Fairchild Air Force Base (Spokane)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 9/01/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20112
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Fairchild Air Force Base in Eastern Washington is the Northwest aerial refueling hub for the U.S. Air Force and the largest employer in Spokane County. The base traces its origins to World War II, when the United States Army Air Corps chose Spokane as the site of a supply and maintenance air depot. Local businesses and residents contributed more than $120,000 to purchase and donate 2,400 acres for the depot. Opened in the spring of 1942, the Spokane Army Air Depot rebuilt engines and repaired damaged aircraft from fighting in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, it became the Spokane Air Force Base and served as a Strategic Air Command (SAC) facility with heavy bombers assigned. Following the death of Washington-born Air Force General Muir S. Fairchild (1894-1950) the base was renamed Fairchild Air Force Base in his honor. Bombers based at Fairchild played a significant role in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1958 the base took on an additional mission of aerial refueling, employing Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers. The base's bomber mission ended in 1994 and the tankers became the primary mission.

Sites for Army Air Bases

In 1935 U.S. Representative J. Mark Wilcox (1890-1956) of Florida successfully sponsored a bill giving the Secretary of War authority to determine air-base locations and base-construction priorities. The Wilcox Act of 1935 allowed for locating bases without political consideration. The Secretary of War could appoint a board to select air-base sites. Priority was given to the Pacific Northwest, which then lacked military air bases. An air base in the vicinity of Tacoma was proposed and in 1937 the Tacoma Municipal Airport property was donated to the government and became McChord Field (later part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord).

Sites were also considered for West Coast depots and maintenance bases. However, it was only with the increasing threat of war with Japan in the Pacific, leading up to U.S. entry into World War II, that these bases became a reality. A newly appointed "Wilcox Board" in June 1941 selected two West Coast sites for depots. One was at San Bernardino, California. For the other, several sites in Utah and Washington were considered. The Spokane area was chosen over Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Seattle-Everett area of Western Washington for a major supply and maintenance depot. Located in Eastern Washington about 300 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Spokane had the advantage of good flying weather, an inland route to Alaska, and and the Cascade Mountains helping protect against potential Japanese attack.

With the buildup for World War II a supply depot became more critical. The Army Air Corps followed the Wilcox Board proposal and on September 10, 1941, announced Spokane as its preferred depot location. However, the army would only build if the necessary land -- 1,500 acres around the Galena railroad station, 12 miles west of Spokane -- was donated. Local fundraising for the purchase got underway and in one week more than $120,000 was collected. Individuals and businesses contributed. Former Washington governor Clarence D. Martin (1886-1955) gave $2,500. The local efforts collected enough to purchase 2,400 acres of land, which was then donated to the federal government.

Spokane Army Air Depot

Construction began on January 19, 1942, and was completed a year later at a cost of $25 million. At the peak of construction, 2,500 workers were employed at the site. The first building was finished in March 1942. By then more than eight miles of railroad track had been laid. A massive hangar was built for maintenance work (it survives today). On February 5, 1943, a two-story headquarters building was completed. The large building received a coat of white paint, earning it the nickname "the White House." It served as the base headquarters for more than 70 years until its demolition in October 2014. Three runways were constructed, one 8,000 feet long and two shorter cross runways at 7,000 feet each. The depot's official name was the Spokane Army Air Depot. Locals often called it the Galena depot given its location at the former Galena railroad station.

On June 9, 1943, the new depot started receiving aircraft for repairs. The first plane to land on the main 8,000-foot-long runway was a Boeing B-17 Fortress bomber. Brigadier General Jacob Rudolph (1886-1954), the base commander, was its pilot. A primary maintenance task was the repair of Boeing B-17 engines. During its first month of operation the depot repaired 50 engines. By June 1944 more than 500 engines were repaired each month. The depot set records for engine overhauls. By the end of World War II, the engine-maintenance section had overhauled about 11,000 engines. The depot repaired more than 1,250 Boeing B-17s and numerous other airplanes. In the first four months the depot salvaged and returned to the war more than $50 million worth of aircraft and engines. Not only were planes repaired, but also many were modernized during their rehabilitation. The Spokane depot's supply mission included sending huge quantities of parts to bases in the United States and overseas.

Operating 24 hours a day during the war required more than 5,000 mechanics, welders, and other skilled workers. Finding that many qualified workers was a tremendous task. Local schools were utilized to train workers. The Lowell Public School in Hangman Valley, the Cowley Public School, and Spokane Trade School established training programs and turned out the needed skilled workers. Peak employment was reached in the summer of 1943 with about 10,400 employees. Twenty-five percent of the skilled employees were women. With the end of the war came a dramatic cut in personnel and operations.

