When the storm engulfing Europe burst over America in April 1917, the United States was ill-prepared to meet the challenge that confronted it. The Aviation Section of the Signal Corps was no exception, with a handful of planes--none fit for combat--and only three dozen or so pilots. Overnight the demand for planes and skilled pilots multiplied several hundred times. To meet these demands, over the next nineteen months the U.S. Army constructed a vast network of ground installations across the nation to train the thousands of pilots, bombardiers, gunners, observers, and mechanics, and to manufacture, test, repair, overhaul, and outfit large numbers of aircraft. As one writer later observed, "Training stations sprung up like mushrooms during the hectic war training period." 1 This rapid expansion notwithstanding, the selection, acquisition, and development of aviation fields during the war was not without delays and false starts. Speed and efficiency depended on plans, and few plans existed for developing ground facilities when Congress declared war.
The predominant theme during the early war months was the urgent need for American forces, especially pilots and aircraft, to reach the Western Front and turn the tide of battle. Behind these needs were demands from America's new allies for assistance and the desire of the American people to take an active and significant role in the war. Within a few weeks after America entered the war, Allied commissions arrived in the United States. Arthur J. Balfour, representing Great Britain, and General Joseph Joffre and M. Rene Viviana, representing France, came to explain the types of aid most urgently needed and to offer advice on the American armament program. Between attending public functions, reviewing troops, and speaking to the National Press Club, members of the two commissions advised the War Department on setting up training facilities and flying fields, made arrangements for training the first ten squadrons of American flyers at British training fields, and reached agreement on the use of Canadian training fields for American flyers. Under terms of the latter agreement, Canadian aviators would use fields in the southern United States during winter months when Canadian fields were closed. In return, American aviators would train at Canadian fields. Finally, late in May, President Wilson received a cable from Premier Alexandre Ribot of France. Ribot proposed that 4,500 American aircraft,