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Larson Air Force Base -- Grant County International Airport

HistoryLink.org Essay 10147 : Printer-Friendly Format

In November 1942 the United States Army established a training airfield at Moses Lake in central Washington's Grant County. The base became inactive at the end of the war but the airfield, with its long runways and excellent flying weather, was used by Boeing as a test field. The U.S. Air Force reopened the base in 1948, and it was soon named to honor Donald A. Larson of Yakima, a World War II fighter ace. Larson Air Force Base became an important Cold War facility intended to protect the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. It also became a bomber base where B-52s were stationed. The base closed in the mid-1960s as an economy measure. The property has been effectively reused as an airport, aircraft training field, industrial park, and home of Big Bend Community College.

Moses Lake Army Air Base

On November 24, 1942, the Army established an airfield five miles northwest of the Moses Lake in central Grant County. The location had ideal flying weather allowing for an extensive training program. The field became a training center sub-base of Spokane Army Airfield. Moses Lake was the largest runway project in the state with two 12,000-foot-long runways. The first air unit at the base was the 482nd Fighter Squadron flying P-38 Lightning fighters. In April 1943 the 396th Bombardment Group arrived to train pilots and crews in Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses. Once trained, the B-17 squadrons left for combat duty.

In 1945 the base went into inactive status, but was used by the Boeing Aircraft Company to test its B-29 Superfortress revision, B-50, and B-47 models. On December 17, 1947, the Boeing experimental XB-47 landed at Moses Lake, completing its first flight, a 50-minute jaunt from Seattle's Boeing Field. The Moses Lake airfield would be the test home for this jet bomber. In February 1949, a B-47 Stratojet took off from Moses Lake and flew to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The flight set a cross-country speed with an average speed of 607.2 miles per hour.

Larson Air Force Base

On November 26, 1948, the U.S. Air Force reopened the base. A fighter-interceptor group with F-82 Twin Mustangs arrived to protect the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, located some 30 miles south of Moses Lake in Franklin County; Grand Coulee Dam north of Moses Lake at the northern tip of Grant County; and other military and industrial targets. Additional fighter aircraft stationed at the base included the F-51D Mustang, F-80 Shooting Star, and F-86A Sabre jet. In May 1950 the base was named Larson Air Force Base to honor Major Donald A. Larson (1915-1944) of Yakima. Donald Larson learned to fly at McAllister Flying School in Yakima. He became a pilot cadet in May 1941, training at McChord Field in Pierce County, and then a flight instructor. Larson was stationed in England in 1943, and flew fighters in the 505th Fighter Squadron over Germany. On his 58th combat mission, on August 4, 1944, flying his P-51D Mustang -- nose-named "Mary Queen of Scotts" for his girlfriend Mary Scott -- Larson shot down his sixth enemy plane, adding to his ace status. On that flight he was shot down and crashed and died near Ulzen, Germany. Major Larson's awards included the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster. He is buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium.

A radar system to improve air defenses was installed at Larson Air Force Base in June 1950. The radar station was part of a national system named Lashup for its emergency and temporary nature, until a permanent system could be installed. Located on the southern portion of the base, on today's Newell Street and 26th Avenue NE, it employed World War II radars. The aircraft tracking information was passed onto a control center that could direct interceptors. Lashup protected the Hanford Nuclear Reservation until a more modern system replaced it January 1952.

During the Korean War the Washington National Guard's 116th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron was called into federal service and sent to England. On April 1, 1952, Larson came under the control of the Tactical Air Command. The 62d Troop Carrier Wing (Heavy) flying C-124 Globemasters performed transport duties. The 62d delivered materials for the construction and then resupply of the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line). Additional supply missions were flown in support of the White Alice communications system in Alaska.

In April 1952 Boeing again began using the base in its testing of the B-52 bomber. The first Boeing YB-52 test flight on April 15, 1952, went from Seattle to Larson Air Force Base. When pilot Alvin "Tex" Johnston (1914-1998) landed the YB-52 he said that it was a not only a good plane, but a hell of a good plane. Tex Johnston would become widely known as a superb test pilot. He began experimental flying during World War II, testing many of the most advanced planes. In 1949 he joined Boeing to test the B-47 and then the B-52. Johnston's B-52 flight to Larson and further testing confirmed the plane's capability. The B-52 Stratofortress would become the backbone of the United States Cold War nuclear strategy. Boeing conducted an extensive testing program at the field.

