Ladd ARMY Airfield

A Brief History

Compiled by Mike Ferguson, COL, USAF, RET

1934 – 1939: Prelude to an Alaska Airfield

In the early 1930s, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell told Congress, “I believe, in the future, he who holds Alaska will hold the world and I think it is the most strategic place in the world.” In 1934 Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, future five-star general and commander of the Army Air Forces, led a groundbreaking flight of 10 Army bombers to Fairbanks during which he mapped airways to Alaska and scouted locations for bases.

 

The Army sent an official site selection party north in 1936 to pick a spot just east of Fairbanks along the Chena River. In testimony to Congress in 1939, Arnold, worried about holes in U.S. defenses, said, “Our people must be trained to fly up there, about the weather and the kind of clothing they must have. How to start an engine when it is 40 degrees below zero. There is going to be an awful lot to learn.”

 

In early 1939 the Congress appropriated $4 million to start building an airfield for cold weather testing in Fairbanks, Alaska. The first 14 surveyors arrived in August and construction began. World War II started one month later when Germany invaded Poland.

 

1939 – 1940: Construction

 

Airfield construction proceeded at a frantic pace through the winter of 1939-40, an unusual step in a region where it was traditional for most outdoor work to cease during the coldest months. Major Dale V. Gaffney, the first commander, named the facility Ladd Army Airfield in honor of Major Arthur K. Ladd, an aviator killed in a plane crash in South Carolina in 1935.

By summer the 5,000 foot concrete runway had been poured in addition to foundations for 12 buildings and hangars. Arnold returned in July to check on progress and was so impressed he declared the base operational to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. Ladd Army Airfield was officially born.

 

 

1940 – 1942: Cold Weather Testing

 

In October two B-17s arrived and the Cold Weather Test Detachment (CWTD) grew into its name. Soon the Detachment was testing almost every model aircraft in the Air Corps inventory: bombers such as B-17s, B-24s, and B-25s; fighters such as P-47s and P-38s; transports such as C-54s, C-46s, and C-47s and even helicopters made by Sikorsky. The Detachment also tested support equipment, ground equipment, and arctic clothing.

 

 

An example of cold weather testing that paid dividends in combat was the development of “electric underwear” that would keep aircrews warm in the unpressurized, unheated aircraft operating in the sub-artic climate of interior Alaska. Those same undergarments would later be worn by combat crews in Europe during long, freezing cold bombing raids.

 

1942 – 1945: Lend-Lease Operations

 

One of the most important aspects of the history of Ladd Field is how it played a pivotal role in a campaign by the U.S. to help the Soviet Union battle Hitler. Serving as a bridge to the Soviet Union became its most sensitive mission, one that was cloaked in secrecy for the first two years.

 

From September 1942 to September 1945, American crews delivered almost 8,000 aircraft overland from Montana through Canada to Ladd Field. A 300-man detachment of Soviet military personnel stationed at Ladd Field oversaw the transfer of the aircraft to Soviet crews who flew them via Galena and Nome to the Soviet Union where they eventually were used in the war effort against Germany. More than any other operation, the Lend-Lease activities brought international recognition and fame to Ladd Airfield and to Fairbanks, Alaska.

 

 

During this period, the airfield was substantially expanded to accommodate the heavy lend-lease operations. The main runway was extended to its present 8570-foot length; a second 7,000-foot runway was built just south of it; the north ramp area was expanded from Hangar 1 to the eastern end of the main runway; Hangars 2 and 3 were constructed in the southwest corner of the airfield with extensive ramp areas; Hangar 6 was built in the south central portion of the airfield also with an extensive ramp area; finally, the north taxiway was extended to the ends of main runway and new taxiways (South, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta and Echo) were built to tie the main elements of the airfield together.

 

 

1945 – 1947: Post War Transformation

 

The end of World War II signaled the start of the cold war era. Due to its close proximity to the Soviet land mass (both across the Bering Strait and across the North Pole latitudes), Alaska became a strategic locale for defensive and possible offensive operations against the Soviet Union.

