Fort Lewis: Gray Army Airfield

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 6/16/2008
  • Essay 8623

Aviation came early to Camp Lewis with flights in October 1921 from Sand Point, Seattle, to the camp's sod runway. In 1922 the first hangar went up. Soon after that a dirigible Mooring Mast was erected and a dirigible landed. The first major construction occurred in 1938. Also, that year the field was named Gray Army Airfield (GAAF) in honor of balloon pilot Captain Lawrence Gray (1889-1927). Gray Field served observation squadrons, first balloon and later aircraft units. During World War II patrol planes flew from here. In 1949 a most unusual event happened -- an accidental pilotless plane flight to Ellensburg. Gray Field played an important role in helicopter operations in Vietnam and in helicopter missile operations. This airfield continues to train and provide air support as well as search and rescue missions on Mount Rainier.

Bi-Planes and Dirigibles 

Camp Lewis figured in early aviation in the Pacific Northwest. In October 1921 Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” bi-planes flew from Sand Point (Seattle) to the camp sod, located at a site just west of today’s airfield. In 1922 the primitive field moved forward with the erection of a steel hangar, Hangar Number 1. The Camp Lewis field found itself in competition with Navy aviation at Sand Point, as both sought to be the region’s primary military airfield. Camp Lewis advocates pushed for it to be a major dirigible and fixed-wing field. Progress in that direction occurred in 1923 with the erection of a Mooring Mast.

This mast, located in the northern portion of the camp, would serve to dock arriving dirigibles. The USS Shenandoah tied-up here on May 17, 1924, as a crowd of 15,000 watched.  Shenandoah made a second visit on October 18, 1924, tying up during the evening, following delays waiting for the fog to lift.  At noon the next day the navy dirigible, under the command of Commander Zachary Lansdowne (1888-1925), departed for San Diego, where it arrived 40 hours later.  

The USS Shenandoah was the only dirigible to visit Camp Lewis. Weather conditions, with fog and cloud cover issues, favored other landing sites. In May 1925 the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce placed a bronze plaque in the USS Shenandoah control car commemorating the 1924 visit.  Just over three months later, while flying over southeast Ohio, the USS Shenandoah broke apart.  Fourteen people died including Commander Lansdowne, but 29 survived riding the bow section to earth. In 1936 the Mooring Mast was removed and today the site is in the southern area of McChord Air Force Base.  

During the mid-1920s Camp Lewis sought funding to expand the landing field and to develop a permanent dirigible base. The dirigible base never happened with Camp Lewis losing to other locations. During the twenties aviation interests grew. In 1926, the War Department observing aviation expansion overseas requested additional aviation funding. Congress provided monies for a five-year plan to bring the army air services to 2,200 fighters and to increase the number of aircrews.  

From Camp Lewis to Fort Lewis 

Camp Lewis received funding in 1927 to build a second hangar.  Also, on September 13 that year the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) made a low level pass over the maneuver and training field (today Watkins Parade Ground) simulating an attack. This demonstration of air power encouraged the use of airplanes in infantry support. The new airfield construction was part of the larger permanent construction that gave the camp permanence and a new designation of Fort Lewis.

The Fort Lewis airfield housed observation planes. A communications building and photography building were completed in 1933. In October 1933 the 86th Observation Squadron arrived with three planes. The 91st Observation Squadron replaced the 86th in June 1936 as a seven-plane squadron. A photography section was also added at this time.  The major expansion came in April 1938 with a Public Works Administration project to construct new runways and buildings. The newest helium-filled balloon in the army’s inventory, the C-6 motorized ship came to Fort Lewis. The C-6 could travel 40 miles per hour and held a basket for observers.

The 1938 construction included two paved runways (a main runway at 6,175 feet in length and East-West at 2,300 feet in length), a boiler plant, headquarters building, metal balloon hangar, six-plane hangar, corrugated-iron hangar, storehouse, flight-surgeon office, and film-storage building. The metal balloon hangar had served at Fort Casey, Washington, since May 1921. Workers disassembled the hangar, placed it on a truck, and drove to Fort Lewis where the same workers reassembled the structure.

