Purchasing and Supporting the Army's First Airplane




Signal Corps No. 1 

Purchasing and Supporting the Army's First Airplane



The new Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 40, "Logistics," signed by the Chief of Staff on May 11, 1914, defines base-level Air Force logistics as having "the five specific functions of contracting, maintenance, supply, transportation, and logistics plans.''

To these must be added unit mobility, a significant feature in air power history. Logistics‹as embodied in systems that sup ply aircraft parts, equipment, munitions, fuel, and lubricants to the operational forces; in maintenance activities necessary to keep aircraft and equipment operating; in transportation essential to deliver parts and consumables to meet operational demands; in logistical elements that underlay Air Force readiness and mobility; and in planning that provides the foundation for these activities is fundamental to the air commander.

The term "logistics" suggests something beyond the support of a single piece of equipment. Thus, any study of the logistical history of military aviation should logically begin when the U.S. Army obtained more than one airplane and provided an organization to manage and support its fledgling force.

If this be so, Air Force logistical history should begin in 1911, with the opening of the first Signal Corps Aviation School at College Park, Md., or in 1913, with the establishment of the 1st Aero Squadron. However, as early as 1909, when the Army obtained its first airplane, the Aeronautical Division the Air Force's predecessor element within the Signal Corps began to gain experience with many factors that would have profound logistical implications for more complex systems. These factors include the characteristics of individual aircraft, the capability of pilots, the proficiency of ground crews, and the expertise of technicians and specialists. The Army's first airplane also introduced larger questions concerning the adequacy of funding, the procurement of new equipment, and the modification of existing aircraft.

Officers in the U.S. Army and especially in the Signal Corps had long maintained an interest in the military application of lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air craft. However, military leaders tended to be practical individuals, and any involvement in aviation had to be preceded by evidence that an aerial vehicle really worked and had military utility. In this regard, one of the most important of the early developments in aviation was the flight of an unmanned, steam-powered "aerodrome" on May 6, 1896, by a team working for Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley, soon to be Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The successful flight of this model convinced Langley that the problem of flight by a heavier-than-air vehicle had been solved, and it suggested to others including some Army leaders that if not solved, the solution was at least within reach. Accordingly, when Langley offered to build a full-sized, manned aerodrome for the military on the eve of the Spanish-American War, the War Department responded positively. Beginning in late 1898, the Board of Ordnance and Fortifications made $50,000 available for the project.


Unfortunately, the War Department's deal with Langley foreshadowed the military's future experience with far too many aviation contracts. Langley insisted on working in secret without outside oversight. His engine subcontractor, Stephen M. Balzer, failed to deliver a satisfactory product on schedule, and most of the government funds were spent on construction of the 60 foot houseboat, 15-ton turntable, and 85-foot catapult track necessary to launch the aerodrome. The results were predictable: Langley's program failed to meet the contract delivery date and suffered seriously from what today would be called cost overruns. Ultimately, the scientist had to dip into Smithsonian funds to bring his machine to a stage where it could be tested. The denouncement came, five years after the contract was signed, when the aerodrome crashed twice in late 1903.

Ultimately, not only did the U.S. Army receive nothing for its investment, but it suffered severe criticism for taking what was in reality a far sighted initiative that entailed reasonable risk and promised potentially great rewards. The press, which had been cut off from information on the aerodrome project by Langley's penchant for secrecy, pilloried the scientist for his failure and ridiculed the Army for financing such an impractical scheme. Worse, several important congress men denounced the Army for wasting public funds. Fearing for future appropriations, chastened Army leaders backed away from aviation as quickly as they could. The situation was further complicated because, when word spread that the service had money to spend, assorted inventors, visionaries, and crackpots besieged the service, seeking a share of the largesse. All things considered, when two obscure bicycle manufacturers from Dayton, Ohio, awkwardly approached the Army bureaucracy in 1905 with a proposal to deliver a flyable airplane, it is not surprising that they received little encouragement.

