For three quarters of a century, big military planes – sometimes the nation’s biggest – have thundered over Spokane County and landed on the runways carved into the West Plains.
The planes changed pretty rapidly at the beginning, but lately, not so much. The name of the collection of long stretches of concrete, big hangars and later a growing assortment of office buildings and houses also changed. It was Galena, then the Spokane Army Air Depot, and then Spokane Army Air Field, then Spokane Air Force Base.
And then the Pentagon settled on a name that stuck. Fairchild Air Force Base. Here’s a look at some highlights in Fairchild’s history:
November 1941 - Spokane businesses and citizens raise and donate $125,000 to buy the first 1,400 acres for an Army air maintenance and supply depot, helping Spokane land the facility over sites in Seattle and Everett. In addition, the site west of Spokane offered better weather conditions, and a location 300 miles from the coast with the Cascade Range acting as a natural barrier against possible Japanese attack. A few weeks later, the War Department authorizes $14 million for construction of what was then known as Galena Station.
March 1942 - The Spokane Army Air Depot is activated under the Air Service Command; a month later the base is designated the Spokane Air Depot. In 1943 its name is changed again to the Spokane Army Airfield. Between its official activation and 1946, the base is used as a repair depot for damaged aircraft returning from war in the Pacific. On June 2, 1945 three women complete repair of the 10,000th B-17 engine. According to a base history, “in all, nearly 11,000 engines were overhauled at an estimated savings to the government of $87 million. The depot also served as a supply hub shipping more than 150,000 tons of material, with nearly 20 percent going overseas.”
July 1947 - The 92nd Bombardment Group begins its move to Spokane. In September that year, the 98th Bombardment Group is reactivated and transferred to Spokane. The airfield is transferred to the Strategic Air Command that same month. Each bombardment group has 30 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, making Spokane Army Air Field the largest B-29 organization in the Strategic Air Command. It’s later renamed yet again – Spokane Air Force Base.
July 1950 - Both bombardment groups deploy to Korea that summer, but after a few months, the 92nd returns to the states while the 98th remains in Asia. In that short time, the 92nd’s bombers flew 836 combat sorties, dropping 33,000 bombs. The 98th is eventually reassigned to Nebraska.
July 1951 - The air base is renamed for Muir S. Fairchild, a Bellingham, Washington, native who rose to vice chief of staff of the Air Force. He died of a heart attack in 1950.
April 1952 - Fifteen crew members are killed in a pre-dawn takeoff of a B-36 bomber at Fairchild. In March 1954, a B-36 crashes on takeoff, killing seven.
March 1957 - The first of 45 B-52 Stratofortresses is delivered to Fairchild in a conversion operation dubbed “Operation Big Switch.” Five days later, the last B-36 leaves the base. In December that year, a B-52 crashes in a field near Airway Heights a few minutes after takeoff, apparently because of faulty wiring.
January 1958 - The Strategic Air Command orders around-the-clock alerts in response to the launch of Sputnik. At Fairchild, two crews and bombers go on 24/7 alert status.
February 1958 - The first KC-135 Stratotanker, the “Queen of the Inland Empire,” arrives at Fairchild as the “flying fuel station” for B-52s. The aircraft and a crew from the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron sets eight world records in September of that year. Sadly, that month also saw two B-52s collide while landing at Fairchild, killing 13 crew members and injuring three.
September 1961 - The 92nd becomes the first “aerospace” wing in the nation with the deployment of nine Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles under the 567th Strategic Missile Squadron. According to a base history, “These ICBMs played an integral deterrence role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. With the new role and the addition of missiles, the 92nd BW was re-designated the 92nd Strategic Aerospace Wing. However, rapid advancements in technology prompted the removal of the missiles in 1965.”
September 1964 - The wing’s KC-135s become involved in the Vietnam War out of a base in the Philippines. The B-52s deploy to a base in Guam for bombing missions in Vietnam, including Operation Linebacker. Two bombers were lost during those operations. One crashed several miles off the runway at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, likely from a flight-instrument malfunction. The other, in December 1972, was the wing’s only loss of a B-52 in combat - during a nighttime raid on Hanoi, the plane was hit by enemy fire. Two of the crew were taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese and returned to the United States in 1973. The rest of the crew were listed as missing. The wing’s nine-year involvement in Vietnam ended in October 1973.
March 1966 - The 3636th Combat Crew Training Group was established at Fairchild and in 1971, the group took over all Air Force survival schools.
July 1976 - The 141st Air Refueling Wing of the Washington Air National Guard is transferred to Fairchild and begins flying KC-135Es.
May 1980 - Mount St. Helens erupts, sending ash over Spokane and hampering the base air show.
September 1983 - The 92nd Bomb Wing receives nuclear-tipped air launch cruise missiles, the first version of air-launched cruise missiles.
December 1983 - A B-52 on a training exercise catches fire on the runway at Fairchild while carrying nuclear missiles. The fire does not reach the nuclear material. It’s the base’s only known “bent spear,” an Air Force term for an incident involving a nuclear weapon in which no radiation escapes.
October 1984 - A B-52 from Fairchild crashes into a mesa on the Navajo reservation in Arizona while practicing low-level maneuvers. One person is killed. Other crew members escape by ejecting.
March 1987 - A KC-135 crashes at the base, killing six air crew members and a spectator. The plane was rehearsing for an upcoming air show. Just after takeoff, the plane is caught in wake turbulence from a B-52. The show was to be a debut of the Thunderhawks, which was later disbanded.
August 1990 - Hundreds of Fairchild personnel are deployed in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In September 1991, Fairchild bombers come off round-the-clock alert for the first time in 33 years as Cold War tensions ease.
June 1994 - In one of the nation’s first mass shootings on a military base, Dean Mellberg goes on a rampage at the Fairchild base hospital, killing four people and wounding 23 others before being shot and killed by a military police officer. One of the wounded, who was pregnant, lost her unborn child. That same week, a B-52 crashes practicing for the Fairchild air show, killing the pilot and three other crew members. The air show was canceled. It was the last of the B-52s at the base, with the others departing a month earlier, ending Fairchild’s bomber mission after 47 years. The 92nd Bombardment Wing is redesignated the 92nd Air Refueling Wing.
January 1999 - A Washington Air National Guard KC-135 tanker crashes on takeoff at Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany. Four crew members are killed.
May 2001 - Fairchild officials confirm that all nuclear weapons have been removed from the base.
January 2005 - The 92nd Air Refueling Wing begins support operations at the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan. Fairchild supplies 80 percent of the military aircraft and flight crews operating out of Manas, a key hub along one of the primary NATO supply routes into Afghanistan. The small base, located outside the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek, is barely 400 miles from the Afghan border.
October 2007 - The 92nd and 141st Air Refueling Wings hold a ceremony to mark their association under a total force intergration strategy.
February 2011 - Fairchild closes its runway for a $44 million reconstruction. The wings operate temporarily out of Spokane and Moses Lake international airports.
February 2014 - Operations in Kyrgyzstan end. Airmen from the 92d Air Refueling Wing flew more than 20,000 sorties over nearly 125,000 hours. They delivered nearly 1.5 billion pounds of fuel to more than 110,000 U.S. and coalition aircraft.
January 2017 - The Air Force announces that the next two bases to get the KC-46A tanker, the next generation of air refueling jets, will be in New Jersey and California after Fairchild had been on the short list to receive the new planes.
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