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The Flight Path to Independence

SAF/PA 2003 Air Force Public Affairs

Celebrating the Air Force's 56th Birthday, 2003

This year marks the 56th anniversary of the creation of the Air Force as a separate service. With the stroke of a pen, President Harry Truman created an independent Department of the Air Force, equal in importance to the Departments of the Army and the Navy. 

Just three months from now, on December 17, we also will mark the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' historic flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It took from 1903 to 1947 - almost half a century - for the Air Force to achieve its independence from the Army. And yet, the history of the Air Force is interwoven with the history of aviation itself. 

I think it was more than symbolic that Truman signed this momentous piece of legislation, the National Security Act of 1947, while flying aboard his official aircraft - a C-54, the predecessor of today's "Air Force One." Ironically, it was known as the "Sacred Cow" during the Truman Administration - ironic, because more than a few of the Army's and Navy's "sacred cows" were affected by the long struggle to create an independent Air Force. 

Even after the Wright Brothers showed that powered flight was possible, the skeptics weren't entirely convinced of the airplane's usefulness. In October 1910 - seven years after the first flight - the respected publication Scientific American published an editorial that made clear they didn't think the airplane had much of a future in warfare: 

"Outside of scouting duties, we are inclined to think that the field of usefulness of the aeroplane will be rather limited. Because of its small carrying capacity, and the necessity for its operating at great altitude if it is to escape hostile fire, the amount of damage it will do by dropping explosives upon cities, forts, hostile camps or bodies of troops in the field, to say nothing of battleships at sea, will be so limited as to have no material effects on the issues of a campaign." 

Now, to be fair, the United States had only eight aircraft and 18 licensed pilots in 1910. That put us way behind six other countries in the world at the time - No. 1 being France, with 260 aircraft and 171 trained pilots. Even fifth-ranked Italy had 26 planes and 89 trained pilots. By 1913, Great Britain had formed the Royal Flying Corps, and by 1918, they had created a separate Royal Air Force. It would be nearly 30 more years before the United States military followed suit. 
Part of the reason military aviation was so slow in "taking off" in the United States was that we just didn't think we needed it. We had two great oceans to insulate us from attack. Plus, we had military leaders who, quite frankly, didn't see the need to shake things up and share their budget with this new and very much unproven invention. 

There were exceptions, of course. The one most people remember is Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. He was a passionate believer in the concept of air power, but he wasn't known for his diplomacy - in fact, he was pretty good at antagonizing just about everybody -- from his Army superiors to members of Congress, and even the president of the United States! He once said, "To entrust the development of aviation to either the Army or the Navy is just as sensible as entrusting the development of the electric light to a candle factory."

But eventually his outspoken ways caught up with him, and Mitchell was courtmartialled in 1925. He resigned from the service within a year, and died 10 years later. He never lived to see his strongly held beliefs vindicated in the Second World War.

Architect of an Independent Air Force 

I would argue that the man most responsible for the creation of an independent Air Force was General Henry H. Arnold. "Hap" Arnold, as he was known, believed in the value of air power as much as Billy Mitchell did. In fact, at Billy Mitchell's court-martial, Arnold testified in support of his outspoken boss. But Arnold set out to change the minds of military leaders and the public in a different way - not by badgering them or insulting them, but by showing them just how effective the airplane could be. 

Arnold commanded a flight of 10 bombers that flew nearly 8,300 miles from Washington, D.C., to Alaska and back. He encouraged aviators in the Army Air Corps to participate in speed races that spurred the development of ever-faster aviation engines and streamlined airframes. 

Arnold's continued commitment to research and development set the tone for the modern Air Force's spirit of innova tion and advanced technology. 

"Hap" Arnold worked within the Army system, not against it. The Army provided a much-needed "incubator" in which the fledgling service could develop new air power doctrine, and, most importantly, train its future leaders. 

When "Hap" Arnold became a pilot in 1911, the U.S. military owned just two airplanes. By the time Arnold retired in 1946, he had built the Army Air Force into a global aviation powerhouse, with more than 78,500 aircraft and nearly 2.4 million men. Moreover, as the only five-star general in Air Force history, Arnold also organized and led the world's greatest air armada to victory against the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific. 

World War II convinced most military leaders that air power deserved a separate armed service. In fact, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall recognized air power's great potential early in the war. As a result, he elevated Arnold to a position of prominence on the General Staff, where he was essentially the equal of the Army and Navy chiefs. Marshall also helped prepare the way for an independent Air Force. Even before the war ended, he appointed a series of panels to plan and organize the new service. 

As it turned out, the Second World War was the ultimate proving ground for air power. This global war demonstrated as nothing else could that air power deserved its own service - trained, equipped and led by aviators. Still, there remained some resistance toward a separate Air Force. The Navy, especially, feared that the Air Force would "steal" its naval aviation branch. Not to worry - both the Navy and the Marine Corps were able to retain their aviation function, while the Air Force moved further along the road to independence. 

There were other, more fundamental challenges facing early Air Force leaders. For example, how should they go about preparing a budget? How should they deal with members of Congress? The Army and Navy had been doing these things for more than 100 years, but there were very few officers in the fledgling Air Force who knew much about the intricacies of Capitol Hill and the arcane budget process. 

But the Air Force was lucky, because its first chief of staff, Gen Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, proved to have great political instincts. For example, he lobbied for the creation of an Air National Guard, in addition to the Air Force Reserve. Several of his senior officers were leery of having states and local politicians get involved in Air Force activities. But Spaatz responded simply, "How many of these states have congressmen?" Hmmm. In the end, Spaatz prevailed, and the Air National Guard has gone on to provide superb support to both states and the federal government. 

When President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, he not only created a separate Air Force, but he also laid the foundation for today's modern military operations in the Department of Defense. September 18, 1947, truly represents a momentous day in our nation's history. 

Then and Now: A lot has happened in the past 56 years since the Air Force became a separate branch of the armed forces. We have seen the dawn of the decades-long Cold War. We have also seen the end of the Cold War, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. We have seen former adversaries become our allies. We have fought wars in Southeast Asia - Korea and Vietnam - as well as in Southwest Asia, the Persian Gulf. In every one of these conflicts, whether "hot" or "cold," the Air Force has played a vital role. 

We have airlifted troops, along with their equipment, supplies, ammunition, even their buildings and runways. We have provided aerial and space-based reconnaissance, massive bombing campaigns of enemy cities, and surgical strikes on enemy forces. Technology has tremendously improved our capabilities. Today we can do amazing things with communications, "smart bombs," laser-guided weapons, and supersonic "stealth" aircraft - things they could only dream of in 1947. 

One thing that has not changed, however, is the people at the heart of our Air Force. They are the engine that propels the Air Force toward the future. Without the dedication of these trained and motivated individuals, even the best technology is useless. The swiftest planes and the most powerful satellites are nothing without the people who supply, operate and maintain them. The drive and determination of our team of active duty, reserve, guard and civilians remains unmatched. It is the young men and women who leave their families and friends to risk their lives in defense of freedom who make America's Air Force the envy of the world. 

We cannot know what challenges our people may face in the years to come. After all, who could have predicted even five years ago the terrible events of Sept. 11th, 2001, when our nation was savagely attacked by terrorists intent on destroying America. This emphasized even more, that it is our job as members of America's Air Force to be prepared for the unexpected, even the unthinkable. 

The future of our nation rests with our ability to perform our jobs, whenever and wherever we are needed. The history of America is intertwined with that of its armed services, and their ability to meet the challenges of the day. America's Air Force stands ready to serve, around the clock, around the world. Thank you for all you do in support of the finest Air Force in the world.