History of McConnell AFB, Keeper of the Plains

Figure 10. Stearman hanger now known as building 9 sometime in 1930 (Kansas Aviation Museum.

Construction of a major airfield was not on the mind of Cadet J. Earl Schaefer in the summer of 1917. As he stood in front of the Assistant Commandant of West Point, the future president of Boeing Wichita was only concerned with being on the receiving end of a tongue lashing. With his impending graduation, the impetuous Schaefer made what the Academy perceived to be an ill-considered response when he submitted his three career choices for military service. He listed aviation for all three choices. This did not amuse the Assistant Commandant. Later in life Schaefer commented, “I thought I was going to be court-martialed.”23 In no way was it possible that Schaefer could ever have considered his decidedly brash response would lead to the development of an Air Force base and the single largest tanker operation in the United States Air Force. Born in Wichita, Schaefer’s passion for aviation and natural salesmanship combined with the talents of other local business people gave birth to what is now McConnell Air Force Base and the home of the 22d Air Refueling Wing, the Keeper of the Plains.

The first aerial demonstration in Kansas took place in 1908 a mere five years after the Wright Brothers’ success in North Carolina. Ever since April 1911, when a Curtiss Exhibition Team did a barnstorming stop, aviation existed as a fixture in Wichita. Beginning in 1919, cantankerous and blunt El Dorado oilman Jake Mollendick, along with Matty Laird, a man as calm as Mollendick was surly, began operating the Laird Airplane Corporation in the city.24

In October 1924, Wichita hosted the National Air Congress at the so-called “California Section” of Wichita, site of present day McConnell Air Force Base. Over 100,000 people attended. The event highlight was an air race with 47 military and civilian aircraft participating, including the Laird produced Swallow. Building on the enthusiasm generated by this event, Schaefer and his associates, Jack Turner, L. W. Clapp and Alfred MacDonald pursued funding to purchase the California Section. Companies such as Laird, Travel Air (later Beechcraft), Cessna and Stearman (later a part of Boeing) were Wichita fixtures by 1929.25

Figure 11. Construction of the Wichita Municipal Airport early 1930s (Kansas Aviation Museum).

Figure 12. The East Gate as seen from Rock Road, 1954.

By June of 1929, Schaefer, Clapp, Turner and MacDonald were able to turn a spade of dirt and see construction begin on the administration building, the present day Kansas Aviation Museum. With the crash of the Stock Market that October and the start of the Great Depression
in 1930, it took another five years before the building opened in 1935. Having long since left the Army, Earl Schaefer was now in charge of Boeing Wichita, formerly Stearman. On the eve of America entering World War II, the Boeing plant on the west side of the flight line expanded their floor space by 70,000 square feet to accommodate tens of thousands of bomber orders from the government. The Army Air Force Material Center established its headquarters in the Administration building in the early 1940s to work alongside Wichita’s aircraft manufacturers, particularly Boeing which held the B-29 project in Plant II.26

At Boeing and other aircraft plants in town, wartime aircraft production kept the companies and the Army Air Force detachment busy. By war’s end aircraft production in Kansas, Wichita specifically, accounted for 12% of all aircraft produced including 27% of trainers, 23% of transport planes and a whopping 31% of all medium bombers in the AAF inventory. The Material Command chose this site to take advantage of the airport’s five 150-foot wide runways, each with a 60,000-pound wheel load capacity. In September 1945, the Material Center moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma eventually becoming the Air Force Logistics Center at what is now Tinker AFB, Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the 4156th Army Air Field Base Unit arrived at Wichita to service, maintain transient, and locally based aircraft. One year later, this unit disbanded and the Air Force would not return until 1951.

Figure 13 Airman Second Class Richard J. Schock (L) of the 350th Motor Vehicle Squadron and another unidentified Airman stand outside the enlisted tent city, winter 1951. (Richard J. Schock Family)

In 1951, the Air Force decided to take up permanent residence in Wichita and established Wichita Air Force Base. The airport administration building served as the new headquarters while still handling civilian air traffic. This time, the Air Training Command’s 3520th Combat Crew Training Wing (CCTW), under the command of Colonel H.R. Spicer, began training Boeing B-47 Stratojet bomber aircrews. For the first six months after the activation, a "tent city" housed assigned personnel. This "city" consisted of 174 tents, a fire tower and a few leased buildings in Wichita. One major piece of construction was the base chapel dedicated in August of 1952. Refurbished several times over the years the building is still in use today. From 1954 to 1956, a $22 million construction program turned the old airport into one of the Air Force’s major bases. These improvements included 495 Capehart-style housing units, ten miles of paved streets and two hangars. Other improvements included clubs, theater, commissary, bank, hospital and Base Exchange. In 1958, the 4347 CCTW, under SAC, replaced the 3520th.27

