First American reconnaissance flight over enemy territory in World War I
April 15, 1918
The Army had experimented with balloons during the American Civil War and kites during the Spanish-American War, trying to gain a bird’s eye view of the battlefield. During the 1916 Punitive Expedition, the First Aero Squadron commanded by Capt. Benjamin Foulois proved valuable in its ability to scout terrain and enemy positions, but the fledgling air corps experienced a multitude of problems with maintenance, supply, technology and pilot inexperience. They entered World War I a year later, nearly three years behind the other combatants in battlefield experience. However, developments in the airplane, combined with advances in camera technology, would come together in the Great War and Army intelligence would never be the same.
When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the Army had only 15 airplanes and 131 pilots and observers. The planes were far from combat-ready, requiring the American Congress to purchase British and French aircraft initially to fill the gap. The first American reconnaissance flight over enemy territory was made a year later on April 15, 1918, with Maj. Ralph Royce of the First Aero Squadron, at the controls. Shortly thereafter, cameras of all shapes and sizes were being carried along on surveillance missions. Aerial photographs showed enemy battery positions, machine gun emplacements, and troop dug-outs. They quickly approached a real time intelligence value, as the time between a photograph being taken and when it was developed, printed, and interpreted, was as little as 20 minutes. For the next six months, the pilots, observers, and cameramen of the U.S. Army Air Service risked their lives on a daily basis to gather critical information for the Allies.
The Germans created fighter planes with the express purpose of shooting down these reconnaissance planes. First Aero Squadron pilots had to maneuver to evade enemy ground fire as they had to fly low enough to take usable pictures while at the same time fixing jammed cameras, changing film, etc. The cameras were problematic as well, some of which weighed as much as 75 pounds, had to be handheld and manually operated. Creative observers improvised cockpit mounts or cut holes in the floor of the aircraft to attach the cameras, stabilizing and cushioning them with truck tires and bicycle frames. They did whatever was necessary, because the photographs were instantly in high demand. The Army reported that between July 1 and Nov. 11, 1918, 1.3 million aerial photos were taken and used for intelligence purposes.
To learn more about the history of Army Airborne Intelligence, visit the Army Intelligence Aviation Memorial Park at the corner of Irwin and Hatfield Streets on Fort Huachuca. Or take the virtual tour online at https://www.ikn.army.mil/apps/MI_HISTORY_TOUR/