Subsequently, a wave of interest in aviation swept through the United States and Europe, excitement inspired by the activities of Orville and Wilbur Wright. News of this was disseminated by the ubiquitous engineer and aviation pioneer, Octave Chanute. In the U.S., the Aero Club of America, organized in October 1905, spread knowledge of aviation developments, sponsored prizes, and inspired inventors to greater efforts. Approval of the Wright brothers' patent in 1906 and formal recognition of their success by the Aero Club also reduced skepticism about their flights. In Europe, the Wrights' work inspired extraordinary activity which resulted in fervent efforts by many inventors and the first public flight of an airplane, that of Alberto Santos Dumont, in the fall of 1906. By 1907, then, it was apparent to many that the world was on the threshold of practical heavier-than-air flight. War Department officials turned their attention to the airplane once again. To coordinate Army efforts, Brig. Gen. James Allen, the Chief Signal Officer, established an Aeronautical Division on Aug. 1, 1907, making it responsible for "all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects."

Following an exchange of letters, Wilbur Wright met formally with members of the Board of Ordnance and Fortifications on Dec. 5, 1907. As a result, on Dec, 23, the Signal Corps published Specification No. 486 for a heavier-than-air flying machine. Written by Maj. George O. Squier and based on information provided by Wright, the document called for a machine able to carry two men and travel at a minimum speed of forty miles an hour for at least sixty minutes. An additional specification required that instruction be provided for two pilots. One must be aware of a certain amount of complicity in this arrangement. Major Squier wrote the specifications to meet the capabilities of the Wright aircraft; they were not dictated by any established military requirement. Furthermore, the Wrights' bid of $25,000 was based partially on the funds they knew the Army had available, not necessarily on the value that they set on their machine. To the apparent surprise of all, two individuals underbid the Wrights, complicating the source selection process. One of the bidders dropped out quickly. The other, Augustus M. Herring, had a reputation as an aviation pioneer who had associated with Chanute, Langley, and, later, with Glenn Curtiss. His bid had to be taken seriously. Apparently, he had actually planned to underbid the Wrights, and then hire the brothers to build and deliver an airplane with which he could earn the Army contract. When the Wrights ignored his overtures, Herring engaged in a lengthy charade before finally admitting he could not deliver a fly able airplane to the Army.

Two points about the December 1907, specifications and the contract signed with the Wrights on February 10, 1908, are of special interest to logisticians. First, the Army required aircraft "assembly in about one hour and quick demount ability for transport in Army wagons." This capability would not only enable the airplane to be transported around its post, but it would also pro vide a means for deploying the machine during field operations. Thus, the modern goals of readiness and mobility were present from the beginning. Second, the contract failed to provide for the purchase of aircraft parts or, indeed, for any logistical support at all." This omission probably reflected the fact that the Army bought the air plane with the use of limited discretionary funds. War Department officials undoubtedly assumed that a congressional appropriation for support could be secured later. In this belief, however, they would be quickly disillusioned.

The Wright airplane met the contract's flight specifications at Fort Myer, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., on July 31, 1909. The Army then moved the airplane to a field at College Park, Md., where the Wrights completed the final contract specification by training two pilots, Lts. Frank P. Lahm and Frederic E. Humphreys; both men soloed on Oct. 26. Lt. Benjamin D. "Bennie" Foulois also received some instruction, but not enough to solo. The winter weather in Maryland proved unsuitable for flying, and in November 1909, the Signal Corps ordered its airplane temporarily sent to Fort Sam Houston, near San Antonio, Texas. Lahm and Humphreys, however, did not accompany the air plane, now designated Signal Corps No. 1. Instead, the Army placed the aircraft in the hands of the partially trained Foulois.

It was at San Antonio that Lt. Foulois began to address the problems of supporting the airplane within the constraints of the standard Army logistical system. Foulois's aviation detachment primarily dealt with three logistical agencies: the Commissary Department, the Quartermaster Department, and its own parent organization, the Signal Corps. The Commissary provided rations. The Quartermaster furnished all supplies and equipment, as well as transportation. Parts and equipment peculiar to the airplane were the responsibility of the Signal Corps.

Arriving at Fort Sam Houston in February 1910, Foulois and his detachment of seven enlist ed men and one civilian built a temporary wooden hangar at one end of the mounted drill ground with materials furnished by the post quarter master. The detachment was billeted in the hangar. For rations, the enlisted men ate with the troops of the 3rd Cavalry until that unit departed: they then messed with the 22nd Infantry. This change doubled the distance that they had to walk to and from meals to more than a mile, and it seriously interfered with Foulois's flying program. Here the cumbersome nature of the Army logistical system became apparent. When Foulois submitted a formal request that the men be authorized 75 cents per day to spend for meals at civilian homes located close to the detachment, the request had to go all the way to the Secretary of War for approval‹collecting, as it traveled up and down the chain of command, a total of nineteen endorsements!'

