Scott Air Force Base News

This month in Scott AFB history: The Scott Field airship OA-1 ‘Baby Blimp’ makes first flight over city of Belleville

Pictured is the Army’s non-rigid Airship OA-1 “Baby Blimp” at Scott Field circa 1922. Photo courtesy of the Oluf T. Jensen Collection at the 375th AMW History Office
Pictured is the Army’s non-rigid Airship OA-1 “Baby Blimp” at Scott Field circa 1922. Photo courtesy of the Oluf T. Jensen Collection at the 375th AMW History Office

On Feb. 18, 1922, officials at Scott Field requested one Type OA airship be assigned for instructing personnel of their two airship companies.

As a result, on the afternoon Aug. 9, 1922, a new shape loomed low and slow in the sky over downtown Belleville. It was the first trial flight of the new Scott Field airship, Army Air Service serial number AS-1503, also known as the OA-1 or “Baby Blimp.” The OA-1 (“OA” was the Army’s designator for Observation Airship) was built by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company near Akron, Ohio, and erected at Scott Field under the supervision of A. Leo Stevens, aeronautics instructor at the field.

The OA-1 was 95.5 feet long, approximately 28 feet in diameter, 38.5 feet high, and 29 feet wide, with an envelope of 35,350 cubic feet of hydrogen gas. The gondola beneath held a pilot and up to two passengers.

The 497-pound control car beneath was 12.1 feet long, 2.8 feet wide, and 4 feet high. The total lift (with hydrogen) was 2,390 pounds and useful lift was 893 pounds.

The OA-1 was powered by a single Lawrance L-3 40 horsepower pusher type engine turning a single wooden two-blade propeller, propelling the Baby Blimp to full speed at 45 mph (nine hours endurance) and a range of 405 miles. At cruising speed, endurance was estimated to be 10 hours and cruising range was 450 miles.

The 1922 price of the OA-1 was $21,250. The airship included two spare motors ($2,750 apiece), two spare envelopes ($7,320 apiece), and two spare sets of control surfaces ($2,550 per set). The OA-1’s ceiling was 4,500 feet. The OA-1 was reported to be unstable in flight, due to its blunt shape.

In its first appearance over Belleville, the Scott Field commandant, German-born Maj. John A. Paegelow, flew the huge silver machine over the city down Main Street a few feet above the buildings. Needless to say, the airship attracted plenty of attention.

MISHAP

On Sept. 26, 1922, the OA-1 was involved in a mishap at Scott Field when the Baby Blimp broke loose from its moorings and was dashed against the top of a large hydrogen gas storage tank. Lt. Karl S. Axater, Lt. Phillip Schneeberger, and a Sgt. Adams were in the car of the ship when it broke loose. Axater and Adams were thrown from the car and landed atop the gas storage tank.

Schneeberger found himself alone in the airship, which now had a damaged propeller and was ascending rapidly out-of-control. He leaped from the runaway ship in his parachute, making a safe landing after falling several hundred feet in front of a crowd of horrified onlookers. Axater suffered a sprained ankle and Adams suffered bruises and slight cuts. The lightness of the now-empty OA-1 caused it to shoot up to 15,000 feet.

An airplane from Scott Field, containing Lt. Wells and Lt. Trumbull followed the runaway airship and circled it several times while it was high in the air, but made no attempt to capture the ship. The entire event was plainly visible from nearby Belleville and was watched by thousands of people. The high altitude reached by the OA-1 caused the hydrogen lifting gas to escape quickly and OA-1 came down to earth on its own, landing near Freeburg several hours after it ascended.

Only the slight wind current at high altitude prevented the Baby Blimp from sailing several hundred miles. OA-1 was damaged in its fall and several days of work were required to restore the airship to airworthiness.

END OF THE OA-1

The Baby Blimp continued its training duties at Scott Field for over a year until it was wrecked for a second time, this time Oct. 19, 1923, in a storm at Scott Field, piloted by 1st Lt. Dache M. Reeves. The OA-1 was soon replaced in training by OB- and TA-type airships.

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