During World War I, Secretary of War, Newton Baker, encouraged an expanded role for aviation. Business and political leaders on both sides of the Mississippi River wanted the Midwest to be the location of a new flying field. Aerial expert Albert Bond Lambert joined with the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce and the directors of the Greater Belleville Board of Trade to negotiate a lease agreement for nearly 624 acres of land. After reviewing several sites for the field, the U.S. War Department agreed to the lease on June 14, 1917.
Congress appropriated $10 million for its construction, and 2,000 laborers and carpenters were immediately put to work. The government gave the Unit Construction Company 60 days to erect roughly 60 buildings, lay a mile-long railroad spur to connect the field with the main line of the Southern Railroad, and to level off an airfield with a 1,600foot landing circle.
Construction was well underway when the government announced it would name the new field Scott Field.
“According to Lambert, the establishment of this field adds greatly to the prestige of the St. Louis district and will undoubtedly play an important part in the development of aeronautics from a commercial standpoint after the war,” said Lambert.
Company M, Illinois National Guard, from Springfield, Ill., became the field’s first military unit. The 11th and 21st Aeronautical Squadrons of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service arrived at Scott Field from Kelly Field, Texas, for pilot training on Aug. 12, 1917. The first flight from Scott Field occurred Sept. 2, 1917, in a standard biplane and flying instruction began Sept. 11, 1917.
Determined to improve the recovery of downed Scott pilots, Capts. Charles Bayless, Earl Hoag, A. J. Etheridge and 2nd Lt. Seth Thomas, designed two air ambulances by modifying a Jenny aircraft to carry patients.
On Aug. 24, 1918, Scott’s air ambulance transported its first patient after an aviator broke his leg.
A new mission came in 1921, when Scott Field was selected to become a lighter-than-air (LTA) station, the first inland airship port in the nation.
Once facilities were complete, training fully expanded to field observation, aerial photography, aerial navigation, and armament. In April 1922, Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, Chief of the Air Service, announced that Scott Field would become the new home of the Air Service Balloon and Airship School. In July of the same year, Scott Field was designated an Air Intermediate Depot. As a result, all the lighter-than-air supplies from Fort Omaha, Neb., and Langley Field, Va., were transferred to Scott Field.
Many new facilities were built to accommodate its new balloon and airship mission. The most notable addition was the three block long, one-block wide, 15story high airship hangar. On Jan. 21, 1923, Scott Field Commander, Col. Chalmers Hall, accepted the new airship hangar. The new $1,198,950 hangar was 810 ft long, 206.5-ft wide, and 178-ft high, second in size only to the hangar at Lakehurst, N.J.
In May 1923, most of Scott‘s LTA facilities were complete. These facilities included a boiler house, a steam heating system expanded utilities, and a hydrogen production facility. In January 1925, parts for the first and only American-built military semi-rigid airship arrived at Scott for assembly. Once it was finished in 1926, the airship received the designation of RS-1.
In 1927, Scott Field supported Capt. Hawthorne Gray with three attempts to break the world free balloon altitude record of 40,809 feet. On his final attempt he again reached an altitude of 42,470 feet, but died in the attempt, which nullified the record.
In June 1930, Scott Field became both a LTA and a heavier than air (HTA) station with the arrival of the 15th Observation Squadron and the 5th Photo Section, both from Selfridge Field, Mich.
Scott Field personnel and airships took part in testing the possibility of completing mail service via airships flying nonstop across the continent.