Frederick E. Humphreys: First Military Pilot by R.H. von Hasseln, DMNA Historian

Frederick E. Humphreys: First Military Pilot

Photo of Frederick E. Humphries

Frederick Erastus Humphreys was born September 16, 1883, at Summit, New Jersey, the only child of Jay and Fannie Brush Humphreys. [Note: according to Landon Humphreys Jones a cousin of Humphreys, Frederick Humphreys did have an older sister, Jayta, born on 6 November 1881.]

After attending the Pennsylvania Military Academy, he won an appointment from New York to the United States Military Academy at West Point. There he did well, rising to Cadet Captain, lettering in fencing, and standing eight of seventy-eight in the Class of 1906.

Upon graduation and commissioning, Humphreys was assigned to the Corps of Engineers and posted to Fort Riley, Kansas. After assisting in bridge construction, he was deployed to Cuba during the Pacification Expedition, and a year later, returned to attend the Engineer School.

It was while at the school, that Humphreys was detailed to the Signal Corps and became the first military pilot. (See sidebar)

In 1910, Humphreys resigned his commission to attend to the family business, the Humphreys Homeopathic Medicine Company, founded by his grandfather in 1853. Thereafter he served as an officer of the company, the last twelve years of his life as its president. He greatly expended its worldwide operations, particularly in South America.

In June of 1915, Humphreys joined the New York National Guard's 22d Engineers Regiment as a First Lieutenant. Called up with his regiment for Mexican Border service after Pancho Villa's raids in 1916, he served as an aide to Major General John F. O'Ryan, Commanding General of the New York (later 27th) Division. Shortly after his return to New York, the regiment was inducted into federal service for World War I. After initial service with his regiment at the divisional training post at Spartansburg, South Carolina, Humphreys aviation experience was recalled and he was transferred to the Army Air Service in January, 1918. After refamiliarization flight training at Rockwell Field in San Diego, he was assigned to the first class of the School of Military Aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for advanced technical training. Upon graduation, he was retained as head of the Department of Practical Aircraft Design, and subsequently, school commander. At about the time of the Armistice, he was assigned to the newly founded Technical Section, Engineering Division, at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, remaining there until demobilized in February, 1919.

Returning to New York, Humphreys was appointed Colonel of the 102d Engineers, a position he remained until his retirement due to ill health on July 11th, 1939. At the time he was the senior Colonel of the state. Shortly thereafter, was advanced to Brigadier General on the State Retired List.

Throughout his life Humphreys was active in business and civic associations. These included: the National Foreign Trade Council, the New York Board of Trade, the American Museum of Natural History, the National Geographic Society, the American Legion, the Institute of Aeronautical Science, and the Association of Graduates at West Point.

Recuperating from pneumonia in Miami Beach, General Humphreys suffered a fatal heart attack on January 20th, 1941, at the age of 57. Myrtle Lee, his wife of 31 years was at his side. Writing in that year's annual report of the Association of Graduates, a West Point classmate said of him:

"When I come to sum up the many sides of his life, I shall award to him seven stars for seven accomplishments, any one of which would be proudly worn by any man, to represent a life well lived. That he was not content with one or two or three, but strove to master his task in each new field of labor and to mark his record with a star, is to me a sign of genius and strength far above that which shows in other men."

On the fiftieth anniversary of his historic flight, his widow joined the Commanding General of the US Army Engineer School and Fort Belvoir at the unveiling of a bronze plaque honoring him.

1909 Military Wright Flyer

First Flight

On August 1, 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps established an Aeronautical Division to "take charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects.'

Shortly thereafter, bids were placed for flying machines, and officers detailed to the Signal Corps for instruction in operating the same.

Only one bidder successfully produced a plane: The Wright Brothers. In 1908, while demonstrating this plane, it crashed and severely injured Orville Wright, pilot, and killed Lieutenant Selfridge, passenger. Selfridge, who had previously soloed on his own in a civilian craft, was the first military aviation casualty. The plane would be rebuilt and resubmitted.

"Aeroplane No. 1, Heavier-than-Air Division, US Aerial Fleet" was officially accepted by the US Army on August 2, 1909. 800 pounds of bamboo, wire and cloth, and a 30 hp engine connected to propellers by bicycle chains had cost the government $30,000. Included in the contract was the requirement for the Wright Brothers to train and certify two military officers as pilots. These were to be Lieutenants Lahm and Foulois; the latter, however, was dispatched to attend the International Congress of Aeronautics in Europe, and Lieutenant Frederick E. Humphreys was detailed to take his place.

Vacant land near College Park, Maryland, was leased and cleared and a temporary hanger erected. Wilbur Wright undertook training the two officers in early October.

Shortly after 8 am on October 26, 1909, a mechanic held a gasoline soaked rag over the engine intake while another cranked the engine into life. Wilbur Wright hurriedly ran to a nearby shed for windowsash weights to replace his weight in the passenger seat. After a little over three hours of actual flying time, Lieutenant Humphreys became the first military student pilot to be told he was ready to "take her up on your own." A catapult weight dropped, and plane and pilot were assisted aloft for a three minute flight.

Two more flights were made by Lieutenant Humphreys that day, the next of eight and one half minutes, and the last of twenty-four minutes. Lieutenant Lahm also soloed for three flights, and Wilbur Wright pronounced both "certified pilots." Over the next few days the two flew practice flights together and separately, until November 5th, when they crashed the plane and American military aviation came to an abrupt and temporary end.

Winter weather was setting in, Lahm's detail from the Cavalry was about to expire, and there were no funds left for repair of the aircraft. Humphreys returned to the Corps of Engineers, and the broken plane was shipped to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where Foulois attempted to put in back together in his spare time while teaching himself to fly by correspondence course.

Foulois would later become a Major General and Chief of the Air Corps. Lahm and Humphreys, Brigadier Generals in the Air Corps and New York National Guard respectively. By 1911, Aircraft No. 1 was no longer serviceable and was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Article by: R.H. vonHasseln, DMNA Historian

See also “The Wright Flyer and its Possible Uses in War” by Lieutenant F. E. Humphreys, Corps of Engineers with an introduction by Dr. Richard P. Hallion.