Rockville Collegiate Balloon School – 1917

Rockville Collegiate Balloon School – 1917

Updated June 4, 2017 

     The Rockville Collegiate Balloon School was established in September of 1917 by William and Francis Maxwell as a training school for perspective army observation balloon pilots.  Rockville is a village within the town of Vernon, Connecticut, however, the school was actually located in the former Windermere factory building in the neighboring town of Ellington.   

     The school was set up to train up to 100 students at a time.  During preliminary study, cadets were paid $33 a month, which included food, clothing, and a place to sleep.  After two months of courses, they were sent to training camps to continue their studies, during which time they would be paid $100 per month.  Upon graduation they would be commissioned lieutenants in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and receive $2,000 per year.

     The school was administered by Everard Thompson.  The Chief Pilot was Nason Henry Arnold, who held pilot license #14 with the Aero Club of America.  Nason had been flying balloons for fourteen years, and had participated in the International Balloon Race held in Germany in 1908.  Another instructor known to have taught at the school was Walter Jewell. 

     Three students known to have attended the school are; E. H. Millikan, E. L. Taylor, and W. S. Sweeney. 

     The first balloon ascension from the school took place on September 11, 1917, when a balloon containing Nason H. Arnold and Walter Jewell reached an altitude of 6,500 feet as it drifted over the town of Willimantic and beyond.  The balloon came down on the farm of Joseph Nosal, located in Windham near the Lebanon town line.   

     The second flight took place two days later on September 13, and nearly ended in disaster.  This ascension involved one of the school’s largest balloons, the 80,ooo cubic foot America II, which had once flown over Europe from Paris, France, to Berlin, Germany.   

     The balloon left Rockville at 8:45 a.m. with six persons aboard.  There was the pilot, Nason Arnold, and his assistant pilot, Walter Jewell, as well as William and Francis Maxwell, and two students, Edward Lee Taylor and his brother William Sloan Taylor.  They landed safely near Vernon Center, where the Maxwell brothers got out and two others took their place.  The balloon then ascended for the second time that day and was carried off by a gentle breeze, but wound up crashing into some treetops near the town of Coventry, the jolt of which severed the netting holding the huge gas bag, which broke loose and floated away on its own, leaving the passengers and gondola stuck at the top of a tree.    

     Apparently someone had seen the balloon make its unexpected plunge, for rumors of a severe if not fatal accident quickly circulated sending people rushing into the area.  Fortunately, such was not the case, and all injuries were minor.   The run-away balloon was recovered about seven miles away. 

    About a week later, the balloon Cleveland ascended with Nason Arnold, student E. L. Taylor, and a cameraman identified as W. F. Bergstron of Hartford, Connecticut.  Bergstron worked for the Mutual Film Corporation, and it was his job to film the ascension from the point of view of the occupants of the balloon to be used for lecture purposes at the school.   The Cleveland rose to 5,200 feet as it passed over Willimantic, and landed safely in the town of Hampton, 35 miles from its starting point.  

     On October 18, Nason Arnold made an ascension with Congressman John Q. Tilson, a member of the House Committee on Military Affairs.  After a three hour flight the balloon landed at Long Meadow, Massachusetts.  

     On October 24, 1917, a balloon from the Rockville Collegiate Balloon School made an ascension in Springfield, Massachusetts as part of the Liberty Loan Campaign.   

     Sources:

     Images of America, Vernon and Historic Rockville, by S. Ardis Abbott & Jean A. Luddy, Arcadia Press, 1998

     Air Service Journal, September 6, 1917, Page 277.

     Norwich Bulletin, “Various Matters”, August 17, 1917, page 5

     Norwich Bulletin, “Government Balloon Comes From Rockville”, September 12, 1917, page 2

     Norwich Bulletin, “Second balloon Flight”, September 14, 1917, page 2

     The Hartford Courant, “Balloonists In Tree Top And Gas bag Sails Away, Courant Man Right There”, September 14, 1917

     The Brattleboro Daily Reformer, (VT.), “Camera Man Has Trip In Balloon”, September 25, 1917

     Norwich Bulletin, “Various Matters”, October 24, 1917, page 5

     Aerial Age Weekly, “Congressman Up In The Air”, October 29, 1917

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