New Mexico And Its 'Air' Roots


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New Mexico And Its 'Air' Roots

By Arlan Ponder

January 8, 2012 - On Friday the state of New Mexico celebrated its centennial. Though the Air Force officially made its appearance in the Tularosa Basin in February 1942 with the construction of Alamogordo Army Airfield, the air power roots of America were established only 150 miles from Holloman four years after New Mexico's admittance into the union in 1912 as the 47th state. 

America's first deployment and operational use of military air power did not take place in the skies over Germany or France, but in 1916 in Columbus, N.M. And though it appeared to some military leaders to have been a total failure, it was a turning point in military history this was the first time America would use the fledgling discovery of flight as a tactical air unit in a combat situation.

On March 9, 1916, under the cover of darkness, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa raided Columbus, killing 18 Americans. Although the attack was small, compared to Pearl Harbor or 9/11, the significance of it holds a special place in America's history. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Mexican Punitive Expedition to secure the border and to pursue and disperse the band of raiders who had caused the first foreign attack on American soil since the War of 1812.

Packed in wooden crates, eight old and underpowered Curtiss JN-3 "Jenny" biplanes barely able to fly 100 mph arrived in Columbus on March 15, 1916. The 1st Aero Squadron, known as the "Early Birds", consisting of 11 officers and 84 enlisted men, joined Brig. Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing and more than 4,000 cavalry soldiers in southern New Mexico.

Aviation pioneer, Capt. Benjamin Foulois, who went on to become Chief of the Air Corps in 1931, served as the commander of the 1st Aero Squadron. The squadron was the Army Signal Corps' only flying arm at the time. During the expedition, the squadron flew 346 hours on 540 missions, covering nearly 20,000 miles. Captain Foulois described the perils in flying the 1916 biplanes as machines inadequate for the task assigned.

"Not only were they inadequate, they were downright dangerous to fly because of their age," he wrote in his report titled "Report of the Operations of the First Aero Squadron, Signal Corps, with the Mexican Punitive Expedition for Period March 15 to August 15, 1916". "Yet we did a great amount of scouting over country in which cavalry and infantry could not operate."


Many times pilots were called upon to take extraordinary risks during their flights into the mountainous canyons in Mexico. Knowing if they were forced to crash land there it was a good possibility they would be taken prisoner by an enemy who didn't have the same ideas for prisoners of war treatment as the U.S., the inexperienced aviators continued their mission.

The pilots also knew even if they safely landed in hostile territory -- and managed to evade the enemy -- they could face both personal risk and physical suffering as they made their way back to the safety of U.S. forces, which was often hundreds of miles or several days walk away. The lack of water in the desert area and the inability to carry food or additional clothing in the JN-3 further added to the mental and physical strains put on the early aviators.

Although the 1st AS played a key role in the military operation, the biplanes made of little more than canvas stretched over sticks and wood were limited to communications and observation roles. Navigation errors resulting from poor maps combined with night flying, contributed to problems for the squadron as did the dust storms and excessive heat in the arid environment of southern New Mexico and the swirling winds of the Sierra Madres Mountains in northern Mexico.


In addition to providing communications for General Pershing's widely dispersed troops, this first aviation deployment provided an opportunity for field testing new equipment. During the quieter moments of the Mexican Expedition, Captain Foulois and his men tested and evaluated a wide range of aircraft and aviation equipment, while setting up shops to manufacture and test propellers and motors. The squadron is credited with field testing aircraft such as the H-2, H-3, Curtiss Twin JN, R-Land, Sturtevant Advanced Trainer, V-1, D-5 and a much improved version of the "Jenny" classified as the Curtiss JN-4. 

The squadron also carried out extensive work with automatic cameras, which were considered by Captain Foulois and some officers to be the "most valuable adjuncts in existence for use in aero-reconnaissance. This camera takes a continuous string of pictures, of a limited section of terrain over which an airplane may be passing," the squadron commander wrote in his report. "These pictures, when developed and fitted together, are equivalent to a road map of the section traversed, and superior to the road map in the detail that is represented."

The most important point revealed during the Punitive Expedition was the proof that adequate funding is required in order for the mission to be successful. With limited equipment and people, the "Early Birds" literally wore themselves out over the year-long campaign.

In August 1916, Congress took note of the poor funding for its first air unit and passed an appropriations bill to accompany the National Defense Act of 1916 passed in June 1916. The bill allocated $13 million -- more than $260 million today - to the air power effort being amassed in preparation for World War I.

Although the Curtiss biplanes of 1916 and the men of the 1st AS failed to bring in Pancho Villa and his "Villistas," the lessons learned in the U.S. military aviation's first steps in southern New Mexico provided valuable experience for future aviators and military leaders to achieve the air supremacy required to operate aircraft like the F-22 and the remotely piloted aircraft currently stationed at Holloman Air Force Base.

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