Vernon Burge

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Vernon Lee Burge
Vernon Lee Burge in 1913.jpg
Vernon Burge
Born(1888-11-29)November 29, 1888
DiedSeptember 6, 1971(1971-09-06) (aged 82)
Allegiance United States
Service/branchAeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps
USAAC Roundel 1919-1941.svg Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps
USAAC Roundel 1919-1941.svg U.S. Army Air Service
Us army air corps shield.svg U.S. Army Air Corps
Years of service1907–1942
RankUS-O6 insignia.svg Colonel
Commands held6th Bombardment Group

Vernon Lee Burge (November 29, 1888 – September 6, 1971) was an aviation pioneer. He was the first American enlisted man to be certified as a military pilot.[1] After ten years as an enlisted man, Burge was commissioned during World War I and served the next 25 years as an officer.[2]


He was born on November 29, 1888.

In the autumn of 1907, Private First Class Vernon Burge was assigned to Fort Myer, Virginia, to join the newly formed Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps under Captain Charles deForest Chandler.[3] At that time, the Aeronautical Division was composed of only three officers, ten enlisted men and one female civilian clerk. There was to have been an eleventh enlisted man, but he deserted after learning of his assignment.[4] At first, the unit trained in the military use of balloons.

While Burge was stationed there in August 1909, the Wright Brothers brought to Fort Myer the first fixed-wing aircraft purchased by the U.S. Army, a variant of the Wright Model A termed the Wright Military Flyer and designated by the Signal Corps as "Signal Corps (S.C.) No. 1".[5] Burge worked as a member of the ground crew for the aircraft, and trained in its technology.

On December 16, 1909, Burge transferred to Company H, Signal Corps, traveling in February 1910 to Fort Sam Houston, Texas to serve under Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois as one of ten enlisted mechanics repairing the frequently damaged S.C. No. 1.[6] Along with Glenn Madole and a civilian mechanic in August 1910, Burge contrived a way to fasten three wheels to the aircraft so that its skids would not be damaged as much upon landing. Crude as it was, this was the first tricycle landing gear on an aircraft. Foulois' initial reaction was negative: "One of the unpleasant features of landing on wheels is the difficulty experienced in stopping the machine."[7] However, the wheels saved the aircraft from more frequent repair, and subsequent aircraft models incorporated wheels.

Burge at Fort William McKinley in the Philippines at the controls of a Wright B Flyer

On December 11, 1911, the Army shipped S.C. No. 7, a Wright Model B, and spare parts to enable six months of operations to Fort William McKinley in the Philippines. Corporal Burge and Private Kenneth L. Kintzel accompanied the aeroplane as mechanicians and were joined by five Army mechanics already in Manila.[8] S.C. No. 7, equipped with floats as a seaplane, was assembled and flown for the first time on March 21, 1912.[9]

1st Lt. Frank P. Lahm, who had been the Army's first passenger on the Wright Military Flyer in 1909, rejoined the 7th Cavalry in the Philippines in November 1911 and was detailed to open the Philippine Air School in March 1912 by Chief Signal officer of the Philippine Department, Lt. Col. William A. Glassford. Although two officers were to be instructed, only one (1st Lt. Moss L. Love) volunteered for the dangerous duty, and Glassford approved Burge's request for pilot training without waiting for approval from the Chief of Signal in Washington, D.C.

Burge met the requirements of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) on June 14, 1912 and received FAI aviation certificate No. 154 (Love received No. 155 on June 28).[10][11][12] The Chief of Signal later disapproved the training of enlisted men as pilots, but Burge's certification as a pilot was already a fact. He reversed himself and accepted Burge's certification on August 14, 1912 and promoted him to sergeant.[1] He was also rated a master signal electrician.[13]


Army portrait

On June 26, 1917, Burge was first commissioned a second lieutenant from a vacancy in the 53rd Infantry, and a first lieutenant of the 40th Infantry, both of the Regular Army,[11] with the service number O-5511.[14] On August 5, 1917, as part of a large influx of mid-career officers detailed to the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps in its wartime expansion, Burge received temporary promotion to captain, Signal Corps. In April 1919 he was assigned to the 24th Infantry and promoted in the permanent establishment to captain and sent back to the 1st Aero Squadron where, as tensions rose in the U.S. near the end of the Mexican Revolution, he took part in patrol flights along the Mexico – United States border in 1919. Burge took photographs of the men and aircraft of 1st Aero Squadron.[15] On July 1, 1920, when the Army Reorganization Act established the Air Service as a combat arm of the Army, Burge transferred in grade to the new branch.

