‘Historical New Hampshire’: Arthur Coyle, Concord’s flying pioneer

  • Arthur Coyle stands in front of what is probably a SPAD XI observation plane, the type he flew when he first arrived in France. Designed by the French, the SPAD carried two crew members and had cutouts on the lower wings to allow for better observation of the ground. Larger than the fighter planes used in the war, the SPAD XI was still fitted with machine guns at the front and rear to afford some protection from German fighters. Courtesy of Col. William Stewart Jr., USAF (Ret.)

  • Arthur Coyle (right) poses with Lt. Arthur E. Easterbrook (1893–1952), the observer who flew with Coyle on his last mission, which was the third time Coyle was shot down. The plane may have been the Salmson 2A2 they were flying at the time. Of note is the American flag emblem of the First Observation Squadron on the plane’s side and the German Maltese cross above the flag, which would denote a confirmed aerial victory (a plane they shot down). For Easterbook, the plane they shot down on this last mission together was his fifth aerial victory, which made him an aerial ace. The three little rough crosses drawn on the photo may denote the location of bullet holes from German planes. Coyle made similar marks on a photo he sent to his mother on April 12, 1918, of the SPAD XI he flew. Courtesy of Wings Over the Border – Preserving Military Aviation History

For the Monitor
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

(This article was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of “Historical New Hampshire,” the magazine of the New Hampshire Historical Society.)

The commander of the first U.S. air group in the Great War, Capt. Arthur J. Coyle of Concord was an American pioneer of air warfare. An aggressive commander of aerial reconnaissance units, Coyle was just one of several Granite Staters who fought their battles in the air during the First World War and blazed a trail for this new technology.

Born in Vermont, Coyle moved to Concord in 1908 at age 11. He joined the New Hampshire National Guard in 1915 and became an officer the following year. Coyle volunteered to learn how to fly, and that spring the National Guard sent him first to the Glenn Curtiss School in Virginia for flight training and then shortly thereafter to the U.S. Army’s new aviation school at Mineola, N.Y., on Long Island. He was the first officer to arrive at the base. Coyle came to Mineola not as a student but as a flight instructor, even though he himself had climbed into a plane for the first time only a little more than two months earlier. When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917 Coyle found himself a rare and valuable commodity – one of only 26 trained pilots in the entire U.S. Army.

In August Coyle sailed for France as part of the First Aero Squadron of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Like the other First Aero pilots he volunteered to fly as an observer/gunner for a French squadron, as the Americans were not yet prepared to launch their own aerial activities. The experience gave the Americans much-needed training in aerial combat; the French had been employing air power since the start of the war. Training, including maintaining positional awareness, was a continuous affair, with sometimes humorous outcomes. On a January 1918 bombing mission Coyle and fellow pilot Roger Clapp found themselves separated from their formation, lost over what they were sure was Germany, and running out of fuel. Forced to land, they were relieved to find themselves in a French village near the Swiss border. Being the first Americans to visit, the villagers gave them a hero’s welcome at the local tavern.

In the spring of 1918 Coyle was back with the First Aero Squadron, which was deployed to the relatively quiet Toul sector of the front. On April 12, while commanding a flight of three reconnaissance aircraft tasked with locating the German artillery shelling American trenches, Coyle became the first American-trained airman flying with an American unit to engage the enemy in combat. He received a commendation for the action from AEF commander Gen. John Pershing, and on May 8 he was decorated with the French Croix de Guerre for gallantry. He sent the medal home to his mother, along with a photograph of his plane with “little black crosses where the bullets passed through.”

On the same day that he received the French honor Coyle took command of the First Observation Squadron (formerly First Aero Squadron), one of just three American observation squadrons then in France. This unit provided support for the Allied effort in the Aisne-Marne Offensive, a period that Coyle described as “the roughest period we had during the war,” as German planes dramatically outnumbered American ones. The squadron gathered information on troop movements and artillery placements in support of ground activities, while frequently engaging with enemy planes, including the famous “Flying Circus” of expert fighter pilots assembled by German ace Manfred von Richthofen, popularly known as the Red Baron. As the commander of the First Observation Squadron, Coyle organized the men, their assignments, and all the requisite supplies and equipment they needed, but given the small number of trained pilots, he also continued to fly missions. In October 1918 Coyle was promoted to command First Corps Observation Group, which consisted of three observation squadrons. By war’s end he had been shot down three times, with the final time occurring just eight days before the Armistice. During that dogfight he was shot in the back and his observer/gunner was shot in the face; miraculously neither man was seriously injured.

Coyle’s influence extended far beyond his own wartime record and his personal efforts to establish air units as important components in modern warfare. Among the pilots he trained and commanded was another Concord man: John G. Winant, a member of the faculty at St. Paul’s School. Following his own distinguished service during the war, Winant became governor of New Hampshire for three terms, head of the U.S. Social Security Administration, and ambassador to Great Britain during World War II. His military attaché while in London was Tommy Hitchcock, who had been one of Winant’s St. Paul’s students and had also served as a pilot during World War I. It was in London during World War II that Hitchcock saw the potential of marrying the P-51 Mustang fighter being developed for the British in America with the British-made Rolls-Royce Merlin engine to create the long-range fighter that U.S. daylight bombers desperately needed to protect them over Europe. Winant and Hitchcock had to go over the heads of stonewalling American generals to get the plane into production – an act that the independent-minded Coyle would have appreciated. Collectively, then, these three New Hampshire men had a significant impact on the development of air power during both wars.

Surprisingly, there is very little information about Coyle in secondary sources, but the best resources for learning more about air power in World War I include James J. Cooke, The U.S. Air Service in the Great War, 1917–1919 (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 1998); Terrence J. Finnegan, Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War (The Mill, Brimscombe Port, Stroud, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom: History Press, 2011); and James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968).

(Byron O. Champlin is a Concord city councilor and independent historian. Elizabeth Dubrulle is the director of education and public programs for the New Hampshire Historical Society and managing editor of “Historical New Hampshire.” Copies of the “Historical New Hampshire” World War I issue are available for purchase on the New Hampshire Historical Society’s website (nhhistory.org), by calling 228-6688 or at the society’s museum, located at 30 Park Street in Concord, where there is currently an exhibition of World War I posters called “Making the World Safe for Democracy.”)