Hondo Air Base

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For the civilian airport use, see South Texas Regional Airport at Hondo.
Hondo Air Base
Hondo Army Airfield
Air Training Command - Patch.png
Part of Air Training Command
Located near: Hondo, Texas
Hondo Army Airfield - 1942.jpg
Hondo Army Airfield - 1942
Hondo AB is located in Texas
Hondo AB
Hondo AB
Coordinates 29°21′35″N 099°10′36″W / 29.35972°N 99.17667°W / 29.35972; -99.17667 (Hondo Air Base)
Site history
Built by United States Air Force
In use 1942-1945; 1951-1958
Battles/wars World War II
Station area, Hondo Army Airfield, 1942

Hondo Air Base is an inactive United States Air Force base, approximately 2 miles west-northwest of Hondo, Texas. It was active during World War II and during the early years of the Cold War as a training airfield. It was closed on 31 October 1958, although the civilian airport was used as a pilot screening facility by the Air Force from 1973 to 2000.

History[edit]

In 1940 the need by the United States Army Air Corps for trained aircraft navigators was urgent. Schools run by Pan American Airways in Miami, Florida and by the Air Corps at Barksdale Field, Louisiana and Kelly Field, Texas, and by the time of the Pearl Harbor Attack in December 1941 had reached 2,500. However with the planned large numbers of transports and bombers gearing up on the production lines of manufacturers around the country, the number being graduated was woefully inadequate.

In early 1942 Hondo, Texas applied for a United States Army Air Corps pilot-training facility. Citizens acquired guarantees of 400 housing units in less than two days. The decision by the War Department to build a new training field near Hondo was made quickly, as the land was flat, available and was blessed with weather that was generally excellent for flying. The Air Corps decided early on to locate a navigator school at Hondo, because weather was especially important for the navigation student which required clear skies to make use of the octant. The dedicated school at Hondo would replace the one at Kelly Field. The planned school at Hondo would have an enrollment of 1,800 trainees.

Authorization for construction of the navigation school arrived from Washington in March 1942. The Henry B. Zachry Company of San Antonio used 3,000 employees to construct an airdrome with runways, taxiways, and aprons. The airfield consisted of four concrete runways 6100x150(N/S), 5500x150(NE/SW), 6100x150(E/W), 6100x150(NW/SE). Later in 1943, two additional runways were constructed, a parallel N/S and NW/SE.

In addition, the building of a large support base with more than 600 buildings, numerous streets, a utility network, was carried out with barracks, various administrative buildings, maintenance shops and hangars. The station facility consisted of a large number of buildings based on standardized plans and architectural drawings, with the buildings designed to be the "cheapest, temporary character with structural stability only sufficient to meet the needs of the service which the structure is intended to fulfill during the period of its contemplated war use" was underway. To conserve critical materials, most facilities were constructed of wood, concrete, brick, gypsum board and concrete asbestos. Metal was sparsely used. The station was designed to be nearly self-sufficient, with not only hangars, but barracks, warehouses, hospitals, dental clinics, dining halls, and maintenance shops were needed. There were libraries, social clubs for officers, and enlisted men, and stores to buy living necessities. Over 250 buildings, together with complete water, sewer, electric and gas utilities, the airfield served over 4,000 military personnel.

A 330-unit housing project known as Navigation Village sprang up on fifty-two acres at the southeastern corner of the 3,675-acre (14.87 km2) base.

Because of shortages of materiel and personnel and delays in construction. the airfield was opened in July 1942 as Hondo Army Airfield and was used by the United States Army Air Forces as a training base. It was placed under the jurisdiction of the Army Air Forces Central Flying Training Command. The airfield, commanded by Col G. B. Dany, officially began operations on July 4, 1942, although much construction was still in progress.

Navigator training[edit]

Shown in this picture is the Hagner Planetarium, a brightly colored vehicle used by navigation cadets at Hondo Army Air Field, Texas to ride herd on the stars. This intricate gadget helps the navigator get the "feel" of the 52 celestial bodies which show him the way as he directs his bomber through uncharted skies. The navigator can determine his position in the sky by sketching astronomical triangles involving his ship, the stars and certain points on the Earth's surface. Hondo-trained navigators learn that these celestial signposts can give them an unerring signal to turn to the bombardier and say, "That's Tokyo, pal, bombs away!"

