Wednesday, October 07, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Anniversary for air base

The Leader’s special section in today’s newspaper commemorating the 60th anniversary of Little Rock Air Force Base tells the history, mostly in photos, of one of the premier military installations in the country.

Back in the early 1950s, the community raised $1,180,000 ($10.5 million in today’s dollars) to buy 6,100 acres of land in Jacksonville and donated it to the military, which spent $48 million (worth $425 million today) to build the air base. Land was also donated by the Nixon, Dupree and Thompson families and others.

Missions have ranged from Strategic Air Command to missile wings, from training units to combat airlift, yet the overall mission remains the same: Protecting our nation and our allies, going back to the darkest days of the Cold War, from the Cuban missile crisis to the war on terror, while carrying out humanitarian missions throughout the world.

As Jim Peacock, a local realtor who has seen the base since its earliest days, said in our special section, the city went from a “small town to a flourishing town.”

“People were excited. It was kind of like a dream come true, getting the base...A lot of people didn’t believe it would happen,” he added.

Banker Larry Wilson pointed out that, when the base officially opened on Oct. 9, 1955, “There was not enough housing on base to provide places for the military personnel to live, and so it generated a housing boom in Jacksonville that went on for several years.”

Even after base housing was built in the late 1950s, he said, quite a few airmen chose to live off base.

Reflecting on the continued importance of our base, the Air Force has ordered three major construction projects worth $133.6 million.

They include rebuilding a 50-year-old runway and adjacent landing strip. Sundt Construction of Tempe, Ariz., is the contractor for a new 12,000-foot runway. In addition, the construction of a fifth C-130J simulator is underway as the 19th Airlift Wing transitions to an all C-130J combat unit and the wing continues its combat missions in Asia and Africa in the war against al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.

The base has four C-130J simulators, and an annex to house a fifth one is due for completion by November. Alessi-Keyes Construction of Maumelle is the contractor, and the cost of the project is $4,218,503.

The base has several aircraft and a dozen crews deployed in Afghanistan, as well as one plane and two crews flying in support of the Combined Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa, supporting that operation against violent extremist groups in east Africa. Two missions have been flying out of central Europe to respond to nearby trouble spots.

To keep the planes flying, they need fuel to stay in the air. The new C-130 fuel-cell building project is also being completed. The team of more than 80 enlisted airmen works three shifts around the clock to get the job done.

The original awarded amount in June 2013 was $20,869,000, but the scope of work increased. The new facility replaces Hangar 222, a 1950s-era building that was not designed for the C-130.

The missions and planes have changed, but the target remains the same: Protecting freedom wherever necessary. As Col. Charles E. Brown Jr. said recently, “We’ve shown we can work with partners and share infrastructure. We’ve spent 60 years here, and the Air Force has continued to invest in missions into this base. They’re all different, but they’ve found value, despite all the shifts in missions.”

“The C-130J,” he added, “will probably be here 30 to 40 more years, but we’ve done 60 years here. There aren’t too many bases that could say the same thing, and the Air Force has continued repeatedly to invest missions into this base.”

Here’s hoping that, 60 years from now, there will be other youngsters like Jim Peacock and Larry Wilson reminiscing about the good old days at the air base back in 2015.

Long may it continue.