 

Shortly after the war concluded, Ladd Field was turned over to the newly formed Alaskan Air Command’s 11 th Air Force and given the mission to prepare for operations against the Soviet Union. More significantly, Alaska became the first U.S. unified command when in 1947 the Joint Chiefs of Staff established the Alaska Command. Later in October the U.S. Army Air Forces was designated a separate service and renamed the United States Air Force. Simultaneously, Ladd Army Airfield was renamed Ladd Air Force Base (AFB) to reflect the new service.

 

1947 – 1960: The Era of Air Defense

 

Ladd AFB played an important role in the early years of the Cold War. The base became the Northern Sector headquarters for the Alaskan Air Command and its missions of air defense, strategic reconnaissance, and arctic research. The base hosted an Air Defense Command Center which monitored Soviet air movements through the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radar network. Ladd also hosted some of the first long-range strategic aerial reconnaissance units that flew B-29 photo reconnaissance, electronic intelligence, and signal intelligence sorties to gather information on Soviets capabilities. In 1953 an air defense alert facility was constructed on the southeast corner of the airfield with Taxiway 7 to give alert aircraft a high-speed entry to Runway 24L. In 1954 the 449 th Fighter Interceptor Squadron equipped with F-89 Scorpion aircraft was assigned to Ladd AFB to provide on-alert air defense capability.

 

The Army did not abandon Ladd during this era. The Army established the Yukon Command at Ladd as a subordinate of the U.S. Army Alaska (USARAL) with the mission of point defense of U.S. bases and posts in Alaska north of the Alaska Range. Consequently, infantry and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) units comprised most of the Army presence at Ladd during the 1950s. The 4 th Infantry Regiment arrived at Ladd in 1950, and the 9 th Infantry took its place in 1956. The 4 th AAA Group was stationed at Ladd until 1958. In 1959, a NIKE battalion equipped with nuclear-capable NIKE-HERCULES surface-to-air missiles took over the interior defense mission.

The limited runway length ( Chena River off both ends) prevented the Air Force from basing alert bombers at Ladd, so the runway was extended at Eielson AFB 26 miles away. Throughout the 1950s the Air Force increasingly transferred aircraft, missions, people, and equipment to Eielson and in 1960 declared they no longer needed Ladd AFB. So on 1 January 1961, the Army resumed control of the installation and renamed it Fort Wainwright in honor of Medal of Honor recipient General Jonathon Wainwright of WWII Corregidor fame.

 

1961 – 1973: The Yukon Command

 

In 1961 the Fort Wainwright Headquarters for Yukon Command housed the 1 st Battle Group, 9 th Infantry; and the 2d Missile Battalion, 562d Artillery. In 1963, the 171 st Infantry Brigade was formed as the Yukon Command’s primary combat unit. To support the ground defense mission and provide mobility to the infantry brigade, the USARAL Aviation Battalion was activated in April 1961 (later designated the 19 th Aviation Battalion) with its subordinate 12 th Aviation Company. Later, in August, the 65 th Transporta-tion Company was also assigned. The aviation battalion was equipped with HU-1 Iroquois (Huey) helicopters, the 65 th with UH-21 Shawnee (flying banana) helicopters, while the 12 th was initially equipped with U-1 fixed-wing Otters, L-19 Bird Dogs, L-20 Beavers and L-23 Seminoles. A few of the utility aircraft were on floats and operated from a segment of the Chena River just north of the airfield. In 1970 the 12 th Aviation Company became a general support unit operating U-21 Utes, OV-1 Mohawks, and UH-1 Hueys.

 

These aviation units were an integral part of troop support and training. They primarily transported troops and supplied field sites. Additional missions included fire patrol, missile range sweeps in support of NIKE live firings, weather reconnaissance and, on at least two occasions, the Mohawks with their side-looking infrared radar were used to monitor Soviet activities in the Diomede Islands area. In addition, helicopter assets were routinely used to evacuate natives from flooded villages and rescue climbers from Mt. McKinley.