Honoring General Fairchild

In 1946 the Spokane Army Air Depot briefly became the Spokane Army Air Base. The maintenance functions were ended and in 1947 the base became a Strategic Air Command unit assigned to the 15th Air Force. The 92nd and 98th bombardment wings, flying Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers, were activated at the base, which on January 13, 1948, was renamed the Spokane Air Force Base. The base contributed to the American effort in the Korean War, which began in June 1950. The two Spokane Air Force Base bombardment wings were dispatched to Japan for bombing missions in Korea. The 92nd deployed in August 1950 and returned to the United States that October. The 98th remained in Asia until the end of the fighting. Its last combat mission was flown on July 25, 1953, two days before the armistice.

The base was named Fairchild Air Force Base in November 1950. The new name honored General Muir Fairchild. Born in Bellingham, Muir Fairchild moved with his family to Olympia. There he attended Olympia High School. Fairchild graduated from the University of Washington in 1917. During his senior year at the university he became a cadet in the Washington National Guard. He was a pilot in World War I and remained in the service. Fairchild rose through the ranks to become a four-star general and Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, the position he held when he died of a heart attack on March 18, 1950.

A dedication ceremony for Fairchild Air Force Base was held on July 20, 1951, the same day that the first Convair B-36 Peacemaker bomber arrived at the base. Eleven Air Force generals were in attendance for the naming ceremony and bomber landing, along with General Fairchild's widow and daughter. The Convair B-36 was a huge aircraft, 160 feet long with a wing span of 230 feet, and had six turbojet engines. It served at Fairchild for half a decade until the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress replaced it.

Missile Defenses, Survival School

In 1952 Washington and the nation were reminded that dangers are always present during military service. Fairchild Air Force Base had four Convair B-36 crashes. The deadliest came on April 15, 1952, killing 15 of the 17 men on board.

Fairchild transitioned from the Convair B-36 to the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress heavy bomber in 1956. To defend the base from potential air attack, an army Nike Missile system was installed surrounding the base. Four Nike surface-to-air missile batteries -- at Airway Heights, Cheney, Medical Lake, and Deep Creek -- were installed in a ring around the base. They went into service in January 1957. In 1958 the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, developed from the Boeing 707 jet airliner, was assigned to Fairchild for air refueling missions.

Construction began in May 1959 on Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) silos in the vicinity of the base. They became operational in September 1961. There were nine Atlas E missile sites under the command of the 92d Bomb Wing (later the 92d Strategic Aerospace Wing). Missile silos were located at Deer Park, Newman Lake, Rockford, Lamona, Davenport, Wilbur, Egypt, and Reardan in Washington, and at Rockford, Idaho. The Atlas missiles were soon out-dated and were removed in 1965.

The worst accident in the base's history occurred on September 10, 1962. While on approach to Fairchild, a Boeing KC-135 en route from South Dakota crashed into Mount Kit Carson, about 20 miles northeast of Spokane. The aircraft was flying in a passenger role and all 44 service members aboard died in the crash.

In 1966, the United States Air Force survival school, first established in the late 1940s, was moved to Fairchild. The school trained air crews in survival techniques to use following crashes. Later known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE), the 19-day class, still taught in 2016, included instruction in parachute landings, survival in the wilderness, psychological issues of survival, medical first aid, building shelters, gathering and cooking food, navigation, and how to behave if a prisoner. Six class days were spent in the Colville and Kaniksu National Forests learning outdoor survival skills. The remaining 13 days were spent at Fairchild, covering topics including how to behave as a prisoner and the code of conduct.

The survival school has frequently assisted the National Search and Rescue program. School instructors participate in 15 to 20 calls a year helping to locate people lost in the outdoors and save lives. The Fairchild SERE school received national attention in 1995 following the rescue of pilot Captain Scott O'Grady (b. 1965) in Bosnia. He was shot down on June 2, 1995, and survived six days eating grass and bugs and living off the land. O'Grady, a graduate of Spokane's Lewis and Clark High School, attributed his survival to the Fairchild school.

