Cunningham, Alfred Austell
Aviator/DirectorEnshrined 1965 1881-1939
A Georgian by his birth in Atlanta on March 8, 1881, his aeronautical interests began when he went aloft in a balloon in 1903. After that, he was obsessed with the idea of flying.
He accepted a commission in the Marine Corps and, while stationed at the Marine Barracks at Philadelphia, spent his free time at the nearby flying fields, talking with “veteran” pilots.
He leased a homemade airplane for $25 a month with the idea of teaching himself to fly. He also persuaded the Commandant to let him use a long open field inside the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He called the airplane “Noisy Nan” and she would rattle and roar up and down the field but refused to take off. He pleaded with her, he caressed her, he prayed to her, and he cursed that flighty old maid to left her skirts and hike, but she never would. He even built a ramp at one end of the field and she would thunder down the field, climb the ramp, and hit the ground on the other side with a sickening thud. “Noisy Nan” was just plain Marine-mulish.
He then joined the Aero Club of Philadelphia and soon had the members bombarding their congressman with demands for a Marine flying field at Philadelphia. Headquarters investigated his extra-curricular activities, and he agreed to quiet down the Aero Club. In return, he was assigned to flight training.
On May 22, 1912, now recognized as the birthday of Marine Corp Aviation, he reported to the Naval Academy for basic instructions and then was assigned to the Burgess Company for flight instructions. He soloed on August 20, 1912, and the Marine Corps had its first Aviator.
Returning to the Navy Academy, he flew the Navy’s early Wright airplane extensively until he finally wrote to his superiors saying “I have made over 200 flights in this machine and recently, in spite of unusual care of myself and men, something seems to vibrate loose or off in a majority of the flights made. Will you kindly let me know what the prospects are for my getting a new machine?” He participated in the first Naval Aviation exercises with the fleet in Cuba in 1913, demonstrating the first use of air-planes in scouting missions.
He really loved flying, but his beautiful finance, Josephine, didn’t share his love and refused to marry him as long as he insisted on flying. Reluctantly, he requested detachment from flying duty.
While Assistant Quartermaster of the Washington Naval Yard he served on a Board to plan and organize the Naval Aeronautical Service and recommended establishment of a Navy Air Department, a Naval Air Station at Pensacola, and placing an airplane aboard every battleship. Marine Aviation was also to be established as a separate organization.
Restless and discontented, he longed to return to flying and in early 1915 Josephine relented and he was assigned to Pensacola for reinstruction in Aviation. Completing his instruction in the more modern seaplanes, he also became the first Marine or Navy officer to take instructions and learn to fly landplanes.
Meanwhile, the Navy had been developing catapults for launching airplanes from ships. The USS North Carolina was fitted with an improved catapult and on July 16, 1916 he made the first airplane catapult from a warship under way.
As Marine Aviation grew he was one of the foremost in the council of the Navy and Marine leaders. For his tireless efforts, he was awarded with the job of establishing, equipping and commanding the first Marine Aviation Force.
With the outbreak of war in 1917, Marine Aviation experienced explosive growth. He went to France to obtain information about the basic needs of wartime aviation. Upon returning, he presented a plan for an aircraft to wrest air control from the Germans in the Channel area and to attack enemy submarines. The plan was approved and he was placed in command of the First Marine Aviation Force as the Day Wing of the Northern Bombing Group.
He arrived at Brest France, in mid-1918 with orders to proceed to aerodromes near Calais. Incidentally, he had squadrons of men –without airplanes. It was obvious that no one knew what they were, where they were to go, or what they were to do when they got there. Preforming one of the best “midnight requisitions” in Marine history he commandeered a train and chugged off for Calais 400 miles away. In order to corral airplanes for his squadrons, he sent one of his commanders across the Channel. Planes and parts were found in England and Scotland and, in characteristic fashion, because Marine property. By Late September they had their first DH-4 in action and by mid-October eight were flying.
The Marines made the earliest recorded flood-dropping mission to a trapped French regiment in the face of withering fire. In all the Marines shot down 8 enemy planes in 57 raids and 4 Marines died as a result of enemy air action.
After the war he continued to promote Maine Aviation and worked untiringly for its growth. His contributions to aviation and the Marine Corps are immeasurable. Through all the challenging years of risk, discouragements, indifference and frustration, he never once lost sight of his dream to achieve land and see based air power for the Corps.
Whenever the Marine’s Hymn is sung, he – their first Aviator—in honored. For it was his vision which enables the men of the Marine Corps to sing “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli; we fight our country’s battles; in the Air, on Land, and Sea.
The First Marine Corps Aviator and First Director of Marine Corp Aviation died May 27, 1939 in Sarasota, Florida. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.