 

In June 1968, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was permitted access to the airfield for basing of fire fighting aircraft and retardant mixing and loading operations. BLM initially operated from the concrete ramp just north of hangars 2 and 3, but by 1975 they were allocated approximately 115 acres on the northeast side of the airfield in addition to almost 900,000 square feet of parking ramp. While their aircraft are only on station during the summer fire potential season, the Alaska Fire Service Division of BLM is permanently housed in approximately 25 buildings on the northeast area of the airfield. Their air operations on the airfield during the summer fire season are extensive and account for a significant portion of the daily air traffic movements.

 

1964 – 1967: Humanitarian Support

 

In 1964 elements of the 12 th Aviation Company deployed south to Fort Richardson and Elmendorf AFB to assist the community of Anchorage in the aftermath of the strongest recorded earthquake in history (9.2 Richter) during which the entire downtown area was virtually destroyed. And in August 1967, Fort Wainwright and its ground and aviation assets assisted the community of Fairbanks in the aftermath of its worst recorded flood in 66 years (6.5 feet above flood stage). Military boats and aircraft rescued untold numbers of Fairbanksans from rooftops and high ground and trans-ported them to hospitals, shelters and relief centers.

 

The post, like the city, was built in the Chena River flood plain, and muddy waters from the swollen river also flooded Fort Wainwright. The airfield runways, taxiways, roadways and buildings were under water. A major problem during recovery was pumping water from miles of utilidors, large concrete underground tunnels containing utility lines and steam pipes.

1973 – 1986: Global Reach

 

In June 1973 the 222 nd Aviation Battalion was transferred from Vietnam to Fort Wainwright to support the 172 nd Separate Infantry Brigade (SIB) which was constituted for global deployment as an Initial Expedi-tionary Force (IEF). The 222 nd was, at the time, the largest and most diverse aviation battalion in the Army. It was comprised of a CH-47 Chinook Company, a CH-54 Skycrane Company, and an OV-1 Mohawk MI Company. Later Troop E (Air), 1 st Cavalry, was added with AH-1 Cobras and OH-58 Kiowas to provide brigade reconnaissance and security, and UH-l Hueys for medical evacuation and general support.

 

During the period 1974-79, Fort Wainwright became a management center for the Alaska pipeline construction project: an 800-mile long, 48-inch diameter steel pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Surplus buildings on the North Post of Fort Wainwright were converted into construction headquarters for the interior portion of the pipeline project. More than 500 project management personnel worked there and lived in Fairbanks. In addition, a construction camp was located on Fort Wainwright which housed 1,164 workers.

 

In 1984, the airfield and its early hangars and buildings were declared a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior. Even though it was named Wainwright Army Airfield at the time, it was entered into the National Historic Register as Ladd Field in recognition mostly of its role in the WWII Russian Lend-Lease operation.

 

1986 – 1994: The 6 th Infantry Division

 

In March 1986, the 172 nd Infantry Brigade was deactivated and replaced by the 6 th Infantry Division (Light). One month later in April, the 222 nd Aviation Battalion was deactivated and replaced by the 6 th Combat Aviation Brigade. The Division’s mission was to prepare to deploy rapidly worldwide in support of U.S. national objectives and to defend Alaska

 

The 6 th Aviation Brigade was based on Wainwright Army Airfield and consisted of three subordinate units: 4 th Battalion, 123 Aviation Regiment (4-123); 4 th Squadron, 9 th Cavalry (4/9); and a roundout attack battalion (1/3 CAV) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was tasked to augment in case of Brigade deployment. At its peak, the Brigade had over 80 aircraft assigned including UH-1 Hueys, CH-47 Chinooks, AH-1 Cobras, OH-58 Kiowas and the Army’s newest UH-60 Blackhawks. The Brigade’s heavy lift CH-47s and general support UH-1s were additionally tasked to support the Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) mission to detect, locate, and classify underground nuclear tests in the Asian Far East. The Chinooks and Hueys provided logistics support to the RIGs (Radio-Isotope Generators) and the sensitive, deep seismographs that were deployed in the vicinity of Burnt Mountain (north of Fort Yukon). The mission was declassified after it became a United Nations treaty compliance issue.

