Thursday, May 15, 2008

TOP STORY >> WW II-era airport could roar back to life

By Master Sgt. Bob Oldham
189th Airlift Wing Public Affairs


A North-Central Arkansas airport may soon be alive again with the hum of military aircraft engines, similar to the way it was in the 1940s when Army Air Force pilots trained there.

Members of the Arkansas Air National Guard’s 154th Training Squadron hope to begin using the Walnut Ridge Airport later this year as a night-vision goggle training base. A change to the C-130 Instructor School training syllabus last month has the Guard looking for an airport that’s close by and can meet operational requirements.

“Walnut Ridge is a great place because it gives us a low-traffic, low-light environment for NVG training,” said Maj. Tom Parker, the squadron’s scheduling officer and project officer for finding a suitable location to conduct the required training.

A mere 20 minutes away by C-130, the Walnut Ridge Airport would help clear the local pattern of aircraft during the base’s night missions and potentially save fuel – the wing’s second highest cost these days, behind pay for personnel.

Major Parker said that since the syllabus changed, the unit has been busy developing operating guidelines and possible locations to conduct the training. If approved, he said he sees the squadron’s cargo aircraft flying in and out of Walnut Ridge by October.

Unit members scouted the airport May 3, the same day the airport held an air show and FAA Safety Fly-in. The wing sought and received approval from the Air Force to participate in the air show.

Aviators and local community members toured various helicopters, law enforcement and civilian aircraft parked on the tarmac. But by far, the C-130 was the largest attraction.

The airport, established in 1942, served as a training base for some of the Army Air Force’s aviators before they shipped off for war. More than 5,300 pilots entered Army Air Forces Training Command at Walnut Ridge – a precursor to the current-day Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command.

Students flew BT-13 and BT-15 Valiants made by Vultee. The only difference between the two aircraft was the BT-13 had a Pratt and Whitney engine, the BT-15 had a Wright engine.

“[The pilots] called it a Vultee Vibrator because it shook so much,” said Harold Johnson, Walnut Ridge Army Flying Museum president.

Construction started on the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School on June 20, 1942. The first pilots began training Oct. 12, 1942. The base was built to support more than 5,000 military personnel, and nearly 1,000 civilians. It had three 5,000-foot runways, a 2.7 million square foot apron and three hangars. A museum sits on the grounds today, highlighting the old base’s accomplishments.

For more information about the training conducted at Walnut Ridge, go to the museum’s Web site: www.wingsofhonor.org.

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