The young pilot struggled against dust and wind that swirled 10,000 feet above the valleys sandwiched between Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains, with only a rudimentary pair of plain glass goggles to protect his face. But he was determined to find signs of the rebel bandit Pancho Villa who had recently led a raid into New Mexico that killed eight U.S. Soldiers and 10 American civilians.
That young pilot, Capt. Benjamin Foulois, was in one of eight Curtis JN-3 “Jenny” biplanes, powered with 90-horsepower engines that had a rough time just staying airborne, much less leading a reconnaissance mission to kick off Gen. John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico. The year was 1916, little more than a decade after the Wright Brothers’ inaugural flight at Kitty Hawk and only seven years after Foulois himself learned to fly from Orville Wright and became the first military aviator.
That small unit of Jenny biplanes in search of Villa and his Mexican marauders makes a milestone in March as it turns 100 years old, having the distinction as the oldest flying squadron still in existence. Since the provisional 1st Aero Squadron unfurled its colors in Texas City, Texas, on March 5, 1913, the Airmen assigned to the unit have flown 47 different types of aircraft, the unit has had its name tweaked 14 times and has served in more than 50 locations throughout the world.
Today, it’s the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, a part of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville, Calif., with the responsibility of training high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance RQ-4 Global Hawk and U-2S pilots and sensor operators.
According to the unit’s historian, the squadron has a reputation for being a pioneer in showing the importance of airpower. “The legacy of the 1st Recon Squadron is a microcosm of the legacy of the Air Force,” said Richard Rodrigues, the 9th RW historian. “It was the organization that pioneered the first tactical deployment of U.S. military airpower, and it helped create some of our early leaders that had an impact on the Air Service and later the Air Corps.”
A little over a year after its famous recon mission over Mexico, the squadron would enter World War I, traveling from New Mexico to New York, then by ship across the Atlantic to land in France and become the first American squadron to enter the war. The 1st Aero Squadron took on the role as an observation unit, initially flying the French Dorand AR 1 and 2 aircraft, a two-seater recon plane.
According to Rodrigues, the squadron would be in constant action throughout the “Great War.”
“The unit aided the stand of the Marines at Chateau-Thierry and prevented the German army from crossing the Marne River. The squadron also fought at Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, all important campaigns for the allies.” In fact, Rodrigues said that those campaign victories represent the four Maltese crosses found on the 9th RW’s unit emblem.
Rodrigues added that although reconnaissance and artillery surveillance were the primary duties of the 1st AS, squadron pilots scored 13 aerial victories, represented by 13 Maltese crosses on the 1st Recon Squadron’s emblem. A total of 13 officers lost their lives, with three more considered missing in action.
After the war, the mission and the name of the unit changed again, with the unit relocating to Camp Mills, Long Island, N.Y., and a name change to the 1st Observation Squadron. Its base would change names to Mitchel Field, and its aircraft would get updates to observation aircraft, such as the Douglas O-2, Curtiss O-1 and O-39, but the unit would keep its observation role until 1935.
By the mid 1930s, the unit had made a huge overhaul, going from observation unit to bomber squadron with a new name change: the 1st Bombardment Squadron. The observation planes were replaced with Martin B-10 and Douglas B-18 bombers and the Airmen began training with new tactics at large training sites in Maryland, Florida, California, Michigan and Virginia.
While World War II and the Korean Conflict would take the unit away from its primary reconnaissance and observation missions, with additional name changes and duty locations, it was always at the forefront of the action.
Strengthening defenses around the Panama Canal, defending against German U-boat attacks in the Caribbean and Atlantic, setting up a tactics and bombing school in Florida, bombing raids over Japan and a round-robin of assignments throughout the Pacific would keep the squadron fully employed until finally in Guam in 1947 the newly created Department of the Air Force issued orders to deactivate the unit.
With its unbroken lineage in jeopardy, the Air Force rescinded those orders to inactivate and instead moved the unit to Topeka, Kan., where it joined the Strategic Air Command and became the 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union were entering the Cold War, and for a while, the squadron took on a nuclear mission, armed with three B-29MR bombers and participated in several rotations between Travis Air Force Base, Calif., and Guam until 1953, when it was transferred to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, where it flew the B-47 Stratojet bombers.
For the next 12 years, the squadron would play an important part in America’s nuclear deterrent force and began establishing a series of deployments to England, Guam, Okinawa and Alaska. Then, the world and the 1st squadron would dramatically change once again.
The SR-71 “Blackbird” was announced by President Lyndon B. Johnson and joined the Air Force inventory in 1966. This new, advanced surveillance aircraft gave the Air Force an intelligence weapon that could fly three times the speed of sound, at altitudes higher than 80,000 feet. It would totally change the future for the Air Force’s oldest flying squadron.
The 1st SRS was now in its heyday, gathering photographic and electronic intelligence products over Southeast Asian nations for the war effort. The unit moved to its current location at Beale AFB in June of 1966, and the 1st SRS was on its way to conducting missions that supported national intelligence-gathering requirements.
Retired Lt. Col. Tony Bevacqua was one of those early SR-71 pilots at Beale AFB and says that what he and other SR-71 pilots did in the 1960s was no different from Orville Wright or the Global Hawk flights today. “We made history then, and we continue to make history today,” Bevacqua said. He added that he and Maj. Jerry Crew were on their first mission over Hanoi, and third over North Vietnam, when a SA-2 missile fired on them, passing just ahead and below their aircraft. It was the first time an SR-71 had ever been fired upon. By the time Bevacqua retired, in 1973, he had logged nearly 750 hours in the Blackbird.
The SR-71 was retired from the Air Force inventory in 1990, and today, the squadron is the formal training unit for the U-2 and the RQ-4 Global Hawk initial training. According to the current squadron commander, Lt. Col. Stephen Rodriguez, the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron’s mission isn’t that much different from the one over New Mexico 100 years ago.
“It’s interesting because the first mission with aircraft was to be the eyes for the troops on the ground,” said Rodriguez. “The old mission was an extension of the ground troops, but it’s evolved from just being an extension of our ground forces. We organize, train and equip our squadron members to be leaders in the ISR mission. We are the eyes and ears of the nation and our fighting forces, and we operate over a broad spectrum of conflict.”
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