Foulois's major logistical concerns, however, centered on the airplane. The construction and capability of the Wright machine and the inexperience of its pilot affected maintenance and supply of the Army's first airplane in several ways. The Wright machine was fragile, its engine crude and unreliable, and it was extremely difficult to fly in the shifting, gusting winds common at Fort Sam Houston. Although Foulois soloed on March 2, 1910, he spent the first few months at San Antonio literally teaching himself to fly. By the end of September he had made nearly sixty flights, but rough landings and minor crack-ups were common. As late as April 1911, he tended to be "ground shy," that is, during landings he had a proclivity to level off too high, which often resulted in hard contact with the ground. Taken together, these conditions meant that Signal Corps No. 1 spent much time being repaired and it required a larger perhaps excessive amount of parts and material to keep it flyable.

This initial experience with the first airplane furnishes evidence of two conditions that would have significant logistical implications for an air force. First, the characteristics of individual air craft types would impact logistics. The fragile air craft of the time were susceptible to damage and thus were difficult to support adequately. Minutes in the air required hours in the shop. Stronger aircraft could be built, but, for the time being, they tended to be heavier, and heavier air craft tended to be underpowered and thus subject to accidents. Beyond these factors, it would take World War I to teach designers that it was necessary to design maintainability into an aircraft from the beginning. Second, the quality of pilots and their level of training also carried a vital price tag, because inexperienced or poorly trained pilots tended to break airplanes. Either condition could increase a unit's logistical burden or take it beyond the point where supply and maintenance had the power to sustain acceptable operational levels.

Adding to the burden of supporting the Army's first airplane was too little money. The original contract with the Wrights failed to provide for the purchase of parts or support of the machine. Army leaders had hoped to gain the necessary resources from Congress, but in this effort they were disappointed. The Signal Corps and War Department did their best. General Allen had requested $200,000 for aeronautics for fiscal year 1908, and he repeated this request for 1909 and again for 1910. Congress failed each time to approve any funding. Lack of congressional sup port meant that money for oil, gasoline, and repairs had to come from a Signal Corps budget already stretched thin. General Allen provided Foulois with $150 for the 1910 flying season, taken from the $250,000 annual funds dedicated to the maintenance of Army telephone and telegraph installations.

The money did not last long. Foulois later wrote that "the combination of my limited experience in landing with a dead engine . . ., the bad bucking habits of No. 1 in gusty winds, and forced landings because of the erratic temperament of the engine, kept the machine in shop more days than it was out." General Allen had ordered him to take plenty of spare parts to Fort Sam Houston, but none, of course, had been purchased. The lack of spares on hand meant that if parts available only from the Wrights broke, they had to be specially ordered, and the machine was grounded until they arrived from Dayton. In just one case, an exhaust valve on the No. 4 cylinder broke on April 15, 1910, grounding the aircraft until April 26, while a frustrated Foulois waited for a replacement cylinder. The numerous accidents took their toll, and Foulois quickly worked his way through the Signal Corps money. He then contributed an additional $300 from his own pay to keep the aircraft operational. The impact that a lack of money could have on logistics became evident with the first Army airplane. In the future, proper logistical support would always begin with adequate funding.

Foulois later declared that "midnight requisitions" from the plumbing, blacksmith, carpentry, and other shops at Fort Sam supplemented the meager funding, but one suspects that this claim is overstated. Standard procedures for an Army detachment gave him access to the quartermaster shops, including those of the painter, carpenter, and blacksmith. Additionally, as a former enlisted man and a practical, mechanically minded officer, Lieutenant Foulois undoubtedly befriended the appropriate individuals on the post and secured supplies and assistance through his informal connections when official channels failed to suffice. It is easy to imagine that soldiers‹bored by daily routine‹would have enjoyed assisting a curiosity as interesting as the Army's only airplane. One way or another, Lieutenant Foulois kept Signal Corps No. 1 in the air.

