NEWS | May 27, 2021

Bee Rife Osborne: Kentucky National Guard’s First Military Aviator

By SFC(R) John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs

On May 18, 1918, the first American-built airplane took to the skis over the Romorantin Aerodrome outside of Paris, France, at its controls was a native of Woodford County, Kentucky, Captain Bee Rife Osborne.
The significance of this historic first flight of an American aircraft piloted by an American officer was an indication to her allies and enemies that American was truly and completely commented to the war effort, with men, material and industry.
Bee R. Osborne was born on November 22, 1886, in Midway, Woodford County, Kentucky.  A son of James Wesley and Polly Ann Stamper Osborne.  He attended public school in Fayette County, Kentucky, and graduated from the Wilbur Smith Business College where he learned his life-long skill as a telegrapher.
Following business college Bee initially went to work for the Western Union Company, at Tupelo, Mississippi, where he married Rosa Osborne in 1909.  There is no record of Rosa’s last name or for how long they were married.
While Bee was living and working in Mississippi, on July 4, 1913, his older brother, Clarence and younger brother, Eli joined Lexington’s Company C, 2nd Infantry Regiment, of the Kentucky National Guard.  In 1912, Bee enlisted as a Private with Company M, 3rd Infantry, Mississippi National Guard.
On July 28, 1914, in Europe, what would become known as the “War to End All War” began.  The United States would not become involved until April 6, 1917, more than two and half years after it had started.  By 1914, Bee was back in Lexington working for Western Union as the night telegrapher. On September 9, 1914, he and Cora Cook of Lexington eloped on his motorcycle to Versailles and were married. 
In late August 1915, the Kentucky National Guard established its first Signal Company at Lexington, Kentucky.  A call is made for trained telegraphers and Bee answered the call.  Osborne was one of the first to join this new unit, on September 1, 1915, due to his civilian training, he was promoted to the rank of First Class Sergeant in Company A, Signal Corps, Kentucky National Guard.  His physical description listed him as: weight 119 ½ lbs.; height 5’ 4 ½”; gray eyes, brown hair and light complexion.  
Company A’s commander, Otto Holstein wanted to establish an Aviation Section for the Signal Corps in Kentucky, as well as the formation of aa aviation school and Kentucky Aero Club at Lexington.  Holstein started efforts to purchase an aeroplane as well as having a hanger built with money raised by the general public who would become members.  
An Aeronautical Division had been established within the office of the Chief Signal Officer, on August 1, 1907.  In 1908, the Wright brothers had made test flights of the Army’s first airplane built to Signal Corps’ specifications.  By 1916, the U. S. Army Signal Corps had an established Aeronautical Division, but it needed more pilots.
The Curtiss Aeroplane Company offered to train an officer of the militia of each of the 48 States.  The training was be given on either land or water aeroplanes.  The training was to continue until the officer appointed secured his official pilot license, which was issued by the Aero Club of America.  The course cost was $400. Thru Emerson McMillin, of New York, the Aero Club of America added 10 per cent, to the $400.  The check, for $40 was to defray expenses incidental to the pilots training, it was sent to the Adjutant General of each State upon notification that an officer was ready to report at one of the Curtiss schools for his training. This amount is to go toward defraying expenses incidental to his training.   It was felt this effort to train Militia pilots would enable the militia of most of the States to take the first step toward organizing an aviation section.  
Keeling G. Pulliam, Jr., Master Signal Electrician of Company A was the first man selected to attend aviation training, however, due to his attendance at State University (now University of Kentucky), he would not be able to attend until June 1916.  Pulliam would retire from the service with the rank of Brigadier General.
Initially Bee Osborne had no interest in flying, not until a representative of the Aero Club of America came to Lexington and attended an evening drill of the company.  In a 1959, interview Osborne stated, the gentlemen from the Aero Club “made a talk on the subject and asked whether anyone would volunteer to go for flying instructions, and I didn’t have any more sense than to say I would go.”  Osborne was an ideal candidate to become an aviator, he was small in stature and was later described as a stock, grim-faced, hard-nosed little pilot, who would fly anything he could get off the ground. 
The Army had set standards for everyone who wanted to become an Aviator, so Bee had to be processed through the system before he could train to be an Aviator:

Tentative System for the Organization of the Aviation Section
Official Announcement by the Officer in Charge, Aviation Section, Signal Corps, U.S.A. 
Appendix D
Detail of Officers and Enlisted Men of the National Guard at Signal Corps Aviation Schools. Officers and enlisted men of the National Guard may be detailed at Signal Corps aviation schools under section 99 of the national defense act. National Guard officers and men desiring such course will put in their applications to the adjutant general of their respective States who will forward the applications direct to the Chief, Militia Bureau, War Department, Washington, D. C. Such officers and enlisted men will be required to pass the prescribed physical and mental examinations which will be similar to those required of reserve officers, Aviation Section, Signal Officers’ Reserve Corps. On approval by the Militia Bureau, orders will be requested from the Adjutant General of the Army assigning such officers or enlisted men to duty at aviation schools.7 Physiological Tests for National Guard and Naval Militia Fliers The candidates for aerial service in the National Guard and the Naval Militia, before receiving their military and naval licenses, are required to submit to a special rigorous physical examination to determine their fitness for such duty. The essential features if this test are as follows: The visual acuity without glasses should be normal. Any error of refraction requiring correction by glasses or any other cause diminishing acuity of 7 vision below normal will be a cause for rejection. The candidate’s ability to estimate distances will be determined. Color blindness for red, green, or violet is a cause for rejection. If the candidate wears glasses, so state, and give the necessity therefore. The acuity of hearing should be carefully tested and the ears carefully examined with the aid of the speculum and mirror. Any diminution of the acuity of hearing below normal will be cause for rejection. Any disease whatever of the middle ear, either acute or chronic, or a former acute condition, will be a cause for rejection. Any disease of the internal ear or of the auditory nerve will be a cause for rejection. The following tests for equilibrium to detect otherwise obscure diseased condition of the internal ear should be made: (a) Have the candidate stand with knees, heels and toes touching; (b) have the candidate walk forward, backward and in a circle; (c) have the candidate hop around the room. All these tests should be made with the eyes open, and then closed; the third test on both feet, and then on one foot; hopping forward and backward, the candidate trying to hop or walk in a straight line. Any deviation to the right or left from the straight line or from the arc of the circle should be noted. Any persistent deviation either to the right or left is evidence of a diseased condition of the internal ear, and nystagmus is frequently associated with such condition. These symptoms should, therefore, be regarded as causes for rejection. The organs of respiration and the circulatory system should be carefully examined. Any diseased condition of the circulatory system, either of the heart or arterial system, is a cause for rejection. Any disease of the nervous system is a cause for rejection. The precision of the movements of the limbs should be especially carefully tested. Any candidate whose history may show that he is afflicted with chronic digestive disturbances, chronic constipation, or indigestion, or intestinal disorders tending to produce dizziness, headache, or to impair his vision, and any excess that may disturb his mental balance, or to alcoholism, should be rejected. Any marked departure from normal blood pressure will be considered a cause for rejection.

On 23 March 1916, it was announced in The Lexington Herald that Sergeant First Class Bee R. Osborne, would be taking the aviation course conducted by the Curtiss Aviation School.  
Osborne was transferred from the Signal Corps to Company H, 3rd Infantry Regiment at Hartford, Kentucky, on 25 March 1916.

State of Kentucky
Adjutant General’s Office 
Special Orders No. 46.            Frankfort, Ky., March 25, 1916. 
1.    With the approval of the Commanding Officers of Co. A, Signal Corps, and Co.
H, 3rd Infantry, Private B. Osborne, Co. A, Signal Corps, is hereby transferred to Co. H, 3rd Infantry, as of this date. 
2.    Private B. Osborne, Co. H, 3rd Infantry, is hereby appointed 2nd Lieutenant, Co.
H, 3rd Infantry, as of this date. Lieutenant Osborne will be obeyed and respected accordingly. 
3.    2nd Lieutenant B. Osborne, Co. H, 3rd Infantry, is hereby detailed to attend the
Curtiss School of Aviation, at Newport News, Virginia, reporting to the official in charge, on April 1st, 1916. The sum of One Hundred and Fifty ($1250.00) Dollars received by The Adjutant General of Kentucky from the Aero Club of America, is hereby placed in the hands of Lieutenant Osborne to pay such portion of his expenses as may be necessary while taking the course. Lieutenant Osborne will render an itemized account covering the expenditure of these funds at the end of each month, filing receipts for all expenditures amounting to one dollar of more. 
 By Order of the Governor: 
                             [James Tandy Ellis] 
The Adjutant General.

