France Air Force Base
|France Air Force Base|
|Owner||United States Air Force|
|Elevation AMSL||8 m / 26 ft|
Initially established as Coco Walk Aerodrome in March 1918
- Renamed France Field in 1918.
- Renamed France Air Force Base on 26 March 1948
- Closed on 1 November 1949
Major commands to which assigned
- Panama Canal Department, March 1918
- Panama Canal Air Force, 19 October 1940
- Redesignated: Caribbean Air Force, 5 August 1941
- Redesignated: Sixth Air Force, 18 September 1942
- Redesignated: Caribbean Air Command, 31 July 1946-28 May 1949
Major units assigned
What would become Enrique Adolfo Jiménez Airport has its origins before World War I, when on Sunday, 27 April 1913, the Isthmus of Panama was first overflown from a beach near Balboa, on the Pacific side, to the shores near Cristobal on the Atlantic side by an airplane. During the flight, an aerial camera was aboard the aircraft and a primitive motion picture was made of the Panama Canal, which was still not finished. It was realized by the United States authorities that it was possible that, in the future, an enemy of the United States could attack the canal, and possibly use bombs against it, carried on aircraft.
With the entry of the United States into World War I, concern for the security of the canal saw the first airborne forces of the Army being sent to the Canal Zone. Plans were made for the establishment of eight aeronautical stations, with a strength of two dirigibles and six or eight seaplanes for observation. The only site identified as immediately usable was at Coco Solo, near Colon. An emergency appropriation of $1,000,000 was rushed though Congress for this purpose. In addition to the airdrome, the facility would also house a Naval submarine base.
Initially garrisoned at Ancon, the 7th Aero Squadron was organized on 29 March 1917 with 51 officers and men. The unit moved several times to temporary facilities until finally settling in at their permanent facility in a former swamp called Coco Walk in March 1918. Shortly afterwords, on 24 April 1918, 1st Lieutenant Howard J. France crashed an unidentified "hydroplane" into Gatun Lake. He was the first Army pilot killed in the Canal Zone on active duty, and France Field was named in his honor.
World War I
Almost from the beginning, it was realized that flying in the tropics was very different from in the United States. The 7th Aero Squadron flew patrols over the Canal, but only in very good weather. Patrols were flown three times a day over the Canal and in the coastal waters adjacent to the Atlantic entrance to the Canal. The aircraft used had little or no navigational equipment, basically a compass, and several aircraft were lost when the weather changed suddenly.
The early flights over the Canal Zone also performed mapping missions and both the Canal Zone and the isthmus were thoroughly explored and charted. A legacy which became quite valuable to Army and Navy personnel assigned there in succeeding decades.
With the end of the war in November 1918, the wartime forces of the United States were rapidly demobilized. In June 1919, the majority of men and aircraft of the 7th Aero Squadron were loaded onto steamers and returned home, leaving a small flight for duty at France Field.
Inter-War Years, 1919-1939
During the early 1920s, France Field was expanded, as the defense of the Panama Canal was the major overseas concern of the Air Service (more so than the defense of the Philippines or the defense of the Hawaiian Islands). Although the 7th Aero Squadron was reduced in size after World War I, the unit remained active in the Canal Zone, undergoing several redesignations in the 1920s and 1930s.
As a direct result of the lessons learned during World War I in France, the Air service reorganized its tactical elements in 1922. Units were designated "Pursuit", "Bombardment" or "Observation", depending on their assigned mission and the type of aircraft assigned. The 7th Aero Squadron became the 7th Observation Squadron on 25 January 1922. In addition, two additional units, the 24th Pursuit Squadron and 25th Bombardment Squadron were organized at France Field. All of these units were assigned to the Panama Canal Department, which was the senior United States Army Headquarters in the Canal Zone on 30 April 1922. However while organized, the squadrons did not actually activate until 25 January 1923.
The Army was concerned that France Field, being the only operational airfield in the Canal Zone, was vulnerable to potential attackers, as well as to weather conditions. In addition, France Field was remotely located from the Pacific entrance to the Canal as well as the administration buildings of the Panama Canal Department. A second Army Airfield was developed in 1924 near the Pacific entrance to the Canal, initially known as Balboa Fill Landing Field. This was renamed in honor of 1LT Frank P. Albrook who had died in an aircraft accident, with Balboa being renamed Albrook Field.
By 1930, the expanding Air Corps in the Canal Zone required a new organization. The 19th Composite Wing was established at France Field on 8 May 1929 to provide a central command and control authority. The Wing was activated on 1 April 1931. Units under the 19th Composite Wing were:
- 6th Composite Group (formerly 3d Observation Group)
- 7th Observation Squadron
- 44th Observation Squadron (moved to Albrook, 1932)
- 25th Bombardment Squadron
- 20th Pursuit Group (assigned to Mather Field, California, units deployed to France and Albrook Fields)
- 77th Pursuit Squadron activated on 1 November 1930 at Mather Field, California
- 78th Pursuit Squadron activated on 1 April 1931 at France Field
- 79th Pursuit Squadron activated on 1 April 1933 at Barksdale Field, Louisiana
- 80th Pursuit Squadron activated on 10 January 1942 at Mitchel Field, New York as part of the 8th Pursuit Group.
During the 1930s, France Field was modernized and the facilities upgraded over the decade and the number of assigned units increased as world tensions heightened. In 1935, the first monoplanes, Martin B-10s arrived, being assigned to the 25th Bomb Squadron. At the dawn of the United States entry into World War II, the units at France Field consisted of the following:
- 32d Pursuit Group (assigned 9 December 1941)
- 6th Bombardment Group (formerly 6th Composite Group)
- 1st Air Depot Group
- 20th Transport Squadron
During World War II, the mission of the units at France Field consisted of the protection of the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal, and to fly antisubmarine missions over the Caribbean
With the end of World War II France Airfield was reduced in scope, with most units being moved to Albrook or Howard Fields. It was redesignated France Air Force Base on 26 March 1948, by the Department of the Air Force General Order Number 10.
Post military use
France Air Force Base was deactivated on 1 November 1949 by the United States Air Force due to budgetary reductions, and turned into a civil airport in the United States Canal Zone and renamed Colon Airport. The USAF, however, maintained jurisdiction over the airport until 31 December 1973, and it was occasionally used as a satellite field of Albrook AFB.
- Airport information for MPEJ at World Aero Data. Data current as of October 2006.Source: DAFIF.