1917 - World War I
Kelly Air Force Base is the oldest, continuously active air base in the United States
Air Force today. The history of Kelly begins only 13 years after Orville
and Wilbur Wright made their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. From that quiet
beginning, American airpower has emerged as a vital element of our national
defense. For over 70 years the men and women of Kelly have been a part of
that process, helping defend the United States against any challenge to its
liberty and freedom.
Aviation first came to San Antonio in 1910 when First Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois, at that time the Army's only pilot flying the Army's only aircraft, successfully conducted experiments with ground troops at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, from his Wright Flyer. In the spring of 1911, Lieutenants Paul W. Beck, John C. Walker & George M. Kelly joined Foulois at Fort Sam Houston after learning to fly at Glenn H. Curtiss' flying school at North Island, San Diego, California.
On May 10 1911, the Alamo City experienced its first air fatality when Lieutenant Kelly crashed trying to land a Curtiss "pusher" aircraft. After Kelly's death, the commanding general at Fort Sam Houston forbade further flying at his post, and military aviation left San Antonio for several years.
Military aviation returned to San Antonio four years later when Foulois brought the 1st Aero Squadron to Fort Sam Houston in 1915. He then led the squadron into Mexico to join General John J. Pershing's troops against Pancho Villa's marauding guerrillas. However, the poor showing of the Air Service's 1st Aero Squadron during the 1916 Mexican Punitive Expedition contrasted greatly with the daily demonstration in Europe of aviation's combat potential.This prompted Congress in August 1916 to provide $13.3 million for military aeronautics and increase the strength of the aviation section.
Consequently, Foulois returned to San Antonio in November to choose a site for a new aviation center that would accommodate the rapidly expanding Aviation Section. On November 21, 1916, General George Scriven, Chief of the Signal Corps, visited San Antonio and approved Foulois' choice of a 700-acre tract of land seven miles south of the city adjacent to the Missouri-Pacific railroad.
In December 1916, Congress authorized the lease of the land;
and by March 1917, men from the newly formed 3rd Aero Squadron were hard at
work clearing the cotton plants and laying foundation for hangars and mess
halls. On April 5, 1917, one day before the United States entered World War I,
four JN-4 "Jennies"landed at the new field.
Kelly Field, named for George M. Kelly , the first military pilot killed in an airplane crash at nearby Fort Sam Houston in 1911, was one of 14 schools in the country conducting primary flight training during World War I. The school trained aviators, mechanics and support personnel for war duty. After additional land was acquired, the field was divided into Kelly Number 1 (later renamed Duncan Field) and Kelly Number 2. The Air Service Advanced Flying School, which headquartered at Kelly Number 2, trained pilots including Charles Lindbergh, Curtis LeMay and numerous future Air Force chiefs of staff. By the end of World War I, more than 250,000 men had passed through the facility. After World War I, rapid demobilization followed, and primary training at Kelly was discontinued. In 1922 the U.S. Air Corps decided to consolidate its flight training at two fields, Kelly Field and Brooks Field, which was named the Air Corps Training Center. Later, in 1931, all primary training was consolidated at the newly completed Randolph Field, to the north of San Antonio, Texas.
World War I
American entry into the "Great War" brought tremendous expansion to the embryonic field. Thousands of recruits poured through Kelly's gate, and tent cities sprang up to accommodate them. On June 11, 1917, the Army named the new field in honor of Lieutenant Kelly, the first American aviator to lose his life while piloting a military aircraft.
By the end of June, it was clear that Foulois' original site, known unofficially as Kelly Field Number 1, was too small to train both new recruits and aviation cadets. Working closely with the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the Army leased more land to the north of the first site to expand its training area. Field Number 2 became home to the flying training center.
Kelly soldiers organized approximately 250,000 men into aero squadrons during the hectic months of 1917 and 1918. The Enlisted Mechanics Training Department turned out an average of 2,000 mechanics and chauffeurs a month. Most of the American-trained World War I aviators learned to fly at this field, with 1,459 pilots and 398 flying instructors graduating from Kelly schools during the course of the war. The Aviation General Supply Depot moved to the field from its old location in downtown San Antonio.
The thousands of enlistees who came to Kelly devised numerous ways to entertain themselves during their infrequent time off. Among these organizations were a glee club, a minstrel show, and the "Famous Kelly Field Players," a club of professional vaudeville entertainers in uniform. Many clubs traveled around the South Texas area and gained fame for the morale-building shows.
At the end of the war, the air Service, along with the rest of the Army, faced crucial reductions. Thousands of officers and enlisted men were released, leaving only 10,000 men to fly and repair the planes and engines left over from the war. Hundreds of small flying fields closed, forcing consolidation of supply and aviation repair depots. Kelly, however, was one of the few that remained open. In 1921, the aviation repair depot in Dallas moved to Kelly to join with the supply depot, forming the San Antonio Intermediate Air Depot.
The Advanced Flying School moved to Kelly Field Number 2 in 1922. There, student pilots mastered the advanced skills of pursuit, bombardment, attack, and observation. Most of the Army aviators trained between the two World Wars attended this school. Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, graduated from the Advanced Flying School in 1925. Other graduates included former Air Force Chiefs of Staff Generals Thomas D. White, Curtis R. LeMay, John P. McConnell, Hoyt Bandenberg, and John D. Ryan. Major General Claire Chennault of World War II “Flying Tiger” fame taught at the school.
In 1925, Kelly Field Number 1 was renamed Duncan Field in honor of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Duncan. Formerly stationed at Kelly Field, Duncan died in an airplane accident at Bolling Field in Washington, DC. Kelly Field number 2 became simply, Kelly Field. Both fields conducted their training, maintenance, command, and supply functions separately for the next 18 years.
Low pay and worn-out planes and equipment did not halt the small band of mechanics and fliers from proving their professional dedication. Army personnel pushed forward the frontiers of aeronautics in the 1920s. The aircraft used for Jimmy Doolittle's 1922 transcontinental flight received preflight servicing at Kelly Number 1. Kelly Number 2 was Doolittle's sole refueling stop during the flight itself. In 1926, Kelly was the starting point of the Pan American Goodwill Flight. Their air excursion was a 175-day adventure to "show the flag," with five planes and 10 pilots landing at 23 Central and South American countries. Captain Ira Eaker, Commander of the 8th Air Force during World War II and a Kelly graduate, was one of the pilots of that enterprise.