Lt. Gen. Elwood R. “Pete” Quesada was a pioneer of aerial refueling, an architect of U.S. tactical air power, and was a key U.S. Army Air Forces leader during WWII in the European Theater of Operations. After WWII, he was the commander of Tactical Air Command and the first head of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Pete Quesada was born in 1904 in Washington D.C., a few months after the Wright Brothers first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. His father was a Spanish businessman and his mother was Irish-American. He grew up with aviation during the nineteen-teens and 1920s, a time of aeronautical experimentation and rapid progress.
He started his military career as a flying cadet in 1924 at Brooks Field, Texas, earning his wings, and completed advanced training at neighboring Kelly Field.
Because he had only a Reserve commission, he soon realized that the active U.S. Army Air Service had no long-term place for him. He returned to civilian life to play professional baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1927, he returned to the Army Air Corps and earned a Regular commission.
He was sent to Bolling Field, D.C., at the time, home of some of the most innovative thinkers in the Army Air Corps, including Maj. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz and Capt. Ira Eaker in developing air-to-air refueling.
On January 1, 1929, he shared the piloting duties aboard an Atlantic (Fokker) C-2A trimotor monoplane for an endurance flight from the metropolitan airport in Los Angeles CA. The plane was dubbed “Question Mark” as no one knew just how long it could remain airborne while receiving periodic refueling in the air from a Douglas C-1 aircraft. The Question Mark and its crew remained aloft for five days, receiving 42 transfers of fuel, oil, water, and food, while flying over 11,000 nonstop miles. Today, aerial refueling is considered routing and is a key mission of Air Mobility Command, but it all started with the Question Mark.
Quesada’s biggest contribution to aviation history came in WWII. Before the outbreak of war, Quesada and others concentrated on the tactical application of air power. During classes at Maxwell Field, Alabama, and the Army General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, he began to build the concept of close air support, predicting 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 to put his tactical air power theories into practice in December 1942, when he was promoted to Brigadier General in command of the 12th Fighter Command in North Africa. After refining his concepts in combat, they evolved into Army Air Forces Field Regulations “Command and Employment of Air Power” in July 1943. At the heart of these regulations was the premise that air superiority was a prerequisite for successful ground operations. Further, air and ground commanders must be equals and there had to be a centralized command of air assets to fully exploit the flexibility of air power.
In October 1943, he was transferred to England and assumed command of the 9th Fighter Command in the run-up to the Normandy invasion and liberation of Nazi occupied Europe. He established his advance headquarters on the Normandy Beachhead on D-Day +1. Here, he was at his best-placing forward air observers with Army divisions on the ground, where they could call for close air support. He mounted radios in tanks so ground commanders could contact fighter-bomber pilots directly. He pioneered the use of radar to vector Allied planes during attacks on German ground forces.
Without air superiority, German forces were vulnerable to Allied air attack, except at night or during bad weather. The air-ground apparatus he developed was the best in the world and was responsible for decimating German ground forces on the Western Front.
After WWII, he was the first commander of Tactical Air Command (now Air Combat Command) Headquarters in Tampa, Florida. He moved the headquarters to Langley Air Force Base, Virgina, to be in close proximity to Headquarters, Army Ground Forces. When the Air Force separated from the Army in 1947, he became a Lieutenant General in the independent U.S. Air Force.
He soon became disillusioned with the Department of Defense’s heavy emphasis on the Strategic Air Command and its heavy bomber nuclear deterrent at the expense of tactical air power. Lt. Gen. Quesada retired from the Air Force in 1951.
His military decoration included the Distinguished Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air medal with two silver stars. British honors included the Order of the Bath and Commander of the British Empire. He was also awarded the French Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre with Palm.
He served as the head of the Federal Aviation Administration from 1958-1961 and held several positions in private industry, including Lockheed Aircraft and American Airlines.
Lt. Gen. Pete Quesada passed away in Washington D.C. on February 9, 1993 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.