By the time of the First World War, unpowered balloons and their rigid frame dirigible cousins had seen considerable use on both sides, with the balloon becoming a hallmark of field observation. The United States Navy had begun evaluating “kite balloons” in 1915, noting the value of a moored, stable craft for gunfire spotting, observation, and reconnaissance. Twenty-two Navy balloons were assigned to France by the end of the War, with several destroyers even being modified to raise and lower balloons at sea. However, the value of these balloons was rapidly being questioned by ranking naval staff, with the Atlantic Fleet in particular voicing their preference for powered seaplanes. In December of 1919, orders were issued that kite balloons were only to be used on shore installations or “by tenders,” with many going into storage. But the balloon would have one last moment in the sun.
The Wright’s career as a balloon tender was brief, seen by some as an experimental folly. Departing from New York in February 1922, the ship proceeded down the Atlantic Coast towards the Caribbean. The ship passed through Hampton Roads in early March, arriving in Florida on the eleventh. There it was assigned to First Division, Scouting Squadron 1, leaving with the unit’s collection of seaplanes on March 14, 1922 for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Wright was stationed in Cuba for almost a month, where it conducted balloon observation tests with the battleships of Scouting Division 1 and assisted with seaplane recoveries until April 10. Based on the results of these operations, the Wright was sent back to the Philadelphia Naval Yard from May 8 to June 21, 1922 for additional modifications.
Once released from the yard, the vessel began its second and final balloon tending cruise, operating along the coast from Norfolk, Virginia to Pensacola, Florida. On July 16, USS Wright carried out one last deployment of her kite balloon in the Chesapeake Bay before handing it over to Hampton Roads Naval Air Station in Norfolk. While still equipped with her unique balloon well, the Wright’s time as the nation’s only lighter-than-air tender had come to an end. The continuing evolution of aircraft and technology had rendered the idea of a seaborne observation balloon obsolete, and the Wright herself would go on to serve in World War II as a seaplane tender, evolving and progressing with the times.