Fairchild Air Force Base: A Brief History

Since 1942, Fairchild Air Force Base has been an integral part of our nation’s defense strategy; first as key a WW II repair and supply depot, then as a Strategic Air Command bomber, tanker and ICBM wing during the Cold War and, finally, as an Air Mobility Command air refueling wing supporting contingency operations around the world. Today, Fairchild’s aircraft and personnel make up the backbone of the Air Force’s tanker fleet on the west coast. This Center of Excellence for Air Refueling is the home of the Air Force’s premier tanker base and survival training school house. However, it must be noted that it was the vision of Spokane’s city leaders and the support of the people of Spokane that made the base a reality.

Fairchild’s location, 12 miles west of Spokane, resulted from a competition with the cities of Seattle and Everett in western Washington. The War Department chose Spokane for several reasons: better weather conditions, the location 300 miles from the coast, and the Cascades Mountain range providing a natural barrier against possible Japanese attack.

As an added incentive to the War Department, many Spokane businesses and public-minded citizens donated money to purchase land for the base. The citizens of Spokane gave nearly $125,000 in less than two weeks to purchase the initial 1,400 acres for the depot site. The city presented the title to the War Department in November 1941. That year, the government designated $14-million to build the depot and purchase additional land. Finally, in January 1942, construction began for the new Spokane Air Depot.

After its official activation on March 1, 1942, until 1946, the base served as a repair depot for damaged aircraft returning from the Pacific Theater. 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. In June of 1945, three women completed work on the 10,000th B-17 engine refurbished at the depot. In all, nearly 11,000 engines were overhauled at an estimated savings to the government of $87-million. The depot also served as a supply hub shipping over 150,000 tons of material, with nearly 20 percent going overseas.

In September 1947, the base was transferred to the Strategic Air Command and assigned to the 15th Air Force. On November 17, 1947, the 92nd Bombardment Wing activated under the command of Colonel Albert J. Shower. The wing acted as the parent wing at Spokane AAF and provided oversight to the 98th BW and the 111th Bomb Group (Reserve) who was also assigned to the base. The 92d Bombardment Group, "Fame's Favored Few," with the 325th, 326th and 327th Bombardment Squadrons and the 98th Bombardment Group with the 343d, 344th and 345th Bombardment Squadrons were organized under the 92d/98th Bombardment Wings, respectively, and flew the Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. Their combined total of over 60 B-29s made the base the largest B-29 one in SAC. The 92d and 98 BGs had arrived in July and August 1947, respectively. In January 1948, the base received yet another official name, Spokane Air Force Base.

With the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, both groups deployed to Japan. The 92 BG deployed on July 4, 1950, and the 98 BG deployed on August 4th to join the 92d at Yokota Air Base, Japan. After flying via Hawaii, Kwajalein, and Guam, the 92d completed its deployment and had flown its missions; a leaflet drop mission on the 12th and its first bombing mission against the Wonson marshaling yards on the 13th. Under control of the FEAF Bomber Command (Provisional) until October 20, the 92nd bombed factories, refineries, iron works, hydroelectric plants, airfields, bridges, tunnels, troop concentrations, barracks, marshalling yards, road junctions, rail lines, supply dumps, docks, vehicles and other strategic and interdiction targets. During the conflict, the 92d’s bombers flew 836 sorties during which it dropped 33,000 bombs totaling 750 tons.

In November 1950, the base received its current name in memory of Air Force Vice-Chief of Staff, General Muir S. Fairchild, a native of Bellingham, Washington. The general entered service as a sergeant with the Washington National Guard in June 1916 and died while on duty in the Pentagon in March 1950. The formal dedication ceremony was held July 20, 1951, to coincide with the arrival of the wing’s first B-36 Peacemaker.

In 1953, the wing’s B-36s deployed overseas for Operation BIG STICK for the first of several deployments. SAC initiated this operation to test its war plans and help influence the Korean War peace negotiations and it marked some firsts for the B-36. It was the first time B-36s flew non-stop from the United States to the Far East and the first time SAC rotated a B-36 wing to the Pacific. The 92d BW earned its first of many Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards for this operation. In March 1954 the 92nd Bomb Wing participated in Operation NORTH STAR with B-36's temporarily assigned to Eielson AFB, Alaska. The 92d Bomb Wing deployed to Andersen AFB, Guam, October 16, 1954 through January 12, 1955, and April 26 to July 6, 1956. In addition, four B-36J aircraft of the 327th Bombardment Squadron were deployed to Hickam AFB, HI, from April to July 56, to support the 1956 Eniwetok Nuclear Weapons Tests.

