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 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.
The Birth of the Air Force
In 1908, the Aeronautical Division set specifications for powered flying machines, requiring a two-seater aircraft and balloon, both with weight and speed requirements. Before there was even a requirement for safety, there was a need for speed. That speed soon killed the first Army aviator, 1st Lt Thomas Selfridge, who holds the distinction of being the first active-duty military member to be killed in a flight accident while on duty.
The Wright Brothers went back to work and soon produced the Wright A Military Flyer in 1909 for the Signal Corps, at a cost of $30,000. Designated the Signal Corps (SC) No. 1, the Wright Flyer was used for training until a crash in November stopped operations until 1910. After repairs, SC No. 1 was modified by members of the Signal Corps with wheels for landing gear, and a leather saddle cinch-strap as a seat belt.
Childhood and Adolescence
In 1914, the Aviation Section, Signal Corps, was established as the military’s aviation division. The Aviation Section was authorized 60 officers and 260 enlisted men. It stipulated that pilots would be chosen from Army volunteers willing to commit to four-year stints. There was one catch, though: volunteers had to be lieutenants, unmarried, and under 30. This led to the image of pilots being the young, undisciplined hot-shots we see today, while also setting the tone for constant pilot shortages.
World War 1
After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the First Army Air Service was stood up in France. Working with French aviators and French aircraft, the Air Service undertook reconnaissance, bombardment, and balloon-busting missions. Balloons were still in regular use for observation and mapping, and American aviators strafed or flew through those balloons, causing as much damage and destruction as possible.
The Air Service was used extensively during WWI, proving the worth of air superiority.
At the time, weather was the biggest limiting factor with wind and clouds stalling air operations. Meanwhile, the state of grass and dirt airstrips damaged aircraft, which helped lead to airfield improvements.
The U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS) was established in May 1918, to be the independent air branch of the Army. Much like the Marine Corps falls under the Department of the Navy, the USAAS was independent of the Army while supporting its operations. The USAAS was a temporary slot for Army Air Services, though, and was reabsorbed into the Army in 1926 as the Army Air Corps.
The U.S. Army Air Corps operated from 1926 to 1941. This was a time of both growth and decline in the U.S. military. As the youngest member of the U.S. military family, the USAAC struggled to assert its independence. Those in command and leadership roles still saw war from the ground-pounders’ perspective. Much the same way parents are distrustful of new technology and social media, old heads wanted to keep war on the ground and saw aircraft as support rather than first-line combatants.
In an example of good parenting, the Army established the General Headquarters Air Force in 1935, as a separate entity of the Air Corps, responsible for air combat operations. As the U.S. began to prepare for World War II, the Air Corps and Air Force struggled for both funding and control of air operations. The Air Corps wrested control of coastal defense from the U.S. Navy in 1931, which set the stage for long-range bombing operations on maritime threats. These operations were the impetus for an independent branch of the military, solely responsible for air combat operations.
Creating plans for bombardment scenarios, the Air Corps worked hard to become an independent service, but was repeatedly rebuffed by both the Army and the Navy. The Army still saw aviation as limited in use, and subservient to the dominant role of the ground fighter. It was not until 1941 that the Army upped its research and development budget to allow for the creation of what would become the B-29 Superfortress.
Coming of Age
In 1941, General Henry “Hap” Arnold became the first chief of Army Air Forces, bringing all the Army aviation under a central umbrella of command. The Air Corps became the administrative section of the Air Forces, and the U.S. Army Air Force was born. Still under the control of the Army and with limited autonomy, the AAF was rife with administrative problems. While the Army wanted the Air Force to remain in a support role, lessons learned from Britain’s Royal Air Force and Germany’s Luftwaffe showed the effectiveness of a separate air force.
Army Chief of Staff George Marshall saw the need for independent air power and, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, ensured that Hap Arnold had a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This effectively gave the AAF the same rights and responsibilities as an independent branch of the military. Though not officially separate, this step paved the way for Air Force independence.
Finally a Man
After carrying itself admirably at the adults’ table, the USAAF showed its teeth during WWII. From fewer than 13,000 aircraft at the end of 1941 to over 60,000 by the end of August 1945, the newest, sexiest division of the military was finally a man. Pilot volunteers were so numerous, that the AAF set up reserve pools of pilot candidates so they wouldn’t be drafted into the regular Army. Under pressure from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, General Arnold began training black pilots under the Tuskegee Airman program. Though only making up about six percent of the AAF, these Airmen paved the way for future black aviators.
Women served in the USAAF as well. Pulling from the Women’s Army Auxilliary Corps, the AAF eventually put more than 40,000 women to work as pilots, nurses, and in many administrative roles. Women Airforce Service Pilots, WASPs, ferried aircraft from factories to bases and from the U.S. to Europe, and towed drones and aerial targets to allow for aerial combat training. This freed up male pilots for combat roles.
Between December 1941, and August 1945, the AAF lost 88,119 airmen and 65,164 aircraft. Airmen flew more than two million sorties over Europe, Africa, and Asia, and earned 36 Medals of Honor. After the war, budget cuts decimated the AAF, bringing its strength from a high of over two million personnel down to 300,000. Aircraft numbers were cut from almost 80,000 to less than 30,000. Hap Arnold retired during this time and General Carl Spaatz took over as AAF Chief.
Spaatz took the legacy of General Arnold and worked to rebuild the Air Forces. Collaborating with General Dwight Eisenhower, then Army Chief of Staff, Spaatz helped separate the Air Forces into the three divisions we would recognize today: Strategic Air, Tactical Air, and Air Defense Commands. Though the Department of the Navy vigorously opposed it, President Truman pushed Congress to create the Department of the Air Force, giving the Air Forces their independence from the Army. In July 1947, the National Security Act of 1947 was signed, establishing the U.S. Air Force as a distinct branch of the U.S. military, effective September 18, 1947.
Old Age and Dotage
Since becoming a separate branch, the Air Force (AF) has gone through many changes. It still fights against its older brothers, Army and Navy, for money and attention. The services still trade barbs over who is the best, and who flies more sorties. Each knows, though, that they perform distinct roles that all combine to make the U.S. military the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen. The AF supports the different branches still, providing close air and bomber support for Marines and Soldiers on the ground, and air interdiction for the Navy. The AF controls the skies above the battlefield, through aviation- and cyber-warfare.
Born from a need to see more of the battlefield, the USAF has grown into its own, becoming the greatest Air Force in the world. Flying in attack, bomber, support and transport, fighter, and surveillance and reconnaissance roles, the Air Force is an integral part of U.S. military operations. From its inception as part of the U.S. Army to its own division into Air Force and Space Force, the USAF continues its legacy of providing the warfighter with aerial over-watch and devastating power.