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United States Army Air Service

From PlaneSpottingWorld, for aviation fans everywhere

The United States Army Air Service was a forerunner of the United States Air Force. It was established on May 24, 1918, after U.S. entry into World War I, replacing the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps which had been the nation's air force from 1914 to 1918.

Although the Air Service was recognized by the Department of War on May 24, 1918, no Director of Air Service was appointed until August 28, when President Wilson made John D. Ryan a Second Assistant Secretary of War and civilian Director of Air Service. After World War I, the Air Service was again directed by a military officer and remained so until replaced by the United States Army Air Corps on July 1, 1926.

Lineage of the United States Air Force

Air Service of the AEF

Five days after the formation of the Army Air Service, separating it from the Signal Corps, General John J. Pershing, commanding the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), duplicated the action in Europe by creating the Air Service of the AEF and placing it in charge of all U.S. aviation units, personnel, and equipment in France. As Chief of Air Service, AEF, he chose a West Point classmate and non-aviator, Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick.

During the first year of U.S. participation in World War I, aviation detachments had been created without organization. General Pershing had at first called for creation of 260 U.S. air combat squadrons, reducing that to 202 by the time the Air Service was formed. In Pershing's view, the two functions of the AEF's Air Service were to repel German aircraft and conduct observation of enemy movements. Plans were made for 101 observation squadrons to be assigned to three armies and 16 corps, in addition to 60 pursuit squadrons, 27 night-bombardment squadrons, and 14 day-bombardment squadrons.

Without the time or infrastructure in the United States (referred to as the Zone of Interior) to equip units to send overseas using aircraft designed and built in the U.S., the AEF Air Service ordered Allied aircraft designs already in service with the French and British air services, including the Nieuport 28, SPAD XIII, SE5, and Sopwith Camel as pursuit aircraft, and the DeHaviland DH-4 and Salmson 2 for observation and bombing missions.

The first U.S. aviation squadron to reach France was the 1st Aero Squadron, an observation unit, which sailed from New York in August 1917 and arrived at Le Havre on September 3. A member of the squadron, Stephen W. Thompson, on February 5, 1918 achieved the first aerial victory by the U. S. military. As other squadrons were organized at home, they too were sent overseas, where they continued their training. It was February 1918 before any U.S. squadron entered combat, but by November 11, 1918, 45 squadrons (20 pursuit, 18 observation, and 7 bombardment) had been assigned to combat. During the war, these squadrons played important roles in the Third Battle of the Aisne, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Several units, including the 94th Aero Squadron, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker commanding, and the 27th Aero Squadron, which had "balloon buster" 1st Lt. Frank Luke as one of its pilots, achieved distinguished records in combat and became part of the future U.S. Army Air Corps.

Observation planes often operated individually, as did pursuit pilots to attack a balloon or to meet the enemy in a dogfight. However the tendency was toward formation flying for pursuit as well as for bombardment operations. The dispersal of squadrons among the various army ground units made difficult, however, the coordination of air activities, so that squadrons were organized by functions into groups, the first of these being the 1st Corps Observation Group, organized in April 1918. On May 5, 1918, the 1st Pursuit Group was formed, and by the armistice the AEF had 14 groups (7 observation, 5 pursuit, and 2 bombardment). In July 1918, the AEF organized its first wing, made up of the 2d Pursuit, 3rd Pursuit, and 1st Day Bombardment Groups. Of these 14 groups, only the 1st Pursuit and 1st Day Bombardment Groups would have their lineage continued into the post-war Air Service.

Col. William Mitchell and Col. Benjamin Foulois were advocates of the formation of an "air force" to centralize control over military aviation. In September 1918, for the Allied assault against the German salient at St. Mihiel, Mitchell brought together almost 1,500 U.S. and French planes for coordinated operations in which observation and pursuit supported ground forces, while the other two-thirds of the air force bombed and strafed behind enemy lines. Later, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Mitchell employed a smaller concentration of airpower to keep the German army on the defensive.

The 740 U.S. aircraft assigned to the AEF on November 11, 1918, were approximately 10% of the total aircraft strength of the Allied forces. The Air Service had conducted 150 bombing missions, the longest 160 miles behind German lines, and dropped 138 tons of bombs. Its squadrons had claimed 756 aerial victories against German aircraft and 76 balloons destroyed, creating 31 Air Service aces. Air Service losses were 289 aircraft, 48 balloons, and 237 airmen killed in action, 654 dead of illness or accidents, and 332 wounded.

