Georgia Tech’s Aeronautics Genesis: Pilot Ground Training for WWI

ATLANTA, GA, Oct 19, 2017 — During World War I, while the Allies and the Central Powers fought the largest war to date, innovation was occurring. The Allies began developing “land-ships” – later known as tanks – in 1915, which began to see use in 1916.  However, the major development of this was airborne warfare. WWI kicked off in June of 1914, a mere 11 years after the Wright Brothers developed their first functioning airplane, the Kitty Hawk Flyer. Since WWI was the first to take war fighting to the skies, there was a shortage of people trained to fly an airplane. France had a fleet of airplanes, with not nearly enough trained pilots.

In April of 1917, the Unites States entered the war, joining Britain, France, and Russia under the command of Major General John J. Pershing. In the time between the US entering the war and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles with Germany on June 28, 1919 and subsequent treaties with Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Turkey, the US would play a pivotal role in filling the empty cockpits.

In July of 1917, the Army Signal Corp contracted The Georgia School of Technology (now The Georgia Institute of Technology) to open the School of Military Aeronautics. This contract consisted of the set forth dates of July 1, 1917- June 30, 2018 to train officers and enlisted soldiers of the Aviation Section of the Signal Reserve Corps. This was signed into agreements by Charles O. DeVore, John L. Cary, and Capt. A.C. Downey of the Signal Corps, alongside Duke C. Meredith, Walter F. Mehrlich and N.E.Harris, under which terms the Georgia School of Technology should be paid a maximum of $65.00 per student ($1,364 in 2017 dollars) it trained.

Though, during WWI, military aircraft were not used like they are today:  to fight war.  Instead, they were intended to be used as observational tools. There were classes taught on all aspects of flight and observation. They also hosted a gunnery school, even though the intent was not that these aircraft be used for open combat; they were a precious asset. Thus, pilots were taught to shoot the on-board weaponry. Simply put, observation is useless if the information is not able to be relayed and used to the advantage of the Allies.

The School was a four-week course that was meant to train soldiers prior to Flight School in some cases. After taking courses in Aeronautical Motors, Theory of Flight, Cross Country and General Flying, Aerial Observation, Gunnery, Signaling and Radio, Infantry Drill and Calisthenics, these men were then either recommended for Flight School or to be sent on to different units based on how well they performed during training.  This was critical to the war efforts, as there were airplanes, but very few trained pilots to fly them.

The school saw anywhere between 200 to 600 men cycle through each week. The school recommended anywhere from 10 to 30 students per week, based on test scores, to proceed on to Flight School.  As the war effort was winding down, so did the school. As of May, 1918, the Georgia School of Technology’s School of Military Aeronautics was dissolved. Many of the pilots-in-training were then redirected to Princeton University to finish their ground school.

Interestingly, the Yellow Jacket Flying Club is offering, this year, a Private Pilot Ground School for $30.00, during what marks the 100th year anniversary of the inception of the School of Military Aeronautics. Teaching many of the same classes, only instead of four weeks full-time, the YJFC is offering the course over six weeks part-time. Additionally, this course is limited to 27 students, all of whom will thoroughly enjoy the pleasures of flight. The 200-600 that marched their way through the school 100 years ago paid for their training with the ultimate sacrifice. Let us never forget them and Georgia Tech’s critical support to winning one of the worst wars ever by efficiently training its first aeronautical students.