January 19, 1910. Dominguez Field, California. At the first international aviation meet held in the United States, Lieutenant Paul Beck of the U.S. Army Signal Corps rides as a passenger with French aviator Louis Paulhan. From a height of some three hundred feet, Beck uses a primitive bombsight of his own design to drop sandbag “bombs” toward a measured piece of ground standing in for a ship. “None of the bombs struck the desired spot,” a reporter will record, “but they landed close enough to prove that a ship could be struck in such a manner, if the aeroplane were not first destroyed by gun fire.” Paulhan, who has recently set the world altitude record of more than four thousand feet, is quick to claim that, with a powerful enough motor, he could rise to ten thousand feet while carrying several hundred pounds of dynamite. “What [ship’s] gunner,” Paulhan asks, “could hit such a small speck in the sky as my machine would appear?”
Paul Ward Beck was born in 1876, the son of a career Army officer stationed at a frontier outpost in Texas. Beck was commissioned as an infantry lieutenant in 1899 and served in the Philippine-American War. In 1907, soon after he was detached from infantry duty and commissioned in the Signal Corps, that branch assumed responsibility for “all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects.” The Signal Corps purchased the Army’s first aeroplane from the Wright brothers in 1909 but did essentially nothing with it.
Beck was assigned to attend the Dominguez Field meet, held south of Los Angeles, in part to have charge of the Army’s sole dirigible but also as an observer. At the time, the usefulness of aeroplanes for any military purpose beyond scouting was an open question. One officer of the Coast Artillery wanted to know whether it was possible to drop bombs into gun pits dug along the coast. There was also speculation that enemy ships anchored off the coast might be susceptible to aerial bombardment. The results of Beck’s mock bombing runs on January 19 were sufficiently encouraging that, over the summer of 1910, they gave rise to a number of similar experiments on the east coast.
In January 1911, San Francisco held an aviation meet, largely to prove the city’s suitability for hosting the Pan Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE), which would celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Beck, stationed nearby, was named secretary of the organizing committee; his specific role was to serve as a military liaison in formulating demonstrations calculated to catch the eye of Congress, which would be choosing the host city for the PPIE.
Glenn Curtiss, who hoped to sell flying machines to the military, offered to provide free flying instruction to one or two officers each from the Army and the Navy. On January 19, exactly a year after Beck’s bombing experiment at Dominguez, the Army selected two officers from the thirty-five who had applied. One of the two was Beck, and the other was Lt. John Walker, Beck’s assistant at the San Francisco meet (pictured above, demonstrating to Eugene Ely how feathering made bombs more accurate). Within a month Lt. George Kelly, who had ridden with Wright aviator Walter Brookins in a troop-scouting experiment at San Francisco, would also be assigned to the Curtiss flight school. According to one news report, the officers “were chosen for their mechanical skill and because immune to seasickness.” The three, along with Navy Lt. Theodore “Spuds” Ellyson, reported to Curtiss at San Diego and began their training.
By March 1911 the Mexican revolution was causing significant concern in the United States. As soon as the War Department (forerunner of today’s Department of Defense) took delivery of a new, powerful machine from Curtiss, the three student army aviators received orders to report to San Antonio, joining Lt. Benny Foulois, who was already there with the Signal Corps’ old Wright machine and was awaiting delivery of a new Wright military flyer. Beck was promoted to captain and, although he had not entirely learned to fly, was ordered to become the chief flight instructor at the Army’s newly created “Provisional Aero Company.” The three officers departing San Diego requested that Curtiss, as naval student aviator Ellyson snidely put it, send “an aviator and mechanicians to their aerodrome in order to set up the machine and keep an eye on the [army] aviators.”
The new Curtiss “War machine” first flew at Washington before being dispatched to San Antonio for acceptance tests. Beck suggested a two hundred-mile run, but Curtiss assured him that long cross-country flights were “unnecessarily arduous for aviator and machine,” and that the machine’s capabilities could “be proven without risk.” Privately, Curtiss expressed shock at the Army’s decision to relocate his students. He wrote to Jerome Fanciulli, his business manager:
San Antonio is one of the worst places in the country to fly. It is wicked to send inexperienced m[e]n there. Foulois has had three years. In a few weeks Beck will be pretty good, if he can practice here [in San Diego], but to go there now is the biggest mistake that could be made.
Kelly and Walker are not cut out for aviators, although they may get along. . . . None of these men have made a turn yet or gotten more than 10 feet high. My policy in teaching men flying is first to take care of the[ir] machines themselves, so that they will be responsible for their own safety. I will not let anyone fly until they know enough about the machine to be responsible, and anyway it takes a good while to become a real aviator. I cannot understand it, ordering these men out there and expecting them to do real flying.
In April, consistent with Beck’s request, Curtiss sent Eugene Ely to conduct the acceptance tests in San Antonio, and to continue the officers’ instruction. But, two days into the acceptance tests, General Allen sent orders that the new Curtiss and Wright machines were to be accepted forthwith.