Lieutenant Osborne began his training at the Curtiss Aviation School at Newport Beach, Virginia, becoming one of the earliest National Guard and Kentucky National Guard’s first officers trained as an Aviator.  
While Lieutenant Osborne continued his aviation training, the nation and the military were watching events develop along the Mexican-U. S. border.  The National Defense Act of 1916 was only two weeks old when President Woodrow Wilson, responding to diplomatic and military threats from Mexico, federalized the entire National Guard.  The Kentucky Brigade was mobilized for Mexican Border Service on June 18, 1916, conducting initial training at Fort Thomas, Kentucky.  On June 27, 1916, Osborne was ordered to report to his company.  Osborne reported at Fort Thomas on July 14th.   Before he could be sent to the border orders came for him to report to the Mineola New York Signal Corps Aviation School to receive his military flight training.  In August 1916, the Brigade moved to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas.
Hazlehurst Field, Mineola, Long Island, the Army’s second flying school, was opened in June 1916 with a capacity of about 50 students.  Osborne was in a class of 42 other students, both Regular Army and National Guard.
Between July and December 31, 1916, numerous tests were made by the flyers at Mineola, some of the most interesting were bomb tests and winter flying tests, which tested both the pilot and their equipment in extreme weather conditions. In early 1917, the pilots tested metal propellers and practiced aerial photography with the new Brock airplane camera.
In early October, Osborne is given a furlough to come home at the birth of his son. On October 4, 1916, Cora Osborne gave birth to the couple’s only child, Bee R. Osborne, Jr. 
While at Long Island Bee participated in a historic mass flight of 12 military aircraft from Hempstead Field, New York to League Island Navy Yard in Philadelphia and return flight, and in the process setting a new distance record.  All men completing the flight to Philadelphia and back to New York were to be qualified as expert aviators.  
This 165-mile flight was made on December 30, 1916.  Osborne’s was the eighth plane to take off, around 08:45 in the morning.  Due to the severe weather conditions each pilot wore experimental flight suits of heavy fur and wool and wore googles, only their cheeks were exposed to the elements.  Osborne’s plane touched down in Philadelphia at 11:53 in the morning. 
The return flight to New York was made the following day.  On their return trip, Osborne and his fellow aviators flew their Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) at altitudes of 7,000 to 8,000 feet.  Despite the heavy clothing all the pilots were almost frozen and were covered in white frost when they landed in New York.  In fact, they had to have assistance to get out of their planes.  Osborne was one of the pilots who successfully made the round trip and earned his Reserve Military Aviator certification and his FAI (Federation Aeronautique Internationale) pilot’s license No. 623.
Bee Osborne resigned his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Kentucky National Guard’s Third Infantry Regiment on January 15, 1917, to transfer to the U. S. Army Signal Corps Officers’ Reserve Corps.  Osborne was ordered to Active duty and received orders to report to the Third Aero Squadron located at San Antonio, Texas, on March 15, 1917.  
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Imperial Germany.  With the entrance or the United States into the war it was discovered that the country was almost totally unprepared in aeronautical experience, equipment, and personnel.  The Aviation Section of the Signal Corps had no accurate knowledge of the equipment of a m1l1tary airplane. No airplane in America up to 1917 had ever mounted a machine gun, and aviation personnel had practically no knowledge of radiotelegraphy and telephony, photography, bombing equipment, lights for night flying, aviators' clothing, compasses used in flying, or other aviation instruments well known to the aviators of Germany, England, and France.
Osborne left San Antonio in August 1917, headed for Fort Hamilton, New York.  A cablegram dated August 5, 1917, to General Pershing at Paris, mentions Osborne and other officers who had orders to sail to France, awaiting transport.  Osborne sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, aboard the S. S. Lapland on August 13, 1917 bound for France.  On September 9, 1917, Osborne was assigned to the 1st Aero Squadron, the first unit of the United States Army Air Corps to arrive in France.  Upon arrival he was initially assigned to the Radio Section of the Air Corps, located at Villacoublay near Paris, where he was testing various radio equipment for use in airplanes.  Due to his age, 28, it was felt Osborne was too old to be a fighter pilot.