"Tanker Hub of the Northwest"

During the Vietnam War, air refueling needs increased greatly. Fairchild tankers flew refueling missions in support of the Southeast Asia air war. The tankers refueled B-52 Stratofortresses on bombing missions to Vietnam. Fairchild bombers participated in Operation Arc Light, the extensive bombing in Vietnam. They flew out of Guam. In late 1974 the Air Force converted the Washington National Guard 141st Fighter Interceptor Group into the 141st Air Refueling Wing and assigned it to Fairchild. Eight Boeing KC-135s were provided to the 141st, which remained at the base as of 2016. On March 13, 1987, a Boeing KC-135 crashed into a field near the wing headquarters on base killing seven, six on the plane and one on the ground.

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Fairchild Air Force Base air refueling provided substantial support for Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations in 1990 and 1991. Base tankers flew a heavy schedule of air refueling for the two operations to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

During 1993 and 1994, Fairchild's B-52 Stratofortresses were reassigned to other bases. The base converted to air refueling as its primary mission. On June 24, 1994, one of the last Stratofortresses at the base crashed, killing four. On July 1, 1994, the 92nd Bombardment Wing became the 92nd Air Refueling Wing. It became the largest air refueling wing in the Air Force, supporting global military missions, and the base came to be known as the "tanker hub of the Northwest" ("Fairchild ... A Brief History").

On June 20, 1994, Dean A. Mellberg (1974-1994), an airman with a history of mental problems, went on a shooting rampage with an assault rifle at the Fairchild Air Force Base hospital. He targeted the two psychologists who had recommended his discharge from the U.S. Air Force. He first killed chief of psychological services Captain Alan W. London (1954-1994) and then psychologist Major Thomas E. Brigham (1963-1994). Following their murders Mellberg randomly shot and killed two people and wounded 22. Mellberg was shot and killed by Air Force Security Police officer Andrew P. Brown (b. 1969). On June 30, 1994 President Bill Clinton (b. 1946) issued the Airmen's Medal to Brown.

As of 2016, Fairchild was home to the 92nd Air Refueling Wing and the Washington National Guard 141st Air Refueling Wing, both flying the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. In addition to air refueling, the 92d provided passenger and cargo services. Beginning in 2015, as Boeing ramped up testing flights of its new tanker, the KC-46 Pegasus, developed from the 767 jet airliner, Fairchild-based tankers had more frequent encounters in the air with their future replacement aircraft. The contract schedule called for Boeing to deliver 18 of the new tankers to the Air Force in 2017, and a total of 179 by 2027.


Robert Mueller, Air Force Bases, Vol. 1, Active Air Force Bases Within the United States of America on 17 September 1982 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, U.S. Air Force, 1982); Scott O'Grady with Jeff Coplon, Return with Honor (New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1995); Arthur F. Spaeth, "Big Depot," Flying magazine, November 1943, Vol. 33, No.5, pp. 49-50; Michael Schmeltzer, "From Fort Wright to Fairchild," in Spokane: A City For Living (Helena, Montana: American and World Geographic Publishing, 1996); "Spokane Is Awarded New Air Corps Depot," The Olympian, September 11, 1941, p. 9; "Keeps Depot," Ibid., January 10, 1946, p. 1; "Old, New Air Force Tankers Cross Paths Above Washington," Ibid., September 6, 2015, p. A-3; "First Landing," Bellingham Herald, June 9, 1943, p. 2; "Muir Fairchild, Bellingham-Born General, Passes," Ibid., March 19, 1950, p. 1; "Fairchild Base Dedicated as Big Bombers Arrive," Ibid., July 22, 1951, p. 20; "Costly Planes Salvaged by Army Air Depot," The Seattle Times, January 5, 1944, p. 12; Clark Squire, "Fairchild Air Force Base: Home of the Huge Strategic Bombers," Ibid., November 17, 1956, p. 61; "18 Missiles in State to Be Retired," Ibid., February 1, 1964, p. 22; Mike Merritt and Robert L. Jamieson Jr., "Spokane Base Hospital Becomes Killing Ground," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 21, 1994, p. A-1; "Fairchild Air Force Base: A Brief History," Fairchild Air Force Base website accessed August 30, 2016 (http://www.fairchild.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/238991/fairchild-air-force-base-a-brief-history); "History of USAF Survival Training," USAF Personal Equipment / Aircrew Life Support / Aircrew Flight Equipment Veterans and Retirees website accessed August 30, 2016 (http://usafals-afe.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/History-of-USAF-Survival-Schools.pdf); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, " Spokane County -- Thumbnail History" (by Ann M. Colford), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed September 1, 2016).

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