Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation through World War I

Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation through World War I

Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation through World War I

Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation through World War I

Synopsis

At the start of the twentieth century the United States led the world in advances in aviation, with the first successful engine-powered flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and Dayton, Ohio, beginning in 1903. Fifteen years later, however, American airmen flew European-designed aircraft because American planes were woefully inadequate for service on the Western Front. Why was the United States so poorly prepared to engage in aerial combat in World War I?

To answer this question, Herbert Johnson takes a hard look at the early years of U.S. military aviation, exploring the cultural, technical, political, and organizational factors that stunted its evolution. Among the recurring themes of Johnson's narrative are the damaging effects of a chronic lack of governmental funding for military aeronautics and the disruptive influence of a civilian "aeronaut constituency" both on military discipline and on public and Congressional attitudes toward army aviation. In addition, the Wright brothers' patent litigation hindered the technical development of American aircraft and crippled the domestic aviation industry's manufacturing capacity. Wartime experience helped correct some of these problems, but the persistence of others left the postwar Air Service with an uncertain and stormy future.

Excerpt

In the early 1970s the United States Air Force launched a campaign to increase efficiency and the quality of performance in regard to both personnel and equipment. The upbeat name assigned to the effort was "Zero Defects." While mankind has always been intrigued with the idea of achieving perfection, most close observers of human nature and mechanical functions would point out that "Zero Defects" may be an inspiring goal, but it is rarely, if ever, attained. "Zero Defects" in a military environment can be self‐ defeating. It is one thing to make a mistake; it is worse to refuse to admit that what has been done actually was an error. History may not repeat itself, but those who refuse to learn from the past are bound to appear foolish.

The early history of the United States Army's aviation has suffered from a "Zero Defects" mentality, and virtually all studies to date have ignored a very basic question: why was the United States so poorly prepared, in equipment and personnel, to engage in aerial combat in World War I? While foreign inventors were not far behind the Wright brothers in 1903, the fact remains that the first successful powered flights were made at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and Dayton, Ohio. Yet American airmen in the First World War flew European-designed aircraft because American products were woefully inadequate for service on the Western Front. American airframe manufacture had not evolved to permit assembly-line production. Postwar investigations of the shortcomings of the Aircraft Production Board provided grim proof that American industry was never capable of carrying out President Woodrow Wilson's ill-advised commitment to deliver a vast number of war planes to the Allied powers.

The situation in regard to World War I flying personnel was even more depressing, but it, too, has been shielded from historical recall. Lack of scholarly discussion may well be due to a wish to venerate the memory of the brave army aviators who pioneered military aeronautics during its first fif-

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