Maxwell Air Force Base and the 42nd Air Base Wing through the Years

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert B. Kane, AU Director of History
Maxwell Air Force Base is one of the most historic Air Force bases that is still in active status.  Its history spans over a century of aviation in Central Alabama from the Wright Brothers to today.  Since April 1918, a 100 years ago, when the “Air Force” presence began as Aircraft and Engine Depot #3, the base has provided a significant and growing presence in Central Alabama, greatly contributing to the national defense of the United States.

Maxwell’s history began with the Wright Brothers and the dawn of flight in the United States.  In 1910, the Wright Brothers sought to promote the sale of their airplanes.  After evaluating sites in Florida, Wilbur visited Montgomery, Alabama. In February, the Wright Brothers decided to open their civilian flying school, the first in the United States, on an abandoned cotton plantation near Montgomery.  Unfortunately, because of unseasonably high winds in the spring of 1910 and the time needed to obtain spare parts from their workshop in Dayton, Ohio, the Wright Brothers closed their school in early May after only ten weeks of operations.

In april 1918, a year after the United States declared war on Germany, the War Department established Aircraft and Engine Repair Depot #3 on the site of the former Wright Brothers flying school.  After the war ended, the War Department gradually curtailed depot operations until early 1919.  In 1921, US Congressman Joseph Lister Hill from Alabama convinced the War Department to assign the 22d (later Observation) Squadron to the installation, giving the installation a semi-permanent status.

On November 8, 1922, the War Department renamed the installation Maxwell Field in honor of 2nd Lieutenant William C. Maxwell.  A native of Natchez, Alabama, Lieutenant Maxwell died on August 12, 1920 in the Philippines when his DH-4 aircraft struck a flagpole after swerving to avoid striking a group of children at play.

During the 1920s, Maxwell Field aircraft participated in a number of significant nonmilitary activities.  For example, Maxwell Field provided two planes, two pilots, and a mechanic to help a civilian company develop the concept of aerial crop dusting.  Airplanes from the 22 Observation Squadron also helped establish an airmail route between the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes area which led to the foundation of a permanent airmail service.

Between March 14 and 20, 1929, Maxwell pilots delivered relief supplies to thousands of victims of severe flooding from torrential rains in south Alabama.  This operation marked the first major operation in which US military aircraft provided relief supplies in a major civilian emergency.  Today, Maxwell Air Force continues this precedent of responding to natural disasters in the Southeast United States as a staging area for trailers of relief supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and as an evacuation center for the residents of military installations in the region.

In 1928, the War Department announced the relocation of the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) from Langley Field to Maxwell.  This ushered in an era of construction which included housing, educational buildings, recreational facilities, hangars, and administration buildings.  In the 1930s, students and faculty developed the basic tenets of high altitude, daylight precision bombing, operationalized in the strategic bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan in World War II.  By the end of that war, over two-thirds of the US Army Air Forces general officers had once been students of this school.

With the formation of war clouds in Europe and the Far East by 1940, the War Department temporarily suspended the ACTS classes in June 1940 (and then closed the school in October 1942).  On July 8, 1940, the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps established the Southeast Air Corps Training Center (Army Air Forces Eastern Flying Training Command on July 21, 1943), headquartered at Maxwell Field.  The training center oversaw over 100 flight schools throughout the Southeast and Midwest United States and graduated over 100,000 American and Allied aircrew members by the end of World War II.

The end of World War II produced another significant mission change for Maxwell Field (Maxwell Air Force Base after September 1947).  On March 12, 1946, the Army Air Forces (AAF) renamed the AAF School, recently moved from Orlando, Florida, to Maxwell, as Air University.  Since then, Air University had become the Air Force’s postgraduate academic center for professional officer and enlisted military education, professional continuing education, and professional specialized education.  In addition, Air University manages three of the Air Force’s officer accessions programs, including the largest and oldest program, the Air Force Reserve Officer’s Training Corps.

The growth of Air University has meant a commensurate growth in the facilities, information technology, and support functions of Maxwell AFB and its installation host unit.  The first major project for the installation was the construction of an academic campus for Air University’s major schools from 1950 to 1954.  Over the many decades since the end of World War II, Maxwell had grown through the construction of new facilities and the renovation of other facilities for new purposes.  At the same time, it has demolished older, hard-to-maintain facilities to lower overall maintenance and energy costs.

Currently, the 42nd Air Base Wing (ABW) provides the support functions and infrastructure for Air University and a host of other tenant units.  The history of the 42 ABW begins with the 42nd Bombardment Group, Medium, which flew B-25 Mitchell medium bombers in the Southwest Pacific Area of Operations during World War II.

In February 1953, the Air Force activated the 42d Bombardment Wing, Heavy, at Loring AFB, Maine.  The wing first flew B-36 Peacemaker bombers and KC-97 aerial refueling tanker aircraft.  By 1957, the wing at transitioned to B-25 Stratofortresses and KC-135 Stratotankers.  The wing contributed to the nuclear deterrence mission during the Cold War, participated in Operations Arc Light, Linebacker I, and Linebacker II during the Vietnam War, and flew missions during the Persian Gulf War, January-February 1991.  The Air Force inactivated the wing and closed Loring AFB on September 30, 1994.  However, to maintain the long and distinguished heritage of the wing, it move reactivated the wing and renamed it the 42nd Air Base Wing at Maxwell AFB on October 1, 1994.

The 42nd ABW today provides personnel, financial, civil engineering, information technology, and police and fire protection services to numerous organizations, besides Air University, such as the 908th Airlift Wing (Air Force Reserve Command), the National Headquarters of the Civil Air Patrol, and the Business Enterprise System Directorate, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (Air Force Materiel Command).

The wing supports more than 25,000 active duty, reserve, civilian and contractor personnel; students; family members, and military retirees and maintains over 4,100 acres of land and 859 buildings, including nearby Gunter Annex.  The wing contributes a total of nearly $708 million of economic impact (indirect jobs created, annual base payroll, and annual contracts) in the Central Alabama region.