By Mark Wilderman, 375th Air Mobility Wing History Office
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — During WWI, Scott Field’s primary mission was to train pilots and ground crews for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) being deployed to France to fight Imperial Germany. On 2 September 1917, the very first training flight occurred at Scott Field.
Background. On 12 August 1917, Airmen of the 11th and 21st Aero Squadrons of the U.S. Army Air Service (consisting of 300 men) arrived at the newly-built Scott Field from Kelly Field near San Antonio, Texas. At Kelly Field, the Airmen had been accustomed to living in canvas tents with dust and cacti. The sight of the new white wooden buildings at Scott Field made the Airmen cheer as they marched up the streets on Sunday morning. Construction of Scott Field was completed on 1 September 1917, slightly over two months after work had begun. . However, Scott Field had no airplanes, as the first shipment had been delayed in transit. It is believed that one or two Standard J-1 trainer aircraft were borrowed from Rantoul Field, Illinois to make Scott Fields’s first training flight.
The Inaugural 1917 Flying Season. Soon after the first flight, there were at least seven Standard J-1s at Scott Field, before the superior Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny” trainers arrived in early September. More suitable to pilot training, the Jenny soon replaced the Standard J-1 as the primary training machine. A distinctive feature of the Jenny was its dual control. The eight cylinder, 90-horsepower Jenny could be operated from either the front or rear seat position. With each of the hangars capable of housing six airplanes, Scott’s full assignment was expected to be 72 airplanes. Formal flying instruction began on 11 September 1917 when civilian instructor pilot T.C. Jones took Cadet James H. Maupin fir the first airplane training flight, over nearly 100 envious cadets watching from the ground. On 28 September 1917, pilot trainee, Cadet Merrit O. White, made the first solo flight. Scott Field’s first aircraft mishap occurred on 17 September 1917, when instructor Curtis Jones’ Jenny #13 plunged to the ground with its nose, turning completely over. Fortunately, Mr. Jones was not seriously injured. A greater mishap occurred the next day, when Sgt A.L. Alexander, a 30-year-old aircraft mechanic, was killed instantly when a spinning propeller struck him on the back of the head, a sobering reminder of how dangerous early flight could be.
The flying cadets received only the rudiments of flying and airplane maintenance at Scott Field. By the end of September, flying instruction had progressed to the point where it was not uncommon for visitors to see as many as 15 airplanes in the air at once. Because there were no paved runways, chaos was avoided by requiring student pilots to take off and land from a large circle located in the center of the flying field. By the end of September, the Airmen of the 11th and 21st Aero Squadrons were joined by the 85th and 86th Aero Squadrons from Kelly Field and 20 aviation students from the Ground School at Champaign, Illinois, bringing Scott Field’s population close to its capacity of 1000 men.
In addition to pilot training, an Airplane Mechanics School was organized to give instruction on such subjects as remodeling and rebuilding, crew chief duties, motor repair, woodworking, propeller making, rigging, and aligning. An Enlisted Man’s School and a Transportation School were also established.
When the 1917 flying season ended on 16 December. 24 cadet had completed the Reserve military aviator course and received commissions as second lieutenants with another 56 cadets completing their flying training requirements at airfields in France or at other fields in the U.S., possibly due to a shortage of airplanes and instructors at Scott Field. Lieutenant Paul Prevost, temporarily on loan from the French Army, and civilian instructors Couch, Hill, Jones, and Lewis guided these first students through the trials and thrills of flying. By mid-December, the civilian instructors had left for Gerstner Field at Lake Charles, Louisiana. Little else is known of the 1917 pilot training program. The Allies’ urgent need for aerial firepower and reconnaissance on the Western Front meant that the 1917 pilot training program at Scott Field had to be developed with all haste.. Lacking the benefit of an extensive, formalized training program, each student was forced to pick up the basics of flying as best he could.
Sources: 375th Airlift Wing History Office Archive; The Illustrated History of Scott AFB, 1917-1987 by Betty R. Kennedy, Military Airlift Command History Office, September 1987