Lahm, Frank Purdy
Military Strategist/Test PilotEnshrined 1963 1877-1963
Lahm met the Wright Brothers while he was convalescing from a bout of typhoid. A lifelong friendship and work relationship followed. After training for a mere three hours with Wilbur Wright, Lahm became a pilot for the U.S. Army. In 1920, when the Air Corps Training Center was established at San Antonio, Lahm commanded the School for Primary and Advanced Flying and Aviation Medicine. He retired from the Army as a brigadier general.
- In 1906 he won the Gordon Bennett balloon race from Paris, France to Yorkshire, England.
- He flew with Orville Wright in 1908, becoming the first American Army officer to fly in an airplane.
- He spent most of his career establishing air training stations across the United States and in the Philippines.
- During World War I he organized the lighter-than-air service of the AEF (American Expedition Forces) and was the first Army Chief of Aviation.
- He held the unofficial title “Father of the West Point of the Air.”
- Lahm co-authored the book How Our Army Grew Wings.
- He received many awards including: Legion of Merit, Distinguished Service Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and the Portuguese Order of Avis.
- He was one of the three Army lieutenants assigned as a nucleus air force when the Army decided to purchase a plane. Orville Wright flew the plane, which crashed, and Thomas Selfridge died from his injuries.
Frank Purdy Lahm was born in Mansfield, Ohio, on November 17th, 1877. Upon graduation from West Point on February 18th, 1901, he received orders to the Sixth Cavalry for duty during the Philippine Insurrection. While vacationing with his father in Paris, France, he introduced himself to ballooning. This occupation subsequently won Lahm the First International Gordon Bennett Balloon Race when he piloted a free balloon from Paris, France, to Fyling Dales, England, on September 30th, 1906.
In 1907 Lahm personally reported to President Theodore Roosevelt on various types of information pertaining to aeronautics he had acquired in Europe. As a result, the President favorably considered a request for funds for aeronautics. Lahm’s support of the Wright Brothers was instrumental in awarding to them the contract for the Army’s first airplane.
Lahm was again stationed in Washington, D.C. in 1908 and 1909, during which time he was assigned to the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps. There he continued to lend inestimable support to the field of aeronautics, experimenting with both free and captive balloons. During the summer of 1908, he learned to fly the Army’s first airship, designated Dirigible No. 1. The Wrights had finally stirred up excitement over the potential of the airplane in 1908, Wilbur by his demonstrations of the Wright airplane in France, and Orville in the United States. Almost overnight a new idea, air power, captured the attention of military leaders, statesmen, and the public. The Wrights sold an airplane to the United States Army on February 8th, 1908. Orville Wright put it through its paces on September 3rd before an astonished crowd of spectators at Ft. Meyer, Virginia, ending all doubt of the airplane’s military potential. Young Lt. Frank Lahm was a member of the official board during the acceptance trials of the Wright airplane and a few days later on September 9th, he accompanied Orville Wright on a flight of six minutes, a record at the time for two perons.
The Wrights built another airplane for the Army in 1909. Following the completion of the trials of the Wright 1909 Flyer in July, it was purchased on August 2nd, 1909 by the U.S. Army Signal Corps and became Airplane No. 1. Lahm was one of the two officers selected to be taught by the Wright Brothers to fly the airplane -the other was Lt. Frederic E. Humphreys. After several hours of instruction, Lahm soloed ordered in Airplane No. 1 on October 26th, 1909. The airplane was severely damaged on November 5th, 1909, and Lahm and Humphreys received transfers back to their original units. The famous Benjamin D. Foulois was awaiting his orders to take the airplane to Fort Sam Houston and learn to fly it himself.
Lahm was assigned to the Philippines and in 1912 he opened a Signal Corps Flying School there at Fort William McKinley. As more planes became available, mishaps increased and the accidents hurt the cause of those who sought more money for military craft. Finally, in July 1914, the Army purchased both Wright and Curtiss models, improved by Grover C. Loening, and a new “TT” trainer that Glenn Martin designed.
In 1916 Lahm received an appointment as Secretary of the Signal Corps Flying School, North Island, near San Diego, California, and in August 1917 he sailed for Europe for a six-week inspection trip of activities in France and England. Instead of returning to the United States, he spent a year on the Front with both air and ground units. After serving as a staff officer, he organized and commanded the Air Service, Second American Army. Although lack of planes, pilots, airfields and technicians restricted American efforts at the outset of World War I, 15,000 American pilots received their preliminary training in this country and advanced instruction was conducted abroad. In April 1918, the Americans scored their first aerial victory. The American Air Service Commanders in France, Frank Lahm, Mason Patrick, William Mitchell, Benjamin Foulois, and Thomas Milling, organized and led the last big air battles of the war.
During the early 1920s, Lahm was assigned various duties during which time he promoted the field of aeronautics. On September 1st, 1926 he was detailed to San Antonio, Texas, to organize the first Air Corps Training Center at Duncan Field. On June 21st, 1930, Lahm realized his dream with the dedication of Randolph Field, Texas, earning for himself the unofficial title of “Father of the West Point of the Air”.
In 1931 he became Air Attaché to France, Spain, and Belgium, returning to the U.S.A. in 1935 and becoming Air Officer of the Second Corps Area. In November 1941 he retired from active military service.
Frank Lahm died on July 8th, 1963.
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