The 91st Observation Squadron and aircraft of the 3rd Balloon Squadron operated out of the Fort Lewis airfield. They trained in observing enemy positions and supporting the division. One pilot, Lieutenant H. A. Boushey (1903-1991) earned the Distinguished Flying Cross during a test flight on October 5, 1936, when his plane developed mechanical problems. He lost control, but was able to regain sufficient control to make a safe landing. An investigation found a structural defect that was corrected on that type of plane and probably saved the lives of future pilots.

Gray Army Airfield  

With the post expansion, the Fort Lewis field would become a named army airfield on April 12, 1938. The airfield became Gray Army Airfield, to honor Captain Lawrence C. Gray, who lost his life during a free balloon flight on November 4, 1927.  Captain Gray (1889-1927) served as a private in World War I and after the war attended balloon and flying schools, receiving a commission. He then joined the Air Service and the Airship School where he made test flights. Captain Gray became a pioneer in stratospheric flight, setting a U.S. altitude record of 29,000 feet on his first flight. He reached higher heights, including 42,000 feet on the fatal November flight on which he died of oxygen deprivation.   

In 1927 land for a Tacoma municipal airport was acquired about five miles northeast of Fort Lewis and Tacoma Field opened here on March 14, 1930. Four years after its opening, the field gained the attention of a military survey to locate a new airfield in the Pacific Northwest. The Wilcox Air Base Act of 1934 survey identified the Tacoma field as the “best located and most advantageous of acquirement.” Pierce County, which had donated the land for Fort Lewis, would again donate land for a military installation. On February 28, 1938, the county purchased the Tacoma airport and donated it to the United States for use as a military airfield.

Less than two months later, a survey and planning team moved into the former Tacoma Field hangar. They laid out the field and hangar locations. Actual construction started in 1939. The field was dedicated as McChord Field, to honor Colonel William C. McChord (1882-1937), Chief of the Army Air Corps, who was killed in an August 18, 1937, plane crash. McChord Army Air Base would become a major bomber and maintenance facility in World War II.  McChord Air Force Base has experienced a number of mission changes, but has remained a significant U.S. base.   

Fort Lewis, proud of Gray Army Airfield, regularly invited the public out to the field for aviation demonstrations and open houses. The August 10, 1938, open house included B-18 bombers and A-17A fighters attacking and destroying a mock city.  Among the 1939 Aviation Day events the 91st Observation Squadron and 3rd Balloon Squadron showed the crowd how they photographed enemy positions and there were static exhibits displaying intelligence gathering.  The other field tenants, the 1st Communications Squadron and 1st Weather Squadron also demonstrated their skills. The field’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Oldfield (1891-1964), greeted visitors and explained air power to interested citizens.

Gray Army Airfield in World War II  

During 1940, the 91st Observation Squadron departed and the 116th Observation Squadron flying 0-47 observation aircraft moved in. The 116th was a Washington National Guard unit activated in 1940. With World War II, Gray Army Airfield received 1.7 million dollars for new hangars and improved facilities. As the war approached Gray AAF units trained with ground forces. In April 1941 planes “attacked” 205th Coastal Artillery anti-aircraft positions at Hooker Chemical plant located on the Tacoma waterfront. The GAAF 116th Observation and 116th Photo Squadrons had six observation planes, 0-47 and 0-49s. The 116th flew anti-submarine patrols. Joining in the antisubmarine patrols was the 123d Observation Squadron activated from the Oregon National Guard. It was equipped with BC-1 and 0-46 observation aircraft. 

World War II cantonment construction involved the demolition of some of the pre-1941 buildings. A number of the GAAF shop and support buildings were demolished to make room for temporary wood-frame barracks on what had been the field’s southwest corner. Two of the early hangars and support buildings along the main runway remained in use.  One new hangar, today Building 3063, was completed in 1942. This is the only surviving building from World War II and the oldest structure at the airfield.  A new concrete apron was added around the World War II hangar. During World War II, the control tower sat on the west side of the field; today an improved tower stands on the east side.              

