In the October 1930 issue of Proceedings, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Aeronautics David Ingalls recounted and touted the progress of naval aviation. In that article, he extolled some of the early pioneers by name, such as Theodore Ellyson (Naval Aviator No. 1) and Henry Mustin (father of the catapult launch), praising them for “their persistent, courageous efforts” and for laying “so well the foundations for the future development of our naval aircraft operations.” One name Secretary Ingalls might well have included, but did not, was his own.
Grand-nephew of President William Howard Taft, David Sinton Ingalls had been a pre-med student at Yale University in 1916 when he developed an interest in flying. He and 11 other Yale students met with Navy officials and obtained authorization to form what became known as the “First Yale Unit.” As civilian volunteers, the young men then trained using a Curtiss Model F seaplane and were designated as a coastal patrol unit, in effect becoming a private flying militia. When Congress passed the Naval Reserve Appropriations Act in August 1916, the entire unit, then grown to 28, enlisted.
Ingalls subsequently received further training in Florida and New York, was designated “Naval Aviator No. 85,” and was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) before shipping off to Europe to fight in what was then being called “The Great War” and would later be renamed World War I. Like many fledgling aviators of the time (and ever since), he wanted to be assigned to a fighter unit but was sent instead to a bomber group. His stay there did not last long, however. Some accounts say his transfer back to fighters was the result of a training mission, during which he was supposed to practice standard evasive maneuvers while being pursued by an enemy fighter. As the story goes, Ingalls surprised everyone—including hundreds of observers watching from the aerodrome below—when he adroitly maneuvered his underpowered and cumbersome trainer to turn the tables and get behind the instructor’s fighter, relentlessly tailing him to the delight of the audience on the ground.
Whatever the reason, Ingalls was transferred to a British fighter squadron to fly Sopwith Camels, which proved to be a good move, indeed. Almost immediately, on 11 August 1918, he made his first kill, shooting down a German Albatross, and two days later he took part in a raid on a German aerodrome that destroyed 38 enemy aircraft on the ground. A week later, he scored a second kill, and over the next few weeks, he and his squadron-mates flew many missions against German bases and aircraft, observation balloons, supply lines, and enemy soldiers entrenched along the Western Front. On one occasion, Ingalls returned to base with his Camel so shot up that it was declared unsalvageable.
By the time Ingalls was relieved of his duties with the British squadron to organize an American naval air squadron, he had—in six weeks—flown more than 100 hours, with 63 flights over and behind enemy lines, 13 aerial combat actions, and 13 low-altitude bombing raids. In that brief time, he was officially credited with five kills (though he almost certainly had more that could not be confirmed), making him the U.S. Navy’s first flying ace.