It’s the 75th anniversary of Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base as a military station.
In this episode of Metro Week, we explore the past, present, and future of the base.
Before the Air Force
The base started as a municipal airport in 1919, when the city of Tucson opened it. Even then, it was a notable place, the first municipally owned airport.
“The city used this as a municipal airport, but the Air Corps at the time also used it to come in for refueling for planes transiting between El Paso and San Diego and vice versa," said Doug Herndon, the 355th Fighter Wing historian. He is essentially the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base historian.
Famous pilots, including Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, landed at the airport, and some of them signed a register Herndon still keeps in his office on base.
The site that once was in the middle of the desert later became the Army Air Field Tucson. On May 1, 1941, it became the first bombardment wing headquarters for the Army.
“Then the following month...the first operational commander Brig. Gen. Frank Lackland, who Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio is named after, he commanded the first bombardment wing here up and to the point of December the 7th 1941 when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred," Herndon said. "Then those units were sent out to actually do maritime, submarine chasing.”
Over the years, the airport, airfield and later Air Force base was known for flying B-24 and B-29 bombers.
The first non-stop flight around the world took off from Davis-Monthan. Later, the people who built missile silos in the cold war were based in Tucson.
Now Home to A-10 Airplane Training, Missions
Present day Davis-Monthan is most known for the A-10 aircraft.
"The 355th Fighter Wing is the host wing at Davis-Monthan, they fly the A-10s like you hear flying over, and it has lineage back to World War II,” said Retired Col. Kent Laughbaum, who commanded the base from 2006 to 2008.
There’s much more than A-10 flights and training that happens behind the gate on South Craycroft Road and East Golf Links, he said. An active and reserve combat rescue unit fly helicopters and cargo planes and save fellow airmen in overseas emergencies.
“You have airmen at the base here who are experts at all the, what we call the strategic languages, the various dialects of Chinese, Pashtun, Farsi, Arabic, all of those so that we can do the missions that require foreign languages here at the base," Laughbaum said.
Hear from Ret. Col. Kent Laughbaum about his Air Force career, including two stints at Davis-Monthan:
The future of Davis-Monthan is the present conversation of politicians and the military. Retired Col. Martha McSally trained A-10 pilots at Davis-Monthan. She now represents Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes the base.
She’s tried to maintain the A-10 aircraft based there by keeping it in the federal budget, as did her predecessors in the Congressional district.
“This fight is going to be year-to-year from a funding point of view, but we’re making the case, and this is the case that I’ve been making since before I got to Congress, that we should not put the A-10 in the boneyard until we have a proven, tested replacement," McSally said.
The Air Force has committed to the A-10 for another six years. After that, comes uncertainty for Davis-Monthan. McSally has asked for a fly-off between the F-35 and the A-10 airplanes so the military knows whether the F-35 is an adequate replacement for airplanes in use today.
Hear from Ret. Col. Martha McSally about her several stints at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base:
Even if the aircraft changes, McSally said the base is well suited to remain an air force site.
“I think the main mission that will ground Davis-Monthan into the future is tactical air-to-ground airplanes," she said. "That is what grounds it to the Barry Goldwater ranges and the airspace all around that our fighter and attack planes need in order to be ready to deploy anywhere.”
The base could be a good site for drone training, she said, and other aircraft, such as the noisy F-35, which drew opposition from some Tucsonans before the Air Force decided to assign it to Luke Air Force Base in Glendale.
Potential loss of Davis-Monthan in military budget cuts has pushed McSally and others in Congress to get behind it. Many in Tucson political and business leadership have joined in to say the 75-year-old air base still has plenty of life in it.
Editor's note: Kent Laughbaum is a member of Arizona Public Media's community advisory board