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First Aero Squadron: 100 years since first U.S. air combat mission

By Andrew V. Pestano Follow @AVPLive9 Contact the Author   |   March 19, 2016 at 3:00 AM
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A deadly raid on a small town in New Mexico a century ago provoked the United States into a cross-border manhunt for a Mexican desperado -- a pursuit which led to the first U.S. military air-combat operation.

During a time of war and revolution for Mexico, the First Aero Squadron was deployed in 1916 as part of a larger mission under former President Woodrow Wilson to hunt down Mexican revolutionary Gen. Francisco "Pancho" Villa -- considered a fugitive by the United States who was wanted dead or alive.

The hunt for the man who came to be known by his nickname, Pancho Villa, gave the U.S. military the opportunity to make use of a new technology, something it had been testing for years.

The First Aero Squadron, also known as the First Reconnaissance Squadron, was formed in 1913 under former President William Taft shortly before his term ended. Flight lessons were nearly nonexistent at the time and pilot fatalities were high.

The squadron would eventually be made up of two companies and eight Curtiss JN-3 biplanes. The Curtiss Aeroplane Company, the largest airplane producer in the United States at the time, won the contract from the U.S. Department of War, a predecessor to the Department of Defense. For easier transport, engineers could break down and rebuild each plane in less than two hours -- a task the First Aero Squadron would later handle itself.

Initially, the First Aero Squadron, the only flight crew in the U.S. military, was seen as a vital tool for reconnaissance and delivering messages. The idea of using U.S. aircraft for war purposes was new, but perhaps the first flying experience for former President Theodore Roosevelt cemented the concept.

When Roosevelt rode an airplane for the first time in 1910, he praised the pilot, Archibald Hoxsey, and the experience -- although Teddy hazardously leaned over a side of the precarious plane and waved at a crowd below.

"That was the bulliest experience I ever had," Roosevelt said of the experience. "I envy you your professional conquest of space."

Hoxsey told United Press International, then called United Press, that although communicating with the president was difficult aboard the plane, he picked up on a couple of words Teddy shouted.

"I didn't look at Roosevelt until I felt the machine wiggle. He was waving at the crowd. We were up about 150 feet. 'Be careful not to pull any of those strings,' I warned him. He was sitting directly underneath the valve cord of the engine and the engine would have stopped had he touched it," Hoxsey said.

"'Nothing doing,' he shouted back, showing his teeth," Hoxsey added. "The propeller made so much noise we had to shout. I heard him say 'war,' 'army,' 'aeroplane' and 'bomb,' but the noise was so great I could not hear the rest. I was very careful. I said to myself, 'If anything happens to him I'll never be able to square myself with the American people.' I was mighty glad when we landed. I never felt a greater responsibility in my life."

Like Roosevelt's experience in 1910, the risk of flight six years later was still considerable, but that did not stop the Wright brothers nor would it stop the First Aero Squadron.

Tensions were high between the United States and Mexico in the early 20th century amid the 10-year Mexican Revolution and World War I. The strained affairs and the unpredictable revolution led the Taft Administration to mobilize the military to prepare a defense against Mexico.

On March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa led an invasion with hundreds of his revolutionary guerrilla members on the town of Columbus, N.M., where about 18 Americans -- mostly civilians -- where killed. About 70 of Pancho Villa's men were killed by U.S. forces and he escaped back to Mexico.

"The Mexicans advanced under cover of darkness, and set fire to the depot and neighboring buildings," said an article written by a reporter from United Press. "Troops armed with rifles and machine guns repulsed the bandits after two hours of fighting. The Thirteenth cavalry then pursued the bandits until they were driven over the border."

Pancho Villa was a key figure during the long and complex Mexican Revolution. He fought against the forces of Venustiano Carranza, who became president shortly after formally seizing control of most of Mexico when he defeated Pancho Villa at the 1915 Battle of Celaya.

Pancho Villa and Carranza were allies when they fought together in a revolution to oust Victoriano Huerta from the presidency, but once Huerta was removed the men turned against one another over control of Mexico.

