1907-1911 -- Signal Corps No. 1, the Army's First Airplane


Maj. Gen. Benjamin Delahauf Foulois was a pioneer aviator who learned to fly at the inception of flight, a senior leader of the U.S. Army Air Service and Air Corps, and a founding father of the military airpower embodied in today's U.S. Air Force. He was a tough, unpretentious, practical-minded former enlisted man whose spirit of adventure, ability to work with his hands, and interest in technical subjects led him first into the U.S. Army and then into flying at a time when military aviation was just getting off the ground--so to speak. Foulois combined dedication, initiative, and energy with formidable ambition. He earned an officer's commission during the fighting in the Philippine Islands at the turn of the Twentieth Century, and through courage, intelligence, and hard work--and a healthy dose of good luck--rose to the rank of major general and to command of the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1931.

His independent aviation career began inauspiciously. In December 1909, Brig. Gen. James Allen, Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army, summoned 1st Lt. Foulois to his office and informed him that he was to become the sole flyer of the newly acquired Wright military airplane, designated Signal Corps No. 1. "Take plenty of spare parts," he told the young officer, "and teach yourself to fly."

The U.S. Army Signal Corps specified that its first airplane should have a range of 125 miles, a minimum speed of 40 miles per hour, and could remain aloft for one hour while carrying two people. When those requirements were met by Orville and Wilbur Wright, the Signal Corps purchased "Signal Corps No. 1" for $30,000 and the Wright Brothers delivered it on August 2, 1909. Shortly thereafter, the Wrights trained lieutenants Frederic E. Humphreys and Frank P. Lahm at College Park, Maryland, while Lt Foulois received about one hour's worth of instruction. After a November 5, 1909 plane crash, Signal Corps chief Brig Gen James Allen ordered Signal Corps No. 1 and Lt Foulois to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to train in weather more conducive to flying.

In Texas, Foulois built on his meager experience and taught himself to fly Signal Corps No. 1  through trial and error and by correspondence with the Wright Brothers. The aircraft launched on a rail using a catapult and Foulois had only the most basic instruments to use while airborne. While taking off and remaining in flight was difficult, Foulois also had to teach himself to land the aircraft on his own. Although he crashed frequently, he was injured only once, when he was pinned beneath a part of the aircraft. Nevertheless, Foulois succeeded in teaching himself to fly.

Still, the flights took their toll on Signal Corps No. 1, and Foulois and his men struggled to keep the airplane in flying condition. Foulois even spent $300 of his own money to repair Signal Corps No. 1, but it was not enough. With the development of the Wright Model B aircraft, the Army finally retired Signal Corps No. 1 in April of 1911. After restoring the airplane to its original condition, the Army donated it to the Smithsonian Institution. The U.S. Army's first airplane can be seen there to this day.

Read the article by Roger G. Miller,  Historian, AFHSO, in the Winter 2002 Air Power History: 
Kept Alive by the Postman: the Wright Brothers and 1st Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois at Ft. Sam Houston in 1910.

See the AFHSO publication:
Logbook of Signal Corps No. 1: the Army's First Airplane.

For additional information see the National Museum of the USAF.