The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 89, July 1985 - April, 1986

Book Reviews
Wings over the Mexican Border: Pioneer Military Aviation in the Big Bend.
By Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale. (Austin: University of Texas Press,
1984- Pp. xxv+ 266. Preface, introduction, prologue, maps, photo-
graphs, epilogue, bibliography, index, notes. $24.50.)
Beginning in the 192os, the Big Bend country of the Rio Grande be-
came something of an operations area for the Army Air Service. It was
just far enough away from established bases in San Antonio (about 350
miles), to make a cross-country training flight challenging. It was also
exotic. There were vast natural wonders to behold from an open cock-
pit, the natives were impressionable and friendly, and when weather or
mechanical difficulties arose, ranchers supplied hospitality and hunting
trips for downed airmen awaiting rescue, repairs, or blue skies. But in
addition to aerial recreation, the Big Bend also offered the possibility
of real action owing to the border depredations of Mexican revolution-
aries and bandits. There were far more rumors of raids than real ones,
but any excuse would do for the flyboys in San Antonio, who were al-
ways eager to crank up their biplanes, load their forward-firing .30 cali-
ber machine guns with real bullets, and hie away to the Big Bend to
"play airplanes" (p. 237)-
The focus of legitimate military operations in the Big Bend was the
isolated ranch and trading post of Elmo and Ada Johnson, hard by the
Rio Grande and a good 150 miles away from the nearest military post,
Fort D. A. Russell at Marfa. Although the airfield the Johnsons allowed
the army to use at their ranch was never an official government facility,
it was nevertheless a valuable base for air patrols along the border.
Against a backdrop of uprisings like the Escobar rebellion in Mexico,
army fliers made use of the Johnson ranch airfield for nearly two dec-
ades. Ragsdale chronicles their comings and goings and gives us cap-
sule biographies of people associated with aerial operations at the
Johnson ranch. Perhaps his most valuable chapter deals with the per-
sistent efforts of the local citizenry to inflate the "border menace" in
order to keep Fort Russell (and its payroll) from being decommis-

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 89, July 1985 - April, 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. Accessed May 29, 2016.

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