At a formal dedication ceremony on May 15, 1954, the base became McConnell Air Force Base in honor of Tom and Fred McConnell, two of the three "Flying McConnell Brothers" of World War II. The brothers, from Wichita, entered the Army Air Corps together during WWII. The trio gained fame as "three of a kind." Second Lieutenant Thomas McConnell perished in July 1943, when his B-24 Liberator crashed into a fog-covered mountain while en route to his home base at Guadalcanal after a bombing mission. Captain Fred McConnell died when his private plane crashed in October 1945 near Garden Plain, Kansas. Edwin passed away in August 1997 at the age of 76. At a rededication ceremony on 14 June 1999, base officials added Edwin’s name to the installation, making McConnell the namesake of all three brothers.28

Figure 14 Anna McConnell pins pilot’s wings on her sons, from left, Fred, Edwin and Thomas.

On March 1, 1962, Strategic Air Command stood up the 381st Strategic Missile Wing (SMW). Using McConnell as its base, 18 Titan II missile silos formed a ring from the northeast and south to the west on an irregular radius of 20 to 50 miles from the installation. Construction crews finished the project in the early 1960s, at a cost of $80 million. This mission of deterrence would dominate base activity for the next twenty-four years. In October 1962, the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) started at McConnell and flew the F-100C Super Sabre, and later the F-105D Thunderchief. This wing left in 1964 for Korat RTAFB, Thailand and the 355th TFW began operations in Wichita alongside the 23 TFW, which replaced the 388th. It trained F-105 crews for combat in Southeast Asia. The 355th George AFB, California, in July 1964. Both squadrons served in the 835th Air Division. The stay was brief for the 355th, which departed for Thailand in October of 1965. Squadrons of both wings saw action in Vietnam.29

The base received a new mission in April 1971 with the arrival of the 91st Air Refueling Squadron and their KC-135A Stratotankers. In July 1972, the 23 TFW departed for England AFB, Louisiana, making the 381 SMW host unit. The 384th Air Refueling Wing’s (ARW) began its tour at McConnell AFB in December 1972. In October 1981, President Reagan announced that the Air Force would phase out its Titan II ICBMs. In early 1983, the 384 ARW’s leadership learned that it would be the first wing to receive the R model KC-135 tanker and the B-1B Lancer bomber. On 8 August 1986, the 381 SMW inactivated. The 384 ARW became the host organization and redesignated to the 384th Bombardment Wing (Heavy) in the summer of 1987. The 91st Air Refueling Squadron inactivated later that year, and the 384th Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) became the sole refueling unit. The first B-1B touched down at McConnell on 4 January 1988 and one year later the first Lancer aircrew and aircraft assumed alert duty.30

Figure 15. The first KC-135R rolls out at Boeing Wichita, 1984.

In August 1990, Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. McConnell members deployed throughout the area of responsibility to help eject the invaders from the small kingdom. With Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Team McConnell responded. Tanker crews and maintainers, already deployed in the Pacific for the exercise “Giant Warrior ’90” remained there to support Operation DESERT SHIELD. More crews joined them. Others deployed as well; everyone from base weather to medical personnel went to support operations in Southwest Asia. From Team McConnell, over two hundred troops from 10 different specialties deployed before September ended. The newly minted Family Support Center (FSC) went to work with the “Waiting Spouses” program. Without a dedicated building, the FSC had attendance of 50-75 family members per week with one meeting reaching 125 participants. Known today by a variety of monikers from the “Nintendo War” to the “100 Hour War,” Operation DESERT STORM was a watershed event in Team McConnell history.31

Figure 16. Tornado of 26 April 1991 rips through McConnell.

Figure 17. Emerald City (now the Robert J. Dole Community Center) under construction sometime in 1993.

Figure 18. TSgt Craig McElroy from the 22 SFS performs entry control duties at a location in Iraq during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, 2003.

On 26 April 1991, a tornado devastated McConnell. The cyclone destroyed 102 base housing units and 9 major facilities including the base hospital as it traveled from southwest to northeast. Despite the colossal property damage, there were 16 reported injuries and no deaths. Because of the tornado, the base quickly became a frenzied beehive of construction. Three years after the devastating storm, Emerald City opened its doors (Fig. 16). This first of its kind community center contained a library, education center, bowling center, officer and enlisted clubs and other services.

In mid-1992, the 384th became the 384th Bomb Wing. At the same time, the Air Force restructured the major commands. The 384 BW and the 384 ARS moved from the inactivated SAC. The 384 BW moved under the newly activated Air Combat Command (ACC) while the 384 ARS joined the Air Mobility Command (AMC), remaining at McConnell as an associate unit. The Air Force announced additional changes to McConnell in May of 1992. The Kansas Air National Guard (the 184th Fighter Group), long a resident of McConnell, converted from F-16s to B-1B bomber and became the 184th Bomb Group. In January 1994, the 22 ARW assumed the role as host wing, moving without personnel and equipment from March AFB, California. The 384 BW became the 384th Bomb Group until the unit transferred all of its Lancers to the Air Reserve Component before inactivating on 30 September 1994.

