The 20th Century opened up a new frontier for innovation and adventure: the skies. With the first successful airplane flight of Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903, airplanes began making rapid advances that would change transportation forever. Aviation had come to stay, and Texas would play an important early role. Two pilots in particular, Louis Paulhan of France and American army pilot Ben Foulois, would make Texas an important center in aviation as they completed the first airplane flights in the state.
Paulhan was a jovial French aviator who took the world by storm. He was one of the first ten licensed pilots in France and one of only a handful around the globe. In a short time, he became one of the best in the world. In January 1910, he broke his own record by flying at an altitude of more than 4,000 feet at a California air show. Later that year, he would complete the longest flight to that time: more than four hours in the air. Huge crowds came to see him flying an airplane, the new technological wonder, as he brought his air show to Texas. And on February 18, 1910, he completed an important milestone in Texas History: he completed the first successful airplane flight in the state. And he had only learned to fly a plane the year before.
Most of the early advances in Texas aviation would come from the military. The army quickly became interested in airplanes and worked with Orville and Wilbur Wright for pilot training and purchasing airplanes.
Lt. Ben Foulois, a Connecticut native whose first flight was with Wilbur Wright in 1909, was ordered to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio in 1910 with a Wright Model A Military Flyer for experimental flights. It was the only plane the army even had at the time. Foulois later quipped that for a time he was the entire United States Air Force. Just a month after Paulhan’s groundbreaking flight, Foulois completed the first successful military airplane flight in Texas on March 2, 1910. He made four brief flights that day, accidentally crashing the plane on one flight. After repairing the plane, Foulois had a seat belt installed as well, noting the need for pilot safety.
The somewhat centralized position of Texas in comparison to the rest of the country, the mild climates, and wide-open fields absent of mountains or thick forests across North and Central Texas were seen by aviators as great advantages for early aircraft. Foulois began training new pilots. As the Mexican Revolution swirled across the Texas border, the army was employing pilots for reconnaissance missions along the border as early as 1911.
The 1st Aero Squadron was organized on March 5, 1913, at Fort Sam Houston, the army’s first aviation squadron. As the number of pilots grew, by March 1914, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps was established within the army. Eventually, aviation separated into its own branch. By the end of 1915, the squadron consisted of 300 pilots and support technicians and more than fifty aircraft, mostly scattered Martin T tractor planes, Curtiss R-2 biplanes, and Curtiss JN-3 “Jenny” biplanes.
When raiders under Pancho Villa attacked the small border town of Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916, the squadron was reassigned from San Antonio to Columbus in order to assist Gen. John J. Pershing’s punitive raid into Mexico. However, the technology was still so primitive and reliability so limited that the planes were shipped to New Mexico by train. The planes were used mostly for reconnaissance purposes and for relaying messages to the different units under Pershing’s command. Though the planes faced serious problems because of the thin mountain air, the squadron was successful in their reconnaissance efforts.
World War I created a massive surge in aviation in the state. The air station at Ft. Sam Houston expanded rapidly and became Kelly Field. Love Field, then just north of Dallas, was established by the army in 1917 as a training center for army pilots. That same year, Call Field opened in Wichita Falls as an army flight school. The University of Texas offered classes in radio and aviation to cadets. British pilots also came to Texas for training, as Pershing invited the Royal Flying Corps to establish flight schools in the United States. Royal Flying Corps cadets from England and Canada trained at Camp Taliaferro in Fort Worth starting in 1917 and set up three small airfields across Tarrant County for new pilots: Hicks Field near Saginaw, Barron Field near Everman, and Benbrook Field just north of Benbrook. Through these training centers, Allied air power expanded rapidly, but most closed in the years after the war ended.
Though the federal government experimented with delivery of the mail as early as 1911, regular air mail service did not begin until May 1918. Texas air mail routes would not become available until the mid-1920s. Meanwhile, aviation continued to expand across Texas in spite of post-war military cutbacks. The City of Dallas purchased Love Field from the army in 1927, and other cities began constructing their own air fields while private aviation firms and passenger airlines began operating.
As for Foulois and Paulhan, they remained respected figures in aviation. Both survived World War I as decorated war heroes. Paulhan was a special guest on Air France’s inaugural non-stop jet flight from Paris to Los Angeles in 1960. He lived quietly in France until his death in 1963. Foulois eventually became head of the army air corps and retired as a major general in 1935 and lived his later years on the grounds of Andrews Air Force Base before his death in 1967.
Today, aviation continues to a large role in the state’s economy, from both military and civilian efforts. Texas today is home to some of the busiest airports in the world, boasts aerospace manufacturing firms, and serves as the headquarters for some of the nation’s largest airlines. By 2017, after a century of flight, aviation had grown to a multi-billion dollar industry in the state, employing more than 135,000 Texans.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.