News | Oct. 3, 2022

At the Dawn of Airpower, the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917

By By Cmdr. Peter Mersky, USNR (Ret.)

Books about the first decade of aircraft development and use by the U.S. military are few and far between, and several have come from the Naval Institute Press, the publication arm of the venerable U.S. Naval Institute, based in Annapolis, Maryland, which the United States Naval Academy also calls home. This latest book on the subject of early military aviation is a lengthy discussion of how the three main American services first discovered aviation then took their time in indoctrinating their first aviation crews and their aircraft into halting use and understanding. It wasn’t easy. Few major technological advances are. It might be said that even today, a century later, we are still learning how to best design and build and finally use the descendants of these flimsy doped canvas-and-wood flying machines. The author has served as an experienced curator of several aviation museums and departments, including the imposing National Museum of the U.S. Marine Corps at Quantico, Virginia, certainly not to be missed by tourists of the Washington, D.C., area and especially Marine Corps veterans of any years’ duration. To an extent, his writing emulates that of an academician, typical of a Ph.D.’s (which he is) doctoral thesis, and it starts out with a lengthy heavy-worded introductory first chapter describing how each service began its particular air department.

I have to say the single folio of photos leaves much to be desired. Many of them are just poorly reproduced. The last photo especially is poorly presented. Its caption takes pains to point out a most important figure in such black shadow as to be hard to find and its detail is non-existent.

The author discusses the difficulties each service encountered in establishing its early operations, exacerbated by the unreliability of aircraft engines and performance of the day, which definitely highlights the courage and dedication of the first military aviators. He often describes the ever-present bickering between the Army and the Navy as to who knew more, had more experience about aviation and used their few aircraft and growing force to the better advantage.

There are details of the long and varied career of Capt. Washington Irving Chambers who held several positions during the first two decades of the development of American Naval Aviation, often overlooked except in brief mention. These details may be new to many general readers but show his dedication to the new department of the Navy, a dedication that was poorly rewarded in the long term.

Chapter 6 is an excellent thought-provoking analysis of the developing friendships and positive inter-service attitudes of the U.S. services as they struggled to develop their individual air arms while establishing human understanding of the new endeavors they and their youthful representatives tried to work out. All this hard work would be needed 30 years later in the second world-wide conflict that was seething just below the surface even while the first world war was still in progress. Even Capt. Chambers had a second chance to be included. It is the first time I have seen such items of historical personal and professional interest in the world of military aviation described in such detail and shows a typical American take on working together for the common good and makes reading this book worthwhile.

The full-force expedition, led by then-Brig. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, in March 1916 into Mexico in pursuit of the bandit chieftain Pancho Villa, complete with Curtiss JN-3 two-seaters, provided important though at times frustrating lessons for Army aviators and their support teams.

The so-called “European War,” which became World War I, was still far away in 1915, but America watched the proceedings with growing interest, especially the use of aircraft by the warring powers. The Allies allowed occasional visits by American officers to observe the new weapon and its development, and by the time the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, American aviators had already seen combat with French and British squadrons. The U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps had spent the period of “neutrality” devising their own units, augmented by these experienced pilots and crews.

This is one of the more unusual books on early aviation, a scholarly treatise that gets into such areas as the initial use of pusher-engine arrangements (with the engine mounted behind the cockpit) versus the soon-to-be more popular tractor placement of engines in the front end of the aircraft. The Army discarded pushers fairly quickly whereas the Navy used the arrangement a bit longer. Another example is the constant rewriting and reorganizing of administrative programs, though not advanced (at least in modern terms), even those of two or three decades after the initial period. Military aviators struggled to find stability in these areas in the first decade of military and uniformed aviation. Perhaps one could say, at least from the Navy’s viewpoint that such constancy did not come about until the arrival of its Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization program (more familiarly known as NATOPS) in 1961.

Even with a brief list of its negative points, “At the Dawn of Airpower” is still an important addition to the history of early military aviation and definitely deserves a place in the gap of such historical writing. 

Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.) was commissioned through Aviation Officer Candidate School in 1968, and remained a reservist, serving in various intelligence billets as well as two tours with Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (VFP) 306 until retiring in 1992. He was the first civilian editor of “Approach” magazine, has been a volunteer associate with "Naval Aviation News" since 1971, and has written NAN’s book review column since 1982 including more than 800 book reviews to NAN and other publications, including 16 books on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Aviation.