By Steve ElliottMay 13, 2011
SAN ANTONIO -- A small group of former military aviators quietly gathered at the San Antonio National Cemetery May 10 to salute 2nd Lt. George E.M. Kelly who died in an aircraft crash at nearby Fort Sam Houston 100 years ago to the day.
Kelly was the first member of the U.S. military killed in the crash while piloting an airplane, leaving his mark on aviation history.
After a few words about Kelly's life and death, retired Air Force Col. Jim Baker blew "Taps" on his trumpet; and the 15 gentlemen from Stinsons Flight No. 2 of the Order of the Daedalians held their shot glasses of genuine Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey high and "quaffed" one for Kelly.
A ceremonial shot was then poured over Kelly's gravesite.
"It was the 100th anniversary and the first time we did this," said Order of Daedalians National Adjutant James Kellogg, adding that the Irish eyes of former infantry officer Kelly would surely be smiling in approval at the kind gesture of a wee dram of the potent brew.
The Irish-born, London-raised Kelly took his first breath Dec. 11, 1878. The dire economic conditions of the times held little hope for Kelly, who decided to emigrate to America, become a U.S. citizen and then promptly enlist in the U.S Army as a private in the Coast Artillery in 1904.
Rising quickly through the ranks, he held every noncommissioned rank from corporal to quartermaster sergeant while stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Kelly's superiors saw his potential and sent him to officer training at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 30th Infantry Division in 1907. Soon after, Kelly decided that he wanted to be part of the fledgling Army Signal Corps, flying Wright and Curtiss biplanes.
In the spring of 1911, Kelly and fellow lieutenants Paul W. Beck and John C. Walker joined 1st Lt. Benjamin Foulois - at that time the Army's only pilot flying the Army's only aircraft - at Fort Sam Houston.
In those days, flight training was conducted during the trainees' off-duty time as flight instruction was not allowed to interfere with their "real jobs." At the time of his death, Kelly had been in San Antonio for just six weeks, but was already held in high regard by fellow aviators Foulois and Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps Commander Maj. George Squier.
"Lieutenant Kelly was one of the best men in Signal Corps," Squier was quoted as saying in a New York Times article about the crash. "He was devoted to his work and gave every promise of becoming one of the Army's most valuable aviators."
According to the NYT article, Squier was even heard complimenting Kelly during his flight, which had taken off at 7:30 a.m.
After five minutes of his qualification flight, Kelly was attempting to land the aircraft for a third time when a front strut collapsed, causing the aircraft to veer toward an encampment of the 11th Infantry.
To avoid crashing into the tents, Kelly banked sharply and the wing of the Curtiss clipped the ground. The plane crashed, throwing Kelly from the wreck.
The crash site was near the location where the Roadrunner Community Center now stands. Kelly was taken to the Station Hospital where he died an hour and 10 minutes later from a fractured skull.
In 1917, a new flying field south of San Antonio was named Kelly Field in his honor of Lieutenant George E. M. Kelly.
Though Kelly Air Force Base is no longer an active military installation, the tradition of courage and dedication to duty exemplified by Kelly and by his fellow aviators endures.
(Ed. Note: Lt. Thomas Selfridge died in a 1908 plane crash Orville Wright piloted. Selfridge was the first American member of the military to die in an airplane crash.)