Show, but not much go…

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image1***The United States is justly proud of its world domination in fighter aircraft since late 1943, but its first attempt at an indigenous fighter aircraft fell well short of the mark.

The first American designed and built fighter was the Thomas-Morse S-4. It was designed in 1916 and first flew in 1917, just as the United States entered World War I. It had a top speed of 90 mph, was powered by a 100 horsepower U.S.-licensed version of the French Gnome rotary engine and was armed with a single synchronized .30 machine gun. It was hoped the “Tommy,” as it was named, would be able to make a contribution to the air war over Europe. But, while the S-4 proved to be a delightful aircraft to fly, by the standards of 1917 it was underpowered and underarmed.

By that year, European fighters carried two .30 machine guns, had a top speed of 105 miles per hour and engines that produced from 130-160 horsepower. The U.S. Signal Corps, in charge of aircraft development, realized that the Tommy would never survive in the skies over Western Europe.

Faced with the failure of American design − no American airplane flew combat in World War I − the Signal Corps and Thomas-Morse made lemonade and claimed that the S-4 was, in fact, a “fighter trainer” all along, and today some publications give it a place in history as the “first fighter trainer.” Between 600 and 1,000 S-4s were built for both the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, but when the war ended the United States Air Service received a large number of surplus fighters, among them the British Se-5 (a favorite of Billy Mitchell) and many of the magnificent German Fokker D-VIIs.

The S-4 might have faded away, but so many had been built that a large number soon became available as surplus. There were so many and they were so easy to fly they soon became a mainstay of not only air shows but also a rash of World War I-based flying films in the 1920s and 1930s. S-4s, usually painted as British fighters, had leading roles in many famous flying movies including Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels” (1930), where more than 80 biplanes were used, this author’s favorite “Dawn Patrol,” and the 1927 Oscar winning silent movie “Wings,” as well as a host of B movies. It is fair to say if one sees a movie with real biplanes, one will find an S-4, an aircraft that failed in its major role but went on be one of the most oft-seen biplanes in history.

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