Atlantic Trident 17 Commemorates a Century of Cooperation By Three Allies

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The United States of America and the French Republic have shared some close political, and even closer military ties since the American Revolution of the late 1700s. During the First World War, America officially entered the conflict on April 6, 1917 as a French ally. In fact, most of the engagements that the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) experienced were fought on the grounds of, and in the air overhead France’s countryside. For the past century, the United States and the United Kingdom have fought common aggressors alongside each other too. More than once America has sided with these two countries to maintain order in Europe. These bonds were especially true during the First World War.

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On April 21, 2017, a Commemoration Day was observed at Joint Base Langley-Eustis Virginia, remembering one hundred years of military cooperation between allies – the U.S., France and Great Britain. Two USAF Fighter Squadrons based at Langley, the 27th and the 94th Fighter Squadrons have lineages that date back one hundred years to World War I. French and American cooperation was highlighted by a flying display that included a Patrouille de France jet team flight routine, a French Rafale fighter demonstration, and a USAF F-22 Raptor flight demonstration too. A review of how France and America aviators became allies during the Great War in 1917 and how the partnership survives today, some one hundred years later, is worth looking at.

Even before America’s official entry into World War I, a number of her citizens fought as volunteers for the French as Foreign Legionnaires. The La Fayette Flying Corps, named after a French hero who fought during the American Revolution, contained many Americans who volunteered to fly and fight during the early part of the War, before the United States officially entered the struggle. Some were pilots, some aerial gunners, others performed reconnaissance.

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La Fayette Escadrille members

In the air war, the Escadrille N.124, known as the “Tete de Sioux” or “Escadrille Americaine” was established in March of 1916, and soon deployed with many Americans on its flying roster – having been trained to fly by the French. After German protests regarding these supposedly – neutral Americans entering the battle, the fighter unit was renamed as the “La Fayette Escadrille”. On May 18, 1916, Kiffin Yates Rockwell became the first American pilot to shoot down a German plane during World War I, while serving with the French volunteer squadron. By the end of the Escadrille’s existence in February 1918, Americans were credited with thirty five victories. The top American ace of the group was Raoul Lufbery, who later commanded the 94th Aero Squadron of the U.S. Air Service.

Close to a year elapsed from the time the squadron stood up until a large group of America’s military aviators would enter the fray; one source states that more than two hundred fifty U.S. citizens would fly for the French La Fayette Flying Corps (though not all with the La Fayette Escadrille), losing sixty eight of their number in combat, while shooting down forty-one enemy aircraft. As a footnote: in February 1918, the La Fayette Escadrille would pass from French to American control, as the 103rd Aero Squadron.

As the European war raged, American military preparedness to enter the battle began to produce a slow but steady stream of trained, yet untested aviators. When war was declared against Germany, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps contained around twelve hundred men; none of the country’s 200 or so aircraft were really combat-capable, nor were they American-made. France and Great Britain stepped in and began training men in aviation trades, knowing that many would arrive to fight in Europe soon thereafter. By the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the Air Service of the AEF would contain over seventy eight thousand men; more than two thirds of them would be fighting in Europe. Almost twenty thousand more men were training in Europe for placement in aviation positions. The Air Service had some 7,900 aircraft, many were now of American design and manufacture.

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27th Aero Squadron operated, French built Nieuport 28 fighter.

America’s aircraft building program couldn’t hope to supply the Air Service with an adequate amount aircraft in a short period of time. Building them, and then shipping them across the Atlantic was time consuming, and damage by storms was a risk to the relatively fragile machines too. To offer functional machines in close proximity to the front lines, a contract between the French Air Ministry and the Commander of the AEF was signed on August 30, 1917 for five thousand French-built aircraft and even more engines for them. Three types of Air Groups (Bombardment, Surveillance and Pursuit) were formed with three or four squadrons attached to each. Aircraft ordered for the Pursuit squadrons were one thousand five hundred Nieuport 28 and two thousand SPAD XIII biplane fighters.

