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Hispanic-American General was Aviation Pioneer, Tactical Genius

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2000 – He was an aviation pioneer, an organizer of Allied victory during World War II and a Hispanic American.

He was Elwood R. "Pete" Quesada.

Quesada was the son of a Spanish businessman and an Irish- American mother. His military career spanned aviation history from post-World War I era biplanes to supersonic jets.

Quesada was born in Washington, D.C., in 1904, a few months after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C. He grew up with aviation.

World War I imposed hothouse growth on all things connected with planes. In 1914, when the war began, primitive aircraft scouted enemy formations. They did not fire at each other nor did they drop bombs on the enemy troops. The aviators themselves began the first moves toward arming the craft. The pilots shot at each other first with pistols and rifles and then machine guns. Bombs and rockets came next.

The U.S. Army used aircraft to good effect during the St. Mihiel offensive of 1918.

All through the war, the opposing sides developed planes that flew longer, farther, faster and could do more things. After the war, aircraft development continued. The 1920s were a time of experimentation. Plane design changed from biplanes at the beginning of the decade to sleek monoplanes by the end.

Quesada started his military career in the middle of this ferment. He entered the Army Air Service as a flying cadet in 1924. He went through flight school at what is now Brooks Air Force Base, Texas (then called Brooks Field) and advanced training at neighboring Kelly Air Force Base.

Having only a reserve commission, Quesada found the active Army Air Service had no space for him. He returned to civilian life, playing baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1927, he returned to the Air Service and received a Regular Army commission. He reported to Bolling Field in Washington.

Bolling Air Force Base is now an administrative center, but its runways in 1927 were full of aircraft flown by some of the most innovative thinkers in the Army Air Corps. Pete Quesada joined then-Maj. Carl "Tooey" Spaatz and then-Capt. Ira Eaker in developing air-to-air refueling.

On Jan. 1, 1929, a three-engine Fokker C-2A rose into the air from metropolitan Airport in Los Angeles. It did not land again until Jan. 6. Quesada, Spaatz and Eaker shared piloting duties aboard the plane, dubbed the "Question Mark."

Throughout their five days aloft, the Fokker crew took in fuel from a Douglas C-1C that passed a hose in flight -- as well as oil, water and food. In all, the Fokker crew made 37 mid-air transfers and flew more than 11,000 nonstop miles.

Today, air-to-air refueling is almost routine. The United States bases the B-2 bomber in Missouri, knowing that no spot on the globe is too far away thanks to inflight refueling. This started with the flight of the Question Mark.

But Quesada's larger contribution came during World War II. The fabulous Allied air-ground machine that chewed up Nazi forces in Europe didn't just materialize. It was Quesada's baby.

Even before the war, Quesada -- like many others -- had been thinking of the place of air power. But where others looked to strategic bombing, Quesada concentrated on the tactical application of air power. During classes at Maxwell Field, Ala., and at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Quesada began to build the concept of close air support. He predicted the next war would require "all sorts of arrangements between the air and the ground, and the two will have to work closer than a lot of people think or want."

He got the chance to put his theories into practice. In December 1942, he was promoted to brigadier general and sent to North Africa to command the 12th Fighter Command. He put his ideas through the crucible of combat, and they evolved into Army Air Forces field regulations "Command and Employment of Air Power," published in July 1943.

At the heart of these regulations is the premise that air superiority is the prerequisite for successful ground operations. Further, he said, the air and ground commanders must be equals and there had to be centralized command of air assets to exploit the flexibility of air power.

In October 1943, Quesada went to England and assumed command of the 9th Fighter Command and readied that unit for the Normandy invasion. During the build-up and breakout that followed the invasion, Quesada was at his best. He placed forward air observers with divisions on the ground, and they could call for air support. He mounted radios in tanks so ground commanders could contact pilots directly. He pioneered the use of radar to vector planes during attacks. This was particularly helpful during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, when bad weather hid many German targets.

The air-ground apparatus he put together was the best in the world. After the war, he was the first commander of TAC -- the Tactical Air Command. He moved the headquarters from Tampa, Fla., to Langley Air Force Base, Va., so he could be close to the headquarters of the Army Ground Forces. When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, he went along as a lieutenant general.

Quesada retired from the Air Force in 1951. He was disillusioned with the emphasis placed on Strategic Air Command at the expense of tactical air. He served as the first head of the Federal Aviation Administration and held positions in private firms.

Quesada died in Washington in 1993.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Maj. Gen. Elwood R. "Pete" Quesada and his tactical air forces helped the Allies win the ground war in Europe. An advocate of close air support and air supremacy over the battlefield, Quesada went on to become an Air Force lieutenant general and first commander of the Tactical Air Command.   
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