|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
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
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