FORT SILL, Oklahoma (Aug. 9, 2018) -- Although Fort Sill is celebrating 2018 as the centennial of Henry Post Army Airfield, work actually began Aug. 8, 1917. The airfield is one of 32 Air Service training camps established after U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917.Capt. H.R. Eyrich surveyed the new airfield, which consisted of wooden hangars, offices, and officer housing.The captain selected the site -- a small plateau about a mile south of the main post cantonment area. This was the same plateau where the Kiowa chief Big Tree had tried to steal the first post commander's cavalry horses in 1870, according to "Carbine & Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill" by Col. W.S. Nye.AIRFIELD'S NAMESAKE
The 1st Aero Squadron used the same site as a flying field in 1915. The field was named in memory of Lt. Henry Post, 25th Infantry, a pioneer military aviator. Post established a new altitude record of 12,120 feet at San Diego, in 1914. Sadly, he was killed when the wing of his plane collapsed as he came in for a landing.After the Wright Brothers' historic first flight in 1903, the Army ordered its first airplane in 1909. After training its one and only pilot, the Army began experimenting with possible military uses of aircraft in March 1911. By 1914 a separate aviation section had been established within the Army Signal Corps.One year into the Great War, France and Germany had fully realized the potential of using aircraft with field artillery and were spending millions to push it along.Here in the U.S., the commandant of the Fort Sill School of Fire, Lt. Col. Edward McGlachlin, also embraced the idea. Experimental observation of artillery fire had been pioneered at the artillery center in 1912 with two Army airplanes.Through 1915 the Army authorized organization of the first permanent tactical units in the aviation section, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Aero squadrons. The 1st Aero Squadron had a full complement of eight aeroplanes of the JN tractor type, or JN-2s. The 1st organized at North Island, San Diego, and moved out by rail to Fort Sill. Originally the squadron was supposed to go to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, but as Kelly Field was still under construction, it was diverted to Fort Sill temporarily.The men of the 1st Aero Squadron spent their first two weeks building sleeping quarters, a mess hall, storehouse, and garage. They also installed telephone lines, as recounted by Stacy Webb Reaves in "Canvas and Caissons: Early Aviation at Fort Sill, 1914-1939," published in the fall 2002 issue of "The Chronicles of Oklahoma."One of the pioneer aviation greats, Capt. Benjamin Foulois, commanded the unit. Trained by the Wright Brothers, he went on to reach the rank of major general and serve as chief of the Air Corps.FIRST SILL FLIGHTS
The squadron's first flights here took place Aug. 11, 1915, at 4:30 p.m. After a three-minute spin, Lt. J.C. Marrow went up again at 4:40 p.m., flew for seven minutes in the direction of Medicine Park and then returned. Two other squadron members flew their planes later that evening, both climbing to about 1,200 feet.Emboldened by their success, 2nd Lt. Redondo Sutton offered to take Capt. George Knox, paymaster in the quartermaster department, for a ride the next morning. The unreliable nature of the early Jennies became apparent as Sutton banked right against the wind. The machine became uncontrollable and flung Sutton and Knox 250 feet to the ground. The impact broke Knox's neck and legs, killing him instantly and making him the first airplane fatality in the state. Sutton was rushed to the hospital. The 1,500-pound Jenny was a mass of twisted wreckage.Nevertheless, the 1st Aero Squadron continued to conduct various tests with the field artillery from Aug. 15 through Nov. 15, 1915. By one account, the results were encouraging, but observers realized that better planes and equipment had to be developed before adjustment of fires by plane could be really satisfactory. Complaints that his JN-2 was unstable, unsafe, and suffered from numerous engine and airframe failures spurred Glenn Curtiss to produce a JN-3, then a JN-4, and by World War I an R-4.One breakthrough accomplished during the squadron's brief stay here was the first aerial mosaic. Attaching their new Brock automatic cameras to the planes, a group of photographers rode with the pilots and took aerial shots of the north line of quarters on the Old Post Quadrangle and the old hospital. They pieced these together to make a composite aerial view.When Pancho Villa's forces invaded the town of Columbus, N.M., Gen. John Pershing ordered the squadron to fly to Fort Sam Houston and prepare to go on a punitive expedition in search of the raiders. The first "flock flight," as it was then called, was another major first in Army aviation. The 439-mile flight took place in November 1915.With the departure of the aero squadron, Post Field became virtually inactive, with only one plane and one balloon reportedly stationed there, according to a 1969 Fort Sill centennial story by Virgil Gaither.WORLD WAR I
"America's entry into World War I, however, brought an old artillery concept into mass use -- using 'captured' balloons for observed fire -- and gave Post Field a new mission," Gaither wrote. "A Balloon Corps training school was set up at the field. Pilots and observers were trained and special technical courses were given to enlisted men."Company A, 1st Balloon Squadron, was the first to arrive Sept. 5, 1917, coming from the Balloon School in Omaha, Neb., according to the Fort Sill home page.The company split to form the 25th and 26th Balloon companies on Feb. 16. and April 2, 1918.