On 1 January 1995, the 931st Air Refueling Group (ARG) joined Team McConnell. The Air Force Reserve associate unit provides aircrews while the 22d furnishes the maintenance crews and aircraft. Since 1996, McConnell served as the test site for the PACER CRAG avionics modernization program. The next year, the base became the test unit for the multi-point refueling. In the same year, the Republic of Singapore’s Air Force chose McConnell over two other American bases to train their KC-135 aircrews and maintenance. In 2002, as part of a plan to reduce and consolidate the Air Force’s B-1 fleet, the 184th Bomb Wing’s B-1s transferred to other bases. In September 2002, the 184th took on a new mission flying KC-135s and was officially designated the 184th Air Refueling Wing. This officially established McConnell as the sole base in the U. S. Air Force where all three components, Active, Guard and Reserve supported the same mission together in a pure “Mirror Force” concept.32

With the devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Team McConnell faced even greater challenges that extend into current operations. Acknowledged as America’s premier air refueling team, the 22d, 184th and the 931st, continue to take to the skies supporting everything from Operation IRAQI FREEDOM to presidential support missions, to refueling routine training flights. The sun never sets on Team McConnell. Today, McConnell Air Force Base has come a long way; from the days of landing planes in hayfields to living in tents in the 1950s to surviving the devastation of the 1991 tornado. The professionals of Team McConnell and the 22 ARW have a rich history and a proud future.


Figure 19. Amn Calista Heath-Martinez, SrA Robert Ringer, then Wing Commander Col Cathy Clothier, A1C Jamie Shultz and Amn Jose Mejia at the 2004 Air Force Ball held at Wichita’s Century II Convention Center.

Appendix 1: 22 ARW Lineage and Honors

Shield: Azure, a cougar’s left gamb erased pale wise, claws to base.
Significance: Blue shield with the gold cougar’s gamb are in the colors of the Air Force and signifies armed power.

The Motto: DUCEMUS (Latin for “We Lead”).
Emblem approved for the 22d Bombardment Group on 19 June 1941 and the 22d Bombardment Wing on 28 June 1951.

23 Thompson, Susan, Prairie Runways: The History of Wichita’s Original Municipal Airport, (Wichita, KS: Air Capital Press, 2000), 9.

24 Phillips, Edward H., “General Aviation Visionary Walter Beech,” Aviation Weekly,” (November, 2001), 24.

25 Thompson, Prairie Runways, 17-21.

26 Rowe, Frank Joseph and Miner, Craig, Borne on the South Wind, (Wichita, KS: Wichita Eagle and Beacon Publishing, 1994), 129 – 35, See also Price, Air Legacy, 58. The AAF stationed over forty officers in Wichita to oversee War Department acquisition projects for the Material Command.

27 “500 Witness Chapel Opening by Dignitaries,” Sweepback, August 7, 1952, OHR. The Capehart housing units were finished in August of 1959. See also, TSgt Johnston, Gary, Red Raiders Still Leading the Way, (Wichita, KS: Office of History, 22d Air Refueling Wing, 2003), 20.

28 “Dedication Day Highlights Armed Forces Day at McConnell AFB,” Sweepback, May 14, 1954, and “Base is Renamed McConnell AFB,” Sweepback, April 16, 1954, OHR. Confusion exists as to when Wichita Air Force Base became McConnell Air Force Base. From a strictly “official” Air Force perspective, the base renaming came via teletype message on April 15, 1954. From the formal acknowledgement/ceremonial standpoint though, May 15, 1954 is more proper. The event was grand in scale featuring an air show, 4,000 military personnel from all branches passing in review and 50,000 people watching.

29 Wichita Salutes McConnell Air Force Base,(Lubbock, TX: Boone Publications, 1966), 5, and Wichita – The Air Capital Salutes McConnell Air Force Base, (Lubbock TX: Boone Publications, 1966), 1. Both of these works are standard base information booklets typical of those still in use today.

30 Lineage and Honors History, 355 Wing, OHR. Lineage and Honors History, 388 Fighter Wing, OHR.

31 Lt Garcia, Mike, “Military Representative Briefs Wichita Leaders on Effect of Iraqi Crisis,” Contrails, September 28, 1990, OHR. See also, SSgt Brown, Randolph D. Jr., “Interview With 384th Bombardment Wing Commander Colonel John C. Mangels,” April 1, 1991, OHR and SSgt Brown, Randolph D. Jr., “Interview With Family Support Center Director, Mr. Roy E. Milam,” March 7, 1991, OHR.

32 Johnston, Red Raiders, 22 – 23.