2 nd March - First Military Flight


New Member
Feb 16, 2009
San Antonio Express-News
March 2, 2010

100 Years Ago, A Little Plane Launched A Big Air Force
By Sig Christenson, Express-News

A century ago today, a 1,400-pound weight fell from a tower, catapulting a wood-and-cloth biplane and its self-taught pilot, 1st Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois, into the sky over Fort Sam Houston's parade grounds.
The first military flight in U.S. history lasted just 7 1/2 minutes. It and three others that day were front-page news in San Antonio but didn't spark an overnight revolution in military affairs.
That would come when a fledgling U.S. air corps would take wing in World War I, laying the foundation for today's Air Force and a huge military presence in San Antonio.
“I think it has historic value because it was a first. That is a mystical thing,” said author and San Antonio Express-News columnist T.R. Fehrenbach.
“Sometimes the first doesn't mean anything, but we attach meaning to it, and it was the first military flight, and it was held at Fort Sam Houston and it was the start of what became the most powerful air force in the world, although it didn't go directly from there.”
Call it obscure in the grander scheme. But in one of the nation's oldest cities, and one with deep ties to the armed services, Foulois' first flight remains a big deal. It led to the establishment of three airfields here by 1930 and a military that today has a $13.3 billion annual economic impact on San Antonio, not to mention a growing legion of retirees.
“I just think that in context of our whole history, it was important for this to happen here in San Antonio,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.
“There would be no Military City, USA, without the trailblazing spirit of people like Lt. Foulois,” Mayor Julián Castro said. “His daring flight at Fort Sam Houston put San Antonio on a trajectory to attract multiple Air Force bases.”
Thousands will gather at 9 a.m. today at Fort Sam to mark the flight with a modified version of the plane flying 1,000 feet above the grounds, or about 10 times higher than Foulois flew. The replica, called the “Brown Bird,” is made of metal and fabric. Its 180-horsepower engine is far more powerful than Foulois' biplane.
Foulois' flight was a modest start in many ways. That day, post spokesman Phil Reidinger said, Foulois was the Army's only pilot flying the only airplane in the U.S. inventory.
America's first test pilot had just 54 minutes of flight training from the Wright brothers and had never soloed until taking off at 9:30 a.m.
On his fourth flight of the day, Foulois barely avoided disaster by nudging his “monster bird,” as one reporter called it, just out of the way of a passing car as he prepared to land.
“With the exception of the incident at the end of the last flight in which I had a narrow escape from colliding with an auto, the tests given the machine this morning were satisfactory, and I am pleased with the outcome,” he told the San Antonio Light.
As planes in the Army's inventory would go a quarter-century later, Signal Corps Aircraft No. 1 wasn't much. Its engine was so underpowered that it couldn't take off without the catapult. The flimsy plane, with skids mounted on a trolley, rolled down a 55-foot rack and, if all went well, would then fly.
Run into high winds or bad weather, and it could go down.
Famed test pilot Chuck Yeager said it is easy to see why the plane was so dangerous, “because those damned things are fabric and wood.”
“Back then, they didn't even have seat belts. Sitting out there in the front of the airplane unsecured, anything happens and you get thrown off,” said retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. John Tosh, director of the Texas Air Museum and a pilot with 9,000 hours. “That's what happened to Foulois. He crashed two or three times teaching himself to fly.”
The idea of military flight was born, even if it didn't catch on quickly.
Years later, Foulois told an Air Force historian he thought his advocacy of a 1917 War Department bill that jump-started military aviation was his most important achievement — not his first flight at Fort Sam.
The law, at that time probably the biggest of its kind from the War Department, he added, affected the development of military aviation “from its very beginning right up to 1933.” Determined to see President Woodrow Wilson sign the bill into law, Foulois testified before Congress about the need for it.
Fehrenbach agrees that the bill was a major step. A new emphasis on air power, combined with the emergence of colorful World War I pilots as “knights of the air” in an otherwise grim conflict, he said, put Army aviation high on the public's mind.
Kelly and Brooks fields were established in 1917, and Randolph Field in 1930. All became Air Force bases in 1947. Historians credit Kelly with sparking the creation of a Hispanic middle class in San Antonio, and Brooks played a big role in studying the effects of flight on humans.
“It's a footnote of history, and Foulois later became influential as a spokesman getting the Air Force made,” Fehrenbach said. “It didn't mean a new burgeoning era of an Air Force or anything like that. But you have to have first steps. You did not spring to adulthood and stardom without first stumbling around as a little baby, and if you had not taken your first step, you would not be here today. Foulois was a pioneer.”

Global Defence