The 86th Navigation Training Group was activated on 10 June 1942. The group consisted of the 842d and 843d Navigation Training Squadrons which were also activated on 10 June. The Army Air Forces Navigation School, Hondo Texas was activated on 2 July.

The early training reflected the urgent need for navigators and the expansion pains of a massive training program begun with little experience and few personnel. The first class was designated 42-11N, however instruction was delayed and did not begin until 15 August. It graduated in November 1942 with 93 students. At the same time, AAFTC took every action possible to meet the increasing demands for navigators. In July the Southeast Training Center was directed to enter the "maximum possible" number of trainees into the navigator preflight school at Ellington Field, Texas and to do so "as soon as possible to take care of increased demands anticipated in the near future". By October 1942, navigator preflight training to qualify trainees to attend Hondo was "all out" insofar as equipment would permit.

The early instructors at the field were graduates of the Barksdale AAF school or the Pan American navigators school in Miami. The primary aircraft used for navigation training was the Beechcraft AT-7 Navigator. A limited number of AT-7s were initially available, which was supplemented by a small number of B-34 Lexingtons, B-18 Bolos, and AT-11 Kansans. When the school opened the course length was fifteen weeks; however that was soon changed to eighteen weeks with class 42-7. There was not a lot of new material taught, but more study time was allocated and flying navigation training was initiated sooner. By the end of 1942, more than 5,300 military personnel were stationed at the base, and the delivery of newly manufactured AT-7s was stepped up, which allowed further expansion of training.

Beechcraft AT-7 Navigators - 1944
Students learning inflight navigation training.

Once in operation, the Navigator school expanded rapidly. During the balance of 1942, 652 students graduated; by August 1944, 619 navigators were graduated that month alone, and the classroom area at Hondo AAF was three blocks long. Each block eight or nine buildings and a headquarters building. Over time, the class size expanded to an average of 400 students. The school was the largest United States Air Force navigation School in the world at the time. In January 1943, the training program was increased from fifteen to eighteen weeks, and Flying Training Command directed a further increase in the number of students from 250 to 500, by doubling class sizes. However, the manufacturing of new multi-engine transports and bomber aircraft was increasing and the increase of trained navigators was lagging. Class size was again doubled to 1,000 by mid-July. The rapid expansion of Air Transport and Troop Carrier Command created additional pressures on ATC.

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) squadrons were assigned to Hondo AAF in November 1943. Two notable woman pilots, Betty Henrich and Hollywood stunt actress Mary Wiggins, were among the first WASPs to report for duty. WASPs flew C-45 in navigational flying to train cadet navigators.

On 1 May 1944, Training Command inactivated the 86th Navigation Training Group, being re-designated as the 2023d Army Air Forces Base Unit (Navigation School). The 842d and 843d training squadrons were reorganized into Squadron "A" and Squadron "B" and assigned to the 2023d AAFBU. By November 1944, instructors at the navigation school were primarily combat veterans who had flown their required number of combat missions for rotation back to the United States.

With the end of the war in Europe, the school for a while continued navigation training. The navigation school increased to twenty-four weeks in May 1945, with new subjects including radar indoctrination, over water flight, and cruise control. In addition, Hondo became the Air Force Flight Engineers school for the B-29 Superfortress on 1 July 1945, the school being moved from Lowry Army Airfield, Colorado. The 2023d AAFBU was replaced by the 2523d Army Air Forces Base Unit. Hondo became the only Flight Engineer school in the Army Air Forces. It also began B-24 Liberator pilot transition training, and also began to train Bombardiers to a limited degree.

Closure[edit]

Shortly after the conclusion of hostilities with Japan, the Army Air Forces decided to concentrate all navigation training at Ellington Field, Texas, which previously had trained instructors and graduate navigators. This consolidation occurred basically in September. When the school was closed at Hondo, it had graduated a total of 14,158 graduates.

