McConnell has grown

This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, May 20, 1985.

Wichita base borrows flying brothers’ name

By Dan Close

The Wichita Eagle

The military billed them as “Three of a Kind” during World War II.

The three McConnell brothers – Tom, Fred and Edwin – grew up and went to

North High School in Wichita, joined the Army Air Force at Fort Riley and

earned their pilot’s wings at Luke Field in Phoenix.

Everything was a team effort. They trained as a trio at air bases in New

Mexico, Topeka, California and Guadalcanal. They served as B-24 Liberator

bomber co-pilots, flying into combat together in the South Pacific. They

shared honor and glory.

But war and the perils of flying conspired to divide the seemingly

inseparable McConnell brothers.

Tom, a 20-year-old second lieutenant, died July 10, 1943, when his bomber

crashed into a mountainside in soupy weather while returning to the base after

his third bombing mission against a Japanese airfield.

Fred flew more than 60 combat missions unscathed, only to perish after

returning to the United States. The 27-year-old captain, a military flying

instructor stationed in Garden City, died when his private plane hit a high-

tension wire and crashed near Garden Plain on Oct. 25, 1945.

Edwin, the surviving brother, resigned from the Air Force in 1945, spent

two years as a commercial airline pilot and moved to Colorado, where he

studied architecture. He reportedly lives in Boulder, Colo., but could not be

reached for an interview.

The McConnell brothers fought together only a few months but their courage

inspired the Air Force to rename an airfield in honor of the two deceased

fliers: Wichita Air Force Base became McConnell Air Force Base on April 12,


The Air Force activated the base that was to become McConnell on June 5,

1951. For the first six months, it was a primitive, 1,300-acre “tent city”

with a single airplane hangar, a lone fire tower and 174 tents to house men

training on the five runways to become B-47 Stratojet pilots.

McConnell 34 years later is a modern 3,000-acre base with more than 450

buildings and parallel 12,000-foot runways. The B-47s are long gone, replaced

by a wing of Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles, a wing of KC-135

Stratotankers and the Kansas Air National Guard’s fleet of F-4D Phantom II

fighter jets.

The base, begun to train bomber pilots, has come full circle. McConnell is

slated to become the home of a fleet of 16 B-1B nuclear-equipped bombers,

although a battle is still being fought in Congress over funding to prepare

the base for their arrival after the last of the Titans is deactivated in late


McConnell has grown up with Wichita.

As is any military base, it’s a small, closed city unto itself. But

McConnell residents also shop, attend public schools and participate in

community activities in Derby and Wichita. Its 4,778 military and civilian

employees generate an annual payroll of $87.4 million.

The history of the airfield that became McConnell stretches back at least 60 years.

In 1924, a group of 120 pioneer aircraft builders and Wichita businessmen

– among them Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman, Jake Moellendick,

Walter Innes, Jr. and Marcellus Murdock – formed the Wichita Chapter of the

National Aeronautical Association.

Desiring to promote aviation in Wichita, they picked out a piece of flat

countryside southeast of town dubbed the California Section, raised $64,000 to

buy it and turned it into the city’s first airport in 1928. A permanent

terminal building was built in 1935. It is still standing and is used by the

Air Guard. It took a court case to settle it, but in 1951 – a year after

the Korean conflict began – the Air Force took over the city airport and

renamed it Wichita Air Force Base. Crewmen training in B-47s lived in tents

and attended classes in downtown Wichita for several months until dormitories

and other facilities were built under a $22 million building program.

“The purpose of building the base in this location was to have the combat

crew training in the B-47 jet bomber near the production plant where the

planes were being constructed by Boeing Airplane Co.,” states a history of

McConnell. Less than a year later, the base was renamed for the McConnell

brothers. The municipal airport – now Mid-Continent Airport – had been built

at its present location southwest of Wichita.

But the 1960s heralded an even bigger transition. Construction of 18 Titan

missile complexes began in December 1960, and the 381st Strategic Missile Wing

was activated Nov. 29, 1961 at McConnell.

Wichita residents had their first chance to view a Titan missile, then the

most powerful weapon in the U.S. arsenal, during a base open house in May

1963. By Dec. 12, the Titans – which each carry a nine-megaton nuclear warhead

– were nestled in their underground silos near Wichita, and officials declared

them “war ready.”

McConnell had begun its life as part of the military’s Air Training

Command and retained its mission as a training base even after being brought

under the wing of the Strategic Air Command on Sept. 17, 1953.

But on July 1, 1963, control of McConnell was transferred to the Tactical

Air Command. The defunct B-47s were being phased out in place of a new breed

of nimble, combat-ready fighter-bombers.

TAC first brought North American F-100 Super Sabres to McConnell, but soon

replaced them with big, burly Republic F-105 Thunderchiefs. By 1965, the base

had 160 Thunderchiefs – or “Thuds” to jet jockeys – and the 355th Tactical

Fighter Wing based at McConnell was fighting in Southeast Asia.

And there was tragedy in Wichita. On Jan. 16, 1965, an Air Force KC-135

with a bellyful of fuel spiraled into a northeast Wichita neighborhood,

killing 30 people within minutes. The 149-ton plane had taken off minutes

before from a runway shared by McConnell and Boeing, made a shallow left turn,

and crashed into the homes lining North Piatt. It took days to sift through

the charred rubble, and 20 years later many of the psychological wounds still

haven’t healed.

The swirl of wartime activity at McConnell began to lessen as Vietnam

ground to a halt. When the base’s 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing was moved to

England Air Force Base in Louisiana in 1972, the 381st SAC missile wing

regained command of McConnell.

The missile wing soon found itself in charge of a new tenant. On Dec. 1,

1972, the 384th Air Refueling Wing was activated at McConnell, and soon noisy

KC-135 Stratotankers were lumbering down the runways and taking to the skies

above east Wichita.

On Aug. 24, 1978, the missile wing also found itself with a problem. A

leak in a propellant tank at a missile silo near Rock, about 15 miles

southeast of McConnell, killed two airmen and injured 22 others. About 200

residents fled, some complaining of nausea and headaches, as a toxic orange

cloud of nitrogen tetroxide hovered over the site for several days.

The silo had to be abandoned. Lawsuits later were filed against the Air

Force and others; some to be settled out of court and some dismissed.

The Rock accident was the fourth of its kind at a McConnell missile silo,

and the most serious to date involving the aging weapons system. Designed to

last but 10 years, the Titans already had been on alert for nearly 15 years,

and debate began in Congress on whether they ought to be retired.

On Feb. 1, 1984, the Air Force announced plans to remove by 1987 the 17

remaining Titan missiles controlled by McConnell. Two days later, government

officials announced that 16 B-1B bombers would take the place of the Titan


The Air Force began removing the first of the Titans last July, a job

that’s expected to last through late 1986. The first of 16 B-1B bombers is

scheduled to arrive at McConnell in late 1987. But there’s a chance that won’t


In March, McConnell showed up on a list of 22 military installations that

the Pentaton said could be closed to save money. Debate in Congress has

continued over whether McConnell will get $71.5 million in construction money

to pave the way for the arrival of the bombers – or lose the money and face an

uncertain future. In Congress’ latest action on the funding, the Senate Armed

Services Committee restored the $7.5 million for McConnell to the Defense

budget last Wednesday.

McConnell officials say that they’re still expecting the B-1Bs to touch

down here in a few years. And they say those high-tech bombers, along with the

KC-135s of the air refueling wing and the F-4Ds of the Air Guard are enough to

ensure the base’s future.

©The Wichita Eagle