Thomas DeWitt Milling contributed mightily to the American heritage of flight. Possessor of the Aero Club of America's License 30, Expert Aviator License 3 and numerous awards and honors, Milling became a key figure in the early years of aviation. His illustrious career in both civil and military spheres garnered widespread acclaim.
Milling was born on July 31, 1887 to Judge Robert E. Milling and Ida Roberts in Winnfield, Louisiana. He attended public schools in Franklin, Louisiana and metamorphosed there from a timid child to a bold young man. Deciding on a military career, he entered the United States Military Academy in 1905.
After graduation from West Point, Milling entered the Fifteenth Cavalry and was posted to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. A year of overseeing the commissary there proved uninspiring and he was surprised and delighted when transferred to the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. In 1911, both Milling and another young lieutenant, H.H. "Hap" Arnold, were sent to receive flying instruction at the Wright Brothers' Flying School in Dayton, Ohio. The two qualified for their Aero Club of America pilot certificates on the same day, July 6, 1911. It would be an association that would last for many years. Arnold and Milling became the army's first two regular pilots and served together in varied posts involving flight instruction and military testing.
Only a few months after learning to fly, Milling was to achieve acclaim by winning the Tri-State Biplane Race, flying from Boston to Nashua, New Hampshire to Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island back to Boston, a total of 175 miles. At the time, this constituted the longest cross-country race of its kind in the country. Milling flew it in a Wright biplane, without the use of a compass. It was his first night flight and its dramatic finish was accomplished with the help of several large bonfires to provide guidance. Milling won several other contests that day, against a field of experienced fliers.
At an autumn 1911 meet on Long Island, Milling again proved his skill and daring in several events. It was here that he carried two passengers to establish a new endurance record.
The next year found Milling at Fort Riley, Kansas, conducting research for the Army on aerial machine gun fire, bomb dropping and artillery fire observation.
In 1913, the Army's handful of planes were transferred to Texas City, near the Mexican border. While posted there, Milling set another record for an endurance flight with a passenger (Lieutenant W.C. Sherman of the Corps of Engineers). The nonstop flight from Texas City to San Antonio was made with a Burgess-Wright tractor biplane equipped with a 70 hp Renault engine. During the four hours and twenty-two minutes aloft, Sherman was able to make the first military map ever drawn from an airplane, measuring 15 feet long. Speaking later of the Texas City trip, Milling's commanding officer, Major General W.H. Carter, hailed Milling as "one of the foremost aviators of the world."
In addition to the above mentioned accomplishments, Milling was instrumental in the field of flight instruction, helping to establish the first Army aviation school in College Park, Maryland in 1911 and other schools across the country. The years prior to America's entry into World War One also saw Milling commanding a detachment on the Mexican border, whose mission included surveillance and the pursuit of Pancho Villa.
During the First World War, Milling began as Chief of Air Service Training, American Expeditionary Forces. By 1919, he was Chief of the Air Service, First Army.
Milling retired in 1933 due to ill health but was recalled to service in 1942 and retired again in 1946. He was later awarded the rank of Brigadier General.
Before his death on November 26, 1960, Milling received, among other honors, America's Distinguished Service Medal, France's Legion of Honor and Belgium's Order of Leopold by Belgium. Milling was also a member of the Early Birds, a celebrated group of fliers who soloed before December 17, 1916.