Wright Patterson undergoes major transitions during Cold War years

The Air Force Museum resided in Bldg. 89, Area C, from 1954 to 1971. (U. S. Air Force photo)
The Air Force Museum resided in Bldg. 89, Area C, from 1954 to 1971. (U. S. Air Force photo)

History Office

Air Force Life Cycle Management Center

Note: This article is the third of a 4-part series, highlighting the centenary of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, tracing its origins from the Wright brothers’ operations to today’s role as a leader of Air Force research, development, acquisition, logistics and training.

ExplorePart I: Wright-Patterson AFB reaches the century mark
ExplorePart II: Wright-Patt forges the air arsenal of democracy

Celebrating a 100 years of history

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was created on Jan. 13, 1948. To facilitate its daily management, Patterson Field became “Area C” and Skyway Park became “Area D” of the merged installation. They joined Area A around HQ Air Materiel Command (AMC) and Area B, which was Wright Field.

The postwar work force leveled off at 22,000 to 25,000 employees. Over the next 40 years, the base supported airpower for the Korean War, Cold War, and the Vietnam conflict. Base operations were managed by the 4000th Army Air Forces Base Unit, since renamed the 88th Air Base Wing. Brig. Gen. Joseph T. Morris, its commander from 1945 to 1952, skillfully transitioned the base from war to peace, from Army to Air Force, oversaw its racial integration and supported the Berlin Airlift and Korean War.

AMC managed the acquisition and logistics support that kept the Berlin Airlift flying and for the Korean War. The staff in Area B conducted the research, sustained testing programs and procured the aircraft and equipment used in the conflict. The base hospital received its first combat casualties in October 1950 and served as a blood collection center.

While Wright-Patterson remained an acquisition, logistics and research and development center, the nature of its activities changed. Increased emphasis on R&D led to a new command that oversaw the laboratories. AMC moved away from operations toward program management. It focused on the acquisition and maintenance of aerial weapon systems and subsystems as aerospace technology and operations moved to other centers across the country.

The “systems” approach replaced the practice of developing individual components. Joint Project Offices were created to coordinate planning and production between the various offices and commands. These offices soon evolved into the System Program Offices used today.

The late 1940s and 1950s saw thousands of temporary buildings gave way to new construction, such as laboratory and research facilities, a nuclear reactor, the USAF Medical Center, Kittyhawk dormitories, VOQs and the Page Manor housing complex.

The Air Force Institute of Technology reopened in late 1945 and the museum in 1954. Two air defense units with their alert scramble missions came to the base. So too did a Strategic Air Command nuclear bomber alert wing, for which the West Ramp was constructed and occupied until 1975. The Air Base Wing slowly assumed control of flightline operations, especially after the Wright Field runway closed to jet aircraft in 1958.

In 1961 Air Materiel Command transferred its systems procurement and production functions to the new Air Force Systems Command (AFSC). It was then renamed Air Force Logistics Command and assigned responsibility for supporting systems throughout their operational lifetimes. AFSC was responsible for new weapon systems from the R&D phase through initial deployment. It activated the Aeronautical Systems Division (ASD) in Area B and assigned it the aeronautical systems procurement and production duties along with R&D responsibilities. The laboratories were separated from engineering development and assigned to HQ AFSC so they could better concentrate on advanced technology research.

Routine business at Wright-Patterson soon gave way to the growing requirements of the nation’s military operations in Vietnam. The laboratories and ASD invented and improved equipment and systems for the warfighters. AFLC’s requirements for supporting the war grew rapidly. By 1964, it was calling upon the Air Base Wing for assistance. The wing shipped materiel and provided support personnel to the combat theater, including manning for the first Air Force Prime BEEF team. It also became a prime procurer of loaders, revetments and shelters.

Other base support included flight training, small-arms weapons training, vehicle operator training and laundry management courses. AFIT established extension courses in the combat zone and gleaned lessons learned. Wright-Patterson’s most public contribution was its 1973 role in Operation Homecoming when the base and Medical Center processed and reoriented 30 returning prisoners of war.

The 1960s and early 1970s saw the Air Base Wing provide consolidated airlift support to on-base organizations. A consolidated base personnel office was established to take advantage of mechanized payroll and record services. New research facilities continued to rise in Area B. AFIT’s School of Engineering building was its first step toward a modern space-age campus. Sept. 3, 1973, marked the opening of the first Air Force Museum hangar. The National Air and Space Intelligence Center welcomed a new laboratory in Bldg. 829. Wright-Patterson fostered another academic institution in 1963 when it transferred 190 acres in Area D to the State of Ohio for the construction of Wright State University. Twin Base golf club opened the same year. Wood City’s transition into a modern living and recreation area resulted in it being renamed Kittyhawk Center in 1972. Finally, an aggressive “greening” campaign planted 61,000 trees and reforested 420 acres on base.

The end of the Vietnam War brought a drawdown and conversion of many base activities to contract operations. The laboratories continued working on cutting-edge technologies, but the rapid pace of technological development also contributed to an organizational instability that eventually led to creation of the Wright Laboratory in 1990.

ASD modernized the tactical and strategic forces, working on the F-15, F-16, F-117, B-1B, C-17, and early F-22 development. AFLC focused on cost effectiveness through computer technology and better management techniques. It emphasized reliability and maintainability, initiated procurement reforms focused on price, quality, streamlined source selection, and improved performance.

At the base level, Wright-Patterson dealt with the 1973 Arab oil sales boycott and assisted the emergency response to the 1974 Xenia tornado. 1975 marked the end of the active flying mission the Air Base Wing had since 1948. The Area B aerodrome closed its flight operations the next year. The nation’s 1976 bicentennial celebration awakened interest in Wright-Patterson AFB heritage as a wave of memorial dedications swept the base for the next 15 years. On the 75th anniversary of powered flight in 1978, the Miami Conservancy District transferred a .52-acre plot on the Huffman Prairie Flying Field and the 27-acre park on Wright Brothers Hill to Wright-Patterson AFB and the Air Force. Bldg. 8, the oldest on the base, was restored and dedicated as the Arnold House Heritage Center in 1986. It served as the base heritage center and reception area for honored guests until 2014.

The 1980s ended with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. This symbolic act marked the collapse of communism, the end of the to a Cold War and heralded changes and new directions for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

About the Author