JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash.—U.S. Army aviation is in a transformative time as the force prioritizes modernization to match its commitments to people first and readiness. With the Future Vertical Lift, Future Long Range Assault Aircraft, and Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft programs all anticipated to field new Army aviation developments in the next decade, it’s important to look back at a different experimental aviation concept with a deep, and often forgotten, history: the balloon.
The U.S. Army has a long, and sometimes complicated, history with balloons that stretches all the way into the modern era. At Gray Army Airfield, called “Fort Lewis Field” during most of the early balloon era, this was a period that spanned from before World War 1 to the middle of World War 2.
Army balloon operations got their unwitting start in Cincinnati, Ohio, when “Professor” Thaddeus Lowe sought to fly his experimental balloon to the nation’s capital. He accidentally flew to South Carolina, which just a week prior had seized Fort Sumter, and Lowe was promptly arrested by rebel authorities under the suspicion that he was a Union spy.
Able to convince his captors that he was just an unfortunate scientist, he was released. Almost immediately, Lowe was contacted by the Federal government in Washington who was interested in the potential of his balloon technology as a tool for reconnaissance. After demonstrating the ability to team a balloon with a telegraph line to provide aerial reconnaissance in real time to President Lincoln, Lowe was made Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army. Though he ran an organization called the “Union Army Balloon Corps,” by pay and protocol the position roughly translates to that of a Combat Aviation Brigade commander in today’s Army.
Union reconnaissance balloons were used extensively through 1863, before the disbanding of the Balloon Corps due to poor administration that led to cost overruns in an already cash-strapped Union Army.
Fast forward to the turn of the twentieth century and the U.S. Army was still developing its aviation capabilities through the continued experimentation with balloons, dirigibles, and airships all the way through and alongside the development of the fixed wing airplane by the Wright brothers.
At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, then called Camp Lewis and later Fort Lewis, this manifested itself in several iterations of military balloon aviation making its way to the Pacific northwest. The earliest known airship to visit Camp Lewis was the USS Shenandoah, a rigid airship belonging to the U.S. Navy, to test a new mooring mast established at the Army camp. The airship was longer than the Seattle Space Needle is tall and could carry a compliment of six Lewis machine guns and up to eight 500-pound bombs. The Shenandoah made two visits in 1924, each observed by crowds in the thousands. It was destroyed in a thunderstorm over Ohio in 1925.
Through the next twenty years several infrastructure upgrades were made to the Fort Lewis airfield such as balloon hangars and mooring masts, to accommodate Army balloons. Over time the responsibility for these balloons bounced between the signal, engineer, and field artillery communities before falling under the “Air Service” umbrella, which would itself become the Army Air Corps and finally U.S. Air Force.
In the run-up to World War 2, despite advances in fixed wing technology and doctrine, the U.S. Army was still experimenting with balloon applications in warfare. This experimentation is what brought the newly consolidated 3rd Balloon Company to Fort Lewis Field in 1937. By this time, it had been renamed Gray Field in honor of Capt. Hawthorne Gray, a legendary pioneer in record-breaking balloon flights, who lost his life during a free balloon flight on November 4, 1927.
The 3rd Balloon Company was reassigned to Gray Field, Wash. from Moffett Field, Calif. on Jun. 17, 1937, with a compliment of three Majors, a Captain, a Warrant Officer, two Master Sergeants, one Technical Sergeant, and three Staff Sergeants. Majors Clarence Lober and Michael McHugo would take turns commanding the unit during its time at Gray Field. The Captain, Haynie McCormick, would promote to Major during his time in the unit but did not command. The unit flew the TC-13 balloon right up until reassignment to Washington, logging over 3,800 hours in just over four years of service according to the Sept. 1, 1937, volume of the Air Service Newsletter announcing the move.
At Fort Lewis the 3rd Balloon Company was given the C-3 airship which they flew until being fielded the C-6. According to an official U.S. Air Force history report, the C-6, “Like the C-3, it served as a captive balloon for observation. But when the time came to move, the squadron hauled it down, removed the basket, attached a small car with an 85-horsepower engine and two cockpits, and flew it to the next observation post. In this way the squadron avoided congested roads, trees, overhead wires, and other obstructions usually encountered in towing an inflated balloon at the end of a cable.”
Published in the Nov.-Dec. 1937 edition of The Field Artillery Journal, it was said the detachable motorized cabin gave it the advantage of being both self-powered but also captive if required, “[…] it performs the normal function of a captive balloon, affording a stationary platform at high elevation for directing artillery fire.”
The C-6 also made use of helium gas to fill the interior of the airship, whereas previously balloons were filled with the cheaper and more abundant, but far more dangerous, hydrogen gas.
Before the United States entered the Second World War, the U.S. Army began experimenting with the balloon squadron to test coastal defenses. The 3rd Balloon Company was redesignated the 3rd Barrage Balloon Squadron on Dec. 4, 1940 and began training exercises with fixed wing aircraft to simulate attacks on the balloons from the sky during reconnaissance operations. The following year, the unit would be transferred to Camp Davis, N.C. to begin coastal defense training exercises.
With the Squadron being moved and deactivated shortly after; reorganized into an Air Transport Squadron and sent to India to serve out the last half of World War 2 in relative obscurity, the balloons would not return to Gray Field. Units descended from them would not return either: the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force and took to their own installations after the war ended.
The Army’s attempts to modernize the balloon program did, in the end, not lead to balloons that would drop bombs from the sky on enemy nations as was attempted to various degrees by other nations during that period, but they have not disappeared altogether from the inventory. The Army’s Persistent Threat Detection System, also known to Soldiers as PTDS or ‘Aerostat,’ is a captive balloon system fitted with the latest in surveillance and threat detection technology that is monitored from a base station on the ground. In a way this is just an updated version of Prof. Lowe’s Union Army Balloon Corps concept: using balloons in tandem with the most updated communications equipment to observe a wide swath of battlespace for enemy movements.
At Gray Army Airfield in 2022, there is still plenty of aerial reconnaissance being done with manned and unmanned platforms. Now home to the 4-6 Air Cavalry Squadron, outfitted with AH-64E Apache helicopters and RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial systems, Army aviation platforms can observe and detect threats over the entire 7th Infantry Division’s battlespace from the air.
Gray Army Airfield has a rich, and often interesting, history with Army aviation: from balloons, to fixed wing observation aircraft, to the latest version of rotary wing attack aircraft. Now home to the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, the Indo-Pacific theater’s largest and most versatile aviation formation, it can be expected that Army aviation history will continue to unfold at JBLM for years to come.