 

1994 – 2003: Army Transformation

 

In 1994 the Army began its transformation from cold war heavy forces designed to counter Soviet and Soviet-sponsored excursions in Europe to lighter, more mobile forces designed to counter conventional and unconventional threats worldwide. The transformation resulted in the July 1994 deactivation of the 6 th ID (L) and its attendant Aviation Brigade. The Division was replaced by the United States Army Alaska (USARAK) headquartered at Fort Richardson with the subordinate 172 nd Infantry Brigade (Separate) headquartered at Fort Wainwright.

 

The downsizing to a Brigade level infantry force resulted in the deactivation of the 6 th Aviation Brigade which was replaced by the 4 th Battalion, 123 rd Aviation Regiment (4-123). The 4/9 th CAV was deactivated and the AH-1 Cobra and OH-58 attack aircraft were transferred out. The 4-123 was constituted with five companies: a Headquarters Company, Alpha Company (Renegades) with UH-60 Blackhawks; Bravo Company (Sugar Bears) with CH-47 Chinooks; Charlie Company (Old Dukes) Intermediate Mainte-nance; and the 68 th Medical Company (Dustoff) with UH-60 Blackhawks.

 

The capabilities of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter brought the Bravo Company Sugar Bears a unique mission of high altitude rescue on Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet the highest mountain in North America. The Company’s High Altitude Rescue Team (HART) holds the world altitude record for rescue hoist operations at 18,200 feet and has conducted landings in support of rescue operations at 19,600 feet.

 

2003 – 2006: Strykers and Combat

 

In May 2003 the 172 nd Infantry Brigade (Separate) was redesignated the 172 nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) becoming the third of six brigades to be equipped with the Army’s latest mechanized vehicle, the 19-ton, 8-wheel Interim Armored Vehicle (IAV) named the Stryker after a Medal of Honor recipient.

 

The 4 th Battalion, 123 rd Aviation Regiment (4-123) continued to be the aviation support element for the brigade, but in November 2004 it was deployed autonomously to conduct combat air support operations in IRAQ. Elements of its 68 th Medical Evacuation Company were also deployed to Afghanistan to support combat operations there. In August 2005, the 172 nd SBCT deployed to IRAQ.

 

In a move toward transformation to modular general support aviation battalions (GSAB), elements of the 1 st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment

(1-52) were transferred from Korea and activated on Fort Wainwright in June 2005. The 4-123 returned from IRAQ in November 2005 and was deactivated in February 2006. Its assets were folded into 1-52. Headquarters 49 th Aviation Task Force was activated that same day in anticipation of the addition of a cavalry squadron to Fort Wainwright which occurred in July 2006 when the 6 th Squadron, 17 th Cavalry (6/17) was activated with OH-58 Kiowa attack helicopters. At this writing, the 49 th Task Force, with two subordinate battalion equivalents and approximately 34 aircraft (CH-47, UH-60, OH-58) forms the foundation of a future Brigade-size aviation force.

 

In May 2006, the Commander U.S. Garrison Alaska approved the renaming of the airfield Ladd Army Airfield reinstating its historic legacy.

 

December 2006 ended with the return of the 172 nd SBCT after a 16-month combat tour of duty in IRAQ (the Brigade was extended four months and transferred to Baghdad to help quell rampant sectarian violence in the capital city). Upon its return, the 172 nd was redesignated the 1 st SBCT, 25 th Infantry Division. So 2006 ended with all combat and combat support elements of Fort Wainwright back in garrison albeit with new designations.