The Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps (1907-1914) was the first progenitor of the United States Air Force, and as such is the first military air organization. A component of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Aeronautical Division did not contain any subordinate units during its existence.

Lineage of the United States Air Force[]

Birth of the air arm[]

The U.S. Army Signal Corps had been associated with aeronautics since the American Civil War, when Thaddeus S. C. Lowe had been named chief of the Union Army Balloon Corps. The War Department had accepted the report of an aeronautically-minded investigating committee that included Alexander Graham Bell and had invested $50,000 for the rights to a heavier-than-air flying machine being developed by Samuel Pierpont Langley. Although Langley's invention had failed to its embarrassment, the Signal Corps maintained its interest in aviation as a result of the success of the Wright Brothers.

All balloon school activities of the U.S. Army Signal Corps were transferred to Fort Omaha, Nebraska in 1905. In 1906, the commandant of the Signal School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Major George O. Squier, studied aeronautical theory and lectured on the Wright flying machine. One of his instructors, Captain William L. Mitchell, was also a student of aviation and taught the use of reconnaissance balloons. Squire became executive officer to the Chief Signal Officer, Brig. Gen James Allen, in July of 1907, and immediately convinced Allen to create an aviation entity within the Signal Corps.

The Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps, consisting of one officer and two enlisted men, began operation on August 1, 1907, with the responsibility for "all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects," and became the progenitor of the U.S. Air Force. Captain Charles DeForest Chandler was named the chief of the new division. On December 23, 1907, the Signal Corps issued Specification No. 486 and requested bids. A copy of the specification was sent to the Wright Brothers on January 3, 1908.

In 1908 the Aeronautical Division, at the intercession of President Theodore Roosevelt in the acquisition process, purchased a nonrigid dirigible from Thomas Scott Baldwin for $6,750, and an airplane from the Wright Brothers for $25,000. Specification No. 486 required both types of airships be able to carry two persons. The dirigible had to be able to carry a load of 450 pounds and reach a speed of 20 mph while the airplane's requirements were a load of 350 pounds, a speed of 40 mph, and a flying distance of at least 125 miles.

The dirigible was delivered first, in July 1908, after Baldwin submitted an extremely low bid to ensure receiving the contract ($25,000 had been budgeted). Baldwin and Glenn Curtiss flew the test trials and met all specifications except speed, which was just under the requirement. During August Baldwin trained three officers to fly the dirigible: Lieutenants Thomas Selfridge, Benjamin Foulois, and Captain Frank Lahm, and prepared to move the ship from Fort Omaha to St. Joseph, Missouri, for a state fair exhibition. However the first ascent in the dirigible, and the first flight by army pilots, did not occur until May 26, 1909.

The Wright Brothers, who had been asking $100,000 for their airplane, then agreed to sell an airplane satisfying the requirements for $25,000 (they also received a $5,000 bonus for exceeding the speed requirement). The airplane was delivered to Fort Myer, Virginia, for trials. Selfridge and Lahm were named official observers of the testing trials in September, 1908, flown by Orville Wright. Both Lahm and Major Squier made acceptance flights, and on September 13 Wright kept the airplane aloft for an hour and ten minutes.

On September 17, 1908, because he was under orders to travel to St. Joseph for the dirigible exhibition, Selfridge asked to take the place of a U.S. Navy observer scheduled for a test flight. During the flight a propeller broke loose, damaged a wing, and caused the plane to crash. Wright was hospitalized and Selfridge killed in the first fatal crash of an airplane. Despite the accident, the Army renewed the trials in June 1909 using an improved model of the Wright airplane, with Lahm and Foulois as observers and President William H. Taft as a spectator during the final test. The Army accepted the Wright airplane on August 2, 1909, designating it "Airplane No. 1", and Wilbur Wright began teaching Lahm and 2d Lt. Frederic E. Humphreys to fly it.

The dirigible service proved short-lived, as the corrosive effects of weather and the hydrogen gas used to lift the ship caused the gasbag to leak with increasing severity. The dirigible was condemned and sold at auction.

Appropriations and growth[]

In 1911 the Aeronautical Division received its first direct appropriation for aviation ($125,000 for Fiscal Year 1912, half of what was proposed), formed its first flight training school on July 3, and flew its first two operational sorties, using an airplane rented for one dollar (which crashed at the end of the second flight) to surveil the border with Mexico. Rules of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) were adopted, including standards for the certification of pilots, and Lts. Henry H. Arnold and Thomas D. Milling became the first two Army pilots to be FAI certified. The Aeronautical Division also dispatched Captain Chandler, Lt. Milling, and a detachment of Curtiss JN-3 airplanes to Texas City, Texas to train in anticipation of possible war with Mexico. The provisional unit organized on March 5, the 1st Aero Squadron, became the first official unit of the air force on December 8, 1913.

In 1912 the division purchased a Wright Model C airplane, to be used as a "speed scout." The first one crashed at College Park soon after delivery, killing Leighton Hazelhurst, who had been among the first class of student pilots, and Allen L. Welch, the Wright Company instructor who had taught Arnold to fly. Arnold himself was nearly killed in the Model C in November, when the plane stalled. Although unhurt, Arnold was aware that he was almost the fourth pilot death in the Signal Corps that year, and he quit flying (as did four other pilots).

Flight pay and accelerated promotion for pilots were approved by Congress in 1913, when the Aeronautical Division grew from 14 to 18 pilots. Legislation was proposed by Representative James Hay (Dem-Virginia, and chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee) to make aviation independent from the Signal Corps and a separate branch within the Army, but the bill did not reach the floor of the House. Appropriations for aviation fell to $100,000, in part because the Signal Corps had spent only $40,000 of the Fiscal Year 1912 funding.

The Army Air Forces Statistical Digest (World War II) (Table 3, "AAF Military personnel--number and percent of US Army strength") listed the strength of the division at 51 officers and men on November 1, 1912, and 114 on September 30, 1913. In the following year Congress increased the size and prestige of Signal Corps aviation by enacting a law established an Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps to replace the Aeronautical Division on July 18, 1914.

Chiefs of the Aeronautical Division[]

  • Captain Charles DeForest Chandler (August 1, 1907-June 30, 1910)
  • Captain Arthur S. Cowan (July 1, 1910-June 19, 1911)
  • Captain Charles DeForest Chandler (June 20, 1911-September 9, 1913)
  • Major Samuel Reber (September 10, 1913-July 17, 1914)

First pilots[]

  • Frederick Erastus Humphreys, was the first to solo
  • Thomas Etholen Selfridge, first death
  • Benjamin Foulois
  • Frank Purdy Lahm
  • Henry H. Arnold, first FAI certified
  • Thomas DeWitt Milling, first FAI certified

See also[]


  • Bowman, Martin W., "Background to War", USAAF Handbook 1939-1945, ISBN 0-8117-1822-0
  • Heimdahl, William C., and Hurley, Alfred F., "The Roots of U.S. Military Aviation," Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force Vol. I (1997), ISBN 0-16-049009-X
  • "2005 Almanac," Air Force Magazine, May 2005, Vol. 88, No. 5, the Air Force Association, Arlington, Virginia