On December 20, 1952, a C-124 Globemaster transport plane crashed during takeoff from Larson Air Force Base. The crash killed 87 servicemen going home on Christmas leave. Initially there were 32 survivors, who were taken to the Larson Air Force Base hospital. Three of the survivors died. At the time it was the world's worst aviation disaster. A crash investigation determined that the elevator and rudder locks had not been disengaged before takeoff.

Testing and Tracking

A reconnaissance aircraft testing program was activated at the base on January 26, 1955. The 71st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (Fighter) conducted test flights of the RF-84K Thunderflash fighter, a reconnaissance and nuclear strike fighter that was to be carried toward a target beneath a GRB-36 bomber. As a "parasite" the craft's range was extended. The fighter had a retractable hook on the nose allowing it to return and reattach to the bomber. Testing proved the reattaching dangerous so the program ended on July 1, 1957.

A contract for a massive Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) building was awarded on July 17, 1957. The windowless building housed an automated control system to track and intercept enemy aircraft. The world's largest computer, the AN/FSQ-7, was the critical link in this air defense system. The computer had 55,000 vacuum tubes and weighed 275 tons. The SAGE had a backup second identical computer on the ready in case of failure. The computer received tracking data from radar stations and displayed this information on situation display terminals. Operators sat at the terminals and responded to possible targets. An operator could track flights and had from the computer status data regarding the weapons to attack the targets. These available weapons included intercept aircraft and Nike missiles. The operator selected the best weapon to intercept the target and this went to a local controller who took over and guided the weapon to the target. As a cost saving measure the Larson Semi-Automatic Ground Environment facility closed on April 27, 1963. Its operations were moved to McChord Air Force Base.

From July 1957 until 1960 military transport operations flew out of Larson. In 1960 these activities were transferred to McChord Air Force Base. Meanwhile, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in 1959 was considering dispersal plans for stationing its B-52 Stratofortress bombers. This plan included sending B-52s to Larson Air Force Base. On July 13, 1960, the first B-52D, named "Larson's Lucky Lady," arrived. In November 1960 KC-135 Stratotanker refueling planes arrived.

In 1959 the Walla Walla District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers selected sites for Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles near Larson. Construction started on December 1, 1959, and was announced to the public in 1960. Titan sites were constructed near Warden and Quincy in Grant County and Odessa in adjoining Lincoln County. Each had three missiles. Support facilities and personnel housing were located on Larson Air Force Base. Command of the missile sites resided with the 568th Strategic Missile Squadron. On September 25, 1962, the missile program became operational in time for the Cuban missile crisis. But after only two years Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1916-2009) ordered the phase-out of the Atlas and Titan missile systems. In January 1965 the three Titan sites went off operational duty. The 568th Strategic Missile Squadron was deactivated two months later. The equipment and missiles were removed and later the sites sold into private hands.

Base Closure and Reuse

On November 19, 1964, Secretary of Defense McNamara formally announced that Larson Air Force Base would close by June 30, 1966. The closure was part of a larger cost-saving base-closing program. At the time of the announcement, the base had a 13,500-foot long runway; a population of 8,000; 1,153 buildings; and 1,335 housing units. Colonel Clyde W. Owen (b. 1919), the base commander worked with the community to plan for the base closure. Colonel Owen was on his final Air Force tour following a distinguished career. He had flown 43 World War II combat missions in a B-26 Marauder before being shot down. Following the war he flew many aircraft types including the B-52. His Larson Air Force Base command was his last assignment before retirement.

