Today, we invent the Air Force.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Here's a remarkable photo. It shows the entire Air
Force in flight, all at once. Well, not really the Air Force -- not yet.
The photo was taken in 1911 at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
Congress had just appropriated $125,000 to buy five aeroplanes for scout
service with the Signal Corp. Now three have arrived: first two
Wright biplanes, then one made by Curtiss.
Another technology had also come into being -- panoramic photography.
Pioneer, Eugene Goldbeck, made this amazing photo
of the three aeroplanes, spread out over the entire encampment. At first
glance, they might be gulls, wheeling through the overcast sky.
A small flying school was hastily formed around these machines. Naturally,
the new trainees were drawn toward the newest one -- the tricky
Curtiss Type IV pusher.
It didn't handle at all like the two-seat Wright aeroplane, and it had only
one seat. You had to solo the very first time you left the ground.
One of the trainees was George Kelly. Born in London, Kelly had immigrated
to the US and was now a 33-year-old officer, who'd come up through the ranks.
He'd just done a tour in the Philippines, and his next station was San Francisco.
There he had the opportunity to ride a hot air balloon, and he was hooked. He'd
managed to get himself into the new Texas flight program.
The Curtiss plane had already crashed, leaving its pilot wandering through the
bushes with a concussion. He was found clutch-ing the control wheel and wondering
where he was. Kelley was first to fly the plane when it was rebuilt. He hit hard
in his landing, bounced up, and circled back. Another hard landing on the second
try. This time the plane bounced and banked out of control. A wingtip hit the
ground and Kelly cartwheeled to his death.
So Kelly achieved dubious immortality as the first military aviator to die in
flight. Post commander, General Carter, fed up with the recklessness going on
in the sky above his post, threw the airplanes out. For the next four years,
the airplanes wandered like Ishmael. They spent time in Maryland and Georgia.
Then Carter invited them back to do scout work in the brewing border conflicts
with Mexico. But the conflict cooled. Now the homeless airplanes moved about
Texas and Oklahoma. In 1915, they found themselves right back in Fort Sam Houston.
A year later, now flying Curtiss Jennies, the air service was used against the
Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa. The Jennies did very poorly in the high
mountain altitudes. In the end every one was lost to various mechanical failures.
But failure is deceptive. Congress now provided thirteen million dollars for new
and better equipment -- and for a real home. The Army found a spot on the other
side of San Antonio, and named it after that star-crossed lieutenant. And that
is how, in 1917, construction of Kelly Field, the first Army air base, came about.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The Goldbeck photo is reproduced in stunning book, which I highly recommend:
C. W. Burleson, and E. J. Hickman, The Panoramic Photography of Eugene O.
Goldbeck. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
A History of Military Aviation in San Antonio. Private publication by
Air Force historians, September 1996. (details given at
I am most grateful to Jerry Rogers, UH Civil Engineer, for providing the latter source.
Click on the thumbnail above to see a large version of the Goldbeck photo.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.