In October 1917, Osborne was placed in charge of testing aviator uniforms and equipment, electrical and radio apparatus.  He was the chief test pilot for the Air Corps in France.  From January to March 1918, Osborne accepted 600 planes obtained from the French.  Osborne had become one of the earliest if not the first appointed test pilots for the U. S. Army in France.  He was considered a tip-top pilot, cautious while taking the necessary chances which was an integral part of his metal makeup as a test pilot.
On December 1, 1917, Osborne was promoted to First Lieutenant.  During this time, back in the States, America was building her first war plane, the De Havilland DH-4, “Liberty” for use as a daytime bomber, observation and artillery spotting.  Along with its two-man crew, it had a top speed of 128 mph, wingspan of 43’, a range of 400 miles, powered by the 400-Hp American Liberty 12-cylinder engine.  Two .30-cal. Martin machine guns were mounted in the nose and two .30-cal. Lewis machine guns in the rear, it could carry 322 lbs. of bombs.  It had a ceiling of 19,600 feet and weighed 3,557 pounds loaded.  It would become the only American-built aircraft to see combat during the war. 
From May 11, 1918, when the first American-built DH-4 arrived in France, to the close of hostilities, a total of 1,087 DH-4 airplanes were assembled, tested and equipped with all accessories at Air Service Production Center No. 2, of this number 543 were sent to the front.  Air Service Production Center No. 2 was the largest in France.  There were a number of large factories and plants for the assembling, repairing and salvaging of planes.  Approximately fifteen to eighteen thousand men were assigned there at any one time.  American soldiers assigned to the Center, were assisted by French women and men of every nationality.  The outside and undesirable work was done by Chinese labor.  At was stated that production surpassed that of a manufacturing city of two hundred thousand in the States.  It had the second largest refrigeration plant in the world, railroad yards, miles of warehouses and large flying fields.  The Center was in direct communications with the front at all time through wire and by rail.
On May 11, 1918, the first American-built “Liberty” arrived in France.  It was immediately taken out of packing creates and assembled.  The first flight of this aircraft took place on May 18, 1918, with First Lieutenant Bee R. Osborne as pilot.  Osborne had never laid eyes on the aircraft until just prior to take-off.  Osborne admitted he was scared to test the plane since it was brand new.   
When he arrived at the airfield, Osborne was unaware of the big celebration planned for the flight.  He received many bouquets of flowers and French commendations.  He was subjected to many minutes of oratory from the various high-ranking American, British and French officers present for the flight.  Mrs. Florence Kendall, a prominent American War Worker christened ship, “Lady Florence.”  Years later Osborne recalled that when he received flowers from Mrs. Kendall he told her to “Hold those flowers until I come down, I might need em’ then”, alluding to the possibility that his flight might not be a success.  
In preparing to take-off, Osborne picked a Captain Miller from the crowd to serve as ballast for the test flight.  As thousands cheered, Osborne went through his normal routine of testing.  It was reported that the weather was sultry the day of the flight, but the elements seemed to hold their forces in check to allow a perfect test.  When airborne he went through a few stalls, steep banks and turns. Following the short test flight Osborne returned to the airfield to the cheers and congratulation of the crowd. 
   Later when asked by a reporter, Osborne described the Liberty’s motor as the best in the world at the time.  However, the ship had two defects, first the fuel tank separated the pilot and observer making it extremely difficult to communicate with each other during flight.  The second issue was the fuel tank being located between the pilot and observer, giving an enemy pilot three easy targets in a row.  This resulted in an unusually high casualty rate of Liberty planes, and for that reason many aviators did not like to go up in the aircraft along the front, and earned it the nickname, “the flaming coffin.” 
It was written at the time that “the first flight of the Liberty plane marked the beginning of a distinct change of the Army Air Corps from a half-passive, hap-hazard air service to an active, comprehensive program of operations from which important results were made.”  This was the beginning of America’s modern Airpower known the world over. 
The following poem appeared in The Stars and Stripes newspaper on December 27, 1918:
The Advent
(Inspired by the trial flight of the first Liberty plane to be flown in France, May 17, 1918.) 
“Coupe!”
The pilot, peeping from his cock-pit,
Grimaces, and tries again.
“Contact!”
Three mechanicians tug, chain-like, at the huge propeller;
The engine roars, insane.
The ship moves forward, her nose lifts gracefully into the air;
And as the swaying, expectant crowd
Cheers, and cheers again, the Chaplain
Bowed,
Murmurs a prayer.
B. C. Clarke, Corp., 486th Aero Squadron.

