Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps

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The Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps, was the name of the military aviation service of the United States Army from 1914 to 1918, and a direct ancestor of the United States Air Force. It replaced the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps and was succeeded briefly by the Division of Military Aeronautics, Secretary of War, and then the U.S. Army Air Service.

Lineage of the United States Air Force[edit]


The Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps was created by Congress (38 Stat. 514) on July 18th, 1914, to replace the Aeronautical Division after earlier legislation to make the aviation service independent from the Signal Corps died in committee. The new law authorized a significant increase in size of U.S. military aviation to 60 officers and 260 enlisted men, but stipulated that most be volunteers from other branches of the Army than the Signal Corps, which by regulation limited their time of service away from their regular units to four years. The first funding appropriation for the Aviation Section was $250,000 for Fiscal year 1915.

At the time of its conversion to the Aviation Section, much of the air service was in Texas for the second time in three years, training to support Army ground forces in a possible war with Mexico over the Tampico Affair. The impending war was defused by the resignation of Victoriano Huerta four days before the Aviation Section came into being. The Aviation Section returned from San Diego, California, in April, 1915, when the Army massed around Brownsville, Texas, in response to civil war between the forces of Pancho Villa and the Carranza government. By December the Aviation Section consisted of 44 officers, 224 enlisted men, and 23 aircraft.

Following Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9th, 1916, the 1st Aero Squadron, commanded by Capt. Benjamin Foulois, was attached to General Pershing's Punitive Expedition. Using eight Curtiss JN-3s, a 90-horsepower biplane, the squadron flew aerial reconnaissance and liaison missions, but the airplane did not have sufficient power to fly over the Sierra Madre Mountains nor did it perform well in the turbulence of its passes. The planes could not be maintained and after just thirty days service only two were left. Congress voted the Aviation Section an emergency appropriation of $500,000 (twice its previous budget), and although four new Curtiss N-8s were sent to Mexico, they too proved inadequate to the mission and ultimately became training aircraft in San Diego.

The War Department came under severe criticism, particularly Major Billy Mitchell, acting head of the Aviation Section while its chief was in Mexico. Mitchell defended the service, insisting that the U.S. firms did not produce better aircraft, but the outcry produced several long-term results, including instructing Mitchell in political tactics for which he was later court-martialed. A new agency was also created within the Aviation Section, the Technical Advisory and Inspection Board, headed by Captain Thomas D. Milling, and staffed by pilots who had attended engineering course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and civilian engineers, including Donald Douglas. The Board recommended a new squadron be equipped with Curtiss R-2s, using a 160-horsepower engine, but by the time they arrived in Mexico, operations were ending. In any event the aircraft were little better than their predecessors.

National Defense Act of 1916[edit]

The Aviation Section reorganized with the inclusion of an Aeronautical Division, November 4, 1915, to supervise all flying and training operations. On June 3, 1916, in anticipation of possible U.S. entry in the war in Europe, Congress adopted the National Defense Act (39 Stat. 174), provisions of which increased the size of the Aviation Section to 148 officers, allowed the President to determine the size of the enlisted complement, and established the first reserve components for aviation, the Signal Officers Reserve Corps (297 officers) and The Signal Enlisted Reserve Corps (2,000 men). On August 29 Congress followed with an appropriations bill that allocated $13,000,000 (more than 17 times the previous combined allocation) to the military aeronautics in both the Signal Corps and National Guard. By December 7, 1916, the force still consisted of a total of only 503 personnel.

The Aviation Section's poor showing in Mexico also showed that the U.S. aviation industry was not competitive in any respect with European aircraft manufacturers. No American-manufactured airplane had a vital function, none were mounted with weapons, and all were markedly inferior in speed and other performance characteristics. Further, U.S. companies were distracted by protracted legal battles and in-fighting over licenses and royalties while their European counterparts had been energized by the needs of the battlefield.