Air Service World War I posters

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The reorganized Air Service

In France the "Air Service" was a component of Pershing's American Expeditionary Force (AEF). In the United States the Chief Signal Officer was responsible for organizing, training, and equipping aviation units until May 20, 1918. At that time, the President separated aviation from the Signal Corps, creating a Bureau of Aircraft Production (BAP), to be responsible for aeronautical equipment, and a Division of Military Aeronautics (DMA), to be responsible for the training of personnel and aviation units. An Aircraft Engineering Department was set up within the BAP and a Technical Section within the DMA, both under military officers and having similar responsibilities. Both the BAP and the DMA were then placed under the administration of the Air Service on May 24, and formally merged into the Air Service by Executive Order 3066 on March 19, 1919.

At the end of World War I, the Air Service consisted of 185 flying, 44 construction, 114 supply, 11 replacement, and 150 spruce production squadrons; 86 balloon companies; six balloon group headquarters; 15 construction companies; 55 photographic sections; and a few miscellaneous units. Its personnel strength was 19,189 officers and 178,149 enlisted men. Its aircraft inventory consisted primarily of Curtiss JN-4 trainers, Airco DH.4 scout planes, SE-5 and Spad S.VII fighters, and Martin MB-1 bombers.

Complete demobilization of the Air Service was accomplished within a year. By November 22, 1919, the Air Service had been reduced to one construction, one replacement, and 22 flying squadrons; 32 balloon companies; 15 photographic sections; and 1,168 officers and 8,428 enlisted men. The combat strength of the Air Service was only four pursuit and four bombardment squadrons. Although the leaders of the reorganized Air Service persuaded the General Staff to increase the combat strength to 20 squadrons by 1923, the balloon force was deactivated, including dirigibles, and personnel shrank even further, to just 880 officers. By July 1924, the Air Service inventory was 457 observation planes, 55 bombers, 78 pursuit planes, and 8 attack aircraft, with trainers to make the total number 754.

The Air Service replaced its wartime structure with the formation of six permanent groups in 1919, four of which were based in the United States (only two of which were combat groups) and two overseas. In 1920, a seventh group was formed to provide a headquarters for squadrons serving in the Philippines, and in 1922 an eighth group was created to replace one inactivated the year before. (The 8th Fighter Group was also designated on March 23, 1923, but not activated until 1931 as part of the Air Corps.)

With the passage of the National Defense Act (41 Stat. 759 June 4, 1920), the Air Service became a combatant arm of the Army, along with the Infantry, Cavalry, Field Artillery, Corps of Engineers, and Signal Corps. A Chief of Air Service was authorized with the rank of major general to replace the previous Director of Air Service, and an assistant chief created in the rank of brigadier general (from 1920 to 1925 this position was held by Brig.Gen. Billy Mitchell). The primary missions of the Air Service were observation and pursuit aviation, and its tactical squadrons in the United States were controlled by the commanders of nine corps areas created by the Act, primarily in support of the ground forces. The Chief of the Air Service retained command of training schools, depots, and support activities exempted from corps control.

The General Staff produced a mobilization plan in the 1920 reorganization that in the event of war would create an expeditionary force of six armies, 18 corps, and 54 divisions. Each army would have an Air Service attack wing (one attack and two pursuit groups) and an observation group, each corps and division would have an observation squadron, and a seventh attack wing-observation group would be reserved for the Expeditionary Force's general headquarters. A single bombardment group was planned, relegating bombardment to the most minor of roles. All aviation units would be under the command of ground officers at all levels. This structure provided the principles by which the Air Service and Air Corps operated until 1935.

Aeronautical development became the responsibility of the Technical Section, Air Service, created January 1, 1919, consolidating the Aircraft Engineering Department BAP, the Technical Section DMA, and the Testing Squadron at Wilbur Wright Field, which was renamed the Engineering Division on March 19 and relocated to McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio.

A formal training establishment was also created by the Air Service. Flying training took place in Texas, and technical schools were at located at Chanute Field, Illinois. The Air Service Tactical School was established at Langley Field, Virginia, to train officers for higher command and to instruct in doctrine and the employment of military aviation. It also formed the basis for the Air Corps Tactical School established in 1931 at Maxwell Field, Alabama. The Engineering Division created an air engineering school at McCook Field and moved it to Wright Field when that base was established in 1924.

The principal pursuit planes of the Air Service were the MB-3 (50 in inventory), the MB-3A (200 acquired 1920-23), and the Curtiss PW-8/P-1 Hawk (48 acquired in 1924-25). The only bomber ordered in quantity was the Martin MB-2, 130 of which saw service from 1920 to 1929 under the designation NBS-1.

