The Liberty Gazette
July 18, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Upon learning of our upcoming book, “10 Years of Ely Air Lines” and our new company, Paper Airplane Publishing, my friend Katie asked, “What else will you be publishing, do-it-yourself flight instruction? Lt. Foulois learned to fly by mail. From Wilbur or Orville. Did you know that? I think he was at Ft. Sam Houston.”
Some of the best conversations I have are with Katie, and after brushing up on U.S. Army Major General Benjamin Foulois (pronounced foo-loy) I thought of you, who might also enjoy landing on a page of lesser known history. I’ve learned that when I hear an interesting tidbit there’s always more to the story, and Benny Foulois does not disappoint.
The Signal Corps played a significant role in the development of military aviation. In 1906 the young lieutenant went to Army Signal School and that’s where he became interested in flying. His final thesis, “The Tactical and Strategical Value of Dirigible Balloons and Aerodynamical Flying Machines” included:
“In all future warfare, we can expect to see engagements in the air between hostile aerial
fleets. The struggle for supremacy in the air will undoubtedly take place while the
opposing armies are maneuvering for position.”
A visionary, he forecast a hundred and nine years ago that airplanes would replace horses in reconnaissance, and even imagined wireless air-to-ground communication, including transmitting photographs. His ambition and smarts won him a seat on the new aeronautical board that would accept aircraft for testing, which led to him being the first military crewman.
He flew and crashed a few times in those early airplanes and flew once with Orville Wright. But when the Wright brothers were too busy to teach him to fly, they mailed instructions. Katie was right, he learned to fly by mail, or at least as a supplement to the school of hard knocking crashes.
The Army sent him to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, telling him to teach himself to fly. At 9:30 a.m. on March 2, 1910, he did just that. From the Arthur MacArthur parade field in “S.C. No. 1”, also sometimes called “Military Aircraft No. 1”, he logged his first solo takeoff, first solo landing, and his first solo crash, and established the Army Air Force.
Later he flew reconnaissance for General Pershing, searching for Pancho Villa, and led the first American aerial dogfights against the Germans during World War I.
He wrote in his memoir, “From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts” that he wanted to be remembered for “establishing the ‘can-do’ spirit that has become traditional among our American airmen.” In 1963 on the television quiz show I've Got a Secret, his secret was that he had once been the entire U.S. Air Force. His memoir was republished in 2010 as “Foulois: One-Man Air Force”.
While I did not discover any personal connection to the arts, there is a school in Maryland named for him, the Benjamin D. Foulois Creative and Performing Arts Academy, which embraces his spirit in their motto, “Opportunities Abound...Possibilities are Endless”.