Pearson Field: Washington's Pioneer Airport

  • By Bill Alley
  • Posted 8/06/2005
  • Essay 7404
Vancouver's Pearson Field is one of the nation's oldest operating airfields. Aviation first came to Vancouver in 1905, when Lincoln Beachey flew from Portland in a lighter-than-air craft and landed on the polo field at the Vancouver army barracks. Continuous fixed-wing aviation made its debut in 1911, and the facility, dedicated as Pearson Field in 1925, played host to a number of aviation milestones over the years. It remains a busy general aviation airport. The Pearson Air Museum and its Murdock Aviation Center are part of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve.

Bucolic and Sleepy

Situated along the banks of the Columbia River, Fort Vancouver's roots go back to its days as a Hudson's Bay Company post. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Vancouver Barracks, as the post had come to be called, had developed into a bucolic and sometimes sleepy Army post complete with its own polo field.

But then on September 19, 1905, an event occurred that would lead to the establishment of one of the nation's landmark pioneer airfields. That morning, Lincoln Beachey took off in his Baldwin airship from the grounds of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland with a letter for the commandant at Fort Vancouver. Upon landing on the post's polo field, Beachey had not only completed the first aerial crossing of the Columbia River, he had also set a new airship-endurance record and had been one of the first to ever deliver a letter by airship.

Aviation Enthusiasts

Vancouver fully entered the aviation age six years later when a few Vancouver aeronauts began operating their aircraft from the Barracks grounds. The first of these was a former racecar driver named Silas Christofferson. Christofferson had acquired a Bleirot-type monoplane and a Curtis-type pusher aircraft. On May 29, 1911, he began to experiment and tinker with this new machine on the grounds of the barracks.

During the 1912 Portland Rose Festival, Christofferson made headlines with an aerial exhibition. He had a ramp built on the roof of Portland's Multnomah Hotel and hoisted his small, Curtis-type pusher plane up; he then launched his plane from the hotel roof and landed across the river at the Barracks. Later Christofferson would perform stunts above Seattle for its annual Potlatch celebration, demonstrating air power to that city by bombing it with bags of flour.

Mail by Air

Also in 1912, Walter Edwards brought airmail to the Pacific Northwest. Using the same plane Christofferson used to fly off the Multnomah Hotel, Edwards prepared a mail-carrying exhibition from Portland's Waverly Country Club to the field at the Vancouver Barracks. A temporary postal substation was set up on the golf course, and two flights, on August 10 and 11, carried 5,000 letters, each postmarked "Portland Aviation Station No. 1." After the letters arrived in Vancouver, the Post Office collected and delivered them. Edwards's flight was not the country's first airmail flight (which had occurred the year before in New York state), but it was the country's first interstate airmail flight and the first airmail flight in the Northwest.

For the next several years, local aeronauts continued to experiment with their airships at the Vancouver Barracks, occasionally after running off a canvas-munching Army mule. The pastoral airfield underwent a dramatic transformation, however, when the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.

War Years

War created an urgent demand for materials needed to build airplanes. Sitka spruce was light, flexible, straight-grained, and ideal for the construction of aircraft frames. Pacific Northwest forests provided an abundance of Sitka spruce, which was available nowhere else in the United States.

However, in the summer of 1917, a major lumber strike halted Washington state lumber production, and labor strife continued into the fall and winter. This led the government to create the Spruce Production Division within the Army Signal Corps (under which aviation fell at the time).

Colonel Brice Disque was dispatched to Vancouver to oversee the operation. In a matter of weeks his soldier labor force had built the world's largest spruce cut-up mill to supply the needs of the United States and its allies overseas. At the end of hostilities in November 1918, production was halted and the mill sold off as surplus.

Peacetime Practice

With the end of the war a degree of tranquility returned to the field at the Vancouver Barracks, but a new phase in the airfields history was in the offing. The war had taught the Army the importance of aircraft, and in order to keep its planes flying and pilots trained, the Army joined with federal and state forestry officials to begin aerial fire patrols over the region's forests. In 1921, the Army Air Corps established a presence at the Barracks field, one of several fire patrol bases in the northwest.

In 1923, the Army Air Corps presence was expanded when the 321st Observation Squadron of reserves was based at the Barracks field. Early the following year, Lt. Oakley Kelly was placed in command at the field. The energetic young flier, holder of an endurance record and the first to complete a non-stop transcontinental flight, would make substantial improvements to the facilities at the field. He also enthusiastically supported expansion in the civilian commercial sectors. The army's facilities were located at the western boundary of the field and a fledgling civilian sector, known as the Chamber of Commerce field, operated at the eastern end.

