aviation comes of age
the creation of NACA
the development of air power
advocates of strategic bombing
Billy Mitchell and the bomber
the U.S. Air Corps
the start of air mail
the growth of airlines
Imperial Airways
the flying boats
the clipper ships
  a Russian experiment


Billy Mitchell – Advocate of Air Power

Billy Mitchell was a strong believer in the importance of air power.

On the eve of the World War I, no country was prepared for using aircraft or had even admitted they would make an effective weapon of war. Several had experimented with dropping bombs from aircraft, firing guns, and taking off and landing from aircraft carriers, but no country had designed or built aircraft specifically for war functions. Limited bombing operations had been carried out before 1914, but most thought that aircraft use was limited to reconnaissance or scouting missions. An October 1910 editorial in Scientific American, a respected publication, denigrated the airplane as a war weapon: "Outside of scouting duties, we are inclined to think that the field of usefulness of the aeroplane will be rather limited. Because of its small carrying capacity, and the necessity for its operating at great altitude, if it is to escape hostile fire, the amount of damage it will do by dropping explosives upon cities, forts, hostile camps, or bodies of troops in the field to say nothing of battleships at sea, will be so limited as to have no material effects on the issues of a campaign...."

But some effort was made to use aircraft for military purposes. Some of the earliest efforts took place in Italy. In April 1909, the newly formed Italian aviation club, Club Aviatori, brought Wilbur Wright to Italy to demonstrate his Military Flyer at the Centocelle military base near Rome. Before leaving Rome, Wilbur trained the naval officer who would become Italy’s first pilot, Lieutenant Mario Calderara. In 1910, Italy set up its first military flying school at Centocelle.

During the next few years, Italy’s military use of aviation increased. At the start of the Turko-Italian War in 1911, Italy mobilized its Italian Aviation Battalion and aircraft under the command of Captain Carlo Piazza, a well-known racing pilot, and sent them by steamship to Tripoli in Libya, then part of the Ottoman Empire. It sent two Blériot XIs, three Nieuport monoplanes, two Farman biplanes, and two Etrich Taube monoplanes. On October 23, 1911, Piazza made history’s first reconnaissance flight near Benghazi in a Blériot XI. On November 1, Second Lieutenant Giolio Gavotti carried out the first aerial bombardment mission, dropping four bombs on two Turkish-held oases. In March 1912, Captain Piazza made the first photo-reconnaissance flight in history.

At the same time, other European countries had begun developing military aviation. The French army bought its first planes in 1910 and trained 60 pilots. It began to install armament in its reconnaissance craft in 1911. In Russia, Igor Sikorsky built the first "air giant," a four-engine plane that was the forerunner of the multiengine strategic bombers of World War I. The French military began experimenting with aerial bombing in 1912, as did the British in 1913. Adolphe Pégoud in France also experimented with a hook-and-cable system for landing a plane on a ship at sea—following Eugene Ely in the United States who had successfully taken off and landed on the deck of a ship.

The United States had also experimented on a limited basis with military operations in aircraft. Glenn Curtiss experimented with the plane as a means of bombardment in June 1910 with his Golden Flyer. On August 20, 1910, at Sheepshead Bay racetrack near New York City, Lieutenant James Fickel fired the first shot from an airplane--a rifle at a target from an altitude of 100 feet (30 meters) with Glenn Curtiss piloting. On November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely made the first takeoff from a warship, the cruiser Birmingham, anchored near Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the Curtiss Hudson Flyer. On January 18, 1911, he made the first carrier landing onto a 125-foot (38-meter) platform on the warship Pennsylvania, anchored in San Francisco Bay. In 1912, an Army officer, Captain C.D. Chandler, fired a 750-round-per-minute, air-cooled recoilless machine gun successfully from a Wright B flyer over College Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. But, in spite of these achievements, no country had developed an air attack or bomber by this time.

Some countries had also formed small "air forces" that were connected to their other military operations. Great Britain formed the Royal Flying Corps on April 13, 1912. In June 1914, the Naval Wing of this formation was removed to form the basis of the Royal Naval Air Service. The United States also established the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1907 and created the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps in July 1914.