Following the war Gray Army Airfield housed the 2nd Infantry Division aviation assets, observation planes, and support aircraft. The 2nd Infantry Division served at Fort Lewis until the Korean War. During the interwar years GAAF activities were limited. The GAAF planes participated in maneuvers and training. In late July the 2nd Infantry Division took part in the only war exercise of 1946.

Flight of the Unmanned Aircraft

An exceptional event took place in 1949 when an unmanned aircraft took off from the field and landed near Ellensburg.

On February 14, 1949, Lieutenant Herbert A. Winters (1928-1995), a supply officer who needed time in the air to maintain his certification, checked out a light observation aircraft, a L-16A Aeronca, for his flight. A corporal in his office asked to come along. Corporal William G. Kaiser (b. 1926) would sit in the rear seat during the short flight. Winters and Kaiser boarded the plane with Winters setting the throttle at idle. He then stepped out of the plane to spin the propeller by hand. The engine started, he went to the door to board, and Corporal Kaiser, reaching forward to open the door, accidentally pushed the throttle forward to full open.  

The L-16 leaped forward and the tail struck Winters knocking him, uninjured, to the runway. Lt. Winters watched helpless as the plane taxied down the runway. In panic Cpl. Kaiser jumped out of the plane. The plane rose into the overcast. Soon, the pilotless aircraft was heard over American Lake and then Tacoma. Efforts to locate the plane failed, it was assumed to run out of gas after three hours and crashed.

The next day Bob Krouskop (1911-1986) found the wild plane in deep snow on his pasture one-and-one-half miles east of Kittitas (near Ellensburg, some 90 air miles from GAAF). The plane had crossed the Cascade Mountains without a pilot, and made a landing without major damage. A recovery team returned the plane on a truck. Following minor repairs the L-16A returned to service and one year later sent to Korea, where it functioned as a forward air control role.

Cpl. Kaiser was less fortunate. When he jumped from the plane he suffered a fractured right femur, a compound fracture of the left knee, a cervical neck fracture, and a left humerus fracture. It took him the better part of a year to recover from his injuries, and he was given a medical discharge from the military. He then went into the civil service and worked as superintendent of various national cemeteries until his retirement in the early 1980s. 

Korean War

During the Korean War, GAAF continued in the role as a training and division support field. On the field could be seen L-19 Bird Dog and other observation planes. The L-19 proved to be easy to fly and reliable, with more than 3,000 produced. Pilots trained in L-19s for Forward Air Controller (FAC) roles -- directing artillery fire and infantry movement. The 2nd Infantry Division began testing helicopters in early 1949 and had nine here. On November 22, 1950, the 2nd Aviation Company introduced helicopters, H-13 Sioux’s, into the Korean War. Attached to the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), the helicopters transported wounded. 

With the early 1950s construction of the new barracks on the east side of GAAF, the eastern portion of the East-West runway was removed. Still the field had large paved areas that could be used for parades and reviews. On June 28, 1950, about 25,000 soldiers marched in General Walter M. Robertson’s (1888-1954) retirement ceremony. Robertson had commanded the 2nd Infantry Division in World War II.  Seventeen generals including General Mark Clark (1896-1984) attended the event.  When in 1954, the movie about war hero Audie Murphy, To Hell and Back, was being shot at Fort Lewis, the East-West runway became a “parade ground in Germany.”  Armed Forces Day parades and events were held here for years.  

After the Korean War, the 2nd Aviation Company, of the 2nd Infantry Division, which had been the first helicopter unit in Korea, returned to Fort Lewis with observation/ spotter aircraft L-19 Bird Dogs, and L-20 Beavers, as well as H-23 Raven helicopters. Again GAAF served division aviation assets. The 4th Infantry Division came to Fort Lewis in 1956 with its aviation unit.

One of the more interesting aviation displays was part of the 4th Division Day on June 5, 1959. Four 4th Aviation Company H-13 helicopters performed aerial square dances, under the leadership of Major Robert N. Duffy (1924-1987). Additionally, 18 helicopters put on an exhibit of moving troops in the assault role. The 4th Infantry Division also practiced H-21 Shawnee helicopter troop delivery.   