The quality of the airplane's crew played significantly in this effort, and it highlighted the importance of intelligent, proficient maintenance personnel. Foulois's own background was significant. As a boy he had shown mechanical aptitude, and as a teenager he had apprenticed with his father, a plumber. Serving as an enlisted man and then as a young officer, he had built bridges, roads, and fortifications. His involvement in aviation began with the Army's first dirigible, where he learned about lighter-than-air vehicle construction and operation from Thomas Scott Baldwin, a pioneer balloon and dirigible flier, and about engines from Glenn Curtiss, soon to be the Wright brothers' main competitor. When the Wrights set up shop at Fort Myer for the airplane tests in June 1909, Foulois hung around their hangar tent until Wilbur finally put him to work as a mechanic. Bennie Foulois earned his way onto the airplane through his willingness to get his hands dirty, and it is probably fair to consider him as much a mechanic and technician as a pilot. From his background, his association with the Wrights, and his experience with Signal Corps No. 1‹as well as a healthy desire for self preservation‹came his deep conviction that the pilot was ultimately responsible for the condition of his airplane. Later, when he took command of the 1st Aero Squadron, Foulois's first move would be to buy overalls for all of the pilots‹and these were not intended for flying.

With Foulois in San Antonio was a cadre of enlisted men, most from Company G of the Signal Corps, reportedly selected for their mechanical aptitude and experience. The majority had joined the Aeronautical Division in 1908 and gained some aviation knowledge working with the Army's lighter-than-air craft. Their first experience with the airplane came during the trials of the Wright aircraft at Fort Myer, although this was limited to moving the aircraft and doing some cleaning and elementary maintenance under the close supervision of the Wrights and of their mechanic, Charlie Taylor. As Signal Corps personnel, their educational level and technical aptitude probably ran high, when compared to the average enlisted men of the period. Several, including Herbert Marcus, Stephen J. Idzorek, Glenn R. Madole, and Vernon L. Burge, were highly competent mechanics. Private Madole, for example, helped design and build the wheels that Foulois added to the Wright plane in an effort to replace the skid landing gear. Based on Foulois's recommendation Marcus and Idzorek were soon promoted to sergeant, and Madole to corporal. When Madole left the service in January 1911, Foulois had Burge promoted in his place. Several members of the detachment remained with Army aviation for many years. Some, like Marcus, attained the highest enlisted rank possible, while others became officers and pilots. Burge retired years later as a colonel, and Idzorek as a lieutenant colonel. All in all, maintenance for the Army's first airplane was probably well-served by the quality of its enlisted crew.

Records for Foulois's detachment are incomplete, since he found no need to prepare written regulations and gave all orders orally. In all probability, he applied standard Army organizational practice for a small unit, which called for prescribed duties for each individual. The senior enlisted man would be responsible for overall maintenance and preparation of the aircraft under Foulois's supervision. The other enlisted personnel would be responsible to the senior enlisted man for individual portions of the air plane, such as the engine, controls, wing surfaces, and launching track, and one enlisted man would have also acted as supply sergeant for the detachment. Such an arrangement prevented confusion, established accountability, and ensured that nothing necessary would be over looked. This practice was standard by the time the 1st Aero Squadron was organized in 1913. The written crew assignments for Signal Corps No. 31, the first Martin airplane, accepted in July 1914, provide an early illustration. The noncommissioned officer-in-charge was responsible for all maintenance and care of the machine. He was required to inspect the machine daily and to keep a daily report which included the number of flights, flying time, gas and oil consumption, a record of events, and any unusual activities. Under him, crewman No. 1, the "oiler," had charge of the motor compartment. No. 2, the "wiper," filled the fuel and oil tanks and lubricated all parts of the machine. No. 3 was a "cleaner" who cared for all controls except for the throttle. Nos. 4 and 5 were "assistant cleaners": one took charge of all surfaces, and the other tended the fuselage, landing gear, and cockpit. No. 6 was a "supernumerary" who filled in for the others when required. He also obtained adequate sup plies of the correct grades of gasoline and oil from the squadron supply officer and maintained lists of the supplies, spare parts, cleaning materials, and tools on hand. In one form or another, this kind of crew organization has remained the norm to this day. Modern maintenance specialization, based on traditional military practice, began with the enlisted crew of the first Army airplane.

The practice of hiring technicians and specialists with aviation expertise also originated with the first Army airplane, although the military had long used civilian experts in technical areas. Oliver G. Simmons was the Army's first civilian airplane mechanic. Hired shortly after the Army bought the Wright machine, he accompanied Foulois to San Antonio. Described as an "expert machinist" by a San Antonio newspaper, Simmons was apparently responsible for the engine, and, assisted by Private Madole, did much of the work designing and constructing the wheeled landing gear that replaced the standard Wright skid system on Signal Corps No. 1. Simmons remained with the aviation detachment until mid-1911; he then went to work for Robert G. Collier, a wealthy sportsman and aviation advocate. Subsequently, Simmons designed an engine for Collier and reportedly became a private pilot.

