He was called "the George Washington of military aviation," yet few people today have ever heard of Lt. Benjamin Foulois.
On Tuesday morning, I attended a ceremony at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, marking the 100th anniversary of Lt. Foulois' first solo flight of a U.S. military aircraft. That fabric, wood and wire flying machine was just a slightly-improved version of the Wright Brother's first airplane, which had flown only 7 years earlier.
Foulois had flown as an aircraft passenger with Orville Wright at the controls in 1909. Less than a year later, Foulois was sent to San Antonio and told to teach himself how to fly, using a Wright "B" Flyer.
On the morning of March 2, 1910, he took off from Fort Sam's parade ground and flew for seven-and-a-half minutes. He made three other flights that day, crash-landing on the final one. He walked away from that crash and, for a short time, Foulois was a one man air force.
From that humble beginning, came the U.S. Army Air Service, later the U.S. Army Air Corps, which became the Army Air Forces during World War II. In 1947, the U.S. Air Force became a separate branch of the military.
Foulois lived to see it all. He remained a champion of airpower and later rose to the rank of two-star general and chief of the Air Corps before retiring in 1935.
Tuesday's ceremony brought some glimpses of 1910 back to Fort Sam's parade grounds with a replica of the Foulois's two-winged Wright "B" Flyer taxiing up and down the field to the delight of onlookers. At the same time, another replica of the biplane was flying high overheard, making two appearances that morning. One Army general at the ceremony looked at the flimsy contraption and exclaimed, "There is not enough alcohol in the world that could make me get up in that."
A red 1909 Cadillac was on display at the ceremony as were a squad of reenactors wearing 1910 Army unforms and performing military drills.
It was a fine ceremony and helped bring a piece of history back to life, if only for a few hours on a chilly March morning.
Driving back to Victoria that afternoon, I spotted a Air Force jet aircraft pass overhead. That sight reminded me of how far technology has come in a century: From a flight in a flimsy aircraft to a nation that has landed men on the moon and is now considering a manned mission to Mars.
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