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Throwback Thursday: Lots of hot air, some steel save Scott Field

For this Throwback Thursday, we draw inspiration from Hekawi Chief Wild Eagle of “F Troop” fame: “It... is... bal-LOON!”

At least, that’s what we think every time there is a hot air balloon around. Imagine Southwestern Illinois with airmen floating overhead instead of the occasional air tanker or cargo plane flying out of Scott Field.

On Aug. 11, 1922, the Belleville News-Democrat reported on the near completion of a $1.3 million hangar for the U.S. Army’s new fleet of lighter-than-air ships. At 810 feet long, 150 feet wide and 150 feet high, it should have been the world’s largest hangar.

It was second to a hangar in Lakehurst, N.J. While theirs was higher and wider, our hangar was longer.

Scott Field nearly closed after World War I, but the local business leaders got together with the congressional delegation to lobby for its use for dirigibles. When the funding didn’t come through, they went after it again and succeeded. Sound familiar?

Dirigibles were seen as the future of warfare, providing observation posts that could guard large stretches of coastline and watch for mines and submarines. Their tactical failings were also noted: Even Chief Wild Eagle knew one good arrow shot could bring one down.

The new mission also brought the area another familiar favorite when Scott staged an air show on Aug. 27, 1922. The flying circus promised to eclipse any other show at Scott, even those held during the war.

“Twenty expert pilots will do stunt flying and compete for world’s altitude records. In addition there will be many novelties, such as a wedding on a dirigible in mid-air, parachute leaps by aviators and dogs, etc.”

Unfortunately, the air went out of the lighter-than-air Army. By 1938 the fleet was sold off as surplus and the $1.3-million hangar and its 3,200 tons of structural steel fetched $20,051 as scrap.

Belleville chiropractor Steve Reichling said his grandfather, former Belleville Police officer Henry Reichling, bought one of the surplus dirigibles and put it over the barn. After it gave out, he cut it up for tents and tarps.

Henry Reichling is one of the 300 faces subscribers will see this Sunday when we publish our Belleville Family Album. You can learn more about him in the special section that features reader-submitted photos of Belleville residents from the 1800s to the present.

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