- California Aviation History
- The Army Balloon School
- Ross Field, Arcadia, California
- By Richard
Camp John Wise Aerostation Historian
San Antonio, Texas
- The Army Balloon
- About March 13th, 1918, Colonel W. N.
Hensley, Jr., came to Arcadia, California, with three lieutenants,
preparatory to organizing a balloon school. Some equipment arrived
at that time but it was not until later that additional officers
and men arrived. Balloon companies from Camp John Wise, Texas
arrived in June. These consisted of the 37th Balloon Company
commanded by; 2nd Lt. John H. Bishop, the 38th Balloon Company,
commanded by; 2nd Lt. Benjamin B. Cassiday. Next was the 66th
Balloon Company from Fort Omaha, Nebraska. By the end of July
there were four balloon companies.
On May 13th, 1918, authority to start construction of the Balloon
School, Arcadia, California was received. The estimated cost
was $360,000. On June 18th the actual construction of the offices,
storerooms, and latrines commenced. By September 26th, but one
hundred and one days from the time the actual construction began,
all construction from the original plans was completed. On October
10th, the following buildings were accepted as conforming to
specifications: ten mess halls, eight barracks, six latrines
and bath houses, five hose house buildings, in addition to the
Commanding Officers quarters, Hospital, Guard House, Company
Store Building, Post Exchange, Post Headquarters, Aero Supply
and Quartermasters Supply Building, Officers Mess,
Photo Laboratory, Sanitary Sewers, Gas Mains and Motor works.
By November 20th, seven Company Headquarters and Post Signal
Office were completed. During this construction work, the actual
work of getting balloons in the air for instruction was rapidly
On June 16th, two days before construction began, the first balloon
was filled with gas from cylinders brought in from Fort Omaha.
Manufacture of gas was delayed until July 12th, as the silicon
plant that was delivered, had been damaged in shipping. It took
a week to make repairs and have the plant generating hydrogen.
By June 23rd, two balloons were flying and by July 10th, there
were four. There were now fourteen officers and seventeen cadets
on the flight list. All the officers on the post, from the Commander
on down, were participating in the course outlined by the Signal
Corps in Washington. By July 20th, ten men had qualified as observers,
and by this time large numbers of cadets were arriving to take
the air course. By July 27th there were one hundred and one cadets
enrolled at the post and there were six balloons flying regularly.
- Mount Wilson
To instruct the students in the elements of observation, each
day, and auto truck carried cadets to the summit of Mount Wilson,
affording a remarkable view of the country, just as it would
be seen from a balloon basket. Cadets would spend the day studying
the territory and making maps and observing simulated artillery
flashes. This method of instruction was very successful, as many
students could learn the fundamentals without being distracted
by the motions of the balloon basket. The daily trips to and
from the mountain, took so much time, that a permanent camp was
established on Mount Wilson. From the clearing of the morning
mist, until dark, the cadets could make observations, direct
simulated artillery fire, and make their maps.
By mid August, the school was well organized and systematized;
the greatest effort being over. It was a simple task to inflate
eight balloons and keep them in the air from sunrise to sunset.
However, the construction of balloon beds, maintenance of the
repair shops to keep the balloons in good flying condition, manufacture
of hydrogen gas, surveying the surrounding country side, staking
out targets, bombing and flashing to simulate enemy batteries
firing, construction of telephone lines, mapping the countryside
and tabulating the data sent down from the balloons, took painstaking
and faithful work to accomplish.
The spirit of co-operation with the authorities, civil and military,
made the Arcadia Balloon School an outstanding example of a military
organization from the beginning. The enlisted men were contented,
there morale was always high, and their good conduct led to the
extension of privileges that were seldom abused. A magnificent
swimming pool aided materially in providing an excellent means
of amusement and exercise. There was a post band of twenty-eight
members, adding a very welcome touch of military formality that
increased the spirit de corps. There was an enlisted mans
newspaper: The Observer, edited and published
by selected men from the various balloon companies.