Ely turned his attention to instructing the three former San Diego pupils, none of whom had yet been certified as competent in a four-cylinder aeroplane, let alone the powerful eight-cylinder war machine. Beck, however, decided “that Ely was of little benefit to the officers, or, in fact, that any aviator sent there could be of much value to them.” It was an arrogant conclusion, soon to have fatal consequences.
Ely, Walker, Foulois, Kelly and Beck at San Antonio (April 1911)
Walker crashed on his first attempt to fly after Ely left San Antonio. With the damage repaired, Beck took a turn the following day. He was flying at about three hundred feet when the engine stopped. He landed safely but, according to Foulois, “ended up in a heap” in a wilderness of mesquite and cactus. The crash wrecked both wings of the War machine and damaged the front wheel. Beck, as Foulois remembered it, was knocked unconscious and came to his senses “walking around through the brush with the control wheel in his hands.”
On May 10, as soon as the War machine was repaired, Kelly attempted to solo. He crashed at the end of his short flight, was thrown free and broke his neck. He was the first officer to die at the controls of an aeroplane. (Kelly Field Annex, formerly Kelly AFB,in San Antonio is named for him.)
Frightened by the power of the War machine, General Allen was disinclined to order a replacement, and in fact he closed down the Provisional Aero Squadron. Fanciulli wrote to Curtiss: “Beck is very anxious to get leave and fly for us for a while, both for the experience and the money. . . . If he cannot fly for us, Beck wants to go to Hammondsport, or wherever you may be[, to take lessons].” He was unsuccessful in obtaining leave, but he did receive further instruction from Curtiss and was present at the Nassau Boulevard aviation meet where Earle Ovington made the first scheduled air mail delivery. On opening day of that meet, while riding as Ely’s passenger, Beck tried in vain to spot a squad of soldiers hiding somewhere within three miles of the aviation field. The Army ultimately accepted a less powerful Curtiss “War machine.”
When the Army’s aviation school moved to Georgia for the winter of 1911-12, Beck went with it and learned to fly a Wright. He experienced two serious accidents, but in July 1912 he became the fourth army pilot to be rated a Military Aviator, earning an Expert certification from the Aero Club of America. He contributed a chapter on potential military uses of the aeroplane to The Curtiss Aviation Book, which Curtiss published in 1912.
During all his time with Curtiss, Beck had been detached from the infantry to the Signal Corps. In 1912 he was ordered back to the infantry under the so-called Manchu Law, which decreed that no officer below the level of major could be detached from his regular duty for more than four years. In a possibly related development, Beck publicly urged creation of an “air arm” as a separate branch of the Army, independent of the Signal Corps and reporting directly to the Chief of Staff, in what would be the first step toward creation of a U.S. Air Force. Beck lobbied Congress and succeeded in having legislation introduced to create a semi-autonomous air force with himself at the head. The version of the bill that became law, however, kept aviation within the Signal Corps and did not include Beck.
By the time America entered World War I, Beck was serving as an infantry major with a temporary promotion to colonel. Before his unit could be transported to Europe, he was ordered to duty as military attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. He served in that capacity until 1920.
Under the National Defense Act of 1920, the Air Service became a separate combatant arm of the line. Beck was promoted to lieutenant colonel on the effective date of the Act and was transferred into the Air Service. Because his flying for the Army had ended eight years earlier, he had to requalify as an Airplane Pilot, which he did in March 1921. He was ordered to Henry Post Field at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Three months later he became Commandant of an Air Service Observation School established there. In connection with his new duty, Beck suggested that every city in the state establish a “safe landing field for airplanes.”
When Beck’s wife died soon after they arrived in Oklahoma, he lived with his aging mother in quarters at Fort Sill and became active in Oklahoma City society. On April 3, 1922, he flew himself ninety miles to have dinner and stay the night with friends of his, retired Oklahoma Supreme Court justice Jean E. Day and his wife, Audrey. In the early morning hours, after a night of socializing, Judge Day supposedly saw his wife and Beck embracing, went upstairs and retrieved a pistol, and killed Beck with a single shot to the back of the head. Beck was 45.
Although the coroner’s jury found that Judge Day had acted in self-defense because Beck tried to assault him (he claimed that he struck Beck on the head with the pistol and that it discharged accidentally), a board comprising three of Beck’s fellow officers from Post Field attended the inquest. They were able to relate, in a formal report to the Secretary of War, that the testimony established that Beck had been sober on the night of his death, whereas Day was intoxicated. The Army concluded that Beck had been killed in the line of duty, and “not due to his own willful misconduct.” Paul Beck was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The service included a flyover by aircraft of the new Air Service.
No formal biography of Beck has been published, but Dwight R. Messimer, former lecturer in military history at San Jose State University, is an authority, and Beck’s military career (and the circumstances of his death) are detailed in an excellent Wikipedia entry.