American Military Aviation Takes Off with First Aero Squadron. This Week in History: 9 March 1916.

By Ruth QuinnMarch 1, 2013

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On March 9, 1916, Mexican Revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa and his followers known as "Villistas," raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, triggering a chain of events that nearly caused a war between the United States and Mexico. During the raid, eighteen Americans, mostly civilians, were killed, and 70-75 Villistas lay dead. Pancho Villa escaped back into Mexico.

The American response was to send Brigadier General John Pershing on a Punitive Expedition deep into Mexico to find and capture Villa. Six days after the raid, Pershing and his troops, including the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers from Fort Huachuca, crossed the international border in pursuit, beginning a long, frustrating, and ultimately unproductive quest for justice.

Among the units to join the Expedition was the 1st Aero Squadron, under the command of Captain Benjamin Foulois. Consequently, the 1st Aero Squadron claims the distinction of the first American aviation unit to engage in combat operations in US history. However, the Squadron's initial contributions to Pershing's hunt for Pancho Villa had little to do with flying. Pershing faced a monumental task in providing logistics for his Expedition over harsh and extensive terrain with inadequate roads and no access to the railroad. He decided to utilize another new invention -- the truck -- to complement his mounted cavalry units. The Army unit that had the most experience with these new-fangled machines was, ironically, the First Aero Squadron. Therefore, it was the Aero Squadron that was called upon to manage the logistical nightmare of hauling supplies such a field wire, food for soldiers and horses, tools, ammunition, etc., deep into Mexico.

When Captain Benjamin Foulois arrived in Columbus, New Mexico on March 15, 1916 to join the Expedition, he arrived with eight wood, wire, and fabric Curtiss JN-3 biplanes, ten four-wheel drive motor trucks, and six motorcycles. The aviators of the 1st Aero Squadron received the order to join the force on Sunday, March 19, at 1:30pm. They eagerly jumped into their airplanes and headed south, loaded with a single pilot, enough fuel for 4 hours of flying and weighed down with a variety of equipment, including field glasses, extra goggles, a mess kit, emergency rations, a sleeping bag, army blankets, an emergency took kit, an extra battery, engine and propeller covers, tie-down bands, and personal arms and ammunition. They were completely unprepared for night-time flight and would not reach their destinations in daylight hours. The terrain, altitude, and weather conditions in Mexico beat up the fragile airplanes and there were numerous crashes and missed opportunities. By the time the Expedition ended less than a year later, the Army had effectively transitioned from a horse-powered to a gasoline-driven force.

The Punitive Expedition turned out to be a critical training ground for aviators and aviation in combat. Pershing was frustrated with their problems, but realized it was primarily a situation of old, underpowered equipment. Meanwhile, in Europe a world war was raging, and airplanes were being designed specifically for observation and reconnaissance, leading to the development of smaller, faster pursuit airplanes and airborne bombers. American military aviation was woefully behind, but when Pershing went to France as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, only two months after the long march out of Mexico, he did so with valuable experience regarding the importance of this new technology and its combat effectiveness for the future.