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94th Aero Squadron members

Some ninety experienced pilots transferred from the La Fayette Flying Corps into the fledgling AEF, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge and skills to pass on to eager but inexperienced American aviators. The 1st Pursuit Group, made up of the 27th, 94th, 95th and 147th Aero Squadrons (today known as Fighter Squadrons) became operational in the spring of 1918, a year after America’s declaration of war.

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94th Aero Squadron emblem.

The 95th Aero Squadron became the first American unit to deploy to the Front, arriving at the 1st Pursuit Organization and Training Center on February 16, 1918. Soon, it was equipped with French-built Nieuport 28 fighters. The 94th Aero Squadron followed shortly, with similar aircraft. On March 6, 1918, the 94th launched the first patrol by an American-trained squadron. Led by Raoul Lufbery and including Eddie Rickenbacker and Douglas Campbell, the flight received German anti-aircraft fire, but had no contact with German aircraft.

The 95th Aero Squadron performed their first operational flights two days later. Both squadrons were tasked to perform reconnaissance missions, as neither units had machine guns installed in their aircraft yet. The 95th hadn’t even trained for aerial gunnery, and would be withdrawn from the front from March 24th through April 22nd to train for this capability. On April 10, 1917, the 94th received their first machine guns and four days later finally stood watch as an armed combat unit. The same day, Douglas Campbell and Alan Winslow recorded aerial combat victories, the firsts for an American-trained unit.

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94th Aero Squadron pilots, Captain Rickenbacker is in the middle.

The 94th Aero Squadron ended the war with eight aces, but many of the victories tallied were carried over from flights when pilots were still flying in French units before American involvement occurred. Captain “Eddie” Rickenbacker finished with twenty-six victories, the most for an American pilot. He would receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, a number of years after the war ended. The former Rickenbacker Air Force Base, located near Columbus Ohio, was named after this pilot who grew up in the area.

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27th Aero Squadron plane and pilot.

The 27th Aero Squadron trained in Texas before travelling to Canada to train with the Royal Flying Corps. Later, they moved back to Texas and then to New York, ready to be shipped to Europe. After arriving in the United Kingdom, they were sent to France, and received further training before joining the 94th and 95th Aero Squadrons. The 27th performed their first operational sorties on June 2, 1918.

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27th Squadron members in front of a French-built SPAD XIII.

This squadron helped produce six aces before the war ended, including the nation’s first Medal of Honor recipient, Lieutenant Frank Luke. Nicknamed the “Arizona Balloon Buster”, Luke excelled at dispatching these dangerous targets. Observation balloons were backed up with heavy anti-aircraft support, and were dangerous to attack from any angle because of the associated ground fire. Lt. Luke tallied fourteen victories over balloons, and eighteen victories in total, over a six week span. He was killed while on another balloon busting sortie on September 29, 1918. Luke Air Force Base, in Arizona, is named after this second-most successful American fighter pilot of World War I.

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1st Fighter Wing F-22A Raptor.

In 2017, the proud lineage that began one hundred years ago still exists at the Air Force side of Joint Base Langley-Eustis, in Virginia. The 1st Fighter Wing, the descendant of the 1st Pursuit Group, still contains the 94th Fighter Squadron, and the 27th Fighter Squadron. Both squadrons fly the 5th generation F-22A Raptor fighter, a far cry from the Nieuport 28 and SPAD XIII fighters that their predecessors – the 94th and 27th Aero Squadrons – began operations with.

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RAF Typhoon FGR.4

Cooperation between U.S., French and British flying units has existed since World War I, and exercise Atlantic Trident 17 is the second event of its type – the first one was held in 2016. The exercise allows the latest technology in fourth and fifth-generation fighter and attack jets from each country to work in concert with each other. Interoperability between pilots is always a concern within a coalition of partners, and this application of different aviation platforms allows for almost two weeks of practice and training for the participants. This experience will be shared going forward, when the three countries are called again to fly and fight against a common foe.

Special thanks need to go out to… Mr. Joshua Lashley, 1st Fighter Wing Historian, and Mr. Jeffrey Hood, Media Operations Section Chief, 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs, for their assistance with this article.

Additional World War I archival photos.

Current jets of the three Air Forces.

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