Celebrating Air Force heritage: The “Great Centennial” squadrons

  • Published
  • By Gary Boyd
  • AETC Command Historian
This calendar year has marked many great anniversaries, including the 75th anniversary of Air Training Command and the 70th anniversary of the Air Force. August  marks the 110th anniversary of the Aeronautical Division of the Sign Corps—an unbroken line of Airmen began with its creation on Aug. 1, 1907. This year also marks the 100th Anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, and with it, some 43 active duty and reserve flying squadrons also celebrate or have celebrated their 100th anniversary. Their century of service reinforces something we all know implicitly—the enduring value of the squadron as the core of our Air Force. 

While there has been much refinement in the character of the other Air Force organizations from numbered Air Forces, wings and groups over our history, the basic Air Force aerial framework at the squadron level has changed very little. Certainly names and missions of these squadrons have changed, but the essential fabric of a squadron commander, first sergeant and the arrayed staff and flight teams are largely the same. It is the essential Air Force unit, because squadrons have often been attached and recombined into lethal fighting elements—retaining their organic identity while fighting our nation’s wars.

The 1st Aero Squadron was the only active aerial squadron in the Signal Corps when World War I commenced in Europe in August 1914. It had on strength six aircraft, 12 officers and 54 enlisted personnel. Though small and badly resourced, the most essential formation in the Air Force was already recognizably organized. Initially each aviation company in a squadron was supposed to have a commander and first sergeant, but their small, functional size made this inefficient, making the squadron the center of basic leadership functions. 

By World War I, U.S. squadrons were broken into two or more functional flights to help with maintenance and operations, just as the Royal Flying Corps was arranged. Because of the unique nature of flying activities, the squadron moved quickly towards its modern character—a formation dedicated to aerial operations, maintenance and support functions, unlike other Army units. With the world at war, the fledgling air service expanded as quickly as it could into 24 active and National Guard squadrons by early 1917, the result of a massive influx of “deficiency” funds from Congress to build a credible Air Force. The continued influx of personnel, and the investment in training and new aircraft, eventually allowed for the air service to reach about 10 percent of all Allied strength by Armistice Day. By that time, Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell had mastered the art of concentrating air forces which had helped speed the war to an end.

The sheer number of units celebrating their centennials speaks to the grave conditions which spawned their birth. A case could be made that 1917 was the watershed in American air power history for this reason. While only two units in Air Education and Training Command are celebrating their centennial this year, the 87th Flying Training Squadron at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, and the 48th FTS at Columbus AFB, Mississippi, most of the other units were formed either as part of a training cadre at several American air bases, or formed at the advanced flying fields of France at Issoudun. 

Training was the common thread that united every aero squadron in 1917. There was no combat-ready squadron ready to fly under the American Expeditionary Forces flag in 1917 (though Americans would become aces and heroes in foreign units such as the Lafayette Escadrille). As these squadrons trained to fill the void, they became resilient teams bound by incredibly swift commitment to the war effort. Training made the difference. Even with a force with little experience, American aircraft enjoyed a 4:1 victory ratio over their enemies and counted 72 aces among its number. 

American air power went from negligible to decisive in the space of barely a year. American squadrons spent more time in flight training and mastering aerial weapons than their counterparts and a tradition of providing pilots with a winning syllabus and realistic experience prior to commitment to battle continues to this day in AETC’s advanced flying squadrons.

We have come almost full circle in a way in 2017. It can be said that all squadrons are trained and readied for action by a single force development commander controlling the cycles of training. The squadron as the essential Air Force unit had been conceived primarily for aircraft; but other units, support, space and missile squadrons for example, have continued that heritage and can lean on some of the giants of Air Force history for inspiration. 

It is good to pause for a time and embrace the Air Force’s roots in this year of anniversaries, to think about how far we have come and what the next century of aerospace power will bring us. All will be well as long as our squadrons remain as they were conceived: cohesive, flexible, strong and expeditionary—and conceived for a mission of some gravity.