Aviation enthusiasts gathered Thursday at the site of the U.S. military’s first airplane flight, which took place in the skies above Fort Sam Houston 113 years ago.
On March 2, 1910, Army 1st Lt. Benjamin Foulois piloted a flight that lasted fewer than eight minutes but launched a legacy of military aviation in San Antonio that continues today.
The U.S. Army purchased its first airplane from Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1909, intending to fly it near Washington, D.C. After several weather delays, they instead sent the Wright biplane to San Antonio, so that Foulois could develop procedures to use the then-novel machine to move information more quickly between the front of the battle and commanders in the rear.
“Foulois’s curiosity, ingenuity and bravery laid the foundation of military aviation from its humble Army roots to what is now superiority in the air and to what we know as the world’s greatest Air Force,” said Dave Petersen, interim president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, at a commemoration of the flight held Thursday.
On the day of the first flight, Foulois coaxed the 30-horsepower, two-propeller biplane to a height of 200 feet — barely over one-fourth the height of today’s Tower of the Americas in downtown San Antonio. He took off at 9:30 a.m. and circled the parade grounds at 50 mph before landing. He took off three more times that day.
“Not only did he make the first successful takeoff, the first successful sustained powered flight in military aviation, and the first successful landing, on his fourth iteration he had the first crash,” said Lt. Gen. John Evans, commander of U.S. Army North and the Fifth Army. “So it’s worth remembering that to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Foulois returned to the skies several days later, after repairing the aircraft. Foulois taught himself to fly by exchanging letters with the Wright brothers. According to Air Force historians, he flew the first dirigible balloon purchased by the U.S. government before flying as an observer with Orville Wright from Fort Meyer, Virginia, to Alexandria, Virginia. On that flight, they broke speed, altitude and duration aircraft records and met the War Department’s contract requirements for its first “heavier-than-air craft.”
Foulois made many mechanical improvements, including a seatbelt after almost being thrown from the airplane during a turbulent flight and wheels instead of skids, that were incorporated into future airplane designs as he flew in the skies above Texas. He also demonstrated radio communications from the airplane and eventually helped organize the Air Corps for wartime victories.
“I don’t think when Benjamin Foulois joined the Army in 1898 … he ever foresaw the impact that he would have on our military aviation community, and our entire military structure writ large,” said Evans, who is also an Army aviator. “Because of what Foulois did, it empowered us so much as we moved forward in military aviation.”
Foulois returned to San Antonio in 1916 as a major and worked with the city and chamber of commerce staff to expand military aviation in the area.
They settled on 7,000 acres on the southwest side of San Antonio for Kelly Field, where thousands of pilots, including Charles Lindbergh, trained before it became a major repair depot after World War II. Lackland Air Force Base, now the first stop for all enlisted airmen and Space Force guardians, was part of the original Kelly Field and made a separate installation in the 1940s.
Brooks Field on the southeast corner of San Antonio opened in 1917 to train balloon pilots and later hosted, in addition to other missions, the Air Force’s School of Aerospace Medicine. Researchers there helped advance manned space flights and were a part of the race to the moon.
Speaking at the dedication ceremony for the School of Aerospace Medicine and the Aerospace Medical Center in November 1963 at Brooks Air Force Base, President John F. Kennedy said, “It is fitting that San Antonio should be the site of this center and this school as we gather to dedicate this complex of buildings. For this city has long been the home of the pioneers in the air.”
As part of the Base Realignment and Closure process in the late 1990s, Brooks Air Force Base was transitioned from military use. The property was conveyed to the Brooks Development Authority in 2002 through a partnership among the local, state and federal government. Known now simply as Brooks, the mixed-use development now is home to businesses and residential areas.
Randolph Field sprung up in June 1930 after the San Antonio Chamber helped acquire the land and quickly became known as “The West Point of the Air.” Thousands of recruits have earned pilot wings at Randolph Air Force base over the years, and most instructor pilots still learn how to train new pilots at the base on the northeast side of San Antonio.
“The chamber is proud to have been a part of what has grown into the largest joint base in the Department of Defense, and it is a legacy we don’t take lightly,” said Peterson, a retired Air Force pilot and general.
Before he retired as a major general in 1935, Foulois was also instrumental in designing and organizing what would later become the United States Air Force, Evans said.
“The story of military aviation is really the story of aviation writ large,” said Evans. “And as you take a look at all of the people that work in the aviation industry across our country, we have the most thriving aviation industry in the world. And it all kind of rolls back to what Foulois did here in 1910.”