JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND –
(Editor's Note: This article is the second installment in a monthly series celebrating Kelly Field's centennial. Check back next month for more stories from Kelly Field's history, as well as information about the upcoming JBSA Air Show and Open House this November, which is expected to draw more than 350,000 visitors.)
April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the first plane, a Curtiss JN-4, to land at Kelly Field.
Known affectionately as “Jenny” in aviation circles, this plane was a far cry from the supersonic fighter jets that will take flight during Kelly Field’s celebratory centennial at the JBSA Air Show and Open House this November.
Comprised of pliable wood and high-craft linens, this biplane was held together by a mix of rusty bolts and banana oils, said Fernando Cortez, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland command historian specialist.
“These things often couldn’t even take off without losing a wheel,” Cortez laughed, “But they launched the American public’s fascination with the skies.”
First four fly to Kelly
April 5, 1917, four pilots in Jennys made their initial descent towards the grassy runway at Kelly Airfield. U.S. Army captains George Reinburg, Bert Atkinson and Carl Spatz – along with civilian Eddie Stinson – each landed without incident.
It would be the first of many smooth landings at Kelly for the Jenny, which was a crucial cog in the on-again, off-again border war between the U.S. and Mexican rebels under Pancho Villa from 1910-1919. While the Jenny was primarily used as a reconnaissance plane during this period, the experience gained from the conflict was invaluable, Cortez said.
“These were the first planes America used in a military capacity, and dozens of them were right here in San Antonio at Kelly,” said Cortez. “By the time we entered the First World War, our pilots had a good deal of experience.”
As the U.S. Army built up a fleet of more than 5,000 Jennys, nearly 100 of them ended up being stationed at Kelly field, with several more sent in for maintenance and technological upgrades.
Daring pilots and missing wheels
While the Jenny was no slouch, Cortez continued, the plane needed constant repairs and modifications to meet the changing demands of U.S. air power. While the plane wasn’t a complex aircraft, it was the first military plane to add a fuselage, a dual cockpit, and weapons.
The plane wasn’t without its drawbacks. The Jenny was hard to handle, had a propeller that frequently stalled in midair and had a tendency to lose wheels just after takeoff.
Jenny pilots also tended to be just as volatile.
“You can think of these men like rock stars, because they were our first airborne celebrities,” Cortez explained. “And they tended to have a bit of an attitude.”
Charles Lindbergh – the poster boy for American pilots in the 1920s – even learned to fly in a Jenny while undergoing technical training with the Army Air Service in San Antonio.
Lindbergh, who arrived at nearby Brooks Field in his personally-bought Jenny in 1924, didn’t have as smooth an entrance as did Stinson, Reinburg, Atkinson and Spatz, Cortez said.
“Lindbergh was a bit of a showoff,” Cortez chuckled. “Here he is, a civilian, and he puts his private plane down, right smack-dab in the middle of a military flight line. Lindbergh gets out of the plane, walks up to a nearby officer and says, `reporting for duty, sir!’”
The flight officer, Cortez noted, was not amused.
“He starts yelling, `get this junk out of my airfield!’” Cortez continued. “So Lindbergh takes off, starts to circle around, and with everyone watching, one of his wheels falls off.”
Other Jenny pilots made similar daring exploits.
The first-ever U.S. military mid-air refueling took place between two Jennys in the 1920s, according to information provided by the JBSA-Lackland history office.
While that might sound routine to members of a modern Air Force that can keep refueling a plane in midair indefinitely, Cortez noted that the Jenny’s refueling method was much more haphazard.
“They just strapped a fuel canister onto some poor private, flew his Jenny up alongside another one and sent him crawling across the wingtip to the other plane,” Cortez said.
Of the 5,000 Jennys produced in U.S., less than 20 flying JN-4s remain in 2017. Two are housed in San Antonio, including one, owned by the Witte Museum, that’s kept in a hangar at Port San Antonio – the public-private development that sits on the former site of Kelly Air Force Base, Cortez said.
At a barbecue celebration of the JN-4 at Port San Antonio April 7, Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, JBSA and 502nd Air Base Wing commander, said the Jennys’ landing in 1917 was the first step in America becoming a major air power.
“Thousands earned their pilot’s wings here at Kelly during the World Wars and beyond,” Pringle said. “Today, Joint Base San Antonio (carries on) that legacy, producing 20 percent of the Air Force’s newest F-16 pilots and C-5 aircrews.”
These pilots, albeit in modern, cutting-edge aircraft, carry on a legacy that traces its roots back to the flying tube of wood, bolts, glue and oil that made up the Jenny, Pringle continued.
“Those four Jennys,” Pringle continued, “Were the beginning of an era that has been bigger than Kelly’s founders could have ever anticipated.”