The 111th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing flew RB-29s until the 99th SRW arrived and replaced the 111th RB-29s with RB-36s. They called Fairchild AFB home from 1953 to 1956. The 99th’s RB-36s played a key role in the operational testing of the Fighter Conveyor (FICON) project. While the tests proved that the concept of joining with a parasite fighter inflight could be accomplished, it was not practical, especially with the development of air refueling, the new B-52 bomber and the U-2.

In October 1956 the wing began a conversion called Operation Big Switch that saw the March 1957 arrival of the first B-52 Stratofortress assigned to Fairchild and the departure of the last B-36. On March 26, 1957, the first B-52D, tail number 55-0673, flown by the wing commander, Colonel Neely, arrived. On March 31, 1957, Fairchild AFB’s last B-36J, 52-2827, departed Fairchild for its new assignment and continued service with the 95BW at Biggs AFB TX. September 13 saw the arrival of the 92d Air Refueling Squadron. The unit was activated on July 1, 1957, at Bergstrom AFB, TX, flying KB-29s and was transferred to Fairchild AFB with the aircraft in preparation for the new Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. The last of Fairchild’s forty-five new B-52D's arrived on September 22, 1957.

In response to the launch of Sputnik, SAC ordered the beginning of 24/7 alerts to better posture its bomber force. In January 1958, the wing placed two crews and bombers of 24/7 alert status. This was followed by the arrival of the of the B-52’s “Flying Fuel Station,” the KC-135 Stratotanker in February 1958. This aircraft, “The Queen of the Inland Empire,” (56-3613) and a crew from the 92d Air Refueling Squadron established eight world records in September of that same year.

In 1959, 92d Bomb Wing earned the second Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for its pioneer work in night heavy-weight air refueling on 24-hour missions under Project HEADSTART II which began March 3, 1959, and ended with Operation STEELTRAP I on October 6, 1959. In July 1960, the 327th Bombardment Squadron left Fairchild for Larson AFB, Moses Lake, WA. In March 1961, the 326th Bombardment Squadron departed Fairchild for duty at Glasgow AFB, MT. This left the 325th BS and 92d ARS as the remaining flying squadrons at Fairchild AFB.

In 1961, the 92d became the first “aerospace” wing in the nation with the activation of the 567th Strategic Missile Squadron and acquisition and deployment of Atlas-E intercontinental ballistic missiles at nine complexes located throughout the Inland Empire. The wing was re-designated the 92nd Strategic Aerospace Wing on February 15, 1962. These ICBMs played an integral deterrence role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. With the new role and the addition of missiles, the 92d Bomb Wing was re-designated the 92d Strategic Aerospace Wing. However, rapid advancements in technology prompted the removal of the missiles in 1965.

On March 1, 1966, the 3636th Combat Crew Training Group was established at Fairchild. In 1971, it became a wing and assumed control over all Air Force survival schools. Today, the 336th Training Group continues this mission for Air Education and Training Command.

As military operations in Vietnam escalated in the mid-60s, the demand for air refueling and bombing assets increased. The wing supported SAC activities in Southeast Asia from September 1964 until October 1975 through deployment of bomber and tanker aircraft and crews. From March to September 1968 and March to September 1969, all the wings B–52s and half its KC–135 resources, plus over 1,400 support personnel, deployed to Anderson AFB, Guam to support for Operation ARC LIGHT and other bombing missions against enemy strongholds in Vietnam including Operations LINEBACKER I and LINEBACKER II.
With the closure of Larson AFB in 1966, the 43rd Air Refueling Squadron transferred to Fairchild to join the 325 BS and 92 ARS.

In July 1972, the 92d SAW was re-designated the 92d Bombardment Wing. As the situation intensified in Vietnam, for the third time in four years, all the wing’s B-52s, nearly all the KC-135s and nearly 1,500 maintenance and support personnel once again deployed from June 1972 to October 1973.

