WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — The largest training base in the U.S. Air Force is celebrating a huge milestone, its 80th anniversary.
Before it became known as Sheppard Air Force Base, Sheppard Field opened in Wichita Falls not even two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Sheppard Air Force Base is the Air Force’s premier training installation producing tens of thousands of graduates annually. It’s home to the 82nd Training Wing and the 80th Flying Training Wing.
“It’s Sheppard Field. A camera trip through Sheppard Field, Texas,” Museum of North Texas History Curator Leanne Ray said.
And, for historians like Ray, it’s fascinating history. Born in what has become known as a big aviator town.
“We had Call Field here in 1917 and 1918 where they started training WWI pilots, and then they formed municipal airport in the 1920s, Kell Field, and Fred Ridenour and Jimmy Donahue were big aviators,” Ray said.
Ray said Ridenour and Donahue’s barnstorming school may have eventually been a big factor when the U.S. Government started looking for sites for a training base.
“They knew it was a good place to teach pilots. You know, weather and conditions, being able to get enough flying hours, they knew it was possible because Fred Ridenour had done such a good job of training pilots up here, and we already had a municipal airport started, and that’s what they ended up taking over to become Sheppard Field,” Ray said. “Look at all of the trainees they had. I can’t even figure out the number.”
And, Sheppard was welcomed with a fanfare of celebration from the very beginning following the Great Depression.
“It would bring in a lot of government funding to build the town. Not only Sheppard Field itself, but with that you’ve got more grocery stores, you’ve got more houses for soldiers who get to live off base,” Ray said.
“After Pearl Harbor, everything changed,” 82nd Training Wing Historian Bryan Booker said.
Booker said the Army Air Corps needed all the aircraft mechanics they could get, and as quickly as they could get them.
“They went to training round the clock, six days a week, and they pushed those aircraft mechanics as fast as they could,” Booker said.
And Sheppard quickly determined where to get their new instructors.
“so, Sheppard went out and hired 200 females and taught them to be instructors because males were getting drafted and going into the military but females weren’t,” Booker said.
Besides pilots who went up in small, single-engine planes to observe the accuracy of artillery, booker said every American glider pilot who flew on D-Day was trained at Sheppard.
“The British brought in their gliders at night and the German flood light fields. It was a catastrophe for British gliders that came in at night so Americans decided to bring their gliders in during the day so they could see how to land,” Booker said. “Outside of aircraft engine mechanics, glider pilots, helicopter pilots, and mechanics also trained here during World War II,” Booker said.
Among those mechanics were the African American mechanics for the famed Tuskeegee Airmen.
“In 1943, the instructors rated them as the most motivated aircraft mechanics they had going through training at the time,” Booker said.
When Sheppard Field opened in October 1941 it was part of the Army Air Corps. It was deactivated in August 1946 before reopening two years later in response to the cold war and becoming a permanent air force base two years after that.
“They didn’t do away with it because I think they knew if something came up that it would be easier just to open up this base and not just tear it down,” Booker said.
In 1955, the U.S. Air Force made Sheppard the primary training center for the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile System. B-52’s were also on stand-by and during those years, broken windows in downtown Wichita Falls were not uncommon.
“Many people might not realize B-52’s with full nuclear capabilities, along with KC-135 refuelers were stationed here at Sheppard Air Force Base until the mid-1980s just in case. That’s one of the reasons the runways are so long,” Booker said. “They did extend the runways during that period of time when the B-52’s cause they needed a lot more space for taking off.”
“It was a full wing. They had the B-52’s, KC-135 refueling planes, squadron of those, squadron of bombers, maintenance squadron, military police squadron because they were flying nuclear weapons so they always had one on stand-by ready at a moment’s notice,” Booker said.
While Sheppard is celebrating its 80th anniversary, it’s also the 40th anniversary of the Euro-NATO joint jet pilot training program hosted by the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard.
“This is the only base that actually trains those European pilots going through pilot training with the Americans. So this is the major NATO training base,” Booker said.
Which is described, among other pieces of Sheppard’s history, through beautiful displays inside the Heritage Center.
“They did all this in basic training so this is what the uniforms looked like, and the equipment, the mess kits,” Booker said.
What’s now the Heritage Center is itself, perhaps Sheppard’s oldest piece of history.
“This is Kell Field, which was our airport here. And, it includes the little adobe house right here, which is currently the Heritage Center on Sheppard Field, but this is when it was the municipal airport in 1928,” Booker said.
The Great Depression would soon follow as would the dream of local city and county leaders to bring a military instillation to the Wichita Falls area.
Today, between 30,000 and 40,000 airmen graduate from Sheppard Air Force Base each year and its mission continues along with its partnership with Texoma now 80 years strong.
On April 17, 1941, Sheppard was named in honor of Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas, who was Chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee from 1933 until his death, eight days before the naming ceremony.