By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterOctober 19, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Before Army Aviators took to the skies above France in World War I to engage in harrowing dog fights, the first pilots engaged an enemy much closer to home.
The 1st Aero Squadron was the first unit of its kind in the U.S. Army, consisting of eight Curtiss JN-3 Jenny aircraft and 11 pilots who received orders March 12, 1916, to join the Punitive Expedition in pursuit of Mexican revolutionary General Francisco "Pancho" Villa, which would see the first Aviation unit deployed into international territory, according to Bob Mitchell, U.S. Army Aviation Museum curator.
The expedition, which occurred during the Mexican Revolution, was launched by then-President Woodrow Wilson after Villa brought his troops into U.S. territory and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. The goal was to capture Villa with the aid of the 1st Aero Squadron, which was deployed as reconnaissance to locate the enemy, said Mitchell.
Aviation was still in its infancy and the JN-3 aircraft were extremely underpowered, said the curator, so the operation for the 1st Aero Squadron didn't go as planned.
"The plan was that they would use the aircraft to fly forward, locate the enemy and then radio back, and the main body would come back and encircle the enemy," said Mitchell., "But the aircraft had trouble operating in the mountainous terrain of Mexico and unimproved field conditions, and most of the aircraft crashed or were damaged."
Although the operation for the squadron wasn't a success, it was a pivotal moment in Army Aviation as it would be the first time that U.S. Army aircraft would be operated over foreign soil in a hostile act.
"They never did get Pancho Villa, but it was a very interesting period for Army Aviation because it would be the first time the U.S. Army would see the employment of the 1st Aero Squadron, the very first Aviation unit, and it was also the first time that mechanized machinery was used in warfare by the U.S.," said the curator. "We actually went into Mexico with trucks, cars and motor transports, so that was a pretty big deal."
The expedition was also a learning experience for the Army, as officials were able to see that the JN-3 aircraft were not up to snuff as a war fighter, and with World War I raging across the Atlantic, the time for the U.S. to enter the war was fast approaching.
"We were not a world power at the time," said Mitchell. "They were developing some advanced machinery (during the war) and we were discovering that our airplane was not up to the task."
The Jenny aircraft was upgraded using the OX-4 series engine for the JN-4, which dramatically improved the aircraft, but as a war fighter, the aircraft was obsolete compared to those flying over the skies in Europe.
When the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917, the Army didn't have an aircraft that was capable of going toe-to-toe with those flying in the war, so in order to cope, a partnership was developed between French, British and Italian forces to train U.S. Army pilots with their aircraft, he said.
Although the Jenny wasn't an aircraft that was able to compete over the skies of Europe, it was a vital step in creating Army Aviation as it is known today, Mitchell said.
"It wasn't really until the end of the war that we really had an aircraft that was capable of modern warfare, but that really jump-started Army Aviation," he added. "When the war ended, it was full-tilt into aircraft development and research, and we really got on the ball then."