Little Rock Air Force Base celebrates rich history

In 1951, local leaders learned of the Air Force’s plan to open a new base in the central United States. Consequently, they sent a letter to the secretary of the Air Force urging consideration of the Little Rock area. Though the Air Force was open to the idea, Congress would not allocate funds to purchase the needed property.

Determined local leaders convinced Pentagon officials that funds would be raised locally and that the land would then be purchased and donated to the Air Force. The Air Force approved the proposal, and in January 1952 the citizens went to work raising funds.

By the end of September 1952, the Pulaski County Citizens Council (forerunner of today’s Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council) had collected nearly $1 million, and the Air Base Committee began purchasing property from private landowners near Jacksonville. In that same month, the Air Force announced it would build a $31 million jet-bomber base on the site. Construction began Dec. 8, 1953.

On Sept. 10, 1955, the base was opened to air traffic in a special ceremony. Local leaders and assigned personnel welcomed the arrival of the 70 Reconnaissance Wing aircraft, which included three with special names: Razorback, City of Little Rock and City of Jacksonville. The Visual Omni Range (a radio navigation system for aircraft) had not yet been established for the base, so aircrews flew on instruments to Little Rock and then turned north and flew visually for the final stretch.

On June 2, 1958, the wing accepted its first group of students and began training them to fly the B-47 Stratojet, a role that offered a glimpse into the base’s future. For most of the 1950s, the Stratojet was untouchable. Surface-to-air missiles had just become operational, anti-aircraft artillery could not reach it, and enemy fighters could not climb to its altitude. However, the era of the Stratojet ended on Sept. 1, 1964. Enter the B-58.

On March 28, 1964, the day after a major earthquake in Alaska, the 43rd Bombardment Wing (BW) was tasked with providing photos of the devastated region. Two crews flew B-58s the 5,751 miles to Alaska and back, processed the film and delivered the photos to Washington, D.C., just 14 hours and 30 minutes after receiving the request. Six months later, the 43rd BW moved to the LRAFB, but in mid-1969, the Air Force began to retire the B-58s.

After more changes through the early 1970s, the LRAFB experienced 13 years of stability from 1974 to 1987. The 314 Tactical Airlift Wing was the Military Airlift Command (MAC) host unit flying and training in C-130s, and the 308 Strategic Missile Wing was the Strategic Air Command tenant on alert with Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

On August 18, 1987, the 308 SMW was inactivated and quietly slipped 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 who devoted their lives to protecting the United States during the Cold War. The day before the wing’s inactivation, the nosecone was placed in the airpark atop a time capsule to be opened in 2037.

Over the next 10 years, the base experienced still more changes, all leading up to its current role. The LRAFB is now the largest C-130 base in the world — home of the C-130 Combat Airlift — and has trained the C-130 pilots, navigators, engineers and loadmasters who are currently involved in overseas operations.

The base’s host unit, the 19th Airlift Wing (AW), along with the 314th AW, 189th AW and U.S. Air Force Mobility Weapons School is known as the world’s “Center of Excellence” for tactical airlift. Responsible for providing worldwide deployable C-130 aircraft, aircrews, support personnel and equipment, the wing’s tasks range from supplying humanitarian airlift relief to disaster victims, to airdropping supplies and troops into the center of operations in hostile areas.

Through its numerous transitions over the past six decades, the LRAFB has remained a constant in Central Arkansas and continues to be a valuable asset to both the surrounding community and the United States military.

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