In the spring of 1922, Burge served in Oklahoma City on an Army Board whose purpose was to investigate the shooting death of Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. Beck. The board raised serious questions about the actions of Judge Jean P. Day who said he had only intended to strike Beck with his pistol, not shoot him. The board determined that Beck had "died in the line of duty."[16]

During the school year 1934–1935, Burge attended the Air Corps Tactical School at the rank of major.[17]

Burge commanded the 2nd Observation Squadron in the Philippines from June 1923 to April 1925. He also held a number of service squadron commands, including the 68th S.S. in 1922-23, the 61st S.S. from 1925 to 1929, and again 1935-36, and the 66th S.S. from 1930 to 1932.

For two months beginning in June 1939, Lt. Col. Burge served in the Panama Canal Zone at France Field as commander of the 6th Bombardment Group,[18] and the base Headquarters and 16th Air Base Squadron. Burge retired as a colonel on January 31, 1942, and lived in San Antonio, Texas.[14]

He died on September 6, 1971 at age 82.[19] He was buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

External links[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Cpl. Vernon L. Burge". National Museum of the United States Air Force. Archived from the original on October 14, 2012. Retrieved 2012-10-01. Cpl. Vernon L. Burge became the first enlisted pilot three years after the Army bought its first airplane. He was Lt. Benjamin Foulois' mechanic on Signal Corps airplane No. 1 at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, in 1910, and Lt. Frank Lahm taught him to fly in the Philippines two years later. ...
  2. ^ "Vernon L. Burge". Early Aviators. Retrieved 2012-10-01. Col. Vernon L. Burge, USAF retired, died September 6, 1971. He was the last surviving member of the historic 1st Aviation Detachment of the U.S. Army. He made his first solo flight in the Philippines March 1, 1912, becoming the first enlisted man to become a pilot in the Army. He retired in 1945, with the rank of colonel, after 38 years in the military service. ...
  3. ^ Tillman, 2006, pp. 20–21.
  4. ^ Tillman, 2006, p. 217.
  5. ^ Chivalette, Master Sergeant William I. "Chapter 2: Enlisted History." Archived February 5, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Part of Professional Development Guide. Air Force Pamphlet AFPAM36-2241, July 1, 2009. Retrieved on November 20, 2009.
  6. ^ Tillman, 2006, p. 82.
  7. ^ Coffman, 2004, p. 165.
  8. ^ Correll, John T. Air Force Magazine, August 2007. "The First of the Force." Retrieved on November 20, 2009.
  9. ^ Hennessey, 1958, p. 79.
  10. ^ Hennssey, 1958, pp. 79-80.
  11. ^ a b Air University. Milestones. Retrieved on November 20, 2009.
  12. ^ Aero Club of America, p. 66. "Holders of Aviator's Certificates of the Aero Club of America." Retrieved on November 23, 2009.
  13. ^ The Official Bulletin, Saturday, July 14, 1917, page 15. Retrieved on November 20, 2009.
  14. ^ a b Tillman, 2006, p. 220.
  15. ^ Photographs of the Vernon L. Burge Collection at the Airmen Memorial Museum, Suitland, Maryland.
  16. ^ Arlington National Cemetery. Paul Ward Beck. Retrieved on November 20, 2009.
  17. ^ Finney, Robert T. (1998) Air Force History and Museums Program. History of the Air Corps Tactical School 1920–1940.[permanent dead link] Third imprint. Retrieved on November 20, 2009.
  18. ^ Air Force Historical Research Agency. 6 Operations Group (AMC) Archived 2011-05-07 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on November 20, 2009.
  19. ^ "Col. Vernon Burge is Dead; First Enlisted,Man Pilot, 82". New York Times. September 9, 1971. Retrieved 2012-10-01. Col. Vernon L. Burge, Air Force, retired, who in 1912 became he first Army enlisted man to win his pilot's wings. He was 82 Years old. Colonel Burge ...