On August 13, 1959, a new steel hangar opened adjacent to the 1942 hangar. This was the first new major building since World War II. The 57th Helicopter Company used the hangar to support their helicopter recovery efforts. They made a name for themselves in 1961 when they saved an H-21 Shawnee helicopter that went down near Mount Rainier.  The 57th landed a team to install a new engine and flew the helicopter back to GAAF. The 57th also trained in troop insertion, using their H-21 helicopters to transport soldiers to the battlefield. 

In addition to military flying, GAAF supported the Fort Lewis Flying Club, which offered post-military and employee private flying. In 1960 the club had five aircraft: a Piper Cub, Piper Super Cub, Cessna 195, and two Navions L-17s. The Navions and Cessna could be rented at very reasonable rates and those wishing to learn how to fly took lessons at the club.         

Helicopters in Vietnam  

By the end of 1961, the 57th Helicopter Company had become proficient in the new strategy of troop insertion. In November they loaded their equipment on a former escort carrier, the USNS Core, and headed to Vietnam. They docked at Saigon on December 11 with 40 H-21 Shawnee helicopters of Gray Army Airfield 57th Helicopter Company and the 8th Transportation Company from Simmons Army Airfield (Fort Bragg) as the first helicopter companies in Vietnam. Only 12 days after arrival they airlifted Army Republic of Vietnam troops to battle. Major Robert J. Dillard (1921-2006), commanding the 57th, reported considerable success in their operations. This started a new era of airmobility. Dillard would soon be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and command airmobile assets in Vietnam.   

The helicopters remaining at GAAF continued to train in airmobility. During an October 1961 exercise, pilot 2nd Lieutenant Robert Lanzotti (b. 1936) had to make an emergency landing on a Puget Sound beach at Redondo Beach (Del Rey Park, Washington). His H-13 was in danger of flooding and being lost. Quickly a GAAF H-21 Shawnee helicopter got to the scene and airlifted the wounded copter back to Fort Lewis.

As part of the transition to helicopters in battle, a major construction program in 1963-1965 included a new control tower, three helicopter hangars, operations building, fire station, and other facilities. The control tower was moved from the western edge of the airfield to the hangar area on the eastern side. This buildup included four new hangars that supported the transition from fixed-wing to helicopters. Infantry divisions would now employ helicopters to “get to battle.”

The 4th Infantry Division served at Fort Lewis and trained with its helicopter units. During exercises, the division airlifted to the Yakima Training Center, boarding C-123 Provider transports at GAAF. In September 1966 the division and its helicopters departed for Vietnam, serving there for four years. Vietnam has been called the helicopter war, with airmobility a defining characteristic. During the war, 564 helicopter pilots were killed in action and 401 were killed in accidents.  

Fixed-Wing Aircraft in Vietnam 

GAAF not only trained helicopter units, but fixed-wing aircraft units as well. One fixed-wing unit, the 244th Aviation Company (aerial surveillance) activated here on September 15, 1966. The 244th flew OV-1 Mohawk aircraft with the mission of “finding the enemy.” Following extensive training in day and night surveillance, they departed for Vietnam on July 6, 1967, aboard the USNS John Pope. In Vietnam the OV-1 Mohawks flew photo intelligence missions to detect Viet Cong infiltration. The 244th suffered a number of casualties from crashes and when their camp came under heavy enemy attack. Four pilots earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and a number of those defending the camp during the enemy effort to overrun it received the Bronze Star.   

In 1971, back in the Pacific Northwest, the GAAF helicopter units initiated the Military Assistance for Safety and Traffic (MAST) program. MAST provided helicopter assistance to local communities by transporting accident victims to civilian hospitals. They flew five to six flights each week and saved numerous injured civilians.   

Hawk's Claw

During March 1972, Soviet-made tanks poured into South Vietnam. The army sought an effective way to destroy them. At this same time experiments were being conducted at Fort Lewis and GAAF installing TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) missiles on UH-1B Huey helicopters. The test group included army helicopter crews and civilian technicians. During testing they solved problems such as the proper timing to cut the wire and firing techniques. The testing was in progress on April 14 when the group received warning orders for shipment to Vietnam. Seven days later the test group with two Huey helicopters and 144 missiles loaded on three C-141s bound for Vietnam.

