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Foulois ushered dawn of military flight at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston 110 years ago

By Steve Elliott | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | March 2, 2020

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —

Aviation pioneer Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois ushered in the dawn of military flight when he made his historic journey 110 years ago March 2.

The original Signal Corps Aircraft No. 1 was a Canard biplane with a four-cylinder Wright 30.6 horsepower engine driving two wooden propellers via a sprocket-and-chain transmission system. “Old Number One,” America’s first military airplane, was an earlier machine than the Model B the Wright brothers began building in their Dayton factory in 1910.

A distinguishing feature was its front-mounted elevator. But Foulois made so many modifications in consultation with the Wrights, including a tail-mounted elevator, that by the end of 1910, it resembled a Model B.

Foulois graduated from the Army Signal School in 1908 and first learned to fly on the Army Dirigible No. 1, a lighter-than-air engine-propelled airship. He later participated in the trials of the Wright Flyer with the Wright brothers.

During the trials, Foulois was on board in the observer's seat of the Wright Flyer with Orville Wright, and clocked the airplane's landmark 10-mile flight time that qualified that airplane for acceptance into the Army.

In February 1910, Foulois was transferred to Fort Sam Houston with a team of enlisted men known as his "flying soldiers" and the Army's only airplane, Army Airplane No. 1. Here, he learned to fly it himself, aided by instructions in letters from the Wright brothers. Foulois said he was a "mail-order pilot" who had learned to fly through his correspondence with the Wright brothers.

Foulois climbed aboard the Army Airplane No. 1 at Fort Sam Houston March 2, 1910 and at 9:30 a.m. circled the field, attaining the height of 200 feet and circling the field at the speed of 30 mph. The flight only lasted for seven and a half minutes.

Foulois made four flights that day, crashing on the last flight due to a broken fuel pipe. The premier flight became known as the "birth of military flight," and Foulois became known as the "father of U.S. military aviation."

"I made my first solo, my first landing and my first crackup – all the same day," Foulois said.

Foulois was relieved from flying duties in July 1911 and returned to aviation duty with the Signal Corps Aviation School at North Island, San Diego, in December 1913. He later commanded the lst Aero Squadron in Mexico during the campaign to arrest Pancho Villa in 1916. He served as chief of air service, Air Expeditionary Force, in France from 1917 to 1918.

Foulois was in charge of the materiel division at Wright Field, now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, from 1929 to 1930, and Dec. 20, 1931, became chief of the Army Air Corps. He retired from active military service as a major general Dec. 31, 1935. He died April 25, 1967.

An extensive biography of Foulois is available online at http://www.af.mil/AboutUs/Biographies/Display/tabid/225/Article/107091/major-general-benjamin-delahauf-foulois.aspx.

And while known for being the “father of U.S. military aviation” with his historic flight at Fort Sam Houston March 2, 1910, Foulois was also the owner of many other aviation-related “firsts.”

1910 – First military man to teach himself to fly

After only 54 minutes of flight training with the Wright Brothers and no solo experience, Foulois left Fort Myers, Maryland, in 1909 and headed for Fort Sam Houston, Texas, as the United States’ lone pilot with a team of enlisted men known as his “flying soldiers.”

He was instructed to teach himself how to keep flying; to use and take care of the United States’ first airplane, designated “Signal Corps No. 1;” assess its military possibilities; and to take along plenty of spare parts.

He learned to fly it on his own, using instructions sent via letters from Orville and Wilbur Wright.

1911 – First to fly more than 100 miles non-stop

With Foulois plotting a course and Phillip Parmelee at the controls, the Wright Type B, on loan from Robert F. Collier, sets an official U.S. cross-country record from Laredo to Eagle Pass, Texas. It flew the 106 miles in two hours, 10 minutes on March 3.

He and Parmalee flew along the Rio Grande River at an altitude of 1,200 feet from Laredo to Eagle Pass to search for enemy troops. They saw none during the flight.

While conducting preliminary flights at Laredo, James Hare, a photographer from Collier’s magazine arrived and was taken aloft several times. Hare took a number of pictures of the terrain and established another first: photo reconnaissance and aerial map making.