As opposed to the "free," spherical balloons, the "captured" balloons were sausage shaped and tethered to winch trucks on the ground by cable. They could be transported at speeds of up to 60 mph, though it was often difficult to maneuver around obstacles overhead. They were inflated with hydrogen and operated at a maximum height of 4,300 feet. They relayed fire-corrective information to special operation trucks on the ground.During the war years the Fort Sill school trained 751 balloon officers and organized 89 companies, 33 of which went overseas to join two other companies trained at the U.S. Balloon School in France.
"When the armistice was signed, the U.S. had 574 balloons and was operating 35 balloon companies overseas. There were also 57 companies organized and being trained in this country. Strength was estimated at about 17,000 men," Gaither wrote.The School for Aerial Observers that was established here in January 1918 also made use of fixed-wing craft for observation. Later that same year, the Air Service Flying School was stood up, employing several aero squadrons.The 3rd Aero Squadron left Fort Sam Houston Aug. 29, 1917, bound for Fort Sill with 12 Curtiss R-4 airplanes, according to Fort Sill's home page. It was redesignated as Squadron A, Post Field, Okla., on July 22, 1918.The 4th Aero Squadron also went to Post Airfield that summer to serve as an observation school for the field artillery. Both the 3rd and 4th Aero squadrons were deactivated Jan. 2, 1919, following the armistice that ended World War I.Post Field bustled with activity nevertheless. It's been estimated that in 1921 its aviators flew more miles than at any other field in the U.S. During that year, Post Field flyers amassed more than 1.67 million man-miles flown, a distance equal to 67 times around the world.Lt. Col. Paul Ward Beck, a pioneer aviator who participated in the first bomb-dropping test demonstration during the 1910 Los Angeles Air Meet, became the airfield commander in 1920. He was the only officer/pilot of the day to profess that the Signal Corps Air Service should be formed into its own corps service.Beck did not live to see his vision realized with the creation of the Army Air Corps in 1926. His life ended when he was shot and killed while visiting Oklahoma City on April 4, 1922.Beck was killed for allegedly assaulting the wife of a former judge of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Contemporary accounts say retired judge Jean Day returned from driving guests home from a party at his house and caught Beck embracing his wife in the living room. He promptly went upstairs and got his gun. Some scholars still debate the jury's finding of innocence.Scandal continued to rock the post throughout that decade as an arson ring began burning down Fort Sill's buildings one by one, starting with the Service Club in December 1923 and continuing at least until Aug. 8, 1929, when the original Snow Hall burned. All four of Fort Sill's original wooden hangars were among the casualties. Congress held back Sill's annual appropriations for military construction until the culprits could be brought to justice. When that happened, the logjam of construction funds finally broke, resulting in the construction boom of 1933-1934.The Balloon Hangar, Bldg. 5037 Tucker Road, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in early 2016. It originally sat on the southern tip of San Francisco Bay. In 1934 it was disassembled and transported by rail cars from the Navy's Moffett Field in California to Fort Sill, where it was reassembled on a concrete slab. According to the Fort Sill website, it was designed to house dirigibles.Meanwhile, the 1st Balloon Squadron arrived here in July 1929 and joined the 88th Observation Squadron. At that time the squadron was the only balloon unit in the Army, and the first to be at Post Field since the end of World War I, Gaither's article said.During the succeeding decade two other squadrons were organized. The first self-propelled balloons came to Post Field in 1937. They were designed to fly to an observation post, rather than being pulled by a winch truck. Their motors could then be removed and observation baskets attached.In 1941, civilian pilots and aircraft carried out a successful experiment in aerial observation, using radio to direct fire on a target. That led to the establishment of the Air Training Department of the Artillery School at Fort Sill in January 1942. It also spelled the end for Fort Sill's balloon squadrons, all of which were deactivated in 1942.On June 6, 1942, the War Department established Army Aviation at Fort Sill concurrently with the adoption of organic short-range air observation for field artillery.Army Aviation was so successful in World War II that in 1945 it was made organic to all combat branches of the Army. On Dec. 7, 1945, the Army Ground Forces Air Training School (later designated the Army Aviation School) was established at Fort Sill. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed the airfield's concrete apron the following year.The continued growth and worldwide support by Army Aviation caused it to outgrow its footprint here, and in 1954, the Army Aviation School moved to Fort Rucker, Ala. Fort Sill, however, for many decades continued to be home to many Army aviation units, particularly those of medium and heavy lift capabilities.