Groups of the Air Service

Original Designation Station Date created Redesignation (date)
1st Surveillance Group Fort Bliss, Texas July 1, 1919 3rd Attack Group² (1921)
2nd Observation Group Luke Field, Hawaii August 16, 1919 5th Composite Group² (1922)
1st Pursuit Group² Kelly Field, Texas August 22, 1919
1st Day Bombardment Group Kelly Field, Texas September 18, 1919 2nd Bomb Group² (1922)
3rd Observation Group France Field, Panama September 30, 1919 6th Composite Group² (1922)
First Army Observation Group Langley Field, Virginia October 1, 1919 (7th Bomb Group 1921)¹
1st Observation Group Ft. Stotsenburg, Luzon March 3, 1920 4th Composite Group² (1922)
9th Observation Group² Mitchel Field, New York August 1, 1922
¹Redesignated, then inactivated until 1928
²Original 7 groups of US Army Air Corps

Annual Air Service strength

as of June 30 yearly

Year Strength Year Strength Year Strength
1918 138,997 1921 11,830 1924 10,488
1919 24,115 1922 9,888 1925 9,719
1920 9,358 1923 9,407 1926 9,578

Heads of the Air Service

Directors of Air Service

Chiefs of Air Service

The debate over an independent Air Force

The seven-year history of the Air Service was essentially a prolonged debate between adherents of airpower and the supporters of the traditional military services about the value of an independent Air Force, spurred by the creation of the Royal Air Force in 1918. On one side were Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Foulois, a cadre of young former Reserve officers who made up the overwhelming majority of Army pilots, and a few like-minded politicians and newspapers. Opposed were the General Staff of the U.S. Army, its senior leadership from World War I, and the United States Navy.

While this debate focused largely on the controversial Mitchell, its early star was Foulois. Both returned from France with combat leadership experience in aviation, expecting to become the peacetime leaders of the Air Service. Instead, the War Department had appointed Maj.Gen. Charles Menoher, who had commanded the Rainbow Division in France, to be Director of the Air Service to replace Secretary Ryan, signalling to the nation and the airpower proponents its intent to keep the air arm under the direction of the ground forces.

In 1919, Mitchell proposed a Cabinet-level Department of Aviation equal to the War and Navy Departments to control all aviation, including sea-based air, airmail, and commercial operations. His goal was not only independent and centralized control of airpower, but also encouragement of the peacetime U.S. aviation industry. However, Mitchell insisted that the debate be both broad and civil. Foulois, however, complained bitterly to the United States Congress about the historical neglect and indifference of the Army to its air service. Although a bill actually was introduced in the U.S. Senate to create Mitchell's proposed department and initially garnered strong support, the opposition of the Army's wartime leaders (especially General Pershing) frustrated the effort at the start and resulted in the passage of the less radical though still significant National Defense Act of 1920.

Mitchell was not discouraged by the failure of his first proposal. He recognized the value of public opinion in the debate and changed tactics, embarking on a publicity campaign on behalf of military aviation. General Menoher, when he was unable to persuade the Secretary of War, John Weeks to silence Mitchell, resigned his position on October 4, 1921, and was replaced by Maj.Gen. Mason Patrick. Although an engineer and not an aviator, Patrick had been Pershing's Chief of Air Service in France, where his primary duty had been to coordinate the activities of Foulois and Mitchell, then rivals. Patrick had also testified before Congress against Mitchell's plan for an independent air force.

Patrick was not hostile to aviation, however. He underwent flight training and obtained his wings, then issued a series of reports to the War Department emphasizing the need to expand and modernize the Air Service. Patrick was also critical of the policy that placed air units under the command of corps commanders and proposed that only observation squadrons should be part of the ground forces, with all combat forces centralized under the command of a "General Headquarters Air Force."

The response to the proposal was three boards and committees. The Secretary of War convened the Lassiter Board in 1923, composed of general staff officers who fully endorsed Patrick's views, and adopted the proposal as policy. However, he proposed that appropriations for the GHQ Air Force be merged with those for Naval aviation, which the Navy rejected, and the reorganization could not be implemented.

The U.S. House of Representatives then appointed the Lampert Committee in 1924 to investigate Patrick's criticisms. Mitchell testified before the committee and, upset by the failure of the War Department to even negotiate with the Navy in order to save the reforms of the Lassiter Board, harshly criticized Army leadership and attacked other witnesses. He had already antagonized the senior flag officers of both services with speeches and articles delivered in 1923 and 1924, and the Army refused to retain him as Assistant Chief of the Air Service when his term expired in March, 1925. He was reduced of rank to colonel by Secretary Weeks and exiled to the VIII Corps in San Antonio as air officer, where his continuing criticisms caused President Calvin Coolidge to order his court-martial. Mitchell was convicted in December 1925 and, shortly after, the Lampert Committee issued a compromise recommendation that both military air arms be expanded.

