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July 1917 - Building the US Air Service for action in WWI

By Patrick Gregory
via the Centenary News web site

When Woodrow Wilson signed legislation on 24 July 1917 earmarking $640 million for expenditure on US military aviation, it was the largest amount of money ever appropriated for a single purpose by Congress up to that time. But as Patrick Gregory explains the move marked a necessary effort to rebuild an air service, almost from scratch.

NieuportFrench Nieuport 15 plane at Bouy aerodrome, Bouy, Châlons-en-Champagne, June 1917 - later used in training by the US Air Service (Photo courtesy of Kimber Literary Estate)The extraordinarily large amount of money which Congress and President pledged to the Aviation Section in July 1917 – only one branch of the country’s armed forces, and a nascent one at that – marked an acknowledgment by the American authorities of the size and scale of the task faced by the service. It was time to catch up, they realised, and fast.


The air service had found itself chronically underprepared and under-resourced at the outbreak of war, with few pilots and fewer planes. It could boast only 131 officers, chiefly pilots and student pilots out of an enlisted staff of 1087 men. Of those 131 only 26 were deemed fully trained. Worse still, no one serving had had proper combat experience. The groundwork had not been laid, or preparation made, and the Air Service now faced a steep development curve. Having been pioneers of aviation only a decade previously, America now lagged a long way behind the rival, experienced Great War combatants fighting in the skies over Europe.

Part of the problem encountered by the air service stemmed from its curious origin within the military firmament. Still a junior member of the armed forces, and officially only an adjunct of the Signal Corps, it needed to carve out a place for itself in Washington as well as stake a real claim in Pershing’s plans for his American Expeditionary Force.

Even the name of the junior partner changed from one minute to the next, a clue to its uncertain status. It was known by a variety of titles by different parts of government and the armed forces: the 'Aviation Section', the' Aeronautical Division', the 'Airplane Division', the 'Air Division'. All were terms used to describe what was still officially the 'Aviation Section of the Signal Corps'. Only in time would it evolve into its longer lasting title of 'U.S. Air Service', yet even that soubriquet only really began to come into common usage in France in the autumn of 1917.

Read the entire article on the Centenary News web site here:

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