Benny Foulois’s name may not be as familiar to many Americans as other airpower greats such as Hap Arnold, Jimmy Doolittle, Billy Mitchell, or Tooey Spaatz, but it should be. Foulois was not only the Army’s first pilot but also a vital component of the early fight to establish an independent air force.
Born Dec. 9, 1879, in Washington, Conn., Benjamin Delahauf Foulois had completed 11 years in a one-room schoolhouse when he was given a choice of continuing his education or entering the family plumbing business. He chose the latter, but when the Spanish–American War loomed, he enlisted, on July 7, 1898, in the 1st United States Volunteer Engineers.
Six months later, when the engineers mustered him out as a sergeant, Foulois enlisted in the Regular Army infantry. He participated in intense jungle fighting in the Philippines, became first sergeant of his unit, and, to his surprise, received orders to take the examination for a commission.
On July 9, 1901, the Army made him a second lieutenant—launching a career in which Foulois would pit his intelligence, daring, and integrity against any odds.
His first brush with flying machines came when he flew the airship, Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1, after its August 1908 acceptance tests at Ft. Myer, Va. Once the dirigible had passed its flight tests, Foulois was checked out to pilot the craft after just a few takeoffs and landings, gaining distinction as the Army’s first pilot. While he was at Ft. Myer, though, Foulois watched Orville Wright demonstrate his Military Flyer and became convinced that the future belonged to the airplane.
Foulois’s presence at Ft. Myer was no accident. In 1908, he graduated from Signal Corps school with a radical thesis entitled “The Tactical and Strategical Value of Dirigible Balloons and Aerodynamical Flying Machines.” In it he predicted engagements between hostile aerial fleets, a struggle for air supremacy, the replacement of the horse by the airplane in reconnaissance, and wireless air-to-ground communications that included the transmission of photographs. The staff of the chief signal officer read the thesis and selected Foulois for the aeronautical board designated to conduct the 1908 airship and airplane trials.
Despite the Sept. 17, 1908, crash of the Military Flyer that killed 1st Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge and severely injured Orville Wright, Foulois was committed to aviation and continued flying and teaching in Dirigible No. 1, even though he had misgivings about its efficiency. The following year, when Orville and Wilbur Wright returned to Ft. Myer, Foulois gained their respect by donning coveralls, getting his hands dirty, and asking intelligent questions.
The Army selected Foulois to accompany Orville, on July 30, 1909, as an observer on the final and most important qualifying flight. In his memoirs, Foulois jokingly stated that he liked to think he was chosen on the basis of intellectual and technical ability, but he realized later that it was his 5-foot-6-inch stature, light 126-pound weight, and map-reading ability that turned the trick.
Orville and Foulois flew the course at a sizzling average 42.5 mph and climbed to 400 feet. The Army purchased the Wright Model A, Serial No. 1, their Military Flyer. It became Signal Corps Aeroplane No. 1.
Foulois’s goal had been to learn to pilot the aircraft from the Wright brothers; instead the Army sent him to attend an aviation congress in Europe. In actuality, it was a knuckle-rapping assignment because of an adverse recommendation he had made about dirigibles.
Shortly after his return from Europe, Foulois received about 54 minutes of flying instruction from Wilbur Wright, not enough to solo. The Wrights had fulfilled their contract by teaching 1st Lt. Frank P. Lahm and 2nd Lt. Frederic E. Humphreys to fly. On Nov. 5, 1909, Lahm and Humphreys crashed Aeroplane No. 1. They were not hurt, but the Army returned them to their normal assignments. Foulois, though not fully trained, became the Army’s only pilot. With repairs made, he was told to transport the Military Flyer to Chicago for display, then to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio.
Correspondence School Pilot
Brig. Gen. James Allen, Army chief signal officer, told him to “take plenty of spare parts and teach yourself to fly.” He did exactly that and on March 2, 1910, during several flights, made his first takeoff, first solo, first landing, and first crash.
For repairs, the government appropriated $150—a gross underestimate. Foulois got help from Army craftsmen and used his own money to keep the Military Flyer airborne. He later called himself the first “correspondence school pilot,” for after each mishap, he would write to the Wrights to learn why it had occurred. In this long process the one-man air force invented the seatbelt and made a tricycle landing gear by bolting wheels from a farm cultivator to the
Flyer, thus freeing it from its catapult launches. To get attention for his new weapon, he buzzed his fellow officers’ tents and, on another occasion, horse artillery. Upon landing from that flight, he narrowly missed the tent of future General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.
