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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Army Air Service Lt. Oakley Kelly

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: February 10, 2024, 6:02am

Army Air Service Lt. Oakley Kelly finagled the War Department into naming Vancouver’s airport after fellow aviation pioneer Lt. Alexander Pearson, who died Sept. 2, 1924, testing a prototype aircraft for the Army.

After flights beginning as early as 1905, during World War I only planes scouting for forest fires left the Vancouver Barracks. In 1918, the Army razed the spruce cut-up plant that had been used to build airplane parts for the war.

Five years later, Kelly arrived with the 321st Squadron, assigned by the Army to turn a polo field into an Army airport. As the first commander of the field, Kelly constructed hangars, graded a runway, and built sheds to store gasoline, parts and equipment.

Once the War Department certified naming the field after Pearson, Kelly jumped into planning its dedication. He telegrammed the country’s top flyers, including John Macready, his 1923 partner in the 27-hour cross-country flight. He invited the Army’s 1924 trans-world flight team: Capt. Lowell Smith and Lts. Erik Nelson and Leslie Arnold. Forty-five Army planes and eight commercial planes would appear. The Columbian reported the flyers would “display just about everything on the calendar of aerial navigation and stunt flying.”

The day before the event, Kelly and five 321st Squadron pilots flew to San Diego’s Rockwell Field to pick up planes and extend to that city’s officials a Vancouver Chamber of Commerce invitation to the dedication. The day after the event, the 53 airplanes would zip east to Pendleton, Ore., as guests of the Round-up Committee, “with the privileges of the round-up at their disposal,” reported The Columbian.

The Sept. 16, 1925, dedication came 20 years after Lincoln Beachey landed the dirigible Gelatine on the Vancouver Barracks Polo Field. In two decades, aviation at the field moved from bulky, slow-moving, lighter-than-air ships to speedy, svelte, heavier-than-air planes capable of flying 60 miles an hour or more.

The dedication coincided with the 100th anniversary of the founding of Fort Vancouver.

The dedication opened at 11 a.m. At lunchtime, all pilots flew over the field in a mob formation. After landing, they lunched as officials gave short speeches. A 100-gun salute was fired. A microphone system and speakers updated the 20,000 attendees on the day’s activities. Some of the large crowd spilled over onto Hayden Island’s Columbia Beach.

The Army awarded two presentation cups, one to the airfield sending the most airplanes and a second to the field with the most flight hours. Winners in each competitive category received individual awards.

Ace pilots competed in speed races, flew laps around the airfield, landing on the mark, competitive formations, relay races, stunt flying, dive bombing, and demonstrations of aerial combat, wing walking and parachute precision landing. Besides Pearson flyers, pilots came from San Francisco’s Crissy Field, San Antonio’s Kelly Field, Sand Point Field near Seattle and Spokane Field. Capt. Lowell Smith grabbed second and Lt. Kelly third in the de Havilland speed race, while Lt. A.B. McKenzie finished first in the Curtiss JN “Jenny” speed race. Sand Point took first place in the competitive formation contest, leaving Pearson in second and Spokane holding third.

Five years later, the field was dedicated a second time for the opening of the municipal runway and featured another air circus.

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Columbian freelance contributor