A Balloon Oddity

USS Wright in 1922
By Ross Patterson II

Published April 3, 2020

Before powered, heavier-than-air flight, man experimented with heated air balloons. In 1783, the first manned flight in a hot air balloon took place in France. A year later, the French used a balloon for observation during the Battle of Fleurus. Militaries the world over quickly took interest in this new technology, and the following century saw the introduction of more reliable lighter-than-air gasses, propulsion systems, controls, and even communication equipment.

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 stern of USS Wright in January of 1922. Her balloon deck and well are clearly visible, with a roof-like canvas covering protecting the latter while in dry dock. United States Navy Photograph
The USS Wright was laid down on February 5, 1919 by the American International Shipbuilding Corporation at Hog Island, Pennsylvania as a Type B Hog Island cargo ship, Hull Number 680.
Completed in April of 1920, she was quickly taken to the Tietjen and Lang Dry Dock Company of Hoboken, New Jersey, for a very special conversion. Over the course of several months, the aft bays of the ship were modified and a special 100 foot long well installed to allow for the storage, launching, and retrieval of a fully inflated kite balloon. A platform was constructed around the well for the ‘ground crew,’ and the forward bays were decked over for use in tending standard seaplanes as well. On December 16, 1921, Captain Alfred W. Johnson took command of the newly converted AV-1, America’s only lighter-than-air tender.

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.

Above: The USS Wright’s Kite Balloon inside its well, bearing the World War I era American identification roundel on top. Library of Congress Photograph
Above: The Kite Balloon being deployed on the Wright. The crew access hatch to the bottom of the well can be seen below the balloon’s tail fin. Library of Congress Photograph
An aerial view of USS Wright and her supporting minesweeper USS Sandpiper, taken off the coast of Panama in February of 1923. Though no longer equipped with a kite balloon, the Wright’s distinctive balloon deck and well were not removed until late 1925. United States Navy Photograph
USS Wright, reconfigured and renamed San Clemente, in May of 1946 while transporting troops home from the Pacific Theater of World War II. United States Navy Photograph