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Fairchild AFB – The War Years, Spokane Army Air Depot

Posted 6/21/2013   Updated 6/21/2013 Email story   Print story


by Jim O'Connell
92nd Air Refueling Wing Historian

6/21/2013 - FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- The transition from Spokane Air Depot to Spokane Army Air Airfield meant chaos and confusion during the formative stages of an organization becoming a well, knit smoothly running operation. In June 1943, the first B-17, "Junior", arrived for repairs at the Spokane Army Air Depot.

The arrival marked sixteen months since the War Department awarded the air depot to Spokane. The construction of the new depot was nearing completion. The final tally showed that the War Department spent nearly $25,000,000 to build it. A total of 262 buildings were built on the 2,400-acre site. Over eight miles of railroad track were laid throughout the depot site to facilitate the movement of items through a dozen over a city block in length warehouses.

During the peak construction period, the work force totaled more than 2,500 personnel with over 60 major civilian contractors involved. The Depot Headquarters building, now known at the "White House," was completed on February 5, 1943 at a cost of $157,229. The three $1.5 million runways were also completed that year in May. The 12-acre, $3.7 million hanger building 2050, now the home of the 92nd and 141st Maintenance Groups, was completed in October 1943.

The maintenance division's primary mission was to repair B-17 engines. The specialized engine overhaul of B-17s began with the completion of Hanger 2050. The workers repaired 50 engines that month, tripled that number in November and increased output to 350 engines in December. The desired goal was 550 engines per month by June 1944. The unit broke all B-17 engine overhaul records for air depots in the United States. In June 1945, three women completed work on the 10,000th B-17 engine. In all, nearly 11,000 engines were overhauled at an estimated $87 million savings to the government.

Over 1,250 B-17s had been repaired by November 1944 along with an impressive variety of other aircraft including B-24s, B-25s, C-47s, P-38s, P-47s and P-51s. The estimated savings for repairing the B-17s was estimated at $51-million for the first four months of full operations alone. Aircraft were repaired and back in the air within three days thanks to the skill, efficiency and pride taken by the employees at the depot.

While the depot was a spot to which injured aircraft came for maintenance, it was also a supply station from which aircraft supplies could be sent anywhere in the world. Fifteen-thousand tons of supplies and aircraft parts were processed through the depot's eight massive warehouses each month. In less than two years, a total of 150,000 tons of material was supplied from the airfield, with nearly 20 percent of that sum going overseas. In addition, during the construction period, the depot used twenty-five warehouses around Spokane for storing materials for the new depot. Inventories of over $1 million passed through these warehouses monthly.

Initial planning for the depot estimated that to operate around the clock, the depot required up to 5,400 workers including mechanics, welders and other tradesmen. Once again the citizens of Spokane filled the training void and provided buildings to train those workers.
The Lowell Public School in Hangman Valley was utilized and also Cowley Public School which had been closed for a decade. In addition, the Spokane Trade School expanded its operation to accommodate the demand for training space. When the command and employees moved operations to the depot in June 1943, it occupied 44 buildings in Spokane and had approximately 7,000 employees.

In the late summer of 1943, employment peaked at approximately 10,400 employees, 25 percent of whom were women who shared equally in all types of work. The end of the war diminished the need for large-scale aircraft repair. By August 1945, 75 percent of the aircraft maintenance department had been let go and the number of employees dropped to 7,536. By the fall of 1945, that number was reduced again, leaving only an average of 5,798 depot employees. Despite the reductions, operating efficiency increased and the Depot Activity Reports reflected a greater volume of business than had previously been processed with almost twice the personnel.

The Air Service Command was officially inactivated in March 1947, bringing the Spokane Air Depot to a close. With the closure of the depot came another name change, from Spokane Air Depot to Spokane Army Air Field, as well as mission change with the transition to Strategic Air Command. With the arrival of the 92nd and 98th Bombardment Groups and their associated 30 B-29s, Spokane Army Air Field became the largest B-29 organization in SAC. In the end, Spokane's $125,000 investment in the land near Galena station paid some handsome dividends. The payroll was $22-million payroll instead of the expected $8-million and the peak work force was over 10,000 instead of the planned 5,400.

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