TOP STORY >> Air base prepares for 50th birthday
Leader staff writer
Brig. Gen. Kip Self, the new commander at Little Rock Air Force Base, says the base’s 50th anniversary air show next weekend is just as important to the entire nation as it is to central Arkansas.
“The face we put on Oct. 8 and 9 will send a clear message that Little Rock Air Force Base is a place you want to be,” Self said. “It’s full of community spirit, it’s full of national defense pride and it’s full of great people doing great things for America.”
Next Sunday, the second day of the air show, is on the same day the base opened 50 years ago in 1955. The air show is the culminating event in a year-long celebration of the base’s 50th anniversary.
The air show will feature the Air Force’s premier aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. The team will fly precision aerial maneuvers to exhibit the capabilities of the modern, high-performance F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft.
There will also be a combat-capabilities exercise where Little Rock Air Force Base’s C-130 aircraft will drop heavy equipment, cargo, and approximately 400 Army paratroopers.
“The air show gives the base an opportunity to showcase its mission as the world’s largest and best C-130 training base,” said Maj. Tim Stong, air show operations officer.
Other performers during the two-day air show include the U.S. Air Force Academy Wings of Blue Parachute Team, the T-6A Texan II East Coast Aerial Demonstration Team, the ShockWave Jet Truck, and the children’s cartoon character, Jay Jay the Jet Plane. Vintage aircraft such as “Fifi,” the only flying B-29 and “Diamond Lil,” one of two B-24s still flying will be on display.
Guests will also have the opportunity to see many areas of Little Rock Air Force Base, nicknamed “The Rock” by military personnel who serve there, which opened in October 1955 and includes more than 6,000 acres.
Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim says the city expects to see 200,000 people during the air show next weekend.
“The relationship between Jacksonville and the air base has truly been a golden partnership,” Swaim said.
“I think Jacksonville is one of the most culturally diverse towns in the state because of the air base.”
The base has a population of more than 6,000 active-duty military and civilian members and about 6,600 family members living and working on and around the base.
“The exposure the personnel at the base have given us to other cultures and religions has been very positive,” said Larry T. Wilson, chairman, chief executive officer and president of First Arkansas Bank and Trust, who also serves on the Air Base Community Council.
“The economic impact of the base is felt all over the state,” Wilson said.
After World War II, when the Jacksonville Ordinance plant closed, community leaders sent a letter to the secretary of the Air Force urging serious consideration of the Little Rock area for an Air Force base.
Congress would not allocate funds to purchase the needed property so the money was raised locally. By the end of September 1952 the Pulaski County Citizens Council, forerunner of today’s Air Base Community Council, collected almost $1 million to purchase property from more than 150 landowners around Jacksonville. That same month, the Air Force announced it would build a $31 million jet bomber base on the site. Construction on the base began on Dec. 8, 1953.
The Air Force decided to assign the base to Strategic Air Command, and by August 1954, Strategic Air Command had selected the 70th Reconnaissance Wing and the 384th Bombardment Wing to the new base.
In February 1955, Col. Joseph A. Thomas was named first commander of the base. He was killed five months later during a crash of the base’s only aircraft, a C-45 assigned for administrative transportation. Thomas Avenue and the Thomas Community Activities Center were dedicated in honor of his efforts.
Airmen had begun to arrive at the base in 1954. No living quarters were available on base yet so some airmen lived in temporary quarters at Camp Robinson, while others lived in rooms at the Little Rock Young Men’s Christian Associa-tion.
The base opened for air traffic on Sept. 10, 1955. About a month later, on Oct. 9, 1955, Little Rock Air Force Base was officially dedicated by Secretary of the Air Force Donald A. Quarles, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the Strategic Air Command, and 85,000 visitors.
By mid-1957, there were over 5,500 military personnel assigned and over 300 civilian employees at Little Rock Air Force Base. Miles Construction was hired to build 1,535 housing units on the base. By May 1959, all the housing was either occupied or ready for occupancy.
In January 1961, the Air Force began to house 18 Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in underground silos around the base and the 308th Strategic Missile Wing moved to the base.
Work on the Titan II silos took three years to complete. On New Year’s Day 1964 the 308th Stra-tegic Missile Wing completed its first full operational day with missiles on alert in each of the 18 silos. Crews supported the mission uninterrupted, 24 hours a day, for over 23 years.
In 1962, the Arkansas Air National Guard became a presence at Little Rock Air Force Base. Formerly operating out of Adams Field in Little Rock, the 189th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, forerunner to today’s 189th Airlift Wing, began moving operations out to the base.
In May 1971 the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing was created, paving the way for today’s 314th Airlift Wing.
Another major change for the base came in 1987 when the 308th Strategic Missile Wing inactivated, going quietly into history as the last unit to perform operational duty with Titan II missiles.
The unit left a demilitarized Titan II nosecone as a memorial to the thousands of men and women who devoted their lives and energy to protecting the United States during the Cold War. The day before the wing inactivated, this nosecone was placed in the air park atop a time capsule to be opened 50 years later in 2037.
Since 1987, the 314th has been the only active duty wing stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base, but there have been numerous changes within the wing and at other levels.
On April 1997, a major shakeup was made at the base. The 314th Airlift Wing transferred to Air Education and Training Command becoming the central schoolhouse for C-130 crews. It is composed of three C-130 flying squadrons: the 48th, 53rd and 62nd Airlift Squadrons.
It houses the largest training fleet of C-130s in the world. Directly reporting to 19th Air Force at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, the wing’s mission is to train C-130 aircrews for all services in the Department of Defense, Coast Guard and 28 allied nations, as well as C-21 aircrew through the 45th Airlift Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.
To train C-130 aircrew members, the wing flies C-130 “Hercules” and the C-130J aircraft designed to operate from short, unimproved airfields during battle. The Hercules first flew in 1954, and is capable of taking off and landing from dirt strips as short as 3,000 feet long while carrying a load of up to 42,000 pounds.
With a normal crew of five, it can carry and airdrop 92 fully-equipped combat troops. Loads can be delivered directly onto the battlefield by landing or dropping by parachute. Since World War II the 314th Airlift Wing has been involved in all the wars and major operations involving United States forces.
Since its official opening in October 1955, Little Rock Air Force Base has been a valuable component of United State’s air power. From the first day a B-47 went on alert in 1956 until the final Titan II went off alert in 1987, the men and women of “The Rock” were on the front lines of the Cold War.
Joan Zumwalt, president of the Jacksonville Museum of Military History, said the surrounding communities are more supportive of Little Rock Air Force Base than other bases she’s been to.
“I think Jacksonville and Little Rock Air Force Base are integral parts of each other,” Zumwalt said. “We’re all one family.”
In the midst of the many changes seen at the base over the years, one other factor has always remained constant, the mutual support between the base and the local community.
“The Little Rock Air Force Base is here because the citizens of central Arkansas are very patriotic by nature,” said Cynde Maddox, chief of communication for the 314th Airlift Wing. “It’s all of Arkansas, you truly love giving to others. The community gave this base to the Air Force and we’re thankful for it.”
Admission and parking for the 50th anniversary air show is free. Souvenir, food, and information booths will be available. All visitors and vehicles will be subject to search.
No coolers, pets, backpacks, or large bags are allowed at the air show. Due to security restrictions, recreational vehicles will not be allowed on base. For more information about the air show please call (501) 987-2273 or visit www.littlerock.af.mil.