Two days after the historic flight, Bee Osborne was promoted to Captain in the Air Service, May 20, 1918.  Then on May 24, 1918, Army Aviation was removed from the Signal Corps and renamed, the Army Air Service.
In a letter in late May 1918, to a friend in Lexington, First Lieutenant J. B. Wallace, assigned to the American Balloon School as an Instructor in France, and former member of the Lexington Signal Company, makes mention of Captain Osborne:
I saw Captain Bee Osborne and had a long talk with him, in fact, I spent several hours in his office in Paris.  He is chief inspector of aeroplane engines of the A. E. F. (American Expeditionary Force).  This is quite a big job over here and tho he realizes the importance of his position, Captain Osborne is the same old Bee.

While still in France, Osborne was appointed Chief Test Pilot and Commander of the 1106th Aero Squadron.  Captain Osborne and his squadron were part of the Airplane and Motor Division of the Supply Center of the Air Corps.  
The First World War came to an end on November 11, 1918.  Following his return from overseas, Bee was stationed at Bolling Field, Washington, D. C., beginning on September 18, 1919, at the time the Army was authorized to retain 1,200 temporary emergency officers in the Air Service while Congress determined how the peacetime service would be structured.  The emergency officers were to be retained until June 30, 1920.  Captain Osborne was honorably discharged at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, on September 13, 1920.  He was not recorded as having served in any battles or engagements despite his time in France.  He was awarded the Victory Medal and four gold war service chevrons.
Osborne returned to Kentucky following his service in the Army.  He and his family quietly settled back into civilian life.  He began a new career working as a ticket agent and telegrapher for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway System and retired from the C&O in 1951.  Bee was an active member of the VFW and American Legion for many years.  He would remain interested in flying and worked with his fellow World War aviators, over the next few years in an unsuccessful attempt to get an aviation unit for the Kentucky National Guard to be located at Lexington.  It was not until 1947, that the Kentucky Air National Guard was organized. 
When war began in Europe in 1939, Bee spoke out against American involvement in the war, having seen its death and devastation during the First World War.
On December 7, 1941, the United States became embroiled in a Second World War.  In June 1942, Bee R. Osborne, Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Army, and became a Signalman.  While on furlough from the Army in late June 1942, young Osborne was fatally injured when he struck his head on a stump while diving into the Kentucky River at Fort Boonesboro.   He was 25 at the time of his death.  
 Following his retirement from the railroad in 1951, Bee enjoyed photography and fishing in the later years of his life.  On December 10, 1968, Bee’s wife of 54 years, Cora Cook Osborne died.  Twelve days later, on December 22, Bee Rife Osborne passed.  He was buried next to his wife in the Lexington Cemetery. 
A 1947, Lexington newspaper article stated, “Dayton has the Wright brothers and North Carolina has its Kitty-hawk, but Lexington has edged into the historic niche of the early days of flying with a quiet, silver-haired little man who in his day scored a couple of ‘firsts’ that give him an undisputed place in the saga of American air power, Bee Rife Osborne.”