After Pancho Villa's devastating defeat at Celaya at the hands of Carranza's top general Álvaro Obregón, U.S. President Wilson formally recognized the government of Carranza -- an act which embittered Pancho Villa, who felt betrayed and who was now seen as an enemy of both Mexico and the United States.

Pancho Villa, who previously had satisfactory relations with the United States, may have launched the New Mexico assault as both a strategic and retaliatory attack, after the U.S. government began supporting Carranza's troops logistically. He may also have hoped the attack would launch a border war between the United States and Mexico to destabilize Carranza's regime. Another theory suggests Pancho Villa launched the attack under orders from Carranza because the Mexican leader believed the United States perceived his Constitutionalist faction as a threat.

Wilson responded to the New Mexico attack by creating the Punitive Expedition, a U.S. military manhunt for Pancho Villa that lasted nearly a year.

The First Aero Squadron suddenly faced its first combat test.

Under the command of Brig. Gen. John Pershing, the Punitive Expedition crossed the border into Mexico six days after Pancho Villa's raid, with Carranza's reluctant approval.

Capt. Benjamin Foulois and Lt. Joseph E. Carberry picked up on April 27, 1916, by a Mexican citizen after their Curtiss JN-3 airplane had fallen 1,500 feet during the Punitive Expedition. File Photo by Library of Congress/UPI

To help with the hunt, on March 19, 1916, the First Aero Squadron -- equipped with the eight planes made of wood, wire and fabric -- headed south into Mexican territory. One plane returned almost immediately after experiencing engine problems.

The pilots were responsible for running reconnaissance flights, delivering messages and conducting land surveillance. They also spent a lot of time repairing their planes.

During that first mission, the First Aero Squadron was much-criticized because of frequent crashes and their difficulty performing in the harsh Mexican terrain. After a month of service, only two of the original airplanes deployed remained in service. The airplanes could not climb over much of the mountainous terrain, nor could they stand against the winds that pushed against them.

In defense of his men, First Aero Squadron Capt. E.B. Foulois on March 30, 1916, told United Press reporter H.D. Jacobs that his pilots' experiences in such harsh conditions "makes them the superior of any aerial force in the world."

"Our aviators are daily encountering conditions no airmen ever before have faced," Foulois said. "The Sierra Madres over which our planes must fly, create shifting winds and dangerous air pockets. The altitude of nearly a mile above sea level gives the machine only about another mile leeway as their maximum altitude is two miles. Despite this and the added handicap of very rough country for landing, the squadron of eight airplanes has gone through the campaign so far without any real serious mishap."

The Punitive Expedition did not succeed in capturing or killing Pancho Villa, who was assassinated in 1923 -- possibly under orders by Obregón -- but the yearlong advance by the Americans wasn't considered unwelcome by at least some Mexicans.

UPI articles from the time showed Mexican natives supported the U.S. military effort to rid of their land from the threat of Pancho Villa, who is a controversial figure in Mexico to this day -- both revered and rejected.

"The native Mexicans are staking everything on the success of the expedition," one article said. "If the bandits are not thoroughly wiped out, Mexican farmers fear they will return and murder everyone who sold produce to the American soldiers. Villa is reported to have killed Mexicans for merely adopting American ideas and working for American ranchmen."

Although the First Aero Squadron's excursion was blighted with difficulty -- and the expedition itself was unsuccessful -- it is considered to have been a worthwhile experience for the U.S. military. The squadron experimented with bombs and machineguns, which was quickly becoming a standard across the ocean Atlantic in Europe during the first World War.

"The Punitive Expedition turned out to be a critical training ground for aviators and aviation in combat," a blog post about the squadron by the U.S. Army said. "Pershing was frustrated with their problems, but realized it was primarily a situation of old, underpowered equipment."

The squadron put what it learned in Mexico to use in the air above Europe during the Great War and planted a seed for what would eventually become an entire branch of the military, the U.S. Air Force.

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