The former Williams Air Force Base played a strategic role in America's aviation history. Over a span of 52 years, more than 26,500 men and women earned their wings at Williams.
Located in Mesa, Arizona about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix, Williams opened in December1941 and was initially named the Mesa Military Airport. In February 1942, the growing military airfield's name changed to Williams Field in honor of Arizona native 1st Lt Charles Linton Williams (1898-1927). Lieutenant Williams died on July 6, 1927 when his Boeing PW-9A pursuit aircraft crashed near Fort DeRussy, Hawaii.
Williams was active as a training base for both the United States Army Air Forces (AAF), as well as the United States Air Force (USAF) from 1941 until its closure in 1993. The leading pilot training facility of the USAF, 25 percent of all pilots were trained at Williams.
World War II
During World War II, Williams Field was under the command of the 89th Army Air Force Base Unit, AAF West Coast Training Center. The flying organization was the 38th (Bombardier and Specialized Twin- and 4-Engine) Flying Training Wing. While twin-engine training would ultimately turn out thousands of P-38 Lightning pilots, they learned their twin-engine flying skills on the Beech AT-10 Wichita at Williams.
By July 1942, there were 79 wooden AT-10s assigned to the field, but the hot, dry Arizona climate tended to dry out the wood and glue of the planes. Tragically, this lead to the death of at least 10 flying cadets in crashes. Training with the AT-10 was stopped and the aircraft were moved to more humid locations. At Williams, they were replaced by the Cessna AT-17 Bobcat twin engine trainers; however the AT-17 was seen as "too easy to fly" and was replaced by the more demanding Curtiss-Wright AT-9. By January 1943, almost 200 AT-9s were at the airfield.
The RP-322 training version of the P-38 began to arrive in early 1944, and by May, the flying school was involved in four courses of instruction. By far, the largest course was a single-engine advanced course in which cadets received instruction on the AT-6 Texan. Graduates advanced to the twin-engine AT-9, then on to the RP-322. This training was intended to prepare pilots for photo-reconnaissance missions. Another course was given to experienced pilots transitioning to twin-engine aircraft, also in the RP-322. Later, a night fighter training program was established for pilots on the RP-322 for later transition to the P-61 Black Widow at Hammer Field, California.
By late 1944, there was an ample supply of twin-engine pilots in training and by late 1944 the single-engine T-6 training was discontinued. Williams then began to offer four-engine training with B-17 Flying Fortress bombers in December to experienced pilots transitioning to the large four-engine bomber. The B-17 pilot training ended in April 1945, graduating 608 officers for the Flying Fortress program.
The training mission of the base also conducted flexible gunnery training and radar observer training.
After the United States entered the war, the Army Air Forces also developed a pilot training program for the Chinese Air Force. The Air Corps conducted most of the training for the Chinese at Luke, Williams, and Thunderbird Fields in Arizona.
Training the Chinese presented some special challenges. Because of their small stature, some students could not reach all the controls. That problem was usually solved through the use of extra cushions and occasionally by switching them to another type of airplane. A bigger problem was the language barrier. It took all the interpreters the Air Force could muster to support the training programs for the Chinese. In the end, 3,553 Chinese received flying and technical training, including 866 pilots.
Post World War II Era
Following the end of World War II, most of the temporary training bases with temporary wooden structures were put on inactive status and eventually closed. However, Williams was an exception and remained open after World War II.
In early 1945, the first P-80 Shooting Star jet pilot school opened at Williams. Army Air Forces Training Command was re-designated as Air Training Command in 1946 and all flight instruction was integrated into a new consolidated program. The P-80 jet fighter pilot transition and fighter gunnery schools at Williams Field remained; however, the gunnery school existed only to fulfill research obligations.
Fighter gunnery training was reestablished in early 1947. The new program studied the use of fighter gunnery, bombing and rocketry equipment. Students flew P-51 Mustangs, P-47 Thunderbolts and beginning at midyear, P-80 Shooting Stars. The gunnery school was again discontinued in 1948 and moved to Las Vegas AFB in Nevada.
With the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the success of Operation Desert Storm, "Global Reach-Global Power" became the blueprint to organize, train, and equip the Air Force to confront the challenges of a fast-changing world. As a result, the ATC announced the closure of four training bases, including Williams, under the 1991 Base Realignment and Closure Act.
The 4,043-acre (16.36 km2) Williams Air Force Base officially closed on September 30, 1993. Interestingly, two men, who as Boy Scouts in 1941 had raised the first flag at Williams Field when it officially opened, were there to officially lower the flag at its closing 50 years later.
The state and communities began work immediately to redevelop the base after the announcement of closure in 1991. Upon closing, William was transferred to the Air Force Base Conversion Agency (AFBCA). AFBCA assumed responsibilities for the restoration and reuse of the base and worked with the Williams's redevelopment partnership to maximize reuse. Today, Williams continues the serve the Phoenix area as a growing industrial park, a commercial airport, and a higher education campus.