A Tribute to the First Military Pilot


In 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act, which established a new organization of defense. The law went into effect on 18 September 1947 and created the Air Force as an independent branch of the U.S. military. As a service founded in seeking, maintaining, and exploiting technological advantages, reflections on this year’s 69th birthday of the Air Force naturally gravitates toward all of the planes, equipment, and widgets that adorned the service over the years. But it’s really about the people behind, in, and out in front of that equipment that has made all the difference. I offer the following as an insightful tribute to these people by exploring just one person: the first military pilot.

On April 21, 1911, War Department Special Order 95 assigned two Army second lieutenants to “aeronautical duty with the Signal Corps…to proceed to Dayton, Ohio, for the purpose of undergoing a course of instruction in operating the Wright airplane.” Until that time, being a pilot in the Signal Corps meant you “flew” a balloon. The following month, Lieutenant Thomas D. Milling and another lieutenant joined three civilians and a Navy lieutenant to start pilot training. They trained with the Wright brothers and a core of test pilots. Since they were the initial cadre of military pilots, they also had to learn how the planes were built and maintained, as a cohort of military mechanics and ground crews had yet to be formed.

On July 6, 1911, the two new pilots were granted Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) pilot certificates No. 29 and No. 30. Their next assignment: Teach. The two lieutenants were sent to College Park, Maryland to the U.S. Signal Corps Aeronautical Division, where they opened the first military pilot training class. Their first students were their commander, Capt. Charles Chandler, and his adjutant, 1st Lt. Roy Kirtland, who were both balloon pilots. Kirtland was the one who submitted the initial recommendation for airplane training for a friend and Army classmate of Milling. Unfortunately, this to-be-named airman experienced the first of several crashes a short time later, in August of 1911.

Less than a year after this crash, amid a growing military aviation movement, the Army decided to create a military aviator rating. The requirements were first published 20 April 1912 and included the following stipulations:

  • Attain an altitude of at least 2,500 feet.
  • Pilot an aircraft for at least five minutes in a wind of at least 15 miles per hour.
  • Carry a passenger to an altitude of 500 feet, with a combined weight of pilot and passenger of 250 pounds or more, and make a dead stick landing to within 150 feet of a designated point.
  • Make a military reconnaissance flight of at least 20 miles cross-country at an average altitude of 1,500 feet.

On July 5, 1912, the first Military Aviator Certificates were issued. Milling must have been had a slight feeling of redemption when he and his yet-to-be-revealed friend were both issued the newly created military pilot certificates. A year earlier, Milling had been granted FAI pilot certificate No. 30, directly after his classmate. With the roles now reversed, Milling was issued Military Aviator Certificate No. 1, and his squadron-mate received certificate No. 2.

Unfortunately, Milling’s friend and fellow aviator had two more near-fatal crashes in the same year and developed a fear of flying. He grounded himself and took a leave of absence from aviation. In 1913, he married, with Milling presiding as his best man. The former pilot left aviation, returning to the infantry with an assignment in the Philippines. There he became good friends with his new roommate, a sharp Army infantry lieutenant with a bright future named George Marshall.

1913 Military Aviator Badge

However, before he left aviation for the Philippines, this former pilot would become part of history. On May 27, 1913, War Department General Order No. 39 certified 24 officers as “qualified” pilots and authorized issuance of a certificate and a yet-to-be created badge. Beyond the airman that had been recently re-assigned to the infantry, this group included his friend Milling and his commander Chandler (the first rated military pilot and the first airplane squadron commander, respectively). The newly created military aviator badge was fashioned after other Army badges in that it hung below the ribbons when worn. It featured a bar embossed with “Military Aviator” that suspended an eagle holding Signal Corps flags in its talons.

In 1916, after a three-year hiatus in the infantry, our mystery aviator was contacted by the executive office of Signal Corps’ Aviation Section with an offer he couldn’t refuse: return to flying duties and get promoted to Captain. This executive officer, Major Billy Mitchell, also offered a consolation prize of a ground job (but with no promotion) if this airman could not get over his fear of flying. By the end of the year, the airman was flying again and slowly conquered his fear. He went on to take multiple aviation assignments and rose to the rank of colonel by 1917, back to captain in 1920 after World War I ended, then the following month was promoted to major. The first military pilot would retain this rank for the next 11 years.

