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No. 1974:
Inventing the Air Force

Today, we invent the Air Force. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Here's a remarkable photo. It shows the entire Air Force in flight, all at once. Well, not really the Air Force -- not yet. The photo was taken in 1911 at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Congress had just appropriated $125,000 to buy five aeroplanes for scout service with the Signal Corp. Now three have arrived: first two Wright biplanes, then one made by Curtiss.

Another technology had also come into being -- panoramic photography. Pioneer, Eugene Goldbeck, made this amazing photo of the three aeroplanes, spread out over the entire encampment. At first glance, they might be gulls, wheeling through the overcast sky.

A small flying school was hastily formed around these machines. Naturally, the new trainees were drawn toward the newest one -- the tricky Curtiss Type IV pusher. It didn't handle at all like the two-seat Wright aeroplane, and it had only one seat. You had to solo the very first time you left the ground. 

One of the trainees was George Kelly. Born in London, Kelly had immigrated to the US and was now a 33-year-old officer, who'd come up through the ranks. He'd just done a tour in the Philippines, and his next station was San Francisco. There he had the opportunity to ride a hot air balloon, and he was hooked. He'd managed to get himself into the new Texas flight program.

The Curtiss plane had already crashed, leaving its pilot wandering through the bushes with a concussion. He was found clutch-ing the control wheel and wondering where he was. Kelley was first to fly the plane when it was rebuilt. He hit hard in his landing, bounced up, and circled back. Another hard landing on the second try. This time the plane bounced and banked out of control. A wingtip hit the ground and Kelly cartwheeled to his death. 

So Kelly achieved dubious immortality as the first military aviator to die in flight. Post commander, General Carter, fed up with the recklessness going on in the sky above his post, threw the airplanes out. For the next four years, the airplanes wandered like Ishmael. They spent time in Maryland and Georgia. Then Carter invited them back to do scout work in the brewing border conflicts with Mexico. But the conflict cooled. Now the homeless airplanes moved about Texas and Oklahoma. In 1915, they found themselves right back in Fort Sam Houston. 

A year later, now flying Curtiss Jennies, the air service was used against the Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa. The Jennies did very poorly in the high mountain altitudes. In the end every one was lost to various mechanical failures. 

But failure is deceptive. Congress now provided thirteen million dollars for new and better equipment -- and for a real home. The Army found a spot on the other side of San Antonio, and named it after that star-crossed lieutenant. And that is how, in 1917, construction of Kelly Field, the first Army air base, came about. 

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The Goldbeck photo is reproduced in stunning book, which I highly recommend: C. W. Burleson, and E. J. Hickman, The Panoramic Photography of Eugene O. Goldbeck. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

A History of Military Aviation in San Antonio. Private publication by Air Force historians, September 1996. I am most grateful to Jerry Rogers, UH Civil Engineer, for providing this latter source.


1911 Air Force
Click on the thumbnail above to see a large version of the Goldbeck photo.