Last Flight for Frank Lahm

June 22, 2012

The earnest young cavalryman, who in the dawning years of the century, saw the potential of the Wright brothers’ flying contraption, helped get the Army interested, was himself taught to fly by the Wrights, and helped build the Air Force’s “West Point of the Air,” is dead at eighty-five. But his name is firmly ensconced in the aerospace hail of fame.

I have letters of that date [1907] which I think indicate that the resumption of negotiations by our government came as a result of your efforts.”

So wrote Orville Wright in 1947, a year before his death, to retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Frank P. Lahm, The surviving Wright brother, tidying up historical odds and ends, was anxious that Lahm, a quiet, soft-spoken and not very famous airman, should receive his share of the credit for America’s acceptance of the monumental achievement at Kitty Hawk.

In 1907, Frank P. Lahm was a young cavalry lieu­tenant, six years out of West Point and mad for bal­looning. The year before, following his father’s enthu­siasm for lighter-than-air flight, Lahm had won the cross-English Channel James Gordon Bennett balloon race. He was in Army service in France, studying at the French Army’s Cavalry School, but his heart was in the air, and he was soon to transfer to the Signal Corps where he piloted the Army’s first balloon and dirigible. The young lieutenant’s father had followed the news of the Wrights’ powered flight at Kitty Hawk, and from France, where he was on business, had gone to the trouble of checking their authenticity.

The Wright brothers went to Paris in 1907. There they met the Lahms, father and son, and friendships were formed. The younger Lahm urged the Wrights to have another go at interesting the US Army in their air­plane, although the inventors had already been re­buffed by a not very visionary Army board. Lieutenant Lahm, in September 1907, was reassigned to Washing­ton and, as Fred Kelly put it in his biography of the Wright brothers, “The presence of a man in the War Department who felt enthusiasm for the airplane’s pos­sibilities and who had strong faith in the Wrights may have had its effects on his associates. At any rate, there was now a man in the War Department who believed in the Wrights.”

Late in 1907, the previously recalcitrant Army, goaded by believers like Lieutenant Lahm, finally gave in and advertised for bids on a flying machine with performance requirements that would be met, if at all, only by the Wrights’ offering. Helping push through the negotiations was the earnest young Lieutenant Lahm, now in the Signal Corps and a member of the board that was to decide on Army acceptance of the Wright airplane. He was on hand at the White House interview with President Theodore Roosevelt that put the final seal of approval on the demonstration by the Wrights.

The rest is history. The Wrights demonstrated their airplane at Fort Myer, Va., September 3, 1908. Six days later, the feat was repeated. This time Lieutenant Lahm enjoyed the distinction of being the first Army officer to fly as an airplane passenger, with Orville Wright as pilot. On September 17, tragedy struck. Flying as a passenger with Orville Wright, Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge lost his life in a crash that injured Orville.

By 1909, Lieutenant Lahm, along with Lt. Frederic Humphreys, was taking flying lessons from the Wrights. And on October 26 of that year, the two young officers were the first to solo, at College Park, Md. Lieutenant Humphreys had replaced Lt. Benjamin Foulois (now retired Maj. Gen. USAF) in the pilot training plan be­cause of Lieutenant Foulois’ assignment to an inter­national meeting in France. Lieutenant Foulois re­turned in October 1909 to take up a flying career that has earned him wide fame among world airmen.

Aviation grew, and the young flyer grew with it, although he first put in another tour with the caval­ry. In 1912, he went to the Philippines, where, still officially in the cavalry but on detail to the Signal Corps, he organized military aviation training. In 1917, in the air arm for good, he went to France as a Signal Corps air officer. After the war, he returned to Washington and served on the War Department general staff as Assistant Chief of the Air Corps.

One of Lahm’s major contributions to military avia­tion was his responsibility, between 1926 and 1930, for the site selection and construction of Randolph Field, north of San Antonio, Texas, as the “West Point of the Air,” where he served as Commander of what was then known as the Air Corps Training Center, fore­runner of today’s Air Training Command. The thou­sands of young men who filled America’s combat flying ranks during World War II learned their art at the school Frank Lahm helped build. Ironically, his active military career ended with his retirement as brigadier general shortly before Pearl Harbor, in November 1941. Throughout the war, he was always available for the counsel his colleagues had learned to respect through the years.

A quiet, scholarly man throughout his career, Frank Lahm’s major contributions to aviation were in the fields of training and administration. Although he was present and influential at the very birth of military aviation, and was among the nation’s original pilots, his subsequent career led him into unheralded pur­suits. He was the flyers’ teacher, rather than the flyers’ flyer.

As one famous World War II Air Force leader put it, “Oddly enough, Frank Lahm wasn’t at all the sort of fellow you’d think of as a military aviator. He was scholarly, thoughtful, and in a way, a loner. He saw the potential of aviation at the very beginning. We all respected him always for his judgment and high intel­ligence—and his daring, too.”

Americans across the country who probably had never heard of General Lahm saw him in 1959 on a nationwide telecast from the Air Force Association’s World Congress of Flight at Las Vegas, Nev., depicting the history of flight. By then, General Lahm was in his eighties. But all who saw the National Broadcasting Company program will never forget his articulation of how it was at the beginning, nor will they forget the marvelous view of the old man walking off slowly into the distance at the end of the program.

This writer asked him about that long walk at a meeting last year. General Lahm’s eyes twinkled as he replied: “They told me to keep walking until they said stop. I guess by the time they said stop, I was out of earshot. So I just kept walking.”

Last month, on July 7, in Sandusky, Ohio, Frank Lahm, the quiet early bird, died at the age of eighty-five. He had flown in wood and wire—and had lived to see flight into space.

—W. L. [William Leavitt]