Remember When… Pearson Field Dedication September 16, 1925
September 16, 2020 marks the 95th anniversary of the dedication of Pearson Field. Pearson Field is one of the oldest continuously operating airfields in the United States. Vancouver’s first introduction to aviation was in September of 1905, when Lincoln Beachey piloted the Baldwin Airship Gelatine across the Columbia river from Portland to land at Fort Vancouver’s polo field. Fixed wing flights began in 1911 and by 1925 the area known as the Vancouver Barracks Aerodrome was home to the 321st Observation Squadron, 96th Division and civilian commercial aviation activity.
Lt. Oakley Kelly, who became the 321st Squadron commander in 1924, decided that Vancouver Barracks Aerodrome needed a more modern name to go along with other modernization efforts he was making to the airfield. He petitioned the US War Department in early 1925 to have the Vancouver Barracks Aerodrome renamed Pearson Airfield in honor of Lt. Alexander Pearson Jr. Pearson, had tragically died in an airplane crash the previous year while preparing for the Pulitzer Race in Ohio. Lt. Kelly’s request was approved, and the Vancouver Barracks Aerodrome was designated Pearson Airfield in April of 1925. Lt. Kelly organized a dedication ceremony for the newly designated airfield in September of the same year.
The dedication that Lt. Kelly organized was designed to not only honor Lt. Alexander Pearson and his aviation accomplishments, but to highlight the strategic value of Pearson Field as an airfield on the western coast of the United States. Lt. Kelly invited fliers from Army fields all over the west to participate in the flying circus airshow he planned. About 56 aircraft, both military and civilian, took part in the festivities on September 16, 1925. Children were let out of school and businesses in Vancouver closed early to allow people to attend the ceremony and airshow. The Vancouver police department, in an effort to promote the event, had people pay parking tickets by buying tickets to the airshow. Starting at 2:00 pm, 20,000 people from Vancouver and the surrounding area enjoyed precision flying, parachute demonstrations, wing walking, and mock dogfights with flour bombing practice. Most of these events happened simultaneously, which gave spectators the feeling of being at a three-ring circus. Other than one parachute drop demonstration that was not well received (A dummy was dropped from a plane with an unopened chute to demonstrate the importance of knowing how to properly use a parachute. Many in the audience believed it was a real person.), the Lt. Oakley Kelly’ huge air circus was a major success, with no crashes or accidents reported. During the dedication ceremony, Pearson Field was named “the finest Reserve Officer Field in the United States,” by Major Robert Walsh.
After World War II, Pearson Field was decommissioned by the United States Army and the airfield was sold to the City of Vancouver. It has remained an important municipal airport in the region, where an appreciation of the history of the field and the love of aviation are encouraged every day. Take a stroll through the Vancouver National Historic Reserve and imagine what it would have been like to watch planes roar overhead as they competed in an air race or dove at each other in a mock dog fight. Just watch out for the flour bombs!