On December 21, 1972, the wing suffered its second loss of a B-52 and its only loss of a B-52 in combat. During a nighttime raid on Hanoi, a Fairchild B-52 was hit by enemy fire and exploded in flames. Eye-witnesses reported not seeing any parachutes. However, a short time later, the North Vietnamese released a Prisoner-of-War list which included the names of two the aircrew. They were Lieutenant Colonel James Y. Nagahiro, pilot, and Captain Lynn R. Beens, navigator and they returned home in April 1973. The rest of the crew were listed as missing and included Lieutenant Colonel Keith R. Heggen, deputy airborne mission commander; Major Edward H. Johnson, radar navigator; Captain Donovan K. Walters, copilot; Captain Robert R. Lynn, electronic warfare officers; and Airman First Class Charles J. Bebus, gunner. Although the Paris Accords cease-fire was signed in January 1973, combat operations and tanker support continued through August of that year flying Arc Light missions into Cambodia. The wing’s nine-year involvement in Vietnam ended when the wing’s bombers returned home on 25 October 1973.

In late 1974, the Air Force announced plans to convert the 141st Fighter Interceptor Group of the Washington Air National Guard at Geiger Field to the 141st Air Refueling Wing (ARW) and move it to Fairchild. Work began soon thereafter and by 1976 eight KC-135E aircraft transferred to the new 141st ARW. Today, the 141st ARW continues its air mobility mission, flying the KC-135R model.

After 1975, the wing performed joint USAF/Navy sea reconnaissance and surveillance missions and provided KC-135s to support tanker task forces in the US, Europe and the Pacific. In 1983, the wing’s B-52Gs were modified to carry AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM). During the summer of 1983, under Operation BUSY MOSES, all aircraft were reassigned to Grant County Airport (the old site of Larson Air Force Base) for three months during runway repair efforts at Fairchild AFB. In 1985 the Wing upgraded to B–52H with improved strategic weapons carriage and offensive electronics capabilities. The wing earned the Fairchild Trophy in the 1986 SAC Bombing/Navigation competition, nearly sweeping all the awards by taking nine of eleven awards.

Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, a total of 560 base personnel deployed to DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM from August 1990 to March 1991. The 43rd and 92d Air Refueling Squadrons flew a combined total of 4,004 hours, 721 sorties, and off-loaded a total of 22.5 million pounds of fuel to US and coalition aircraft. The two squadrons' crews and aircraft also flew 200 combat sorties. The wing’s B-52s flew 5 combat missions, each nearly 15 hours long.

On September 1, 1991, under Air Force reorganization the 92d Bombardment Wing (Heavy) was re-designated the 92d Wing, emphasizing a dual bombing and refueling role. On 28 September, after receiving President Bush order for all of Strategic Air Command’s bombers to stand down from alert, the wing’s bombers and tankers came off of 24/7 alert status for the first time in 33 years.

Strategic Air Command stood down on May 31, 1992, and on the next day, June 1, 1992, the wing became part of the Air Combat Command (ACC) and was re-designated the 92d Bomb Wing. The bombers remained under the 92d, but the two tanker squadrons, the 92d and 43rd ARS, were assigned to Air Mobility Command and the 453rd Operations Group.

As Strategic Air Command finished 46 years of service to the nation, Fairchild bomber and tanker crews took top honors at Proud Shield '92. This was SAC's final Bombing and Navigation Competition. The wing won the Fairchild Trophy for best bomber and tanker team as well as the Saunders Trophy for the tanker unit attaining the most points on all competition missions. In February 1993, the wing gained a new mission for the Department of Energy performing air sampling missions with modified B–52Hs.

December 7, 1993 marked the beginning of a significant change in the mission of Fairchild when a wing B-52 transferred to another base, the first step in Fairchild’s transition to an air refueling wing. The departure of B-52s continued throughout the spring of 1994, with the last bomber leaving May 25, 1994. With that flight, the bomber mission of the 92d ended after 47 years of faithful duty.

