In an era when six-hour coast-to-coast flights are routine, it’s difficult to imagine the first one took nearly 27 hours. On May 2, 1922, an Army Fokker T-2 airplane left Mitchel Field in New York, flying 2,625 miles then landing the next day in San Diego. The two pilots, Lt. Oakley Kelly and Lt. John Macready, set the record for a U.S. transcontinental flight. For that, they won the 1923 Mackay Trophy, awarded for the “most meritorious flight each year,” and then the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1924.
Around the same time, the Vancouver Barracks polo field was morphing into an airfield. In 1921, polo field pilots took to the skies to spot forest fires. In 1923, when the barracks merged with the U.S. Army Air Service program (later the Army Air Corps), the Army located its 321st Observation Squadron there under Lt. James Powell, a balloonist rather than a pilot.
The holders of the fastest cross-country trip showed up at the Vancouver airfield. Macready arrived in 1923. The polo field served as a base for him and a photographer to shoot local aerial pictures that helped map the city’s port. Then, the War Department sent Kelly in February 1924 to turn the field into a bona fide military airfield.
The same year, the Army commissioned an around-the-world flight with four customized Douglas Cruisers, hoping to beat others to the record. With the planes scheduled for arrival in Vancouver, Kelly and others flew to Eugene, Ore., to escort the world travelers here and then to Seattle.
Kelly knew the flying field needed enlargement and old planes required replacement. To extend the flying field, he oversaw razing of the Spruce Cut-up Plant, which milled aviation-grade lumber for U.S. and European warplanes in World War I.
Kelly also expanded aviation by tirelessly promoting flying and exhibiting a knack for finding events that captured public attention. He used the daredevil in him to encourage aviation and thought nothing about flying under the Interstate Bridge. He piloted 94-year-old Ezra Meeker east to Washington, D.C., over portions of the Oregon Trail so the pioneer might meet with President Calvin Coolidge about preserving the way West. Together they covered Meeker’s four-month trek in just four days, clocking 24 hours of airtime.
When Vancouver convinced Congress to mint a 50-cent piece for Fort Vancouver’s centennial, Kelly achieved another first by retrieving the coins from the San Francisco mint, flying round-trip from Vancouver to San Francisco in a record 10 hours and 55 minutes — returning the coins in time for the celebration.
Focused on updating the flying field, Kelly built a new $6,000 hangar, improved roadways and graded the grounds. He spoke with local clubs, fraternities and the Chamber of Commerce, convincing locals about the importance of aviation and the benefit of an airfield in the town.
He also championed airmail and passenger air service. Kelly supported, scheduled and flew in air circuses, even dropping tickets from his plane to encourage attendance. In between these activities, he sometimes flew to go fishing. Kelly presided over the airfield and the squadron until 1928 when Lt. Aubrey Eagle stepped in.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.