Most labor on Signal Corps No. 1 consisted of daily or periodic maintenance and upkeep of the engine and airframe. Repairs, usually minor but occasionally serious, were commonplace. Beyond basic maintenance, Foulois and his men under took some noteworthy additional work. The first involved "field modifications" to the aircraft. In one case, after consulting with the Wrights, Foulois and his crew moved one of the elevators from the front to the rear of the aircraft to curtail the machine's bucking tendency. The second, and better-known case involved the landing gear. The bottom frame of early Wright aircraft included a pair of skids for landing. Takeoffs required the crew to lay a single track pointing into the wind and to erect a small tower and weights down wind. The aircraft was placed on the track on a wheeled dolly connected to the weights through a system of pulleys and ropes. When the pilot was ready to take off, he tripped the weights, causing them to fall and catapulting the aircraft down the track. This system, however, proved too clumsy and inflexible for operational use. For example, if the wind switched direction after Foulois's crew laid the track, the track had to be taken up and repositioned for a new takeoff. And, if the aircraft landed anywhere but on its own field, there was no way to get it back into the air. To correct this, Foulois and his crew designed and built a three wheel landing gear similar to that used on Curtiss airplanes. They tested it on Aug. 18, 1910. Though successful, the field-designed modification was not completely satisfactory. The Wrights, in the meantime, had developed their own system. They used pneumatic tires attached to the landing skids with elastic cord to absorb the landing shock. They supplied this system to Foulois as what might today be known as a "con tractor modification kit," to be installed by the airplane's crew.

Patched, repaired, and altered many times, Signal Corps No. 1 was a worn, weary aircraft by the winter of 1910. In preparation for the next flying season, Foulois and his enlisted crew rebuilt the aircraft, modifying it to the Wright Model B configuration in the process. However, there were limits to what the evolving skills of the men and the scant resources at hand could accomplish. Despite Foulois's best efforts, the machine remained in poor operational condition. The Wright brothers asked for $3,000 to overhaul the aircraft, but discouraged this measure by pointing out that a new machine would have many improvements over the existing craft. Army leaders also preferred a new airplane if the money could be found. The question of whether to upgrade an existing design or to buy a new aircraft would become a standard dilemma in aviation procurement. In general, both military and industry leaders favored the latter approach: progress, defined as increased performance, justified advanced designs, and real profits lay in selling new airplanes, not in modifying the old. On March 3, 1911, Congress appropriated $125,000 for Army aviation and made $25,000 available to the service immediately. The purchase of five aircraft with these funds allowed the Army to retire Signal Corps No. 1. In May 1911, the aircraft was sent to the Wright factory at Dayton, Ohio, for refurbishing and eventual display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Writers have generally concluded that by the time the Army retired Signal Corps No. 1, the air plane had accomplished its purpose. They have emphasized the flying portion of the aviation equation: three Army pilots learned to fly on the aircraft, and the Army itself had its first operational experience with a heavier-than-air craft. Yet, the logistical lessons learned were at least as important as the flying portion, and that fact deserves recognition. Foulois preserved these lessons when he wrote the "Provisional Airplane Regulations for the Signal Corps, United States Army, 1911." With hands-on training as his guide, he included information on the care, repair, and maintenance of an airplane on the ground; a list of inspection duties; and rules on the assembly and disassembly of the airplane. He also defined a provisional aero company organization that incorporated the commissioned, enlisted, and civilian personnel required to repair, maintain, and operate the assigned aircraft, to obtain airplane materiel, and to provide motor transport. During 1914 and 1915, when Captain Foulois prepared the 1st Aero Squadron for field service, he applied the lessons in organization, maintenance, and supply that he had learned with Signal Corps No. 1. These thus formed the initial logistical base for what would ultimately become the U.S. Air Force. Note: This story was written by Roger G. Miller who is an historian for hte Air Force History, Bolling AFB, Washington, D.C. It was published in Air Power History/Fall 1994. It is based on research for "Keep 'Em Flying: Air Force Logistics from the Mexican Border to the Persian Gulf."  

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