Answer Man: What's the story of dirigible base at Scott Field?

News-DemocratMay 20, 2014 

What is the story behind the dirigible base at Scott Field in the 1920s? I understand that it was built, but was not successful and the idea was abandoned in the late '20s. Shades of MidAmerica Airport -- a repeat of an earlier failure. -- A. J. Ecker, of Belleville

Sounds like someone has been feeding you a load of hot air. Far from collecting cobwebs, Scott Field was one of the nation's pre-eminent lighter-than-air bases for nearly 20 years, establishing records while exploring new ways to expand the armed forces' aviation capabilities.

As you probably know, the base grew out of Secretary of War Newton Baker's call to expand aviation during World War I, according to Scott's Internet history page. Thanks to the cooperation of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Belleville Board of Trade, the War Department agreed to lease 624 acres east of Belleville as one of its new "flying fields."

In 1917, Congress appropriated $10 million for construction. It gave a 2,000-worker army 60 days to erect 60 buildings, lay a mile-long railroad spur and level off an airfield with a 1,600-foot landing circle.

They named it for Cpl. Frank Scott, who, on Sept. 27, 1912, became the first enlisted service member to die in an airplane crash. Soon, the 11th and 21st Aero Squadrons arrived from Kelly Field, Texas, to train for combat. The first flight was Sept. 2, 1917, and flying instruction began nine days later.

But after the Great War ended, Scott Field already faced an uncertain future. The demobilization resulted in the closure of many other airfields. Scott, however, was spared when the base became a storage site for demobilized aircraft to support a Flying School Detachment organized from the units formed during the war effort.

Then came two key decisions. In 1919, the War Department decided to buy Scott Field. The government loved the base's central location along with a bargain-basement price of $119,285.84.

Two years later, the base was turned into a lighter-than-air station with the arrival of the Army Balloon and Airship School from Brooks Field, Texas. Soon, pilots were up in the air over the chance to test and expand the capabilities of aerial photography, meteorology and other altitude experiments.

The most notable addition was a behemoth of an airship hangar. Built between September 1921 and January 1923, it was three blocks long, nearly one block wide and 15 stories high.

One report suggested that 100,000 men -- nearly the entire U.S. Army in 1923 -- could have stood in formation inside it. In terms of size, it was second only to the naval station hangar in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the largest in the world at the time. (For a picture, go to www.nps.gov/nr/travel/aviation/sco.htm)

Among the highlights was a 74-mph speed record for dirigibles set by Scott Field's own TC-1 in 1923. Then, there was the triumph -- and tragedy -- of Army Air Corps Capt. Hawthorne C. Gray.

On March 9, 1927, Gray set an unofficial altitude record of 28,510 feet in a balloon launched from Scott Field. He passed out in the thin air, but regained consciousness just in time to drop ballast and slow his fall as the balloon was descending on its own. Two months later, he climbed to 42,470 feet over Belleville, but had to bail out with his parachute at 8,000 feet because the balloon was dropping too rapidly.

His luck ran out on his third try. After soaring to between 43,000 and 44,000 feet, Gray apparently lost consciousness and died. His body was found the next day in the balloon basket, which was spotted hanging from a tree near Sparta, Tennessee. Although many theories arose over the exact cause of death, the Scott Field board of inquiry ruled he died because his clock stopped, causing him to lose track of how much oxygen he had left.

Still, in the late 1920s, the emphasis continued to shift from airships to balloons. In 1929, the 12th Airship Company was inactivated and replaced the next day by the 1st Balloon Company.

But the writing was obviously on the wall, if not in the sky. With the rapid evolution of both artillery and the airplane, dirigibles and balloons would be sitting ducks in any future war. Coupling that with disasters like Gray's and the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937, at Lakehurst, the Army Air Corps brass recommended an end to all light-than-air activities.

So in June 1937, Scott's dirigible/balloon era came to an abrupt end, only to became home to the General Headquarters Air Force a year later. Soon, it again became a vital training installation -- including turning out "the best damned radio operators in the world" as graduates of the Radio School, which opened in September 1940 began to call themselves.

Today's trivia

How did they come up with the name of R2-D2 for the "Star Wars" robot?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Sixty years after Nattfari became the first permanent resident of Iceland, subsequent settlers in 930 AD established an outdoor legislative and judicial assembly on the plains of Thingvellir. Now known as the Althing (or Althingi), it is believed to be the world's oldest surviving parliament.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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