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17 September 1935 – The Maiden Flight of the Final and Most Modern Army Airship was Conducted at Scott Field

  • Published
  • By Mark Wilderman
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing History Office

Before the final demise of U.S. Army Air Corps lighter-than-air (LTA) operations, the LTA Airmen of Scott Field had the distinction of assembling the largest non-rigid airship ever constructed in the United States. Designated “TC-14” (for “Training, Type C”) (technically “TC-14-351), this ship was an improved version of the experimental TC-13 which had been operating out of Langley Field, Virginia., for two years. The TC-14 was engineered for the maximum efficiency in lift, speed.and fuel economy and incorporated all of the cumulative advances in LTA technology. TC-14 was the last Army airship to be constructed and was designed primarily for training, coastal patrol, scouting, and observation.

On 17 September 1935, Scott Field Airmen witnessed the maiden flight of the Army’s most advanced airship.   Scott Field Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Frank M. Kennedy, assisted by Major James C. Shively and a crew of eight others took the TC-14 on its maiden run. The TC-14 remained in the air for two hours and reached an impressive top speed of 90 miles per hour. The glory of this first flight proved short-lived, however, for U.S. Army Air Corps officials had already made the decision to abandon the airship in favor of the increasingly-capable fixed-wing airplane. 

Background.  The components for TC-14 were ordered over a three-year period during the lean budget years of the Great Depression from 1932-1934.  Instead of the usual U.S. Army airship manufacturer, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, the control car and tail surfaces were constructed by Mercury Aircraft, Inc. of Hammondsport, New York.  However, the 357,000-cubic-foot helium envelope was manufactured by Goodyear.  The envelope, which cost $59,938.20, was shipped to Scott Field by rail, arriving on 15 May 1935.  The control car, which cost $39,250.00, was shipped by rail from Mercury Aircraft to Scott Field in late 1935 for final assembly by the Airmen of Scott’s 9th Airship Company inside the massive Airship Hangar. 

When the TC-14 was constructed at Scott Field, it was the largest semi-rigid airship in the world.  Some earlier Scott Field airship were longer (such as RS-1 at 282 feet/719,000 cubic feet and the RN-1 at 264 feet/326,500 cubic feet), but they had been scrapped during the 1920s.  Even the large TC-14 was puny compared with the massive contemporary U.S. Navy rigid, aircraft-carrying airships, the USS Akron and the USS Macon (785 feet long). 

The TC-14 was 235.2 feet long, 54 feet in diameter, and 68.3 feet height.  The envelope capacity was 357,000 cubic feet of helium lifting gas, providing 20,556 pounds of gross static lift.  The envelope was equipped with a five-fin empennage to provide for ground clearance during heavy takeoffs.  The 40-foot control car weighed 6,264 pounds, normally carried eight to ten crewmen,  and was divided into three compartments:  forward compartments for the two pilots, middle compartment for the navigator, radio operator, engineer, and assistant engineer, followed by an aft compartment containing sleeping quarters and a lavatory.  The airship also had special mufflers for quiet operation.  The control car was designed with an electrical winch to lower and raise a bullet-shaped sub-cloud car (never fitted to the TC-14), allowing the TC-14 to hover silently and invisibly in the clouds while observing the enemy below.  

The TC-14 was initially equipped with front and rear caster wheels (instead of bumper pads on earlier airships) and a “breastplate” on the envelope for “belly mooring.” 

TC-14’s power was originally supplied by three engines, two Pratt and Whitney YR-985 of 375 horsepower apiece (each driving a 10.5-foot diameter three-bladed propeller) and one Martin 333 pusher engine of 120 horsepower (driving a two-bladed 10.5-foot diameter propeller) – all mounted on the control car.    The third engine was believed to offer advantages of economy during slow-speed operations (20-30 mph), where little horsepower was required and could provide sufficient power to operate TC-14’s winches, blowers, and radio generators.  However, the Martin engine was removed before 14 September 1935 and replaced by a large observation window.  TC-14 had an average top speed of 59.5 mph. 

The TC-14 was assigned to Scott Field for its entire Army career.  It was engaged in research and development work with Scott’s 9th Airship squadron.  Several mooring tests were conducted. Experimental items were installed on TC-14, including an automatic pilot for rudder control, an observation platform, and gun mount on top of the envelope.

The End of the LTA Era at Scott Field

1 March 1936, signaled the beginning of the end of the LTA era in the U.S. Army Air Corps and at Scott Field.  Along with Langley Field's 19th Airship Squadron. Scott's 21st Airship Group and 9th Airship Squadron (redesignated a squadron in 1933) were assigned to General Headquarters Air Force, Langley Field.  The 24th Airship Service Squadron was inactivated. The 6th Corps Area gained the 21st Photo Section. The 16th Observation Squadron remained assigned to the 6th Corps Area. A Station Complement was organized under the control of the 6th Corps Area and all personnel of the 24th were assigned to it. 

Finally on 14 May 1937, Scott Field announced that Major General Oscar Westover, Chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps (and an experienced Army balloon and airship pilot), had recommended the end of LTA activities, due to the lack of funds required to repair existing airships.  Reportedly, the decision had been made well before the spectacular Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey of 6 May. The Scott Field’s two remaining serviceable airships, TC-11-271 and TC-14, were decommissioned.  The Army planned to continue using balloons until the development of an autogiro or some other heavier-than-air craft as an observation platform. Scott transferred its two motorized balloons to Fort Lewis, Washington and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.   Effective l June, the 9th Airship Squadron was redesignated the “lst Observation Squadron (heavier-than-air);” the 21st Photo Section was demobilized.; and Headquarters 21st Airship Group was redesignated  “Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron. 21st Balloon Group.” On 14 June 1937, the 70-man lst Observation. Squadron was transferred to Marshall Field at Fort Riley, Kansas. Three other groups of LTA man from the old 9th Airship Squadron departed Scott Field: ten went to the 97th Observation Squadron, Mitchell Field, New York; 3O of them to the 3rd Observation Squadron, Langley Field; and 3O more men to the 16th Observation Squadron at Pope Field. North Carolina.

Thus, lighter-than-air operations came to an abrupt end at Scott Field in June 1937.

Army Airships Final Chapter - U.S. Navy Service during WWII

Following the end of Army airship operations in 1937, the TC-14 was turned over to the U.S. Navy (officially on 11 February 1938) and re-erected at Naval Air Station - Lakehurst, New Jersey with revisions to the control car.   The Army later provided a new envelope for TC-14 on 24 April 1941.  In January 1942, TC-14 and her sister ship, TC-13, were shipped by rail to Moffett Field, California for wartime service with navy Airship Patrol Squadron 32, becoming the first patrol-type airships on the West Coast during WW2.  The first squadron flight of the TC-14 was on 16 February 1942.  On 16 November, the TC-14 was relegated to training duties, remaining in service until the summer of 1943, when it was deflated for the final time.  After deflation, it was transferred back to Lakehurst and re-erected without engines as a dummy airship for mooring tests.  The TC-14 was deflated a final time at the mooring mast and scrapped in the summer of 1944.  Only the control car’s data plate remains of Scott Field’s final airship.

Sources:  U.S. Army Airships: 1908-1942 by James R. Shock, Atlantis Productions, Edgewater, Florida, 2002; The Illustrated History of Scott AFB: 1917-1987, by Mrs. Betty R. Kennedy, HQ Military Airlift Command History Office, 1987; 375th Air Mobility Airlift Wing History Office Archive, Scott AFB, Illinois.