During World War I, he tried numerous times to be sent overseas to join the fight. He worked on some sketches for a new aviator insignia that sought to break away from the Army’s badge heritage. In August 1917, his design was incorporated into an embroidered patch — pilot wings were born. Finally, this mysterious aviator managed to get assigned to a unit in Europe. Unfortunately, he arrived in theater on November 11, 1918 — the same day as the signing of the armistice agreement that signaled the end of the war. He oversaw the demobilization of aviation units with the help of his new executive officer, Captain Carl A. Spaatz.

Later that year, the Army Air Service was established, and another new rating badge was created. Sculptor Herbert Adams’ design built on the embroidered wing patch from our unnamed aviator and simply changed the center to a shield design, which was approved in January of 1919. By 1921, the policy was modified to permit the wear of 3.125-inch badges made of oxidized silver.

In 1925, when his mentor Billy Mitchell was court-martialed for his radical views of airpower, this aviator and his former executive officer, Spaatz, were among the few witnesses who testified on his behalf. His support for Mitchell came with a near-court martial of his own and a fitness report that stated “in an emergency he is liable to lose his head.” Years later he named the B-25 bomber the “Mitchell” in honor of his late mentor — the only American airplane named after a person. His relentless passion for airpower endured.

In time, this mystery airman rose to become the Chief of the Air Corps. While he often got along with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and they agreed on the future of airpower, they disagreed with the policy of prioritizing the delivery of airplanes to Britain instead of building U.S. air forces. He was almost fired numerous times by Roosevelt, had his promotions personally withheld, and even endured an eight-month ban from the White House. He eventually won Roosevelt over and on June 20, 1941, a law was passed that created the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). This airman’s job title changed, and he became the first chief of this body.

Who would have thought that this mystery airman’s former roommate in the Philippines would be at his side in front of the president nearly 30 years later, running a war? His old Army roommate was now the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General George Marshall. Around this time, another one of this airman’s life-long friends, the former adjutant that first wrote the recommendation to pilot training, died. In honor of his friend, Roy Kirtland, this airman renamed Albuquerque Army Air Base to Kirtland Army Air Field (now known as Kirtland Air Force Base).

By 1943, the stress of running both the U.S. Army Air Forces and the war with 2.4 million personnel and nearly 80,000 aircraft was too much and he had a heart attack. Roosevelt personally waived the mandatory medical retirement requirement and let him continue to serve. A short time later he had another. And another. Then another. From 1943 to 1945, this airman suffered four heart attacks and yet continued to diligently serve. During this time, he was appointed a five-star General of the Army, placing him fourth in Army rank succession behind Generals Marshall, MacArthur, and Eisenhower.

After World War II, with more heart problems, he finally retired and was succeeded by his former executive from decades earlier, Carl Spaatz. The following year, on September 18, 1947, when a separate branch was established, Spaatz became first Chief of Staff of the Air Force. During the writing of his autobiography, this prominent airman experienced his fifth and most life-threatening heart attack.

This man’s name: Henry “Hap” Arnold. To fully capture the influence he had on airpower and technology development is simply impossible today. He served during all of the formative years of aviation: the Aeronautical Section, Signal Corps (1909); Aviation Section, Signal Corps (1914); United States Army Air Service (1918); United States Army Air Corps (1926), and United States Army Air Forces (1941). He realized that technology begets capability, which fueled a plethora of leading-edge research and design efforts such as the long-range B-29, the creation of the Scientific Advisory Board, and the establishment of RAND. He has been granted ten honorary doctorates from prestigious universities, as well as an amazing 26 decorations and awards just from foreign countries honoring his service in World War II. He is also the only person to hold a five-star general rank in two U.S. military services. On May 7, 1949 Public Law 58-81 changed the designation of his final rank and grade to that of “General of the Air Force,” and he remains the only person to have the title. Unfortunately, his health continued to decline and he died less than a year later, on January 15, 1950.

Despite his accolades, achievements, and visionary thinking, Hap Arnold never forgot his heritage. He never stopped wearing his original Army Aviator Badge and it can be seen in virtually every photo of him, proudly hanging under his ribbons. And he passed on his lineage, which is now today’s heritage: His pilot wings that he wore along with this army badge are the same wings worn by Air Force pilots today.

Happy 69th Birthday, United States Air Force.


Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

Image: College Park Aviation Museum

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