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100 Years Later, Remembering Pioneer American WWI Pilots

February 12, 2018

First Yale Unit archival group photo

They were students at one of the most exclusive universities in America. Their futures were bound for unlimited success.

But they risked it all by volunteering to become among the first squadron of the U.S. Navy Air Reserve.

This is the story of the First Yale Unit.

The United States entered World War One just 13 years after the Wright Brothers made their historic first flight. Aviation was in its infancy, and there was virtually no organized American military aviation.

A group of Yale students volunteered to create an aviation program for the U.S. Navy. There was the savvy one, the fashionable one, the football player, the quiet one… They were dubbed by the New York press as ‘The Millionaires’ Unit’.

Life expectancy of pilots in the first years of WW1 was just three weeks. Pilots didn’t even wear parachutes.

First Yale Unit Kenneth MacleishThe planes were highly flammable wooden aircraft, and most couldn’t reach a top speed of 100 miles per hour. The aircraft used in early WW1 had no navigational equipment in their open cockpits. The pilots actually used their service pistols to shoot at each other as they passed in the air.

From the beginning of the war it was clear that having ‘eyes in the sky’ provided a clear advantage. But during the course of the war, simple aerial surveillance quickly evolved into air-to-air combat. Planes were used for bombardment of the hardened trench system that had developed along the front, throughout Belgium and France.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Desperate to gain an advantage on the battlefield, military engineers went to work. Aircraft stability was improved, engines enhanced, machine guns were mounted & synched with propellers, and modern aviation roared into existence. More than 200,000 aircraft were produced by the nations involved in WW1.

And thousands of men were captivated by these amazing new flying machines.

The preview included here is a sneak peek at a new FedEx sponsored documentary about the First Yale Unit.

This film documents the journey of The Millionaires’ Unit, from their privileged life at Yale, through training, deployment, action, capture, glory, and mystery in The Great War in Europe.

Aviation research and development was put on a fast track in World War One, leading to the development of mail routes and exploration. The era of the passenger airplane quickly blossomed. Today it is estimated that there are about 100,000 commercial and cargo flights in the air every single day.

Half a century after World War One, another Yale graduate, FedEx founder and Chairman Frederick W. Smith, would fly on more than 200 missions during two tours of duty in Vietnam.

We honor the contributions of the First Yale Unit, and their spirit of banding together to serve their country in a time of great need.

First Yale Unit Sopwith Camel

© all photos Humanus Documentary Films Foundation


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