The Aviation Act (40 Stat. 243), passed July 24, 1917, authorized the transfer of aviation support functions from the Aviation Section to newly established organizations within the Office of Chief Signal Officer (OCSO). Procurement of aviation supplies went to a new Engineering Division effective April 6, 1917. The construction and maintenance of airfields became the province of the Construction Division on May 21, renamed the Supply Division on October 1. On January 24, 1918, the Supply Division created a subordinate Material Section to take on the responsibility for procurement from the Engineering Division. Research and design of airplanes was assigned to the Aircraft Engineering Division on May 24, 1917, redesignated Science and Research Division on October 22. Lumber contracts for materials to build airplanes were the responsibility of the Spruce Production Division, November 15, 1917.

In its final year as a component of the Signal Corps, from April 1917 to May 1918, the Aviation Section developed into parallel air forces. At the time of the declaration of war on Germany by the United States in April, 1917, the Aviation Section consisted of 65 officers, 1,087 enlisted men, and 55 airplanes (all trainers). Of its seven official squadrons, the 1st was in the United States, the 2nd in the Philippines, the 7th was training to be deployed to the Panama Canal Zone, the 6th was newly formed in Hawaii, and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th were not yet formed.

In the United States the Aviation Section was nearly overwhelmed with the problems of rapid expansion to fight a modern war---the recruitment and training of pilots and mechanics, the production of airplanes, the formation and equipping of combat units, and the acquisition of air bases---while overseas a second force developed as part of the American Expeditionary Force, absorbing most of the experienced leadership of military aviation and taking over much of the expansion responsibilities except aircraft production. This second force, the Air Service of the AEF, used European-built aircraft and training facilities and forced the separation of aviation from the Signal Corps.

Part of this separation occurred when the Aviation Section failed in its most pressing need, the production of new airplanes. Under pressure from the French, the Wilson administration set up a production plan to develop a force of 6,000 pursuit planes; 3,000 observation craft; and 2,000 bombers, a ratio established by General John Pershing. Despite pronounced resistance from the Army general staff, $640,000,000 was funded by Congress to meet this goal (45 times the budget of the preceding year) when Brig. Gen. George O. Squier, Chief Signal Officer and former head of the Aviation Section, appealed directly to the Secretary of War.

An Aircraft Production Board was set up under the chairmanship of an automobile manufacturer, Howard Coffin of the Hudson Motor Car Company, but the airplane of World War I was not suitable to the mass-production methods of automobile manufacturing and Coffin neglected the priority of mass-producing spare parts. Though individual areas within the industry responded well---particularly in engine production, with the development of the Liberty engine, of which 13,500 were produced---the industry as a whole failed. Attempts to mass-produce European models under license in the U.S. were largely failures. Among pursuit planes, the Spad could not be engineered to accept an American engine and the Bristol F.2 became dangerous to fly using one.

Because of this failure, President Wilson determined that the Chief Signal Officer was too overburdened by tasks to supervise the Aviation Section and removed it from the Signal Corps. An interim organization, the Division of Military Aeronautics, was established reporting directly to the Secretary of War on May 24, 1918, replacing the Aviation Section. As the administrative headquarters of the air force, however, the Division only lasted four days, and was itself subordinated to the new Army Air Service, created May 24, 1918.

Chiefs of the Aviation Section[edit]


  • Bowman, Martin W., "Background to War", USAAF Handbook 1939-1945, ISBN 0-8117-1822-0
  • Heimdahl, William C., and Hurley, Alfred F., "The Roots of U.S. Military Aviation," Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force Vol. I (1997), ISBN 0-16-049009-X
  • Mortenson, Daniel R., "The Air Service in the Great War," Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force Vol. I (1997), ISBN 0-16-049009-X
  • "2005 Almanac," Air Force Magazine, May 2005, Vol. 88, No. 5, the Air Force Association, Arlington, Virginia
  • Army Air Forces Statistical Digest (World War II) (Table 3, "AAF Military personnel--number and percent of US Army strength")

See also[edit]

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