Pancho Villa and the Rise of American Military Aviation

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century the United States Army had begun to perceive, albeit reluctantly, the significance of military aircraft to the conduct of warfare. This realization led to the establishment of a military section in San Antonio, Texas, and the use of the unit stationed there to support a military expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916.

Lt. Benjamin Foulois in 1911.

Lt. Benjamin Foulois in 1911.

The story really began in December 1909 when Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois was directed to take the only aircraft owned by the United States Army, a Wright Flyer Model B, along with nine enlisted men to Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas, with the instruction: “Your orders are simple, Lieutenant. You are to evaluate the airplane. Just take plenty of spare parts—and teach yourself to fly.” This group arrived with a crated airplane in southwest Texas in February 1910 and set to work. Since he did not then know how, Foulois corresponded with the Wright Brothers for instructions on how to fly it, and used their written comments to teach himself. He first went aloft on March 2, 1910, flying over San Antonio four times that day and finding flying weather in Texas much more “humane” than in the East.

Foilois also established personal firsts during that day: his first solo takeoff, his first solo landing, and his first crash landing. During the rest of 1910 and 1911 the fledgling Army air arm built up from its base in Texas a body of knowledge about aircraft and flight that proved invaluable in coming years. Foulois also proved, at least to the satisfaction of his immediate superiors in Texas, that aircraft had an important place in the military. When skirmishes broke out along the Mexican border in 1911 he took his Wright Flyer up and set a cross-country distance record of 106 miles on March 3 while on a reconnaissance flight in support of American ground forces.

HighFlight-1stAeroSqn2The first real test of the Army’s aviation organization came in 1915, with Foulois as a central actor. On April 13, 1915, two pilots took an eight man ground crew and one aircraft to Brownsville, Texas, to assist ground troops in patrolling the Mexican border. They flew for a week before cracking up the airplane and being forced to end air support. It was an inauspicious beginning. Later that same year, the 1st Aero Squadron was assigned to San Antonio, Texas, a city that in many ways became the mother-in-law of American military aviation because of all the flyers that met their wives there. The Army carved out a place for it at Fort Sam Houston, renaming it the San Antonio Air Center.

It was from San Antonio that the 1st Aero Squadron participated in the Pershing Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa. On March 9, 1916, Villa’s forces crossed the border and raided Columbus, New Mexico, killing 17 Americans. The next day Brigadier General John J. Pershing, commanding American forces in the region, organized a 15,000 man force to punish Villa. The 1st Aero Squadron left San Antonio with eight aircraft on March 13 and its aircraft began flying reconnaissance missions on March 16. Once again, the contribution of aviation was limited. The difficulty of operating at relatively high altitudes—about 10,000 feet with primitive equipment over the mountainous terrain of northern Mexico—was too demanding for the unit.

Pilots of the Ist Aero Squadron in front of their aircraft while pursuing Pancho Villa.

Pilots of the Ist Aero Squadron in front of their aircraft while pursuing Pancho Villa.

On the first sortie, for example, from Columbus to Casas Grande, Mexico, one aircraft was forced to abort, one was seriously damaged during an emergency night landing, and the other six made a landing to avoid night flying. By the end of April 1916, when most air operations ended, all eight aircraft were either worn out or seriously damaged in crackups. Foulois liked to brag in later years that the unit’s most successful activity took place on a scouting mission when it found a lost and thirsty cavalry column showed them the way home.

Although the squadron remained in the field through August 1916, obtaining additional aircraft, its contributions overall were not especially dramatic. In all it made 540 flights that totalled 346 hours, mostly on reconnaissance and courier missions.

The Army air unit in the Mexican incursion did not provide much in the way of critical support, but it did signal some potential for aviation in military operations. In part because of these activities, Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916 which allocated more than $13 million for military aeronautics, flying schools, and new aero squadrons. Notwithstanding the experience of World War I and the role of the airplane in it, at a sublime level Pancho Villa may have been partially responsible for the early impetus to invest in military aircraft and to establish a capable aviation section in the U.S. Army.

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