Shortly after Kelly's arrival, the Vancouver Barracks field was visited by four Douglas biplanes, the United States' entry in an attempt to be the first to fly around the world. The planes were en route from the factory in southern California to their starting point in Seattle. Later that year, in September, the world fliers, having successfully completed their historic flight, again stopped in Vancouver on their way south from Seattle.

The 321st Observation Squadron quickly settled in to their routine of training flights, and, under the direction of Lt. Kelly, enjoyed major improvements to the field and its support facilities. By 1925, however, the awkward designation Vancouver Barracks Aerodrome had fallen out of favor and a new name was sought.

A Hero Remembered

The Army was asked to rename the field Pearson Field in honor of Alexander Pearson, one of the army's brightest young pilots killed the previous year. Pearson graduated high school in Hutchinson, Kansas, and then moved to Eugene, Oregon. There he enrolled at the University of Oregon, and later in the Air Service when the United States entered the war in 1917.

Pearson was an Army test pilot and held numerous flight records, including the transcontinental speed record. He lost his life while preparing for the Pulitzer race in Ohio. A wing strut failed and his plane crashed.

Pearson Field was officially dedicated on September 16, 1925, and to mark the occasion Lt. Kelly organized a large air show. Fifty-six aircraft from across the West converged on Pearson, providing the audience of 20,000 a spectacular show of precision flying and parachute drops.

Commercial Uses and Aviation Records

Military flights continued to dominate activity at Pearson Field until 1926. Government contracts were being let for regular airmail routes, and in late 1925, Pacific Air Transport (PAT) was awarded the contract to carry mail along the West Coast. Pearson Field was selected by PAT to service the Portland Post Office. Service between Seattle and Los Angeles was inaugurated on September 15, 1926. The regularity and safety record of these early airmail flights quickly evolved into the beginnings of regular commercial passenger service.

The first two decades of Pearson's operation witnessed a number of aviation records and firsts, a pattern that would continue into the future. During the summer of 1928, the Ford Reliability Air Tour stopped at Pearson, giving many local residents their first up-close look at the new, all-metal, Ford Tri-motor. The Ford Tri-motor was introduced by Ford Motor Company around 1926 and was one of the great leaps in early aviation design. It had an aluminum body and three Pratt and Whitney radial motors, making it a rugged and durable air ship. It was also considered a "giant" plane at the time of its introduction, able to seat a remarkable eight passengers in relative comfort, revolutionizing the flegling airline industry. It was an immense draw for the air tours.

The following year, on October 18, Pearson Field was party to another aviation milestone when a Soviet-built monoplane, Land of the Soviets, touched down on its Moscow-to-New York flight. A second Soviet plane would land at Pearson in 1937. A Soviet Ant-25, carrying three crew members, descended on Pearson field after completing the first trans-polar flight from Moscow.

For the remainder of the 1930s, the Army and civilians continued to share Pearson Field, but as decade came to a close much of the airmail and commercial traffic had relocated first to Portland's Swan Island Airport, and later to a new facility that has become Portland International.

The Army Reserves continued to train at Pearson until the outbreak of World War II. After the war, the Army declared Pearson surplus and transferred title to the City of Vancouver. In 2005, the field remains a bustling general aviation center servicing southwest Washington and Portland pilots.

Sources: Jon Walker, A Century Airborn: Air trails of Pearson Airpark (Vancouver: Walker, 1994); Bill Alley "Lincoln Beachey, "Vancouver's First Aeronaut," Clark Country Historical Society Annual, Summer 2004; Bill Alley, "Vancouver's Own Heroes of the Soviet Union," Pacific Northwest Quarterly (Fall 2003); Bill Alley, "Aerial Fire Patrols," Ace News (newsletter of Jackson County, Oregon, Airport Advisory Commission, 2000; Bill Alley, "An Air-Minded City: Commercial Aviation Comes to the Rogue Valley," Southern Oregon Heritage, (Summer 1997); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Silas Christofferson shows off aeroplane, bombs Seattle, on July 18, 1914" (by Alan J. Stein), (accessed August 6, 2005).
Note: This essay was corrected on November 24, 2005: Alexander Pearson was not a graduate of Vancouver High School as is commonly asserted.

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