100 Years of Reserve Air Power: The Centennial Celebration

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
  • Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs

Editor’s note: On June 3, 1916, Congress signed the National Defense Act of 1916, which created the nation’s first air reserve program. In honor of this historic event, the Air Force Reserve is celebrating 100 years of reserve air power throughout the month of June. The following story looks at the National Defense Act of 1916 and how it set the wheels in motion for the organization that would become today’s Air Force Reserve. Most of the information for this story was taken from “The First Wings of War: Air Force Reserve in World War I,” a special study written by Air Force Reserve historians Paul H. Larson, Kevin I. Burge and Keith L. Barr.

Throughout history, military leaders have always searched for the “high ground,” the place where they could see everything around them, take the surprise out of surprise attacks, and effectively and accurately put ammunition on targets.

When daring men started taking to the skies in gas-filled balloons during the 19th and early 20th centuries, it didn’t take long for some military men of the day to realize the sky could be the ultimate “high ground” and give them an incredible strategic advantage over their adversaries.

During the Civil War, between June 1861 and June 1863, the U.S. Army and the Confederate States Army successfully operated a balloon corps for observation purposes, and the idea of using objects in the air to help win battles on the ground started taking off.

A few forward-thinking military leaders paid close attention when word started to spread that Wilbur and Orville Wright had achieved the first self-powered flight in the history of the world on Dec. 17, 1903, on the outer banks of North Carolina near the town of Kitty Hawk. After the Wright Brothers’ historic flight, as the fledgling aviation industry began to take off, military leaders across the globe started incorporating aviation into their armies.

When World War I, the “Great War,” started on Aug. 4, 1914, countries throughout Europe scrambled to rapidly build up their air forces by manufacturing airplanes and training air crews. The top military brass from the countries fighting in this conflict quickly learned that one aviator could be worth a whole battalion of infantry soldiers. Unfortunately, things didn’t progress quite as quickly on this side of the Atlantic.

On July 18, 1914, “the Aviation Section (of the U.S. Signal Corps) had 19 officers and 101 enlisted men,” Air Force Reserve Command historians wrote in “The First Wings of War: Air Force Reserve in World War I.” By December 1914, the Aviation Section had grown to 44 officers, 224 enlisted men and 23 aircraft. Still, those numbers “paled in comparison to the size of the air forces fielded by Germany, Great Britain, France, Russia and other powers fighting in Europe. Worse yet, the Aviation Section had no Reserve or National Guard officers or enlisted men who could quickly enter the fight,” the historians wrote.

That all changed with the signing of the National Defense Act of 1916, which created the nation’s first air reserve program. The comprehensive legislation defined the roles and missions of the active-duty U.S. Army, the National Guard and the Reserve. Also, it solidified the concept of the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Brig. Gen. Hal C. Pattison, who served as the Army’s chief of military history from 1962 to 1970, said, “The National Defense Act of 1916 is viewed as providing for the immediate ancestor of our reserve system in its present form.”

“The War Department knew it would be impossible to maintain sufficient strength in aviators and skilled technicians in the peacetime Army,” the AFRC historians wrote about the National Defense Act of 1916. “The air reserve program provided the needed hedge in case of war. The Signal Officers Reserve Corps and the Signal Enlisted Reserve Corps added more than 2,200 officer and enlisted positions to the Signal Corps’ Aviation Section.

 "Flying training schools were established in Florida, Virginia, Illinois and Tennessee. However, they were unable to keep up with the rapidly expanding Aviation Section. In June 1916, the First Reserve Aero Squadron, which still exists today (at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado) as the 26th Space Aggressor Squadron, had 26 officer pilots and 12 flying sergeants trained and volunteering for the punitive campaign against Pancho Villa in Mexico.”

When Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917, the total number of military aviators was less than 200. By November, that number had jumped to 9,000, and it continued to increase as the war went on. Of course, with that substantial of an increase in aviators came lots of growing pains. A number of early Air Force Reservists played key roles in helping the United States manage these growing pains.

Maj. Raynal Bolling, who led the “Bolling Mission” to Europe, played an instrumental part in procuring the aircraft and equipment U.S. aviators used during the war.

Maj. Hiram Bingham, who rediscovered the Incan city of Machu Picchu, Peru, in 1911, helped establish the training curriculum that U.S. aviators followed throughout the conflict.

Capt. Phillip Carroll played a key role in building up the first U.S. training bases in France.

Capt. Douglas Campbell, Lt. Frank Luke and Lt. Charles D’Olive earned the coveted title of “ace” as a result of their daring exploits in the cockpits of some of the world’s most advanced aircraft of the day.

“The U.S. military entered World War I mostly unprepared for the enormity of the task it faced,” the AFRC historians wrote. “The U.S. Army did not have the active-duty, National Guard or Reserve aviation forces it needed to accomplish the immense task before it. Fortunately, many talented and ingenious men stepped forward to do their part to win the war in the air.

“Commissioned into the Signal Officers Reserve Corps and enlisted into the Signal Enlisted Reserve Corps, men such as Maj. Raynal Bolling, Maj. Hiram Bingham, Capt. Phillip Carroll, Capt. Douglas Campbell, Lt. Frank Luke and Lt. Charles d’Olive proved that talented civilians could do great things in uniform. Their important contributions paved the way for future generations of U.S. military aviators.”