aviation comes of age
the creation of NACA
the development of air power
advocates of strategic bombing
Billy Mitchell and the bomber
the U.S. Air Corps
the start of air mail
the growth of airlines
Imperial Airways
the flying boats
the clipper ships
  a Russian experiment


Creation of the U.S. Air Corps

Mason Patrick.

As military aviation struggled to find its place in the period between the world wars, budget restraints, disorganization, and politics almost destroyed the fledgling Air Service. Though air power’s leading advocates attempted to promote it, they were often brash and inept and sometime did more harm than good. It was only through the service of an experienced military man, Mason Patrick, that the Air Service survived during a time of massive military cuts and took the first official steps toward an independent aviation branch.

Born during the American Civil War, Patrick was the son of a Confederate surgeon. He graduated second in his West Point class of 1886, which also included future military leaders John J. Pershing and Charles T. Menoher. Upon graduation, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1916, as a colonel, he led the First Regiment of Engineers in the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico and when America entered the World War in 1917, he was sent to Europe as a brigadier general overseeing the construction of the ports, railroads, depots, and airfields needed to support the American Expeditionary Forces.

Patrick’s wartime career as an engineer ended on May 10, 1918, when his old classmate Jack Pershing asked him to assume command of the Air Service. Feeling that personality clashes among its leadership were hurting the Air Service’s effectiveness, Pershing sought Patrick’s exceptional organizational and administrative skills to "whip it into shape." Despite reservations, Patrick accepted the position. He instituted realistic plans and discipline to the unit and by the end of the war, the Air Service had become efficient and well run. Patrick then oversaw the demobilization of the combat Air Service units and returned to the Corps of Engineers, planning to spend his last few years until retirement as commander of the army’s engineering school.

But by 1921, the Air Service had fallen into disarray again. With the decrease in defence spending after the war, the Air Service’s budget had been cut by 60 percent between 1919 and 1921. At the end of the war, it had counted almost 2,219 officers, but by 1921, only 950 remained. Billy Mitchell was staging bombing tests against naval targets to prove that aviation deserved a larger share of the military budget, but his public crusading was doing more to damage the cause than further it. Because Air Service Chief Charles T. Menoher was unable to manage Mitchell, Menoher was asked to resign. The War Department then turned to Patrick, who seemed to be the only army officer who could manage Mitchell. He was assigned to "come in and shake the foolishness out of this new service and sit on the lid."

On arrival, Patrick studied the Air Service’s operations. He quickly understood the degree to which budget cuts were destroying the service’s ability to fulfil its mission. During 1923 congressional budget hearings, Patrick said that the budget cuts had left an Air Service that was "practically demobilized and unable to play its part in any national emergency with its present inadequate strength and organization." The Air Service had too few pilots flying too few outdated airplanes. World War I surplus planes still formed the base of the Air Service, and most of these were not well maintained--in 1922, the Air Service counted 3,369 planes, but only 910 were usable. With the rapid improvements in aircraft design, even these planes were obsolete, and would be liabilities if they had to go into combat. Patrick fought to increase the Air Service’s size, adding personnel, especially trained pilots, and building up the supply of equipment. This would ensure that the Air Service would be able to enter combat on the first day of war to gain air superiority and maintain it.

Patrick knew he had to learn to fly in order to gain the respect of his men. So, at the age of 59, he earned his pilots license. He flew whenever possible to demonstrate his confidence in the Air Service’s equipment and personnel. And although in 1920, he had spoken out publicly against an independent air service, he began changing his mind after he took over the Air Service. As an experienced military man, he knew that while the principles of war never change, the weapons do. He learned about the theories of aerial warfare and studied the results of World War I. He realized that airplanes were most effective when used for offense. He began to embrace the theory that military aviation could be divided into two areas: air service (attached to ground units, performing tasks such as reconnaissance and artillery targeting) and air force (pursuit, bombardment, and other units devoted to offensive purposes). Because air force activity did not depend on coordination with ground units, Patrick felt there was no reason it had to be part of the army. This theory became the backbone of his campaign for an independent air service.

Patrick encouraged his senior staff to lobby for independence. He wrote articles aimed at military personnel and lectured at the War and Staff Colleges. But he was also realistic and knew that he needed to build successes gradually within the system without alienating anyone. He used his experience and political acumen to slowly lobby and work toward independence.

Unfortunately, Patrick’s staff did not always understand the need for tact and diplomacy. Billy Mitchell continued to provoke the General Staff, despite Patrick’s efforts to protect him. From 1921 to 1924, he was sent on fact-finding missions, and from there he was assigned to a base in Texas. When Mitchell was finally court-martialled, there was nothing Patrick could do to help him without damaging his own crusade for independence. Yet, he did order his executive assistant, Ira Eaker, to provide Mitchell’s defence team with any Air Service files it might need.

Patrick introduced a carefully crafted bill in January 1926 that would give the Air Service limited autonomy, similar to the Marine Corps. After many changes and much debate, the Army Air Corps Act of 1926 was passed in June. The Air Service was now the Air Corps, the name change reflecting its new independence. Personnel were increased, with 90 percent of all officers required to be pilots. A five-year expansion plan for personnel and equipment was created. And the contracting system was revised, allowing for better collaboration between the Corps and industry.

Many officers wanted to hold out for total independence and found the Air Corps Act unsatisfactory. But in Patrick’s eyes, it was a success. It addressed many of the problems that he had been trying to correct, especially in terms of personnel. He knew that this was the first step toward autonomy. The future of an independent air branch was now ensured.

General Patrick retired the next year. He had led American military aviation through its most controversial years, lending his wisdom, leadership, and organizational and managerial experience to provide structure and focus. He called his years of service "the most strenuous, most interesting years" of his life. Since his retirement, Patrick’s service has been obscured by flashier personalities such as Billy Mitchell or Benjamin Foulois. Even the air force base named after him in Florida has been overshadowed by the adjacent NASA facility, Cape Canaveral. But it was Patrick’s calm and political acumen that brought military aviation through its brash adolescence into independent adulthood.