Fairchild from infancy to now

  • Published
  • By Jim O'Connell
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Historian

March 1 marked the 75th anniversary of the activation of the Spokane, Washington, Air Depot, now known as Fairchild Air Force Base. Since its activation March 1, 1942, Fairchild has been an integral part of our nation's defense strategy--from a World War II repair and supply depot, to a Strategic Air Command bomber, tanker and missile wing during the Cold War, to an Air Mobility Command air refueling wing fueling the fight and supporting combat operations during numerous contingency operations. Today, Fairchild's aircraft and personnel make up the backbone of the Air Force's tanker fleet on the West Coast. It 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. 

In the late 1930s, U.S. Rep. Charles Leavy (a Spokane native) began talks with Gen. "Hap" Arnold regarding Spokane as the site. Leavy and James Ford, the managing secretary of the Spokane Chamber of Commerce, advocated for the depot. On Sept. 11, 1941, the War Department approved the Spokane site for the Northwest (later called the Spokane) Air Depot.  The War Department chose Spokane for several reasons: better weather conditions, the location 300 miles from the coast, and the Cascade 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 Army 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. More than 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 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 more than 150,000 tons of material, with nearly 20 percent going overseas.

In the summer of 1946, the base was transferred to the Strategic Air Command and assigned to the 15th Air Force. With the arrival of the 92nd and 98th Bombardment Groups and their associated 30 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses each in July 1947, Spokane Army Air Field became the largest B-29 organization in SAC. In November, the 92nd Bombardment Wing activated under the command of Col. Albert J. Shower. The wing acted as the parent wing at Spokane AAF and provided oversight to the 98th BW, which was also assigned to the base. In January 1948, the base received yet another official name, Spokane AFB.

With the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in the summer of 1950, both groups deployed to Japan.  The 92nd BG deployed in July and the 98th BG deployed in August. After a few months, the 92nd returned to the states while the 98th remained in the Far East. The 92nd's bombers flew 836 sorties during which they dropped 33,000 bombs totaling 750 tons. The 98th was eventually reassigned to Nebraska. In November 1950, the base took its current name in memory of Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. 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 at the Pentagon in March 1950. The formal dedication ceremony was held July 20, 1951, to coincide with the arrival of the wing's first Convair B-36 Peacemaker.

In 1953, the wing's B-36s deployed overseas for Operation Big Stick for the first of several deployments. SAC ordered this operation to test its war plans and to help influence the Korean War peace negotiations. This operation marked some firsts for the B-36. It was the first time B-36s flew non-stop from the U.S. to the Far East and the first time SAC rotated a B-36 wing to the Pacific. The 92nd BW earned its first of many Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards for this operation. From 1953 to 1956, the 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing called Fairchild home.  The 99th's RB-36s played a key role in the operational testing of the Fighter Conveyor project.  While the tests proved that the concept of joining with a "parasite" fighter in flight could be accomplished, it was not practical, especially with the development of air refueling, the new B-52 bomber and the U-2.  

In 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. 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 on 24/7 alert status.  This was followed by the arrival of the B-52's "Flying Fuel Station," the KC-135 Stratotanker, in February 1958. This aircraft, "The Queen of the Inland Empire," and a crew from the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron set eight world records in September of that same year.

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

On March 15, 1966, the 336th 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 critically important mission for Air Education and Training Command.

As military operations in Vietnam escalated in the mid-1960s, the demand for air refueling increased. Fairchild tanker crews became actively involved in Operation Young Tiger, refueling combat aircraft in Southeast Asia. The wing's B-52s were not far behind, deploying to Andersen AFB, Guam, for Operation Arc Light and other bombing missions against enemy strongholds in Vietnam, including Operation Linebacker I and Linebacker II. Sadly, the wing lost two bomber crews during those operations. A crew from the 325th Bomb Squadron took off from Anderson AFB at night and crashed several miles off the departure end of the runway. The crew members were: Capt. James Sipes, aircraft commander; 1st Lt. Larry I. Broadhead, copilot; Capt. Russell L. Platt, radar navigator; 1st Lt. Maurice E. Lundy, navigator; 1st Lt. Thomas R. McCormick, electronic warfare officer; and Master Sgt. Harold B. Deal, gunner. The accident investigation concluded that some type of malfunction of both pilot's flight instruments may have occurred. On Dec. 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, North Vietnam, a Fairchild B-52 was hit by enemy fire and exploded in flames. Eyewitnesses 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 Lt. Col. James Y. Nagahiro, pilot, and Capt. Lynn R. Beens, navigator, and they returned home in April 1973. The rest of the crew were listed as missing and included Maj. Edward H. Johnson, radar navigator; Capt. Donovan K. Walters, copilot; Capt. Robert R. Lynn, electronic warfare officers; and Airman 1st 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 Oct. 25, 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 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. 

Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, a total of 560 base personnel deployed in support of Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM from August 1990 to March 1991. The 43rd and 92nd ARS's flew a combined total of 4,004 hours, 721 sorties, and off-loaded a total of 22.5 million pounds of fuel to coalition aircraft.

On Sept. 1, 1991, under Air Force reorganization, the 92nd BW (Heavy) was re-designated the 92nd Wing, emphasizing a dual bombing and refueling role. On Sept. 28, after receiving Pres. Bush's order for all of SAC'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.  

In June 1992, the wing became part of the Air Combat Command and was re-designated the 92nd BW. As SAC 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/Navigation Competition.  The wing won the Fairchild Trophy for best bomber/tanker team as well as the Saunders Trophy for the tanker unit attaining the most points on all competition missions.

Dec. 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 at Fairchild ended after 47 years of faithful duty.

On July 1, 1994, the 92nd BW was re-designated the 92nd ARW, and Fairchild was transferred from ACC to Air Mobility Command in a ceremony marking the creation of the largest air refueling wing in the Air Force with five active duty air refueling squadrons. 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 U.S. and allied forces. Since 1994, the 92nd ARW has been involved in virtually every contingency mission around the world. In addition, 92nd 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 the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty mission, transporting Russian inspectors to sites in the western U.S. 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 1990s, 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 and Operation NORTHERN WATCH. OSW and ONW required a constant presence of tankers and associated support personnel to help enforce the U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zones in Iraq. Southwest Asia, however, was not the only trouble spot, as the wing also had to deploy 24 aircraft and over 650 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 and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM deployments for aircrews and maintainers as well as combat support and medical personnel. 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. 

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

In 2014, the 92nd 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 Jan. 23, 2005, the Airmen from the 92nd ARW 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.

The 92nd and 141st ARWs, the 336th TRG, 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 more than 74 years ago with the help of our Spokane community.   
For additional information and photos about the history of Fairchild AFB, check out the 92d Air Refueling Wing Historian Facebook page or call (509) 247-5953.