August 21, 1915: the French government approved a revolutionary new concept in military aviation. Three Americans: Norman Prince of Boston, William Thaw of Pittsburgh, and Dr Edmond Gros, eager to support the Allied cause in World War I, lobby the French government to create an All-American fighter squadron in the French Air Service. They were called the Lafayette Escadrille. These pilots became America’s first combat aviators.
The fighter squadron was named in honor of French, American Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. The word “escadrille” is a French word that in English translates to “squadron” and so the Lafayette Escadrille was born.
On April 20, 1916 the first French squadron of American pilots was activated for duty on the front lines. They participated in some of the fiercest air battles of the war including the Battle of Verdun and the Somme Offensive and cemented a reputation of undaunted and skillful flying. Their first major engagement was on May 13, 1916 in the Battle of Verdun. Escadrille pilot Kiffin Rockwell logged the squadron’s first aerial victory just five days later.
During the Lafayette Escadrille’s history within the French Air Service the squadron destroyed fifty-seven enemy aircraft and nine of the pilots in the Escadrille valiantly gave their lives for the Allied cause.
These American pilots provided exceptional value to France. However, even more important was the combat experience that these pilots earned flying for the Lafayette Escadrille in the French Aviation Service. By 1918, these pilots had been transferred to the American Expeditionary Force, it became clear to the United States that these pilots were integral to preparing newly formed American squadrons for success and effectiveness in combat flying.
The accomplishments of American filers in the Lafayette Escadrille represents the introduction of combat aviation for the United States and the beginning of a culture of excellence and aerial achievement that flourishes still today.
National Museum of the United States Air Force
The United States World War I Centennial Commission