The Birth of Powered Flight and Air-to-Ground Communications

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. William M. Higginbotham, Air Force Network Integration Center Superintendent

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Illinois – 1903 was a monumental year for heavier-than-air flight and communications expansion. Just as a fledgling Signals Corps Lieutenant, William “Billy” Mitchell, was finishing his assignment to place 500 miles of telegraph wire in the Alaskan territory, Orville and Wilber Wright were preparing to launch the first airplane into flight. The Wright brothers’ ambitious achievement December 17, 1903, heralded the beginning of capabilities that would eventually lead to an independent United States Air Force. The following 40 years would prove to be the pioneering era for both powered flight and electronic communications.

Communications through wired telegraph from balloons had already been demonstrated during the Civil War. The next evolution was to show that airplanes of the day could send, and also receive, radio telegraphic messages in flight. After first demonstrating the transmission of messages from an airplane in flight to a grandstand at a race track in New York, young lieutenants began demonstrating the military application of communications technology. In 1911, Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois made reconnaissance reports to Signal Corps stations along the Mexican border while in flight. Additionally, in November 1912, Lieutenants Henry H. Arnold, J.O. Mauborgne, and Follett Bradley used radio telegraphy from a Wright Model C Flyer to adjust artillery fires during an air-directed bombing demonstration.

Dots and dashes were replaced by human voice in February 1917. By the end of 1917, air-to-ground radiotelephone sets were in full production and were being placed in aircraft and ground stations alike. Communications distances were also increasing. In 1915, the range of radios was only two miles. In 1917, radiotelephone sets were reaching other aircraft at 25 miles away and ground stations at 45 miles away. As the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps gained more knowledge in shielding ignition systems, bonding, and metallizing their aircraft and radio sets, the clarity of voice communications improved. Long range communications began to enable long distance flying, creating new challenges for aviation pioneers to overcome.

In 1922, the Air Corps established the Model Airways to promote long distance flying, and to provide aerial transportation of government officials and express cargo on regularly scheduled time tables. The established route included stops at Bolling, Langley, McCook, Mitchell, Chanute, Selfridge, and Wilbur Wright Fields. Each of these flying fields established radio stations to support flight operations, but each station operated independently and not as a “system”. Airfield operations and communications fell under the responsibility of the local commander, and each commander’s efforts were not coordinated with the others. This caused weather and flight messages to be treated as routine, often resulting in aircraft arriving at the next stop before the message of their departure was sent from the previous location.

As long distance flight became more prevalent, the need for navigational capabilities grew. Instruments were added to aircraft to provide information that pilots would not normally have. In September 1929, radio signals and an altimeter provided the means for Lieutenant James H. Doolittle to make the very first instrument landing. Procedures were developed in 1933 for instrument flight over land and water in order to improve aerial frontier defense. In the following year, President Roosevelt cancelled commercial air carrier contracts in order to renegotiate them. The Air Corps was asked to pick up the slack and carry the mail on commercial routes for the next three months. These three months saw 10 fatalities on the commercial routes, calling into question the capabilities of military fliers. This prompted the addition of two-way radios and blind flying instruments for every plane in the force.

In an attempt to recover some of the prestige the Air Corps had lost, as well as validate long range frontier defense, Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. “Hap” Arnold coordinated a long distance flight of 8,290 miles between Bolling Field, Washington D.C., and Alaska. Signal ground stations were alerted to give the flight of 10 Martin B-10 bombers high priority as they traversed the route. Equipped with a new interphone capability and a crude radio compass, the formation of B-10 bombers was able to remain in constant contact with ground stations and the mission was completed without mishap. Arnold was awarded the Mackay Trophy and a Distinguished Flying Cross. The success garnered some much needed positive publicity. More importantly, the outcome of this flight clearly demonstrated the need for an integrated air communications system to ensure the safety of travel in the air. However, it would be another four years before our peacetime nation grew concerned enough to grant the resources necessary to enact the plan Arnold built as a result of his long distance flight.

By direction of the War Department, 1938 saw the establishment of the Army Airways Communications System (AACS). Its primary purpose was to provide ground-air and air-ground communications between AACS stations within the continental United States, in order to promote safety of flight and the facilitation of flying operations. In all, the continental United States had 33 stations divided into three communications control regions. HQ Army Air Corps, Directorate of Communications authorized 300 enlisted men to carry out the mission of this new system. A new radio school was stood up at Scott Field, providing support to the increasing need for radio operators. Notable graduates of what was to become known as the “Communications University of the Army Air Corps” were Medal of Honor winner Technical Sergeant Forrest L. Vosler and the eventual first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Paul W. Airey.

New overseas stations such as Alaska, Hawaii and Newfoundland started to fold into the AACS. Other new locations would continue to grow the network of ground stations in support of air travel around the globe. The attack on Pearl Harbor turned the deliberate plans for expansion of air navigation routes into an immediate wartime necessity. The AACS expanded rapidly to support both the Pacific and European war theatres. Just after WWII started rolling, the AACS was threatened with disintegration. Since the AACS was just a system and not an organization, there was no authority to continue to develop a centrally controlled and unified communications system. Since communications was not yet fully understood, the AACS had less consideration in terms of importance. Due to continuing wartime operations overseas, five of the newly established regions were made AACS headquarters for their areas. This, along with Army Air Forces HQ‘s decision to move all operations to the field, contributed to the creation of the AACS as an official organization. The first AACS Wing under the newly established Flight Control Command was born 26 April, 1943. Thus began the proud forerunner of today’s Air Force Network Integration Center.