Flying a Wright B aircraft, Foulois, within a few months, made the first official Army reconnaissance flight, established US records for weight carried and distance, and conducted the first practical use of the radio in reconnaissance missions. Over the next few years, he won his Military Aviator pilot rating and established an aviation center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. He also wrote to the chief signal officer, recommending against ill-considered legislation calling for the removal of aviation from the Signal Corps and creation of an “Aviation Corps” as part of the line of the Army. Other fliers also opposed the 1913 measure, which got nowhere. To the eternal thanks of fliers, Foulois successfully lobbied Congress for the radical concept of flying pay.
Then, as commander of the First Aero Squadron at the Signal Corps Aviation School in San Diego, he suffered through the terrible period when the adverse flying characteristics of the Wright and Curtiss pushers were killing students at a vicious rate. He recommended the Army scrap the pushers and go to tractor-type aircraft.
Pancho Villa’s March 9, 1916, raid on Columbus, N.M., presented Foulois and the First Aero Squadron, with its eight Curtiss JN-2s biplanes, with a major opportunity. On March 19, he led his squadron to Casas Grandes, 125 miles south of the Mexican border.
Unfortunately weather, terrain, inexperienced pilots, lack of maps, and no communications combined with the terrible shortcomings of the underpowered JN-2s (modified over time to be JN-3s) to pose unsolvable problems. Crashes and maintenance troubles steadily reduced their numbers until, by April 14, the First Aero Squadron was down to its last two aircraft. He begged the Army for new aircraft, parts, medicine, and food. When new aircraft at last arrived they were Curtiss R-2s, which Foulois promptly pronounced unsuitable for operations.
Despite all their difficulties, Foulois and his men did a great deal of scouting and maintained an aerial mail route for the Mexican Punitive Expedition troops—commanded by Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing. Foulois’s candid and comprehensive report on the operations, plus the support of Pershing and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, led to the first substantial US aviation appropriation—$13,281,666, approved by Congress on Aug. 29, 1916. It was not much, given that the major nations of Europe had been at war for two years and were employing large modern air forces, but it was a start.
The Army posted Foulois to work with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to draw up an aircraft production plan in the event the US entered the war. (It did on April 6, 1917.) Once the US was committed, French Premier Alexander Ribot sent a telegram requesting the United States form a flying corps of 4,500 aircraft, with 5,000 pilots and 50,000 mechanics. He wanted the US to produce 2,000 aircraft and 4,000 engines each month, so that 16,500 could be delivered in the first six months of 1918.
Foulois, now a major and chairman of the Joint Army and Navy Technical Aircraft Committee, performed what he later considered to be his greatest contribution to aviation. He had to transform Ribot’s request into detailed programs. Foulois estimated the number of student pilots required, located training fields, determined budgets, selected aircraft companies, and much more.
Once that was done, Foulois then had to sell the absolutely unprecedented program to the Army General Staff and Congress. He did it. Congress quickly passed a bill for $640 million, then the largest amount for a single purpose in American history. The President signed it on July 24, 1917, only eight weeks after the receipt of Ribot’s telegram. On that same day, Foulois was promoted to brigadier general. Pershing, now commander of the American Expeditionary Force, wanted Foulois to come to France immediately. However, Foulois asked for six months so he could oversee implementation of the production plan.
That was a tactical error. Lt. Col. Billy Mitchell, who had been in France since March 1917, became the premier US aviation representative there. Mitchell was promoted to colonel in August 1917. About three months later, Foulois arrived and officially took over as Chief of Air Service, American Expeditionary Force. It was not an easy transition.
Mitchell complained about an “incompetent lot of air warriors” who came in as “carpetbaggers.” Foulois ranted about Mitchell’s insubordination and ignorance of aviation matters, particularly logistics and training. (Mitchell had been given a Junior Military Aviator rating without taking the required exam.)
Ultimately, Pershing placed Maj. Gen. Mason M. Patrick over both Foulois and Mitchell, with orders to settle them down. As Patrick’s deputy, Foulois devoted himself to the technical and tactical training of American air units. Despite their disagreements, Foulois had recommended Mitchell for a combat assignment, instead of dispatching him back to the United States. With his successful conduct of combat operations, Mitchell emerged as a public figure, with many decorations and promotion to brigadier general. Foulois, on the other hand, received little acclaim for his invaluable work.
