The first Wright (AZ-1) was originally the unnamed "hull no. 680" laid down at Hog Island, Pa., by the American International Shipbuilding Corp. under a United States Shipping Board contract. Named Wright on 20 April 1920, the ship was launched on 28 April. A little over two months later, the Navy signed a contract with the Tietjen and Lang Dry Dock Co. of Hoboken, N.J., to convert the ship to a unique type of auxiliary vessel-a "lighter-than-air aircraft tender." On 17 July 1920, the ship received that classification and was designated AZ-1. Wright (AZ-1) was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 16 December 1921. Wright was fitted out with a unique "balloon well" built into the ship's hull, aft, to enable her to tend a kite balloon assigned to the ship for experimental operations.
The airships by August von Parseval rank as the predecessor of the blimps of the present. Parseval began work in 1890 on the construction of an airship, along with the engineer Hans Bartsch von Sigsfeld and the businessman August Riedinger. Their initial plans faced too many problems, so they focused on kite balloons for military observation - the "Dragonballoons" (Drachenballone) The basic principle and the ease of construction led to the widespread use by the military.
In US Navy's first kite balloon was accepted on 22 December 1915, and shipped to Pensacola, arriving there April 5, 1916, accompanied by Goodyear representatives. They instructed the officers and ground crew in its handling, and inflated the balloon. It was left moored at a height of about 200 feet at the air station after the course was finished. Later in the year, two more kite balloons were ordered.
The tests on Nevada, which were completed November 18, 1916, demonstrated that kite balloons could provide an added advantage for battleships in gunfire spotting and scouting/reconnaissance. However, tests conducted on Oklahoma a few days later disclosed problems in the operation of kite balloons from battleships. The balloons posed an increased hazard to the ship when carrying hydrogen; it took too long to inflate the balloons; they leaked; they were easy targets for antiaircraft fire at ranges under 12,000 yards; and, if kept inflated and moored to the ship, the balloons restricted maneuverability.
The report by Captain Wells, C.O. of Oklahoma, suggested that if some of the problems could be corrected the kite balloon might be of value to the battleship. These reports failed to mention that when the balloons were raised for scouting/reconnaissance, although they provided increased observation ranges, they also revealed the position of the battleship to the adversary. The issue of kite balloons on board ships continued throughout WW I.
During the Great War the US Navy's airships and kite balloons were used in conjunction with seaplanes and flying boats to help protect shipping by detecting the presence and position of submarines and warning surface vessels of the threat, as well as attacking the submarine with bombs or guns.
At the end of the war, six destroyers, were operating out of Brest that were capable of conducting kite balloon operations: Cushing, Benham, Ericsson, O'Brien. Wilson and Sigourney. Several other destroyers had been equipped with a winch for kite balloon operations. However, the necessary alterations had not been made to make them serviceable. When combat operations drew to a close on November 11, 1918, there were 18 kite balloon pilots and 22 kite balloons assigned to NAS Brest.
The H-type airship was developed in response to a strong recommendation by Cdr. Maxfield before the General Board on April 14, 1919, for a small airship that could double as a towed kite balloon, or fly and maneuver independently like a dirigible. It was an attempt to overcome the weaknesses of the kite balloon and allow operations in adverse weather that were beyond the capability of the ordinary kite balloon. A contract was given to Goodyear on June 30, 1920, for the H-type airship. The H-1 (the only one built for the Navy) was delivered by rail to NAS Rockaway on May 3, 1921. She was often referred to as the "animated kite balloon."
With the end of WW I, the Navy had a large inventory of kite balloons. Their primary mission after the Armistice was as tow balloons for gunfire spotting (gunnery observation). A major difference of opinion evolved between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets regarding the utility of the kite balloon.
The feeling in the Atlantic Fleet was that the kite balloon was of dubious value and that all its functions could be performed satisfactorily by an airplane, once an adequate turret platform was available. This view was supported by Captain N.E. Irwin's testimony before the General Board in March 1919 in which he stated "such planes were twice as effective as kite balloons in spotting work." Cdr. Maxfield, the "flagbearer" for LTA at that time, suggested the kite balloon could be of value in protecting the battleship from gas attack or strafing by low flying aircraft.
Captain Thomas T. Craven, when he was Director of Aviation in 1919, issued an order to limit future use of kite balloons to tenders and shore stations, and not assign them to first-line ships. The Pacific Fleet continued to utilize the kite balloon despite Craven's order. In the Atlantic, the order was more closely followed, however, a limited number were used aboard Atlantic Fleet ships. The Atlantic Fleet Kite Balloon Detachment was renamed the Hampton Roads Detachment and continued East Coast experimentation with balloons. In March 1921, during individual ship target practice, the kite balloons operated by USS Nevada and Florida "dished in" and dove into the water. This was one of the last acts before the final curtain fell on kite balloon operations aboard ship. USS Wright (AZ-1) was commissioned on December 16, 1921. She had been built as an LTA aircraft tender, with a unique "balloon well" built into the hull. This feature enabled her to fly a kite balloon, and then retrieve it and stow it in the balloon well. By the time the ship was commissioned, kite balloon operations aboard ship had almost come to an end. Wright deployed in the Caribbean in the spring of 1922 and conducted experiments with her kite balloon. Upon returning from her cruise, the ship performed tending duties along the East Coast, On July 16, 1922, while at Hampton Roads, Wright flew her kite balloon for the last time. She then transferred it ashore to NAS Hampton Roads, and this was the final curtain call for kite balloon operations aboard ship.
The Navy kept kite balloons in its inventory for a long time after 1922. Many were maintained at NAS Hampton Roads, Lakehurst and Brown Field, Quantico, Va. The Marines used them for spotting and, at NAS Lakehurst, the Navy used them in testing parachutes. The Navy still had a kite balloon at NAS Lakehurst in 1936.
Soon after Wright's return to the eastern seaboard, work began to convert the ship to a heavier-than-air aircraft tender; and, by 1 December 1925, the work was complete. Reclassified AV-1, the tender continued to support the seaplanes of the Scouting Fleet, operating out of Hampton Roads and Newport, to ports of Florida, Cuba, and Panama. As flagship for Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Scouting Force-reclassified to Commander. Aircraft, Scouting Force in 1932-Wright usually spent four months of each winter in operations out of Guantanamo Bay in waters reaching from Panama to the Virgin Islands. For the remainder of the year, she worked in the Narragansett and Chesapeake Bay areas, operating, as before, out of Hampton Roads and Newport with periodic cruises to the warmer climes of Florida or port visits to New York City.
The ship was renamed San Clemente on 01 February 1945, to clear the name Wright for the light fleet carrier, CVL-49, then under construction.
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