In 1965 the Port of Moses Lake was formed and soon took over the aviation portion of the former air base. On October 8, 1966, the airfield was rededicated as the Grant County Airport -- in the 1990s it was renamed Grant County International Airport. On November 1, 1966, Clyde Owen became the Port of Moses Lake's Executive Director. He served in that role until his retirement on January 15, 1984. The Port's airfield was especially desirable for training with the area's good flying weather, uncongested sky, and long runway. Recognizing these advantages, Japan Airlines established a training facility for pilots of Boeing 747 aircraft there in November 1968. The airline assumed an active role in the Grant County community, supporting cultural exchanges and local events. In 2009 Japan Airlines closed its training center because newer aircraft did not require such a long runway. Commercial air service operated out of Grant County International Airport for several decades but ended on June 8, 2010, due to low demand.

During the base closure planning in 1966 Boeing Aircraft Company expressed interest in leasing space for aircraft testing. Boeing established a test center and has remained a tenant at the airport. The test center is within the Grant County International Airport Industrial Park, which occupies 1,000 acres and has one million square feet of building space. More than 30 companies and the military rent space in the Industrial Park. A private secure records storage company took over the former SAGE building.

Teaching and Training

Big Bend Community College obtained 154 acres of Larson Air Force Base for its north campus in 1966. The college rehabilitated buildings for classrooms and offices and made the site its main campus. Over the years, original Larson buildings have been replaced with modern facilities. Among the surviving buildings is the former base theater. It was rehabilitated and functions as an important 688-seat venue for live events. It is now named the Wallstein Theater. Clyde Owen has been a strong supporter of the college and in 2012 he donated $100,000 for scholarships and assistance. A plaque at Big Bend Community College honors his assistance, which includes fostering the growth of the college's Flight and Aviation Maintenance Technology Program. The program began in 1965 with three aircraft and 23 students and now has 26 planes, 14 instructors, and more than 100 students enrolled in the flight course every semester.

The Air Force has used Grant County International Airport many times since the base closure. McChord Air Force Base -- now McChord Field, Joint Base Lewis-McChord -- continued sending aircraft there for training, including recent C-17 Globemaster III training. In 1983 and again in 2011, while Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane upgraded its runway, units from Fairchild used the runways and rented space.

The Grant County Housing Authority acquired 1,186 units of former Air Force. The main housing area was on the south side of the airport, now named Larson Subdivision. Many of the ranch-style homes were constructed in 1959. In 1977 the housing authority sold 900 units into private ownership. Public housing was provided in the remaining units.

Sources:
"State Air Fields Got $100,000,000," The Seattle Daily Times, September 9, 1945, p. 9; "Air Force Orders Probe," Ibid., December 21, 1952, p. 14; "Missile Site Funds Awarded," Ibid., April 19, 1962, p.5; "Moses Lake Base on Closure List," Ibid., November 19, 1964, p. 1; "Missile Sites at Larson Will Be Sold," Ibid., May 29, 1965, p. 26; "Disaster on the Sleigh Ride", Life Magazine, January 5, 1953, pp. 22-24; Jon Lake, B-52 Stratofortress Units in Combat 1955-1973 (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2004); "SAC Bases: Larson AFB," Strategic-Air-Command.com website accessed June 28, 2012 (http://www.strategic-air-command.com/bases/Larson_AFB.htm); "Col. Clyde Owen donates $100,000 to BBCC", Big Bend Community College website accessed July 6, 2012 (http://information.bigbend.edu/Pages/Owens.aspx).


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Entrance to Larson Air Force Base, Moses Lake, ca. 1963
Courtesy Clyde Owen


Civil Air Patrol members, Larson Air Force Base (Moses Lake), ca. 1945
Courtesy George and Margaret Schiffner


Tours of C-124 Globemaster aircraft, Columbia Basin Water Festival, Ephrata, May 1952
Courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation


Grant County International Airport, n.d.
Courtesy Port of Moses Lake


FAA Certification Tests for Embraer-145 aircraft, Moses Lake, October 1, 1996
Photo by Al Anderson, Port of Moses Lake


Testing of Embraer EMB-145 Aircraft, Moses Lake, October 1, 1996
Photo by Al Anderson, Port of Moses Lake


Grant County International Airport, Moses Lake, 2010
Courtesy Washington State Department of Transportation


 
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