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Kelly Air Force Base was established in 1916, the first military air base in Texas. Used as a military depot and for Air Force training, there was increased emphasis on depot-level maintenance post-World War II. At its peak, the base employed approximately 30,000 and was the largest industrial complex in South Texas.
Kelly Air Force Base traces its beginnings to 1916, when Maj. Benjamin Foulois selected the site near San Antonio, Texas, for a new aviation field. One of the oldest facilities in the U.S. Air Force, the South San Antonio Aviation Camp opened March 27, 1917, as one of the initial World War I Army Air Service installations. During the war, it served as a school for pilots, supply officers, engineers and mechanics, and as an aviation general supply depot.
In June 1917, it became Camp Kelly, then Kelly Field, in honor of George E. M. Kelly, who crashed while attempting to land an aircraft at nearby Fort Sam Houston on May 1, 1911.
Between World Wars
At the end of World War I, the Army Air Service, along with the rest of the Army, faced crucial reductions. Hundreds of small flying fields closed, forcing consolidation of supply and aviation repair depots. Kelly, however, was one of the few that remained open. In 1921, the aviation repair depot in Dallas moved to Kelly to join with the supply depot, forming the San Antonio Intermediate Air Depot.
The 10th School Group (later the Advanced Flying Training Wing and the Advanced Flying School) was formed at Kelly Field Number 2 in 1922. There, student pilots mastered the advanced skills of pursuit, bombardment, attack and observation. Most of Army aviators trained between the two World Wars attended this school. Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, graduated from the Advanced Flying School in 1925. Other graduates included former Air Force Chiefs of Staff Gens. Thomas D. White, Curtis E. LeMay, John P. McConnell, Hoyt Vandenberg and John Dale Ryan. Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault of World War II "Flying Tiger" fame taught at the school.
World War II
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the need for more pilots, bombardiers and navigators resulted in the rapid expansion of the U.S. Army's air arm and the Advanced Flying School. Night flying was added to the school program and training time doubled. Between January 1939 and March 1943, more than 6,800 men graduated from Kelly's Advanced Flying School and approximately 1,700 additional pilots graduated from various other courses in the Instructor's School. To house the rapidly growing pilot trainee population, a "tent city" sprang up as it had in World War I.
By the summer of 1942, congestion caused by the close proximity of four flying fields - Duncan, Kelly, Brooks and Stinson - had become dangerous. Consequently, in March 1943, Kelly and Duncan were merged under the name of Kelly Field. Kelly Field's primary functions became that of maintenance and supply. This was a major change in mission for Kelly as flight training moved elsewhere.
This new mission turned the base into a huge industrial complex. A new organization, the San Antonio Air Service Command, managed the increased supply and maintenance workload. Kelly's maintenance shops worked on thousands of Army aircraft, including B-17s, B-25s, B-29s, P-51s and the C-47 cargo plane. Rapid production lines established a rate of overhaul on accessories, bombsights, guns and electrical equipment that set records for both military and commercial repair agencies.
By 1944, Kelly's workforce had grown tremendously. In 1939, old Duncan Field had 1,100 civilian employees and only 10 military personnel. By 1945, more than 15,000 civilians and 16,000 military personnel worked at Kelly. During World War II, nearly 40 percent of the workers at the field were women. "Kelly Katies" were the Kelly counterparts to "Rosie the Riveters," women everywhere who did non-traditional work, contributing greatly to the successful war effort. They worked in nearly every shop at Kelly, including engine overhaul.
Post World War II Era
When World War II ended in August 1945, America demobilized as rapidly as it had after the First World War. More than 3,000 Kelly civilians resigned or retired within weeks of V-J Day. Nevertheless, more and more AT-6, P-51 and B-29 aircraft came to Kelly for maintenance and storage. Disposal and aircraft storage programs took up more and more of Kelly's time and space. Kelly's maintenance workers stopped repairing heavy bombers and began supporting the occupational forces in Europe and Japan with air transportation, communications and weather systems. In 1946, the San Antonio Air Technical Services Command became the San Antonio Air Materiel Area.
In July 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act, which, among other things, created an independent U.S. Air Force. In January 1948, Kelly Field became Kelly Air Force Base.
The Korean War
The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 found Kelly once again responding almost overnight. The Kelly maintenance line went into full-steam production to recondition B-29s for overseas service. Work continued into the night by use of special outdoor lighting. The aircraft production line earned the nickname of the "Great White Way" as the glow of lights reflected on the aluminum skin of the bombers and lit up the evening sky. When the fighting subsided in Korea in July 1953, Kelly workers had once again proven their commitment to meet whatever challenges faced them.
The Vietnam War
Kelly's workload remained relatively stable until the mid-1960s, when American efforts to prevent the fall of the South Vietnamese government led to direct American involvement. Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, all air materiel areas began supporting Southeast Asia on a 24-hour basis. For the next 11 years, Kelly employees were deeply involved in supplying parts and expertise for the conflict in Southeast Asia, working both within the United States and overseas. The C-5A Galaxy, the world's largest aircraft, entered the Air Force inventory on Oct. 8, 1965. San Antonio Air Materiel Area had both management and repair responsibility for the giant transport and its TF-39 engine.
In 1974, San Antonio Air Materiel Area changed its name to the San Antonio Air Logistics Center, but the dedication and support to the Air Force mission remained the same. The F-100 engine became a major workload for Kelly in the late 1970s as F-16s and F-15s entered the Air Force inventory in increasing numbers.
With the transfer of B-52 repair and overhaul to Oklahoma City in 1993, Kelly's workers shifted their attention to keeping the T-38 jet trainers of Air Education and Training Command ready to fly. This workload moved to Kelly in the spring of 1993.
Kelly's involvement in the space program
In August of 1962, SAAMA "loaned" NASA six aircraft (two F-102s, two TF-102s and two T-33s) so the astronauts at the Houston Manned Spaceflight Center could maintain their flying proficiency. Two years later, Directorate of Maintenance workers built three Apollo capsule trainers for NASA. Kelly's Directorate of Aerospace Fuels has also supplied NASA with the required liquid propellants from the very beginning of the Space Administration's push into space.
On Nov. 16, 1973, the Directorate of Aerospace Fuels provided propellants support to the last of the Skylab space program launches. In March 1979, the space shuttle "Columbia" perched atop a Boeing 747 arrived at Kelly Air Force Base for the first time for a refueling stop on its way to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This was Kelly's most dramatic and visible participation in support of the space program.
In 1995, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission announced that Kelly AFB would be closed and the logistics work would be consolidated with other Air Force depots. Kelly officially closed in 2001. The runway and land west of the runway became "Kelly Field Annex" and was transferred to the adjacent Lackland AFB, part of Joint Base San Antonio. The base is under the jurisdiction of the 802nd Mission Support Group, Air Education and Training Command.
The remaining 1,873 acres (7.58 km²) of land have been transferred to Port San Antonio, which has transformed the former base into a thriving multi-purpose facility serving as an aerospace complex, an industrial hub and a residential center with more than 14,000 people working at the more than 70 businesses at the Port.
In 2010, Port San Antonio was twice hailed as a national example of successful redevelopment. The Association of Defense Communities named Port San Antonio the Base Redevelopment Community of the Year and the International Economic Development Council presented the port with its 2010 Real Estate Redevelopment & Reuse Award.
AFCEC Public Affairs
Public Information Line:
Documents available electronically or
San Antonio Central Library
600 North Soledad,
San Antonio, TX 78205
Local Redevelopment Authority
Port Authority of San Antonio
907 Billy Mitchell Blvd.
San Antonio, TX
Phone: (210) 362-7800