With the end of the war in the Pacific, students at Hondo AAF were asked if they wanted to remain in the postwar Air Forces. Those who elected to remain continued with the Flight Engineer program, and those who elected for separation were assigned other general duties on the field. The last Flight Engineer class graduated in November 1945.

Hondo Army Airfield received orders from Air Training Command to shut down operations on 20 November 1945, with a programmed closure date of the end of December. The Flight Engineer school was moved back to Lowry, and by mid-December the last of the training aircraft were flown to reclamation centers for sale or scrapping. On 29 December 1945, the flag at Hondo Army Airfield was lowered for the final time. The last AAF personnel departed on 19 January 1946.

With the closure of the base, the buildings and fixtures were sold as surplus. Between 1945 and 1950 civilian operators such as the Hollaway flying school trained student pilots at the former base under the G.I. Bill

Cold War contract pilot training[edit]

North American AT-6D-NT Texan 42-85243, 1952

As a result of the Cold War and the expansion of the United States Air Force, Hondo Air Base was reopened and activated 5 June 1950 by the USAF Air Training Command, as a contract flying training school. The 3304th Pilot Training Group was activated at the base, with the 3304th Pilot Training Squadron (Contract Flying) operating J-3's, and T-6s in a joint effort with Texas Aviation Industries, directed by H. B. Zachry, training pilots under the supervision of the United States Air Force. In 1955, they were replaced with T-28s, and T-34s. The base had deteriorated badly over its five idle years and a major renovation project was required to return it to acceptable standards.

In 1957 a golf course was constructed on the base through the efforts of base commander Lt Col Earl V. Riley. A golf tournament bearing his name remained a yearly event in the 1980s. This arrangement ended when Air Training Command discontinued its 3304th Pilot Training Group at Hondo on 1 July 1958. Training had stopped on 30 June, and ATC formerly closed its facilities on 31 October 1958.

USAF Centralized Flight Screening Program[edit]

On 5 June 1967, in an attempt to devise other ways of changing the existing USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) program to save resources, HQ USAF proposed separating Cessna T-41 Mescalero training from UPT and centralizing it at one location. Hondo Municipal Airport, Hondo, Texas, was considered to be the best site for centralized flight screening for evaluation of ROTC and OTS students, and USAF Academy cadets potential for further pilot training. Consolidation at Hondo would be especially beneficial for the Officer Training School (OTS) pilot trainees, who historically washed out of UPT at much higher rates than their counterparts from AFROTC and the Air Force Academy who had participated in some form of indoctrination program.

Hondo-based Cessna T-41 Mescalero

The centralized flight screening program under OTS supervision began on 17 May 1973. Training officials contracted with the Del Rio Flying Service to provide a 14-flying-hour Flight Screening Program using Air Training Command T-41 aircraft. The centralized flight screening program fell under the jurisdiction of ATC's School of Military Sciences, Officer. The USAF built a new combination facility that housed a maintenance hangar, offices, and classrooms, but that wasn’t ready until August.

By the fall of 1973, approximately 180 American students entered T–41 FSP every three weeks and about 40 foreign students entered T–41 SATP every six weeks. Washout rates (the percentage of students eliminated from training for everything from flying deficiency to fear of flying) ran as high as 30% in the 1973–1974 period. However, a year later, with Vietnam no longer a factor in USAF planning, the student loads declined and washout rates also decreased — down to around 10% or less per class by 1976, partly due to more selective recruitment and partly due to a change in ATC philosophy.

On 1 July 1991, USAF Air Training reassigned the 1st Flight Screening Squadron to Hondo Municipal Airport, which supervised the command's flight screening program, from the Officer Training School at Lackland AFB to the 12th Flying Training Wing at Randolph AFB. Although control of the program transferred to the 12th, flight operations with Cessna T-41 Mescaleros continued at Hondo.

