Growing Pains: Army Air Service Patrols of National Forests, 1919-1920

Today’s post is written by Richard Elsom, an Archivist at the National Archives at Denver.

Since the early years of the twentieth century, the US Forest Service has been occupied by fire. What began with hastily formed crews of locals, usually with no firefighting experience, later developed into a trained and organized firefighting force that sought to leverage advantages provided by modern technology. These advantages were investigated and tested by Forest Service personnel who, in many cases, had clear memories of the Great Fire of 1910 that destroyed more than three million acres of forest in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The Great Fire also nearly destroyed the Forest Service which was still a new agency having assumed control of the forest reserves from the General Land Office just five years prior in 1905. Acknowledging that they would have little to manage if all the forests burned, the Forest Service resolved to tackle the fire issue and worked to improve their efforts as new technology emerged and they learned valuable lessons from difficult fire seasons.

This photograph from our National Institute of Standards and Technology records shows an unidentified biplane of a similar type to that used by the Army Air Service for aerial fire patrols. Glass Plate Negatives, 1914-1954 (NAID 2579543).

The airplane was one such technology that the Forest Service tested and incorporated into their operations. Our records from Forest Service Region 4, known as District 4 at the time, highlight cooperation with what was then known as the Army Air Service to provide for aerial patrols of vast stretches of National Forest in 1919 (1). The first mention of this cooperation in our records appears in an August 1st, 1919 letter from Colonel H.H. “Hap” Arnold to the District Forester of District 4. The letter asks for a map of the forests of Utah and any other forests in the district to assist in establishing aerial patrol routes. The letter is signed by Major Carl A. Spaatz who, along with Arnold, served with distinction in both World Wars and played a major role in fashioning the Air Service, and later the Army Air Corps, into an independent military branch that became the US Air Force.

Letter from Colonel H.H. Arnold via Major Carl Spatz [sic], (Spaatz) to District 4 Forester, O – Fire – Airplane Patrol, 1919-21, p. 45 (NAID 37596153)

The letter from the Air Service received an enthusiastic response from District Forester, L.F. Kneipp, who replied with a four-page letter describing the National Forests within District 4 and outlining areas where aerial fire patrol would be especially useful. In later correspondence, District Forester Kneipp suggested two routes covering portions of nine forests in District 4 as well as Yellowstone Park. However, Kneipp believed they might see greater benefits from a more intensive patrol over a smaller area such as the Weiser National Forest. This map of the Weiser National Forest (prepared in 1929) shown below highlights areas of low fire danger in blue and areas of high fire danger in orange.

Map of Weiser National Forest, F – Control – Policy, 1929 – maps, p. 21, (NAID 37596172)

While this was the first opportunity District 4 would have to use aerial fire patrols, District 5, covering National Forests in California, had experimented with the method earlier in 1919 to inconclusive results. The program was delayed in getting started and further limited by use of the Curtiss JN-4 biplane that lacked the engine power and range to be effective. Communications also proved a challenge as some aircraft had a radio-telegraph on board, but others had to drop a written message, land to report, or release a carrier pigeon. District 5 found the air patrols useful when haze or smoke obscured lookout stations, but traditional methods of fire detection reported fires sooner than the air patrols on most fires of the 1919 season. Even with its limitations, District 5 believed an expanded program with more aircraft and better trained crews from both the Forest Service and Air Service would achieve “a tremendous decrease in the annual destruction of standing timber by forest fire.”

Initially using just a few bases in California for the 1919 fire season, Colonel H.H. Arnold planned on expanding Air Service patrols to 12 bases covering forests in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. To staff these 12 bases, he wanted five squadrons consisting of 90 total aircraft with 180 personnel serving as pilots and observers. In addition to typical emergency supplies such as parachutes, food, and water, each aircraft was allotted two pigeons to assist in communicating with personnel on the ground. Air Service planners expected to need five pigeon officers to oversee 930 carrier pigeons distributed among the five patrol squadrons.

While Colonel Arnold and his staff worked on adding more pilots and aircraft, training was the first thing the Forest Service focused on. They began coordinating with the commander of March Field near Riverside, California for a six-week course of instruction covering the use of airplanes and communication methods. Trainees would also receive sufficient flight time so they could practice reading maps, judging ground distance, and observing wind speed and direction from the air. The course would include combined training for Air Service and Forest Service personnel to foster cooperation and familiarity between the two organizations.

Flight was new to most Forest Service personnel and they were understandably hesitant about the whole thing. In a November 3, 1919 letter, District 1 Forester, R.H. Rutledge, cautions his Forest Supervisors about selecting men to attend the training and mentions that some excellent candidates or their families may object to the danger of flight training. However, he also mentions that those who object to the risks associated with the training may be interested to learn “that the Compensation Commission has ruled that accidents to Forest Officers while flying on official duty is properly covered by the Compensation Act.”

Initially expecting to accommodate 60 Forest Service trainees, the Air Service reduced the total number of trainees to 20 due to limited space at March Field. This meant the Forest Service could only send five or six personnel per District and had to limit their selectees to those already scheduled to serve as liaison officers for the 1920 fire season. Further, the Air Service would require that each trainee pass a physical examination covering heart condition and balancing ability in addition to producing a written statement accepting the risks associated with flight.

This December 31st, 1919 letter from District 5 Forester Paul G. Redington to District 1 Forester R.H. Rutledge provides additional details regarding the training at March Field. O – Fire – Airplane Patrol, 1919-21, p. 13 (NAID 37596153).

Despite all this planning, by January 1920 the Air Service had taken no action on Colonel Arnold’s plan for expanding the air patrols which included the training course at March Field scheduled for the following month. Forest Service personnel were directed to stand by for further information, but it is not clear from these records if any training actually took place. An April 7th, 1920 letter from Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell closes the door on hopes of an expansion of the air patrols due to a lack of Air Service personnel. One squadron would continue air patrols and cover the forests of California, but no new patrols would be established for the 1920 fire season. Even the California patrols were short-lived and the Air Service terminated cooperation with the Forest Service in 1921 (2).

This April 7th, 1920 letter from Brigadier General William Mitchel [sic] (Mitchell) via Lt. Colonel Leslie MacDill explains that the Air Service will not expand the fire patrols in 1920. O – Fire – Airplane Patrol, 1919-21, p. 6 (NAID 37596153).

Although District 4 personnel never got to experience Air Service patrols, the district would not forget the potential usefulness of aircraft and would later establish an air patrol program using contracted civilian pilots. The year 1919 marked just the beginning of Forest Service efforts to maximize the power of flight to assist in detection and suppression of forest fires. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Forest Service experimented with a wide range of aerial methods to include explosive and chemical bombing of fires, air dropping equipment to firefighters on the ground, and even dropping firefighters by parachute directly into the roadless backcountry to tackle remote fires (for more see T.V. Pearson and the Parachute Scheme). 

Stay tuned for future posts exploring these topics as seen in the holdings of the National Archives at Denver!


1: Original records for this post come from O – Fire – Airplane Patrol, 1919-21 (NAID 37596153). Historical Files, 1901-1962. Records of the Forest Service (Record Group 95). National Archives at Denver.

2: Cermak, Robert W. Fire in the Forest: Fire Control in the California National Forests, 1898-1955. USDA Forest Service, 1988, p. 108.