 The TOW unit, identified as “Hawk’s Claw,” destroyed its first enemy tank on May 2, followed by three more that day. In one month the unit destroyed 24 tanks, vehicles, artillery, and other weapons. Their success demonstrated the value of missile-firing helicopters and more would be employed.          

9th Infantry Division Aviation

Reactivated following service in Vietnam, the 9th Infantry Division aviation units occupied GAAF in 1972. The division itself held a day-long reactivation ceremony at the field on May 26, 1972. Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland (1914-2005) attended the ceremony. The event included fly by’s, tactical air strike exhibits, helicopters demonstrating air assault, and soldiers rappelling from helicopters.

The aviation assets of the 9th Infantry Division included 250 helicopters in the 214th Attack Helicopter Battalion, 268th Attack Helicopter Battalion, 9th Aviation Battalion, and 3d Squadron 5th Cavalry. Additional units were a Washington Army National Guard aviation company and the Fort Lewis Flying Club. At this time the aircraft inventory included OH-58 Kiowa, UH-1 Iroquois, AH-1 Cobra, and CH-47 Chinook helicopters. A few fixed-wing command transport planes, T-41 Mescalero, T-42 Cochise and U8 Seminole could be seen at the field. Few changes were made to the airfield, except to paint new unit logos in the hangars and the operation’s building.     

After Vietnam

A GAAF helicopter crew made a dramatic Mount Rainier rescue in July 1977; they safely recovered Leslie Ann Smith, a mountain climber from Tacoma.  In recognition of the hazardous 54th Medical Detachment rescue the crew received Army Commendation Medals. The crew included pilot Chief Warrant Officer Jack C. Sheaffer, copilot Everett A. Ellison, Crew Chief Sergeant Jarvis L. Roberson, and Medic Specialist Five John H. Hallmark. Also, the more routing MAST, military medical assistance flights continued to save lives, assisting more than 800 patients a year. 

The 9th Cavalry Brigade (Air Assault) in the 1980s developed air-assault strategies with their AH-1 Cobra helicopters based upon experiences learned in Vietnam. They were equipped with rockets, guns, and grenade launchers for close fire support.  A post-Vietnam air-supported infantry dominated GAAF operations. This required new supporting facilities, including maintenance hangars and other facilities. In February 1981 a new operations center opened. Three hangars were constructed between 1985 and 1988.

During the 1980s, GAAF helicopter units performed additional medical evacuations from Mount Rainier. They also developed high-altitude search and rescue techniques, in Mount Rainier’s very dangerous thin air and stormy weather.  Employing CH-47 Chinooks GAAF units have recovered injured climbers and bodies from the Mount Rainier summit at 14,410 feet. Company A, 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment (Army Reserve), since 1998, has mastered a “jungle penetrator” system allowing the helicopter to insert and extract rescue crews. The helicopter hovers over the site while rescuers are inserted and extracted by cables.

August 1984 saw GAAF become one of few test centers for the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. Interestingly the Blackhawks were ferried across the United States from their Connecticut factory. The initial group of 14 made the cross-country trek, which took one week, with 28 hours of flying time.  

In 1984 special training came to the field as the OH-58 Kiowa observation helicopter joined the infantry support mission. Experience with this aircraft indicated some unique characteristics that required pilot awareness. During this time the Fort Lewis Flight Detachment, who flew the commanders and VIPs, had two C-12 passenger planes and four UH-1H helicopters. The 114th Air Traffic Control managed the field’s air space. 

Gray Army Airfield has had an outstanding safety record, but combat practice flying has risks. One particularly bad day was October 4, 1985, when two aircraft crashed. First a CH-47 in exercises at Yakima Firing Center (now Yakima Training Center) with 24 aboard crashed during a landing when its rotors hit a hillside. Seventeen soldiers were injured and one soldier lost a leg. However, no one died. A second crash that day saw a UH-1 with four aboard hit a power line and made a forced landing on I-90 highway, with injuries but no fatalities. They were the first accidents in four years.

