Claire Chennault is one of those larger than life characters who emerges from the annals of Air Force history. He may not have served with the 86th but there is an enduring connection from the inveterate daredevil pilot and founder of the Air Corps Aerial acrobatics team the Flying Trapeze. He was also an instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field (now Maxwell Air Force Base) in Montgomery, Ala. Chennault was a maverick, to say the least. He would fly his Air Corps plane to his home on the old Selma Road at lunch time and land it in the field behind his house. While he was eating, one of his sons practiced take offs and landings with the plane. The practice seems to have had some benefit as both of Chennault’s sons went on to become Air Force pilots.
On one occasion, Chennault flew his plane upside down under the Alabama River bridge on the way back to the base from his home. Yet, he was also one of a group of brilliant young officers at the Air Corps Tactical School who gave shape to the basic tenets of airpower employment theories. The same warfare doctrines, tactics and strategies that were later employed during the air battles and strategic bombing campaigns of World War II.
Chennault retired from the Army Air Corps in 1937 and within a short time entered the service of Chiang Kai-shek to conduct a “confidential survey” of the Chinese air force.
Within a year, he helped to develop a “new” Chinese air force spearheaded by American volunteers. In 1941, Chennault, with the backing of the Roosevelt administration, established the American volunteer group, also known as the Flying Tigers, to aid China in defending itself against Japan. The Flying Tigers, who distinguished themselves in the India, Burma and China theaters, were disbanded only to become the 14th Air Force under the leadership of General Chennault.
The first of the three Chennault connections to the 86th came about in July 1945. At that time, the 86th Airdrome Squadron was assigned to the 14th Air Force Service Command. The squadron was inactivated Dec. 26, 1945. It was reconstituted and redesignated as the 86th Operations Support Squadron on May 1, 1991, and assigned to the 86th Operations Group at Ramstein.
The other two connections to the 86th were of a more personal nature.
The first came in the form of his oldest son, Col. John S. Chennault, who served as commander of the 86th Fighter Bomber Wing from May 31, 1949, until June 16, 1952.
The final connection was Capt. Claire P. Chennault who served as a pilot with the 527th Fighter Squadron/86th Fighter Bomber Group in 1952 at the same time that his older brother commanded the wing.
Captain Chennault also recorded one of the first accidents at the then under construction Landstuhl Air Base on June 13, 1952, when the engine in his plane exploded as he was on the runway readying for takeoff.
No one knows which of the two Chennault boys practiced with their father’s plane on his lunch time trips to the farm, but whichever one it was, the Air Force derived some benefit from the illicit practice jaunts, as both went on to serve honorably as pilots and officers with the U.S. Air Force.