On July 1, 1994, the 92d Bomb Wing was re-designated the 92d Air Refueling Wing (ARW), and Fairchild AFB was transferred from ACC to Air Mobility Command (AMC) in a ceremony marking the creation of the largest air refueling wing in the Air Force with five active duty air refueling squadrons totaling with over 60 KC-135s assigned. Dubbed as the new “tanker hub of the Northwest,” the wing was capable of maintaining an air bridge across the nation and the world in support of US and allied forces. At the time, the five tanker squadrons assigned to the 92d Operations Group included the 92d, 43rd, 96th, 97th and 98th Air Refueling Squadrons. In March 1995, AMC inactivated the 43rd and activated the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron in its place. The 98th ARS inactivated in June 1998, the 97th inactivated in September 2004, and the 96th inactivated in March 2005.

Since 1994, the 92d ARW has been involved in virtually every contingency mission around the world. Whether it has been combat operations or humanitarian relief missions, Fairchild tankers have been force extenders, enabling U.S. and Allied aircraft to successfully complete their missions. In addition, 92 ARW KC-135s have routinely supported special airlift missions in response to world events or international treaty compliance requirements.

In 1995 Fairchild flew to Travis AFB, California in support of its first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) mission, transporting Russian inspectors to sites in the Western U.S. The wing has flown START missions in the U.S. every year since. And in May 2000, the wing became the first active duty KC-135 unit to transport U.S. inspectors on a START mission into Ulan Ude, Russia.

Throughout much of the decade of the 90s, the wing was actively involved in missions to suppress the aggression of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Wing personnel answered the call for operations such as DESERT STRIKE and PHOENIX SCORPION and routinely deployed in support of Operation Southern Watch (OSW) and Operation Northern Watch (ONW). OSW and ONW required a constant presence of tankers and associated support personnel to help enforce the UN-sanctioned no-fly zones in Iraq. Southwest Asia, however, was not the only trouble spot, as the wing also had to deploy aircraft and personnel in 1999 to support Operation ALLIED FORCE, the mission to stop Serb aggression in Kosovo.

The year 2001 will be remembered most for 9/11 and America’s response to the Global War on Terrorism. Following the terrorist attacks on our nation, the wing began providing around-the-clock air refueling of Combat Air Patrol fighter aircraft and initiated 24-hour ground alert operations in support of Operation NOBLE EAGLE, the defense of our homeland. Preparations also began for what would become a series of extended Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) deployments for aircrews and maintainers as well as combat support and medical personnel. Deployments continue today for OEF as well as Operation NEW DAWN (follow-on operations after Operation IRAQI FREEDOM).

On October 1, 2007, the 92d ARW and 141st ARW held a ceremony to recognize the beginning of the classic association of the two wings under Total Force Integration (TFI). Since that time, numerous shops and units have co-located and integrated their operations, realizing major efficiencies and reducing duplicated processes.

In 2011, the base relocated operations to Grant County International Airport, Moses Lake and Spokane International Airport for 10 month while the base airfield underwent a $34-million runway reconstruction project. Despite significant surge operations throughout the year, the wing was able to support all of its major taskings because of the strong relationships that were developed under TFI. The division of responsibilities between the 92d ARW and the 141d ARW at Moses Lake and Spokane resulted in efficient and effective operations at both locations.

The 92d ARW saw some significant milestones in 2014. In February, the 92d ARW’s last three aircraft and associated personnel returned from the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyz Republic for the last time. Since the wing first arrived on January 23, 2005, the Airmen from the 92d Air Refueling Wing flew more than 20,000 sorties in nearly 125,000 hours, offloaded nearly 1.5 billion pounds of fuel to more than 110,000 U.S. and Coalition aircraft during the decade-long partnership. In September, 92d ARW aircrews led the first wave of tankers supporting the initial airstrikes against the Islamic State as part of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. Finally, in December, a 92d ARW crew flew the last tanker mission for OEF.

The 92d Air Refueling Wing, the 141st Air Refueling Wing, the 336th Training Group, and the associate units at Fairchild, and the Spokane community have forged an impressive relationship over the years. This team, “Team Fairchild,” has earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence. Team Fairchild will continue to meet future challenges in its usual fashion, and in so doing will preserve the legacy of excellence that began over 74 years ago by providing responsive, precise air refueling and operational support for a full range of military operations.

Updated March 2016