The third board was the Morrow Board, convened by President Coolidge to make a general inquiry into U.S. aviation. Headed by an investment banker and personal friend of Coolidge's, Dwight Morrow, the board was made up of a federal judge, the head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, former military officers now in industry, and the wartime head of the Board of Aircraft Production. The actual purpose of the Morrow Board was to minimize the political impact of the Mitchell trial, and Coolidge directed that it issue its findings by the end of November, to pre-empt the findings of not only the military court but also of the Lampert Committee that might be contrary to the Morrow Board. The major result of the Morrow Board was a recommendation, adopted in 1926, that the Air Service be abolished and replaced by an Air Corps equal within the Army to the Signal Corps, but without the autonomy of the Marine Corps within the Navy Department.

Advances in aviation

To positively influence U.S. public opinion and thereby enlist political support in Congress in his crusade for an independent air force, General Mitchell conducted a publicity campaign on behalf of airpower. While using public pronouncements for propaganda purposes, Mitchell also fostered within the Air Service advances in aeronautical science that would not only increase its effectiveness as a military service, but would also generate public support.

His first project, undertaken at McCook Field, in Dayton, Ohio, was for the creation of a heavily armored attack plane for supporting ground forces. Although the designs that resulted were not practical and did not meet Mitchell's specifications for aircraft that could land troops behind enemy lines, the project led Mitchell to closely supervise aircraft development, not only at McCook but in Europe as well. On October 30, 1919, the McCook Field engineers tested the first reversible-pitch propeller.

This effort resulted in the development of a monoplane with retractable landing gear, a metal propeller, and a streamlined engine design, the Verville R-3 racer. Economy measures by the Air Service prevented the project from being fully completed, but contributed to a growing determination within the Air Service to set new aviation records for speed, altitude, distance, and endurance, which in turn contributed not only to technical improvements (and favorable publicity) but also advancements in aviation medicine.

Air Service pilots established world records in altitude, distance, and speed. Speed in particular attracted public attention and, although a number of speed records were set in cross-country flying, records were also set on measured courses. Mitchell himself set a world speed record of 222.97 mph over a closed course in a Curtiss R-6 racer on October 18, 1922, at the Pulitzer Trophy competition of the 1922 National Air Races. A later world speed record of 232 mph was made by 1st Lt. James H. Doolittle in winning the Schneider Trophy race at the 1925 Races.

The practical and military applications of speed were not ignored, however. On September 4, 1922, Doolittle had made the first transcontinental crossing in one day, flying from Florida to California in 21 hours, 20 minutes, a distance of 2,163 miles. Mitchell concluded that accomplishing the same feat by "daylight only" had tremendous value, and staged a dawn-to-dusk transcontinental flight across the United States in the summer of 1924 in a Curtiss PW-8 fighter acquired for the purpose.

Despite the emphasis in the press on speed, the Air Service also established a number of altitude, distance, and endurance records. On February 27, 1920, Maj. R. W. Schroeder set a world altitude record of 33,114 feet in the Packard-LePere LUSAC-11 biplane over McCook Field. The first nonstop flight across the United States, made in 26 hours and 50 minutes at an average speed of 98.76 mph, was made May 2-May 3, 1923, from Roosevelt Field, New York to Rockwell Field, California, in a Fokker T-2 (a converted F.IV airliner) by two Air Service pilots, Lt. Oakley G. Kelly and Lt. John A. Macready. The feat was followed in August by a flight in which a DeHavilland DH-4 stayed aloft for more than 37 hours by means of aerial refueling. The Fokker T.2 is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The greatest achievement of these projects, however, was the first flight around the world. The Air Service set up support facilities along the proposed route and in April 1924 sent a flight of four aircraft west from Seattle, Washington. Six months later, two aircraft completed the flight. Even if considered as primarily a publicity stunt, the flight was a brilliant accomplishment in which five nations had already failed.

Kelly and Macready, Doolittle, and the crews of the circumnavigation flight all won the Mackay Trophy for the respective years in which they accomplished their feats.


  • Bowman, Martin W., "Background to War", USAAF Handbook 1939-1945, ISBN 0-8117-1822-0
  • Mortenson, Daniel R., "The Air Service in the Great War," Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force, Vol. I, Chapter 2 (1997), ISBN 0-16-049009-X
  • Shiner, John F., "From Air Service to Air Corps: The Era of Billy Mitchell," Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force Vol. I, Chapter 3 (1997), ISBN 0-16-049009-X
  • Craven, Wesley Frank, and Cate, James Lea, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume I: Plans and Early Operations, "Chapter 2: The Army Air Service Between Two Wars 1919-1939". University of Chicago press, 1948
  • "2006 Almanac," Air Force Magazine, May 2006, Vol. 89, No. 5, the Air Force Association, Arlington, Virginia
  • Army Air Forces Statistical Digest, Table 3

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