The Most Important Figure in The History of American Military Aviation

Nicole Bailey

12/21/2013 1:00:00 PM - Nicole Bailey

I was privileged to interview Bill Yenne, the author of Hap Arnold: The General Who Invented the U.S. Air Force.

The Q&A is provided in part below:

Why did you write about Hap Arnold?
Hap Arnold is the most important figure in the history of American military aviation, and he has not been the subject of a biography for several decades. I thought it was time to reacquaint new generations of readers with this man.

Who was Hap Arnold?
Hap Arnold was a young recent West Point graduate who (a) learned to fly from the Wright Brothers; (b) grew into a career with the US Army Air Corps; (c) became its chief; (d) turned it into the autonomous US Army Air Forces; (e) turned the USAAF into the largest air force in the history of the world (even to this day); (f) used the USAAF to win World War II; (g) and then laid the groundwork to transform the USAAF into the independent US Air Force.

You write that Hap Arnold earned near-universal respect - yet it seems today's military leaders like Panetta and Hagel are unable to achieve that. Do we need another Hap Arnold?
Last question first: Yes, we need people in leadership who know how to lead, AND (a) who have a thorough understanding of what the capabilities and job descriptions of the people they lead, (b) who have a clear idea of the strategic goal, (c) if those above them do not have a strategic understanding, to formulate and decisively articulate the goal themselves and explain it to their bosses who must make the decision to execute it. Finally, these leaders must have the confidence and respect (if not the admiration) of those above them and those they lead. Both Panetta and Hagel have lacked the kind of understanding of the services that inspires confidence. There is no room in such important business for on the job training. Both are political appointees who fail to inspire confidence.

What predictions did Hap Arnold have for America's future, and did they come true?
At the end of World War II, when the service chiefs – Army, Navy and USAAF – were asked to write their final reports, Arnold alone devoted a third of his report to the future of his service. He brought together the best scientific minds in fields from aerodynamics to electronics and asked for projections 10, 20 and even 50 years in the future – including radar, guided missiles, and, yes, unmanned aircraft. He also founded Project RAND (Research and Development), which became the RAND Corporation. In less than a year, RAND had developed a plan for the world’s first orbital spacecraft (more than a decade ahead of Sputnik). After World War II, Arnold favored not resting on his laurels of having built the world’s largest air force, but advocated a complete rethinking of American airpower strategy for the future. He was still a visionary.
People sometimes ask what he would have thought about drones. To this, I point out that Hap Arnold went overseas in the FIRST World War to prepare for the deployment of the US military’s FIRST drone, the Kettering Bug, which he had helped to develop. It was already flying and ready for overseas deployment when the war ended in 1918.

What is the most fun fact you discovered about Hap Arnold?
Did you know that Hap Arnold was a children’s book author? In the 1920s, he penned the “Bill Bruce” series for boys. They tell the story of a young man who learns to fly and becomes a US Army pilot.

How did you conduct your research, and how long did it take?
I have been writing about American military history and the US Air Force for over 25 years, collecting information and mentioning Arnold frequently, so it is hard to say how long it took.

Why don't Americans know more about Hap Arnold?
I am a bad one to ask because I don’t understand why more people do not know him. Part of the answer is the poor condition of the teaching of history in schools...When you ask why Americans don’t know more about Hap Arnold, I counter with this question: Aside from Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley and MacArthur, how many average Americans can name more than two other American generals from WWII? Try asking.

I am guilty as charged - I openly confess my ignorance about Hap Arnold. Thankfully, Bill Yenne's book ensures that even I can have a comprehensive understanding of the "General Who Invented the U.S. Air Force." Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the book is the translation of 25 years of expertise into a thorough original work that is receiving widespread critical acclaim.

In a field increasingly saturated with biographies to the same, well-known military figures, Yenne's book pays tribute to one of the greatest unsung heroes of American history and aviation as a whole.

Regardless of whether you passed the ignorance test ("When you ask why Americans don’t know more about Hap Arnold, I counter with this question: Aside from Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley and MacArthur, how many average Americans can name more than two other American generals from WWII?"), Hap Arnold is sure to be a rewarding and informative read.

Hap Arnold: The General Who Invented the U.S. Air Force can be purchased here.