(W)Archives: Amazing Images from the Birth of the Military Aviation Age

September 19, 2014

Americans are an optimistic lot, and we love our toys. This is as true of the U.S. military as it is of society in general.

Consider the early history of the airplane. In December 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the world’s maiden flight at Kitty Hawk. In 1907, the U.S. Army’s Chief Signal Officer created a new Aeronautical Division within the Signal Corps. The division was responsible for balloons and airplanes, and in September 1908, it began flight testing airplanes with the Wright brothers at Fort Myer in Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum has some wonderful photographs of those trials that took place over a couple of weeks nearly a century ago. In one, we see Orville Wright apparently directing the towing of a Wright Company Type A biplane on a road near Fort Myer. Another photograph shows the plane up close and brings home how fragile it really is. In other photographs (here and here), we see the plane in flight. Then, the seemingly inevitable denouement and the first U.S. military fatality from a plane crash, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge.

Despite the fact that at this time, airplanes were made primarily of cloth and wood and could barely stay aloft even without anyone shooting at them, U.S. Army officers were bullish on their potential. In 1907, a year before the Fort Myer trials, Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois, who would twice serve as General John J. Pershing’s chief of aviation, predicted in his graduating thesis for the Army Signal School that future wars would start with a battle for air superiority which might be dispositive of the entire conflict because the victor in the air would “have no difficulty in watching every movement and disposition” of the enemy’s ground forces. Another officer who saw things similarly was Lieutenant Henry H. “Hap” Arnold (later the head of the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II). He wrote in Infantry Journal in 1913 that because of aircraft, turning movements on the ground could now only rarely be successful, and that the enemy’s maneuvers would “appear like the movements in a map problem.”

These pioneers were quite right when they saw great military potential in the aircraft. However, Foulois, Arnold and many others like them were wrong in predicting that the fog of war could be lifted. This tendency toward overselling a good product has often been repeated within the U.S. military.

So, the next time you hear a military technologist making grandiose claims about how some new tool will utterly change the nature of war and provide an insurmountable advantage, discount the claims by 50%, and then consider them possible.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligenceat Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.