The twist and turns of history are always interesting. Last week I was at Columbus Air Force Base for the wing Change of Command ceremony. Col. Douglas Gosney, the commander of the 14th Flying Training Wing, was retiring and Col. Samantha Weeks was assuming command of the wing and the base.
This year marks the centennial of military aviation in the Golden Triangle with the Army Air Service (the grandfather of the Air Force) opening Payne Field, a pilot training base five miles north of West Point, in 1918. The commander of Payne Field, Col. Jack Heard, left in early 1919 to help organize the “Victory Loan Flyers” who were the first military aerial demonstration group.
Col. Weeks, who is now commanding the 14th Flying Training Wing, comes to Columbus with an impressive resume including having served both as a pilot and Chief of Training with the US Air Force Thunderbirds, the Air Force successors to the Victory Loan Flyers of 99 years ago.
With World War I and the need to rapidly increase the number of pilots, the Army Air Service, which in 1917 was a part of the Army Signal Corps, began establishing pilot training bases around the country, including Payne Field. On March 10, 1918, the first squadron of Curtiss JN-4 aircraft arrived at the new field located on 533 acres of open prairie land about five miles north of West Point.
The pilots at Payne Field trained in Curtiss JN-4 airplanes which were called “Jennys.” The Jenny had a top speed of 75 miles per hour and a ceiling of 11,000 feet.
By May 1, the field was fully operational with 125 Jennys in the air. Most people around West Point had never seen an aircraft before and called the Jennys “buzz wagons.” The aviators were called “birdmen.” There were about 1,000 military personnel stationed at the field under the command of Col. Jack Heard, who came to Payne Field from Kelly Field in Texas where he had commanded flying operations. The field in its short two-year existence trained about 1,500 pilots.
Col. Heard left Payne Field after pilot training ended and in the spring of 1919 helped organize “The Victory Loan Flying Circus” for the Army Air Service. That flying circus consisted of three groups of aircraft that toured the country, putting on exciting air shows to promote the sale of Liberty Bonds to help pay off the nation’s debt incurred during World War I. Between the three groups that made up the Air Service’s “Flying Circus,” performances were given in 88 cities and 45 states. It was reported that nationwide more than 1 million people had watched their air shows.
Though they were only around in 1919, the Army Air Service’s Victory Loan Flying Circus was the world’s first officially sanctioned military aerial demonstration team, predating the Navy Blue Angels by 27 years. They have been called the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
During its short life, Payne Field played an important role in an aviation milestone. In January 1919, Maj. Theodore Macauley made the first transcontinental round trip flight. His airplane was a de Havilland DH-4. The airplane’s propeller was damaged flying through a thunderstorm in Alabama and it landed at Payne Field where the field’s “propeller shop” fabricated a new propeller enabling the flight to continue. Payne Field ended pilot training early in 1919 and closed in March 1920.
On Oct. 8, 1924, the first transcontinental airship flight passed over Columbus. It was the silver, 2 1/2 city-block long Navy Zeppelin, the USS Shenandoah. Just west of Columbus, the airship passed over the small town of Crawford. A reporter for National Geographic was on board and wrote about the warm greeting the Shenandoah received there with people even waving white banners of greeting at them.
But the older citizens of Crawford recalled the day as the “Crawford Panic.” They didn’t know what the huge bullet shaped silver craft was and thought they were being attacked by a ship from outer space. They had waved white sheets and tablecloths not as greetings but as flags of surrender.
Construction of what is now Columbus Air Force Base began in 1941 and the base opened as Kaye Field in the spring of 1942. It was named in honor of World War I pilot Capt. Sam Kaye, but the name was soon changed to Columbus Army Flying School because of confusion with Key Field in Meridian. During World War II, 7,412 aviation cadets received pilot training and their silver wings at the base.
In 1942 Lt. Col. Joseph Duckworth, known to his Columbus friends simply as “Joe Duck,” was director of training at the air field. Lt. Col. Duckworth was instrumental in revising pilot training and reducing accidents. His efforts led to he and base commander Col. Louie Mallory being featured in a Time Magazine article titled “Teaching the Teachers.” His innovations in instrument instruction and flying led to his becoming known as “The Father of Instrument Flying.” Later his flying through a gulf hurricane and the information gathered from the flight led to the creation of the present day “Hurricane Hunters.”
During the Korean War, the base was a contract flying school, and in 1955 the base became a Strategic Air Command base with a B-52 and a KC-135 squadron placed there in 1958. In 1965, during the Vietnam War, B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers of Columbus’ 454th Bombardment Wing were deployed to the Pacific and Southeast Asia as part of the Strategic Air Command combat force.
In 1969 Columbus Air Force Base again became a pilot training base. It is now the home of the 14th Flying Training Wing, 233 aircraft and about 2,500 military and civilian personnel, and it trains more than 300 pilots and combat systems operators each year. Last year some 55,000 sorties were flown at the base, making it one of the busiest if not the busiest airfield in the US Air Force.
There is a grand heritage of 100 years of military aviation in the Golden Triangle. Under Col. Gosney that heritage not only continued but thrived and is sure to continue to do so while training the world’s best pilots under Col. Weeks.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.
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