The U.S. government generally lagged behind its European counterparts in these efforts and was much later in supporting aviation than Europe had been. Back in 1890, the French had ordered an aircraft from the aviator Clement Ader and had appropriated $100,000 for that purpose, even though the aircraft he developed never flew in a controlled flight. But the Wright brothers, who had developed and demonstrated a fully controllable aircraft in 1903 that could take off, land, bank, turn, climb, and descend, did so with their own funds. Not until 1909 did the Signal Corps purchase an aircraft for military purposes. The U.S. Navy purchased its first plane, a derivative of the Curtiss Golden Flyer, in July 1911.

On March 31, 1911, Congress first appropriated funds for military aviation, $125,000. The U.S. Signal Corps immediately ordered five new airplanes. Two of these--a Curtiss Type IV Model D "Military," and a Wright Model B--were accepted at Fort Sam Houston on April 27, 1911. With these new planes, flight training of volunteers began. Lieutenant G.E.M. Kelly was among the first group of twenty-one. On May 10, 1911, during a landing attempt at Fort Sam Houston using a Curtiss Type IV Model D, Kelly crashed into the ground. He was first man to lose his life while piloting an airplane.

Countries that considered themselves more vulnerable to attack tried harder to develop their military aircraft than more isolated countries such as the United States. Thus, the countries of Europe had more pilots, more aircraft, and outspent the United States on military aviation. In 1910, the United States had only 18 licensed pilots and 193 in 1912. But in much less populous France, there were 339 licensed pilots in 1910 and 968 in 1912. Both Germany and Great Britain had many more pilots than the United States. In 1912, the militaries in France, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and Italy had more aircraft than the United States (France had 25 times as many). In 1913, France spent more than 60 times the aviation budget of the United States, Russia and Germany 40 times, and Great Britain 24 times as much. But even so, no country had any aircraft that were specifically designed for combat. None were equipped to drop bombs or had any type of gun, let alone a machine gun.

Aircraft and Trained Pilots in 1914



Trained Pilots*










Great Britain









United States



*There were also many untrained aviators flying by 1914. The total number approximated 2,000.

Why did the United States trail so far behind the rest of the industrial world? One reason was its feeling of invulnerability. A second was the official military doctrine that was in place in 1914 and which remained until 1923. Military doctrine defines the roles, missions, and equipment of an armed service. If the doctrine doesn’t state that aircraft are to be used for bombing, fighting, and other military purposes, then aircraft with military capabilities will not be constructed. The U.S. military doctrine, as expressed in a 1914 Field Service Regulation, did not mention bombing, strafing, or air-to-air fighting. The only military aircraft missions mentioned were strategic and tactical reconnaissance. One other factor that hindered the private development of aviation in the United States was the often-prohibitive amount of money that had to be paid to the Wright brothers for use of their patented technology.

In general, military leaders, technologists, government officials--even airplane inventors--displayed a lack of imagination. Military aircraft development was retarded because civilian and military leaders, by and large, could not conceive of aircraft as a war machine, not because airplanes could not perform war missions. Not until World War I actually began did the countries of Europe begin to seriously increase production of military aircraft. And not until even later did the United States join the effort.

Billy Mitchell Sinks the Ships

The battleship Alabama before being hit with bombs.

Mitchell's bombardiers conducted a demonstration in September 1921, hitting the battleship Alabama with phosphorus, tear gas, and other bombs.

After World War I ended, military budgets were reduced and armies were decreased in size by international disarmament treaties. In the United States, the services rallied to compete for the limited funds available to keep their individual branches powerful. Aviation, which was part of the U.S. Army, would have been forgotten if the assistant chief of the air service, William "Billy" Mitchell, had not made fighting for the future of aviation in the U.S. military his top personal mission.