During the 1990s, three aviation units served at GAAF: C Company 214th Aviation Regiment (15 CH-47s), 54th Medical Detachment (seven HU-1VHs), and the Fort Lewis Flight Detachment (two C-12s, four Uh-1Hs). These units flew a total of 5,000 to 7,000 hours per year. The 54th Medical Detachment flew real medical evacuation flights as well as training. The combat units also assisted in fire fighting, local disaster relief, and other assistance missions.  

Another innovative aircraft came to GAAF in the fall of 2000. D-Troop, the 14th Cavalry Battalion, introduced UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) flights. The cavalry soldiers learned how to fly the UAV and learned its reconnaissance and attack potential. In the War on Terrorism the UAV has become a critical and effective tool. 

A new Washington National Guard hangar was dedicated in September 2004 to serve A Company 159th Aviation Regiment. It was named in honor of Brigadier General Errol H. Van Eaton (1948-1999). General Van Eaton, born and raised in Yakima, served in Vietnam 1968-1969 as an aviator. Later he served in the Washington Army National Guard and in June 1993 assumed command of the 66th Aviation Brigade. In March 1999, as a civilian pilot flying humanitarian missions, he crashed and died in Haiti.         

GAAF units have served in Iraq with Company A, 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, returning from a 15 month deployment on April 17, 2004. Serving in Balad, Iraq, the company with their CH-47 Chinooks performed transportation and supply missions.  The 4th Squadron, 6th Cavalry, with UH-60 Blackhawks, recently supported infantry units in Iraq. Chief Warrant Officer Scott Oswell of the 4th was killed in a crash of his OH-58 Kiowa observation helicopter in Iraq on July 4, 2007. The next month one of the unit’s UH-60 Blackhawk crashed, killing its crew. The 4th Squadron has returned to GAAF and has resumed training for future actions.

Since 2005 the field has been experiencing another major expansion. This includes the activation of a Special Operations Aviation Battalion on July 16, 2006. The battalion is equipped with MH-47 Chinook’s and MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. A new complex has been constructed for the Special Operations forces.

Today the field serves a number of tenants including the 66th Aviation “Falcon” Brigade, Washington Air National Guard flying 179 aircraft including the CH-47D Chinook, UH-60 Blackhawk, and AH-64 Apache helicopters. The National Guard, at GAAF since 1951, carries out search and rescue, fighting forest fires, and providing aid during natural disasters. The 66th also supports I Corps and many of its members are veterans of the current war. The AH-64 Apache crews train in deep attack methods and serve when needed. Regular army aviation assets include the 4th Troop of the 6th Cavalry and other I Corps units. Army Reserve aviation also operates from Gray Army Airfield.

Sources: “Shenandoah Back At San Diego Mast,” The New York Times, October 22, 1924, p. 9; “A Plaque For Shenandoah,” The New York Times, May 30, 1925: Sports, p. 8; “Army Air Measure Passes the House,” The New York Times, May 6, 1926, p. 9;  “Distinguished Flying Cross to Be Presented Army Day,” Tacoma News Tribune, April 4, 1938, p. 6; “Tacoma Is Chosen For Army Air Base,” The New York Times, March 16, 1937, p. 1; “City Police and Army Alerted,” Tacoma News Tribune,  February 15, 1949, p. 1; “Errant Plane Coming Home On Army Truck,” Tacoma News Tribune, February 17, 1949, p. 1; “4th Division Day Program Set,”  Tacoma News Tribune, June 5, 1959, p. 5;  James R. Chiles, The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, The Story Of The Helicopter (New York: Bantam Books, 2007), 160; “Fort Copter In Trouble Airlifted Home,” Tacoma News Tribune,  November 1, 1961, p. 6; “Ft. Lewis Copter Crew to Get Awards,”  Tacoma News Tribune,  September 15, 1977, p. 6;  “Pilots Errors Caused Copters to Crash,” Tacoma News Tribune, May 18, 1985, p. 8;  “Special Operations at Fort Lewis,” USASOC News Service, U.S. Army Special Operations Command,  July 24, 2006; Carolyn D. Kaiser, email to, November 14, 2011, in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was changed on November 19, 2011, to correct the spelling of Cpl. Kaiser's last name and to better document his injuries and subsequent employment.

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