as the U.S. Army’s aviation division. The division consisted of one officer and two enlisted men, already setting the tone of doing more with less. Almost immediately, the division began requisitioning more people and equipment, setting the tone for the Air Force’s adage of always having the best.