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American Aviation: The U.S. Army Air Service

The U.S. Army had just 35 pilots when it joined the war, all in the Signal Corps. It began an intensive program to recruit and train pilots and support personnel.

The first U.S. aviation squadron entered combat in February 1918, manned mostly by pilots who had previously volunteered with the French. American-trained squadrons soon joined the fighting, and on May 24, the Air Service of the U.S. Army was officially formed.

Most American aviators flew French planes, since U.S. aircraft production was still ramping up. Training was hazardous, causing twice as many deaths as combat. In addition, brand new U.S. pilots faced experienced German foes, resulting in heavy early losses.

Despite these challenges, American pilots steadily improved. 71 pilots shot down at least five aircraft, earning “ace” status. Former race car driver Eddie Rickenbacker led all Americans with 26 victories. U.S. aviation helped beat back the German Spring Offensives, and helped control the skies in the final Allied offensives of the war.

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