California Aviation History
The Army Balloon School
Ross Field, Arcadia, California
By Richard DesChenes
Camp John Wise Aerostation Historian
San Antonio, Texas
The Army Balloon School
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.
Camp Construction

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 Officer’s 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 being accomplished.
Gas Bags Up

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.
School Days

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 man’s newspaper: “The Observer”, edited and published by selected men from the various balloon companies.
Phase II

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.
Ross Field

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 1930’s 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
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