Demobilization and Demotion
After the war, the Army quickly demobilized the Air Service officer corps. Virtually all of those who remained reverted to their permanent ranks as a means to save money. When Foulois returned to the United States in 1919, he went from brigadier general to his permanent rank of captain in the Infantry and temporary rank as major in the Air Service. In contrast, Mitchell retained his rank as brigadier general and became assistant director of the Air Service, under Maj. Gen. Charles T. Menoher.
In October 1919, Foulois was called to testify before the Senate military affairs committee on a bill that was to have created a “Department of Aeronautics … and Administration of a United States Air Force.” He answered questions and left a 30,000-word statement in which he attacked the Army’s failure to build up the Air Service and the Navy’s efforts to tear it down. Foulois’s testimony was accurate but extremely impolitic. It antagonized his superiors in the War Department where many officers were not comfortable with him, a mustang up from the ranks. He also alienated the assistant secretary of the Navy, the up-and-coming Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Conscious that he was without friends in Washington, Foulois took the position of air attaché in Germany, arriving in May 1920 for a four-year tour. There, as everywhere, he did an excellent job, sending an enormous amount of technical material back to McCook Field, Ohio.
It was during this time that Mitchell began his fall from grace. Foulois and Mitchell were the vital components of the early fight to establish an independent air force. However, Foulois liked to work within the system, while Mitchell took his case directly to the press and public, ultimately leading to his court-martial in 1925 and resignation in February 1926.
Foulois returned from Germany and attended the Command and General Staff School at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., where he watched with mixed emotions as Maj. Gen. James E. Fechet became assistant to the Chief of the Air Service. Fechet was a cavalryman who learned to fly at 41. He served for 30 months as Patrick’s assistant deputy, before becoming Chief of the Air Corps in 1927. However, Fechet rightly gauged Foulois’s worth and picked him to become his assistant.
Working Toward Chief
Foulois traded lieutenant colonel oak leafs for brigadier general stars (he never held the rank of colonel) and began a campaign to prepare himself to become the Chief of Air Corps. Fechet helped by allowing Foulois great latitude in his work and giving him challenging assignments.
For instance, to learn about current logistics programs, ongoing research and development, and, most important, the cooperation between the Materiel Division and operational units, Foulois swapped jobs for a year with Brig. Gen. William E. Gilmore, becoming head of the Materiel Division at Wright Field, Ohio. However, it was the great Air Corps Coast Defense Exercises of May 1931 that gave Foulois the exposure he needed to cinch his elevation to Air Corps Chief.
During the exercise, Foulois led 672 aircraft—virtually every operational bomber, fighter, attack, and observation airplane in the Air Corps—on flights that included practice bomb runs over many cities, including New York and Boston, and finally en masse to Washington, D.C. Foulois, for once, received positive press attention, matched by accolades from the Secretary of War and the presentation of the Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year.
Foulois became Chief of Air Corps on Dec. 20, 1931. He was a flier’s flier, logging more flying time each year (much of it solo) than all but a handful of junior pilots in operational units. He enjoyed inspecting operational units and liked flying his personal Douglas O-38F to the inspection sites. He began work as Chief with goodwill and in his usual systematic fashion.
Foulois gave the task of creating future doctrine to his assistant chief, Brig. Gen. Oscar Westover, and the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Ala. He also charged Westover with formulating the plans that led to the establishment of the provisional General Headquarters Air Force, which was to have reconnaissance and bombardment as primary functions.
Foulois concentrated on research and development. He established requirements that led to Project A, the Boeing XB-15 long range bomber. He fostered a permissive atmosphere, urging major aviation firms to continue their own research. One result was that Boeing built upon its XB-15 work, proposing a four-engine B-17 prototype for the 1935 multiengine bomber competition.