The last T-41 left Hondo in November 1993. It was replaced with the Slingsby T-3A Firefly and a new Enhanced Flight Screening Program at Hondo. Air Education and Training Command re-designated the squadron the 3d Flying Training Squadron. Almost immediately, the command experienced problems with the T-3 which seemed to center around the aircraft’s 260-horsepower (hp) Lycoming engine. Between 18 February and 20 July 1994, the engines failed 12 different times during ground operations at idle or low RPM [revolutions per minute] settings. After the last instance, AETC’s vice commander, Lt Gen Eugene Habiger, grounded the command’s T-3As. After looking into the problem for several months, AETC lifted the ban on flying once Slingsby fitted the T-3As with a modified fuel system. The 3d FTS resumed operations at Hondo on 20 September, when Class 95-02 entered flight screening.

Slingsby T-3A Firefly 92-0637 N30364 in storage at Hondo Airport, 2000. Aircraft was stored at the airport until March 2003, then scrapped.

On 22 February 1995, a T-3A flown by an Air Force Academy student and his instructor on a routine mission crashed in the training area, killing both. As a result of the accident, AETC decided to incorporate parachutes in the T-3 program at both the Air Force Academy and Hondo. Despite corrections by Sligsby, problems continued. A second T-3A crashed at the Air Force Academy on 30 September 1996; the engine stopped, the aircraft stalled, and the IP couldn’t recover. Once again, both the instructor pilot and the student were killed. Another T-3A mishap, once again losing the instructor pilot and cadet led to AETC stopping all T-3A flight operations on 25 July 1997.

Without any flight screening program, AETC’s student attrition in the primary phase of Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training began to rise. AETC Directorate of Operations staff members had begun looking into an interim screening program, ultimately deciding to go with a contractor-operated program similar to the Flight Instruction program AFROTC had been using for many years. Referred to as Introductory Flight Training (IFT), the program called for AETC to buy flight instruction from fixed base operators who ran aviation schools at airports near the Academy and ROTC detachments around the country.

With the decision to go with the expanded IFT program, command officials had to deal with the two 12 FTW squadrons that supported the enhanced flying screening program. AETC inactivated the 3d FTS at Hondo Municipal Airport on 7 April 2000.

Current uses[edit]

During the 1960s the city of Hondo leased facilities at the base to the Hondo Livestock Auction and to Gary Aerospace, Universal Rundle, and Doss Aviation. After the mid-1970s the base housed a number of businesses, including a fiberglass-products plant, a greenhouse, a national guard armory, and the Medina Electric Cooperative.

After two reincarnations and almost 70 years of flight operations, the only military flights in and out of Hondo Municipal Airport are some touch-and-go training flights in the T-6A Texan IIs flying out of Randolph AFB just northeast of San Antonio. Today, the World War II airfield remains largely intact, reflecting its ongoing occasional use by the United States Air Force, although none of the wartime hangars remain. The USAF flight screening hangar and T-3A Aircraft shelters remain on the north ramp, unused after the closure by AETC in 2000.

Foundations of two hangars remain, along with some crumbling foundations of airfield support buildings on the south end of the large aircraft parking ramp. A large number of World War II structures and streets in varying degrees of decay can be found mixed in with overgrown brush and a modern manufacturing plant also at the south end of the parking ramp.

The buildings of the ground station were sold, removed or torn down over the years and today only some foundations remain in bushy areas. The golf course built in 1957 was located on the former station site. Some streets remain in use, the Rick Taylor Youth Recreation Center and the Hondo Golf Course being the largest tenants on the former Air Base.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  •  This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
  • Handbook of Texas Online - Hondo Army Airfield
  • Thole, Lou (1999), Forgotten Fields of America : World War II Bases and Training, Then and Now - Vol. 2. Publisher: Pictorial Histories Pub, ISBN 1-57510-051-7
  • Shaw, Frederick J. (2004), Locating Air Force Base Sites History’s Legacy, Air Force History and Museums Program, United States Air Force, Washington DC, 2004.
  • Manning, Thomas A. (2005), History of Air Education and Training Command, 1942–2002. Office of History and Research, Headquarters, AETC, Randolph AFB, Texas ASIN: B000NYX3PC

External links[edit]