Aviation Day: A time to celebrate the evolution of flight

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jake Jacobsen
  • 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
The development of aviation has changed the way of life for many around the globe and has played a critical role in the military and the U.S.'s success in wars and conflicts throughout the decades; aviation has had such as significant impact that President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Aug. 19, National Aviation Day, as a federal holiday in 1939.

Aviation was born on a barren sandy shore when Wilbur and Orville Wright made history by accomplishing man's first controlled flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Dec. 17, 1903.

Four flights were flown that day on a gasoline-powered, propeller-driven biplane. The first flight, operated by Orville, stayed airborne for 12 seconds and covered a distance of 120 feet on its initial flight. The fourth flight, flown by Wilbur, was the longest at 59 seconds and covered a range of 852 feet.

These four flights became known as the foundation for man's successful conquest of airpower through aviation.

It didn't take long for the U.S. military to see aviation as the way forward and a necessity for future operations. In 1909, the U.S. Army's Signal Corps purchased a specially constructed plane and the brothers founded the Wright Company to build and market their aircraft.

"From the moment the first plane rose into the air, it would forever change how wars would be fought," said Capt. Allen Dunn, 41st Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot. "Before aviation, the world used the same methods and strategies of warfare but the power of flight has created that streak of innovation, enabling us to move forward in tactics."

The Signal Corps relinquished control of aviation in 1914 when the Air Corps was established as a separate branch of the U.S. Army.

During the commencement of World War I, heavier-than-aircraft were used only for visual reconnaissance since their engines could carry little more than a pilot. When the U.S. entered WWI, the Aviation Section had only a small number of airplanes. Most of which were already outdated or inoperable.

Following the armistice, Nov. 11, 1918, demobilization of the Air Service was rapid and thorough to match what Congress considered satisfactory for peacetime.

In June 1941, the War Department approved the establishment of an Army Air Field in Columbus, Mississippi as a pilot training base for fighters and bombers. Planned as a twin-engine advanced flying school, the new air base used many trainers, including the AT-8, AT-9, AT 10, and B-25. For administrative travel, Columbus used the AT-6 and BC-1A.

On Dec. 7, 1941, an aerial attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated that the use of airpower had become decisive. World War II brought military aviation to the forefront of the industry and significantly increased its production along with training.

The aftermath of World War II pushed Columbus to graduate 195 pilots per month. A total of 7,766 students came to Columbus flying school for pilot training during the war. Of these, 7,412 graduated and received their wings and commissioned.

When the Allied armada hit D-day beaches, Allied planes by the thousands protected ships and troops from air attack and bombed the enemy's defenses.

America's aeronautical contribution culminated in the form of the B-29 Superfortress that hastened the end of the war. The B-29 was a four-engine bomber that could fly farther, faster and had more destructive firepower than other bombers in the sky.

"Aviation transformed the dynamic of warfare," Dunn said. "It has enabled our military to have global vigilance, reach, and power around the world in an incredibly short amount of time. It has increased the pace of warfare, making everything obtainable faster like supplies, munitions, military troops."

After seeing the first British jet fly, U.S. Army Air Forces Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold started the XP-59 project in April 1941. The XP-59A Airacomet was unveiled as America's first jet aircraft in 1945.

Meanwhile, the mighty B-36 peacemaker strategic bomber bolstered the strategic deterrence during the transition from propellers to jet bombers.

"The accelerated pace of technological advancements and capabilities allowed for more thinking outside the box," said Capt. Chris Bodtke, 41st Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot. "The functions that had already existed for decades were improved while simultaneously cutting the time it took to perform those tasks."

Following WWII, the War Department noticed the impact airpower had on the outcome of the war and designated the Air Force as the newest branch of the military on Sept. 18, 1947. The Air Force became a separate service with equal status to the two other forces, after 40 years in the Army.

When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the U.S. Air Force was not ready to deploy forces over vast distances in a short time.

To handle increased pilot requirements for the Korean War, Air Training Command activated Columbus AFB again on Dec. 20, 1950, as a station for a contract flying school. To manage the base, ATC established the 3301st Training Squadron (Contract Flying) on March 1, 1951.

As military research and development continued the U.S. produced the F-100 Super Sabre supersonic jet fighter aircraft that served with the U.S. Air Force from 1954 to 1971. The F-100 was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in a level flight.

On June 1, 1972, Air Training Command activated the 14th Flying Training Wing which continues today as the host organization at Columbus AFB and as the trainer of the best pilots in the world.

Today, Columbus AFB mission is specialized undergraduate pilot training in the T-6 Texan II, T-38C Talon and T-1A Jayhawk aircraft averaging 260 sorties a day. Pilots after graduating go on to fly descendants of the F-100 and B-29 such as the F-35 Lightening II and the B-1 Lancer.

"Imagination is what brought about the first plane and allowed man further explore the possibilities of flight," Bodtke said. "Now, as we continue taking aviation to new heights, it is going to continue to change into the future and look completely different just as it has been doing for the last century."

(Editor’s note: Information from this story was contributed by aiaa.org and nps.gov)