Although the US Air Force didn’t officially come into existence until 1947, the US military had been using airborne technology on and off for nearly a century before then.
And while most historians mark the date of the actual inception of an American air force to August 1st, 1907, the idea of American air power is almost as old as the nation itself. As far back as 1783, Benjamin Franklin watched with great interest flying balloons in Paris with human passengers, powered by hot air hydrogen. Franklin foresaw that this new technology might end up being tactically useful in the military.
However, it was not until the 1830’s, during military campaigns in Florida against the Seminole when the idea was seriously floated that balloons would make excellent intelligence gathering devices for observing enemy locations. The suggestion was rejected by the powers-that-be, and it wasn’t until the Civil War when balloons were used for the first time by the US military.
Both the Union and Confederate armies attempted to use balloons for reconnaissance. Due their limited practicality (lack of mobility being the main reason) their use in the North was shelved in 1863 by a Col. Albert J. Myer, the signal officer of the Army of the Potomac.
The South itself only had three balloons. Two were made of women’s dress silks, looking rather dainty for their martial purpose, and the third was a ramshackle affair made of cotton and kept aloft by burning pine knots. Not much is recorded of their activities, and they apparently contributed little to the war effort.
The army continued using balloons on a limited scale, including making flights for weather information, and for reconnaissance use in the Spanish-American war.
In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully flew their Wright Flyer in Kitty Hawk. And by 1907, the science of aeronautics was advanced enough that on August 1st of that year Brig. Gen. James Allen formed an Aeronautical Division as part of the US Army Signal Corps, with one officer and two enlisted men. The US Air Force was born.
In the meantime, the army was experimenting with different flying machines. After investing a few prototypes, including the unsuccessful 1903 Langley “Aerodrome”, and a Zeppelin purchased in 1907, the Army agreed to purchase an airplane from the Wright brothers for $25,000 if it could meet the requirements of carrying a weight of up to 350 lbs. and reach a speed of 36 mph.
In September of 1908, the Wright machine was ready for testing. Tests was held at Fort Meyer, across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. (Ironically, Fort Myer is named in honor of the very same Myer who disbanded the aeronautical unit during the Civil War.) Several successful flights lasted for over an hour.
On September 17th, a certain Lt. Thomas Selfridge, who had experience flying a dirigible and an airplane, asked to go aboard a test flight. The plane took off with Orville Wright and Selfridge. After flying for several minutes, a propeller came loose and struck a wire brace. The plane went into a dive, and it crashed to the ground. Selfridge succumbed to his head injuries that night, and Wright was hospitalized for several months. Thus Thomas Selfridge has the dubious honor of being the Air Force’s first casualty.
The Wrights continued to work on their airplane, and in June brought an improved version to Fort Myer. At the end of July, an excited crowd, which included President Taft, watched the plane return from a 10 mile speed trial from Alexandria, Virginia. The plane averaged 42.5 mph. The Army bought the plane for $30,000 (which included a $5,000 speed bonus) on August 2.
The Aeronautical Division of the US Signal Corps now had its first plane.