The second phase of the Arcadia Balloon School began at the advise
of the French Mission, the ground course for observers was transferred
from Fort Omaha. This meant that the school would not be just
a flying school but provide extensive ground training that was
preliminary for the air work. By the middle of September, a large
portion of the staff from the Fort Omaha Ground School transferred
to Arcadia. Under the supervision of the French Mission, who
furnished outlines for the courses and supplied the latest information.
The course was organized into the following subjects: Artillery
for Balloon Observers, Aerial Photography, Panoramic Perspective,
and Observation and Orientation. Illustrated pamphlets were printed
in each of these subjects, giving the lectures in full. A weekly
bulletin was also published for officers, keeping them informed
of all the new developments. All this extra ground work was needed
to prepare the observer for the actual ascent in the balloon,
which was the most expensive and dangerous part of the course.
The Arcadia Balloon School was the first to make use of aerial
photography from aeroplanes, shooting images of the targets that
were observed from the balloon. Prints were used to correct the
students maps before they went up in the balloon.
The course was slightly altered as the Santa Ana winds from the
desert played havoc with the balloons. Lower flights were initiated,
reducing the chance of damaging a balloon or injuring anyone
on the balloon crews when the wind came in from the desert.
- Balloon beds were improved by blasting
out the old grand stand facing the racetrack to provide wind
protection and better drainage facilities for the coming winter.
Telephone lines were established to Mount Wilson, which provided
continuous communications from the observers posts to the
ground crews. They hydrogen plant was providing 99.2% pure gas
at 20,000 cubic feet per hour; sufficient for eight or nine balloons.
Balloon company ground crews were kept busy with the repairs
and maintenance of all the ballooning gear as well as the new
systems that were being added.
- The number of accidents in connection
with the operation of the balloon school has been exceptionally
small and the health of the command good. On August 10th, a Caquot
balloon broke away, carrying seven hundred-fifty feet of cable.
The observers made a rip landing with no injuries and the balloon
was not damaged. The explosion of a cannon used by the bombing
detail caused two deaths and wounded several other men. The influenza
epidemic was successfully combated; the height of the epidemic
was on October 27th, with one hundred fifty-two cases of influenza
and pneumonia. There were a total of twelve deaths from pneumonia,
but none from influenza.
It was in November that the school was formally named after Lt.
Cleo J. Ross of the 8th Balloon Company. Lt. Ross and Lt. Herbert
Hudnut were aloft and attacked by a Fokker D. VII, the balloon
burst into flames. Lt. Ross made sure that his observer got over
the side safely. He went over the side and after his parachute
deployed, burning fragments of the balloon fell on the parachute.
Lt. Ross to his death from several thousand feet. His was the
only death in the Balloon Corps due to aerial activity.
On December 27th, Lt. Col. L. J. Mygatt relieved Major Fleischman
of command of the post. Col. Mygatt had just returned from France,
where he was in command of the U. S. Balloon School at Cuperly,
Marne and Camp de Souge, Gironde, from February to September.
1918. Over 300 officers and cadets attended the school in preparation
for the Great War was to continue for two more years.
The school remained open through the spring of 1919, but men
were mustering out of the service, going home and operations
dwindled to maintenance and cleanup. Ross Field was not the largest
of all the Balloon Schools, but its contributions to the fledgling
Army Air Corps were numerous. Operations and moveable equipment
were transferred to Fort Omaha, Scott Field, and Brooks Field.
In the years following the first war, balloon operations became
a smaller and smaller part of the aviation portion of the Army.
Aeroplanes had become more reliable and the technology of the
balloon became obsolete. By the 1930s most military balloon
operations were taken over by the Navy, for costal patrols.
- These data were compiled from:
The Observer, February, 19, 1919 (last issue
of the camp paper)
The Balloon Section of the Army Expeditionary Forces,
S. W. Ovitt, L. G. Bowers, 1919
The Balloon Pilot Souvenir Camp John Wise,
San Antonio, Texas, 1919
Wings of Honor, James J. Sloan, Jr., 1994
Haul Down and Ease Off August, 1969