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Army Signal Corps Aviation School

Establishment


army Aero School
Photo Courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration
Once the U.S. Government had purchased the Wright aeroplane and the three Army officers (Lahm, Humphreys and Foulois) had received flight instruction in 1909, the U.S. Congress provided no funds to continue developing military aeronautics until 1911. At that time, the U.S. Army Signal Corps made preparations to open an aviation school at College Park, MD. In 1911, the first specific provision of funds for aeronautics made by the U.S. Congress allowed the Signal Corps to order new airplanes. Two Wright B aeroplanes, two Curtiss type aeroplanes, and one Burgess-Wright aeroplane were ordered and eventually sent to the field in College Park previously used in 1909 for the training of Army pilots. A larger tract of land was leased, approximately "200 acres extending north along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad property to a series of goldfish ponds and east to the Paint Branch of the Anacostia River, with a maximum cleared runway of 2,376 feet in an east-west direction." The Army Quartermaster Department leased the field for $325 per month and erected four temporary wooden hangars 45 feet square along the railroad track. In addition to the hangars were a small headquarters building and a tent which served as an emergency hospital. In August 1911, two additional hangars of 50 feet square were built to accommodate the growing fleet of aircraft, and again in the spring of 1912, a 50 by 69 foot hangar was constructed.

Personnel

1st Lt. Roy C. Kirtland, 14th Infantry, was assigned to oversee the establishment of the new aviation school at College Park, and reported April 3, 1911. Kirtland served as secretary of the Aviation School and flight instructor for nearly two years. 2nd Lt. Henry H. Arnold, 29th Infantry, and 2nd Lt. Thomas DeW. Milling, 15th Cavalry, were selected as the first flight instructors for the new flying school. They were sent in early May to the Wright Company's flying school near Dayton, OH, to receive their training and then arrived in College Park on June 15. Capt. Charles deForest Chandler reported to College Park as Commanding Officer on June 20 and was also put in charge of the Aeronautical Division in the office of the Chief Signal Officer in Washington, DC.

The aeroplanes were maintained by a detachment of enlisted mechanics, beginning with a group of 15 men from Ft. Wood and growing by November 1911 to a total of 39. In June, the Signal Corps employed a civilian aviation mechanic, Henry S. Molineau, to instruct the enlisted men in maintenance of the aircraft. 1st Lt. John P. Kelley, Medical Reserve Corps, was assigned to College Park as the medical officer, and became the country's first flight surgeon.

Capt. Paul W. Beck, who had been trained at the Curtiss flying school in California, was transferred to College Park from Ft. Sam Houston, TX, in late June, 1911. When all flying was stopped in Texas in 1911 due to the fatal crash of Lt. G. Kelly, that detachment of enlisted mechanics was also transferred to College Park. 2nd Lt. Frank Kennedy, 10th Infantry, reported to College Park on August 3, 1911, and took flight instruction on the Curtiss machine from Capt. Beck.

Due to the lack of housing in the village of College Park, the officers assigned to the aviation school resided in Washington and commuted the seven miles to the airfield by car or train. The mechanics were housed in one of the hangars on the field, and stood guard over the aircraft as an additional duty.

Twelve other U.S. Army Officers were assigned to the aviation school at College Park over the course of the two years it was in operation.

Moving On

In November 1911, the Army Aviation School moved to Augusta, GA, for the winter, to take advantage of the milder climate. When the aircraft, personnel, and equipment returned to College Park on April 2, 1912, the entourage included several more officers, two new Wright machines, and a new two-seater Curtiss plane. During 1912, the aviation school continued to produce numerous "firsts" for American aviation and thrilled local residents and the press alike.

The aviation school at College Park was witness to two fatal aeroplane crashes, those of Lt. Leighton Hazelhurst and Mr. A.L. Welch on June 11, 1912, and Lt. Lewis Rockwell and Cpl. Frank Scott on September 28, 1912. Scott was the first enlisted man to be killed in a plane crash in the U.S. Hazelhurst and Rockwell were the third and fourth U.S. Army officers killed in an aviation accident. Both aircraft involved were Wright machines.

In November 1912, as in the previous year, the aviators of the College Park school moved to a warmer winter home to continue their flying. For the 1912-13 winter season, however, the Curtiss and Wright planes were sent to separate locations. The Curtiss planes, pilots and mechanics departed College Park for San Diego, CA, where they were to share Glenn Curtiss' flying facilities. The Wright planes, pilots and mechanics returned to Augusta for a second winter season. During the winter season, the decision was made to not renew the Army's lease of the College Park field, and all the equipment stored there was shipped to North Island, San Diego, CA, where the Army's first permanent aviation school was being founded. With the departure of the last of the equipment and the expiration of the land lease on June 30, 1913, the Army Aviation School at College Park closed.