Unfortunately Foulois’s positive efforts were swallowed up in what unfairly became known as the Airmail Fiasco. Because of alleged irregularities in their award, President Roosevelt instructed Postmaster General James A. Farley to cancel all airmail contracts. He ordered Foulois, who had said the Air Corps could take over, to begin airmail operations on Feb. 19, 1934. Foulois initially assigned 122 aircraft, 200 pilots (half of whom had less than two years of experience), and 340 enlisted personnel to handle the job. The operation began amidst predictions of disaster. Few Air Corps aircraft were equipped to fly under instrument conditions and a very small number of pilots were trained to do so. Most pilots were not even qualified to fly at night.
Despite Foulois’s emphasis on safe operations, there were 66 crashes and 12 fatalities while the Air Corps carried the mail. Part of the problem was the enthusiasm of young pilots who believed they were invulnerable and flew when they should have stayed on the ground. Morale remained high even through the losses and terrible working conditions. Most hangars became chilly, dirty dormitories, and enlisted personnel often did not have money for food.
Nonetheless, Foulois became the target of the press, Congress, and President Roosevelt, who was embarrassed by the political backlash of canceling the mail contracts. Roosevelt gave Foulois a severe reprimand. Foulois’s troubles did not end there.
Trouble With Congress
On May 7, 1934, a subcommittee headed by New Hampshire Congressman William N. Rogers charged that Foulois had violated procurement regulations by negotiating contracts with aircraft manufacturers rather than always giving contracts to the lowest bidder. After four months of hearings, the subcommittee recommended that Foulois be relieved of his position as Chief of the Air Corps. Foulois was given a chance to rebut the charges and made his case so convincingly that Secretary of War George H. Dern, no friend of his, wrote a letter in his defense.
The matter was dropped, but the Rogers subcommittee wasn’t through. It next attacked Foulois on the formation of the GHQ Air Force, charging that the Air Corps had no right to plan an air force that could fly beyond the coastline to repel the enemy. Rogers pressed for an Army investigation. Although the Army inspector general report exonerated Foulois of all wrongdoing, it criticized his “exaggerated, unfair, and misleading statements to a Congressional committee.” Foulois received a slap on the wrist to mollify the Rogers subcommittee and was admonished not to use “unorthodox language” against the War Department General Staff.
It was the last straw. Foulois was tired and asked for a three-month leave of absence, which would expire just a few days before he completed his four-year tour as Chief of Air Corps. On Christmas Day 1935, he made his last flight, taking his O-38F on a 4.5-hour flight from Bolling Field, D.C., down to Kitty Hawk, N.C., and back. On Dec. 31, his last day as Chief, he returned to his office to clean out his desk. Not a single person from the War Department dropped in to say good-bye. He found no parade scheduled, no party arranged, no invitations to dinner. There were not even any phone calls, messages, or letters of farewell.
It was a sad and lonely end to a 36-year career during which Foulois had done much to advance American airpower. He was Chief during the very worst years of the Depression, when Congress had reduced already limited budgets. Despite low pay and limited promotions, he created a climate that retained many of the men who would emerge as leaders in World War II. He saw to it that men such as Hap Arnold, Frank Andrews, and Tooey Spaatz were given positions of real responsibility so they could demonstrate their skills.
Foulois’s efforts to maintain a viable aircraft industry were important, and the requirements for many of the great Army Air Forces aircraft of World War II were formulated on his watch. He also went to great lengths to take care of enlisted and noncommissioned personnel. Yet many things—bad luck, the Depression, old enemies, and his own less-than-sparkling personality—combined to deny him the recognition he deserved until many years after his retirement.
Foulois turned down several job offers from industry, preferring to live on his retirement pay and spend his time writing and speaking. He ran for Congress from New Jersey in 1941, losing by a narrow margin. Somewhat surprisingly, given his love of the service, he refused an offer to be recalled to duty in 1942 because he did not want a desk job.
He lived quietly near Ventnor, N.J., until 1958, when his wife became ill and was hospitalized at Andrews AFB, Md. Foulois moved in to the visiting officers quarters and remained there after her death in 1961. He was a familiar sight at the Andrews Officers Club, where he enjoyed talking to young officers until late in 1966 when he suffered a heart attack. Foulois died on April 25, 1967, and was buried in his hometown of Washington, Conn.
This time, however, he received a fitting honor—a fly-over of USAF aircraft in the missing-man formation.
Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 400 articles about aviation topics and 29 books, the most recent of which are The Influence of Air Power on History and Dawn Over Kitty Hawk: The Novel of the Wright Brothers. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Tex,” appeared in the July 2002 issue.