Instead of concentrating on aviation, defence budgets focused on building super dreadnoughts for the navy. A super dreadnought was an enormous steam-propelled battleship, considered unbeatable if it was the biggest one. Mitchell considered the dreadnought his enemy. Based on the evidence of the war, he felt that no naval fleet could survive a battle if a land-based air force could reach it. Mitchell spoke out against this funding often, angering the navy. And the press, sensing readership in stories of inter-service rivalries, encouraged Mitchell by printing his speeches and articles.

Finally, in February 1921, the navy could not ignore Mitchell anymore. Testifying before the House subcommittee on aviation, Mitchell stated that 1000 bomber aircraft could be built and operated for the cost of one dreadnought and that his airplanes could sink a battleship. He volunteered to demonstrate this if the navy would provide him with some battleships, which were already due to be demolished. The navy reluctantly agreed to the demonstrations.

A Martin bomber attacks and sings a battleship during exercises in 1921.

The navy did not support the demonstrations because it felt that success would weaken its position in the upcoming World Naval Disarmament Conference. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels volunteered to stand bareheaded on the deck of any ship Mitchell was going to bomb. Once it was decided the tests would be performed under navy rules, it set strict guidelines that it felt would ensure failure for Mitchell. One was that the bombings be conducted slowly, stopping often to permit inspections of the damage by construction inspectors. This would allow a scientific appraisal of the capacity of different types of ships to withstand aerial attack. Also, the number and size of the bombs were to be limited. The navy also ordered that there be a news blackout during preparations and that only official reports of the tests be allowed afterward. They were aware that Mitchell knew how to manipulate the press and they wanted to ensure that his story was not the one told to the public.

The Ostfriesland under attack in 1921 Army-Navy bombing test. Mining effects of hits like this sank her.

Once the test was agreed to, Mitchell formed the First Provisional Air Brigade, drawing 150 airplanes and 1,000 people from air bases around the country. Because none of the pilots knew how to sink ships, extensive training was required at Langley Field in Virginia, where practice missions against mock ships were performed. Among the officers attending the practices was Alexander de Seversky, who had served with Russia during the war, dropping bombs on German ships. He taught the pilots that the best way to sink a ship was to drop the bomb near, not on, the ship.

The tests began in July off the coast of Virginia. The navy had provided Mitchell with three decommissioned U.S. battleships and three ships obtained from the Germans in the peace agreement--a destroyer, an armoured light cruiser, and a dreadnought. All were successfully sunk. The climax of the demonstrations took place on July 21, when the navy brought out the German ship Ostfriedland, a great ship that had been the pride of the German fleet during the war. The vessel was considered unsinkable, and it probably would have been if Mitchell had adhered to the rules. But instead, he had personally overseen the design of a number of 2,000-pound (907-kilogram) bombs, knowing that smaller bombs would not be successful. Martin twin-engine MB-2 bombers dropped six of these bombs in rapid succession. Two scored direct hits and the others landed close enough for the ship’s hull plates to rip open from the force of the explosion. Twenty-one minutes after the test began, the Ostfriedland plunged to the bottom of the ocean. The final plane dropped its bombs into the foam rising from the sinking ship.

The navy was horrified and declared the tests void since Mitchell had violated the guidelines. But it also began to focus more on aviation. The Bureau of Aeronautics, which had been established in 1921 as a defence against Mitchell’s actions under the leadership of William Moffat, increased its development of the aircraft carriers that would eventually help win the Pacific campaign in World War II.

For the Air Corps, the results were different. Mitchell was able to use the tests for more publicity and to push the agenda of the air force to the nation. He wanted an air force modelled after the Royal Air Force in England, which commanded all military aviation--from land to sea operations. But Mitchell’s public condemnations of the military eventually led to his court martial and early retirement. Soon after the tests, Secretary of the Air Corps Major General Charles Menoher was forced to resign and was replaced by General Mason Patrick. General Patrick understood the importance of aviation, but he also understood the politics of the military. He spent the next decade quietly working to establish a mission and vision for an independent air force. In 1948, the Air Force was founded. But Mitchell’s tests had encouraged the navy to become air-minded. By 1948, naval aviation was an established division of the navy with no desire to become separate. As a result, the air force does not include naval aviation.