Luke Air Force Base History
In 1940, the U.S. Army sent a representative to Arizona to choose a site for an Army Air Corps training field for advanced training in conventional fighter aircraft.
The city of Phoenix bought 1,440 acres of land that they leased to the government at $1 a year effective March 24, 1941. On March 29, 1941, the Del E. Webb Construction Co. began excavation for the first building at what was known then as Litchfield Park Air Base.
Another base known as Luke Field, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, released its name when that base was transferred to the Navy in June 1941, and the fledgling Arizona base was called Luke Field at the request of its first commander, Lt. Col. Ennis C. Whitehead, who went on to become a lieutenant general as commander of Air Defense Command in 1950.
The first class of 45 students, Class 41 F, arrived June 6, 1941, to begin advanced flight training in the AT-6, although only a few essential buildings had been completed. Flying out of Sky Harbor Airport until the Luke runways were ready, pilots received 10 weeks of instruction and the first class graduated Aug. 15, 1941. Capt. Barry Goldwater served as the director of ground training the following year.
During World War II, Luke was the largest fighter training base in the Army Air Forces, graduating more than 17,000 fighter pilots from advanced and operational courses in the AT-6, P-40, P-51 and P-38. By Feb. 7, 1944, pilots at Luke had achieved a million hours of flying time. By 1946, however, the number of pilots trained dropped to 299 and the base was deactivated Nov. 30 of that year.
Soon after combat developed in Korea, Luke Field was reactivated Feb. 1, 1951, as Luke Air Force Base, part of Air Training Command under the reorganized U.S. Air Force.
Air Force students trained in the P-51 Mustang and F-84 Thunderjet. Flight training at Luke changed to the F-100, and on July 1, 1958, the base was transferred from Air Training Command to Tactical Air Command.
Luke continued its tradition of providing fighter training for allied nations when an F-104 program for German air force pilots and a program in the F-5 for pilots from other nations began in 1964.
In the 1960s, thousands of American fighter pilots left Luke to carve their niche in the annals of Air Force history in the skies over Vietnam. In July 1971, the base received the F-4C Phantom II and assumed its role as the main provider of fighter pilots for Tactical Air Command and fighter forces worldwide.
In November 1974, the Air Force’s newest air superiority fighter, the F-15 Eagle, came to Luke. It was joined in December 1982 by the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Luke’s fighter pilots began training in the new F-16 aircraft Feb. 2, 1983.
Luke units continued to set the pace for the Air Force. The 58th TTW had two squadrons — the 312th and 314th Tactical Fighter Training squadrons — conducting training in the newest C and D models of the Fighting Falcon.
The 405th TTW received the first E model of the F-15 Eagle in 1988 and two of its squadrons — the 461st and 550th — began training in this dual-role fighter.
In July 1987, the reserve function at Luke changed when the 302nd Special Operations Squadron deactivated its helicopter function and the 944th Tactical Fighter Group was activated to fly the F-16C/D.
The early 1990s brought significant changes to the base. As a result of defense realignments, the 312th, 426th and 550th Tactical Fighter Training squadrons and later the 555th Fighter Squadron were inactivated, as were the 832nd Air Division and the 405th TTW. The F-15A and B models were transferred out, and the 58th TTW, being the senior wing at Luke, was redesignated the 58th Fighter Wing and once again became the host unit at Luke.
56th Fighter Wing Established At Luke To Preserve AF Legacy
In April 1994, after 24 years at Luke, the 58th Fighter Wing was replaced by the 56th as part of the Air Force Heritage program. Air Force officials established the program to preserve Air Force legacy and history during a time of military drawdown. The 56th Fighter Wing was one of the most highly decorated units in Air Force history, and it was named to remain part of the active fighter force while the 58th was reassigned as a special operations wing to Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. Units flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon are the 308th, 309th, 310th, 425th, 62nd and 21st Fighter squadrons.
Luke’s 56th Fighter Wing was first activated Jan. 15, 1941, as the 56th Pursuit Group, in Savannah, Georgia. Its earlier history was marked by frequent moves, the first to North Carolina in May 1941 and then to New York in 1942. Using P-39 and P-40 aircraft, the unit flew air defense patrol until June 1942, when the group became the first to train with and fly the P-47 Thunderbolt.
The 56th left for England on Jan. 6, 1943. During the following two years, pilots of the 56th shot down more enemy planes and listed more aces than any other Army Air Force group in the 8th Air Force, including the top two aces in Europe. By the war’s end, the 56th’s motto — “Cave Tonitrum,” meaning “Beware the Thunderbolt” — was highly respected by the Allies and their enemies alike.
On Oct. 18, 1945, the unit was inactivated. It was reactivated May 1, 1946, at Selfridge Field, Michigan, as part of the Strategic Air Command’s 15th Air Force. It included the 61st, 62nd and 63rd Fighter squadrons. As part of a restructuring, the 56th Fighter Wing was activated Aug. 15, 1947, and the 56th Fighter Group was assigned to the new wing.
In July and August 1948, a major operation of the 56th involved 16 of the wing’s F-80s. The flight proceeded to Furstenfeldbruck, Germany, by way of Maine, Labrador, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland. Although the operation was not connected with the Berlin Airlift, which was in progress, it did focus world attention on the U.S. Air Force’s ability to rapidly deploy jet fighters during a crisis.
The wing was transferred from Strategic Air Command to the Continental Air Command’s 10th Air Force on Dec. 1, 1948, and the mission of the wing’s tactical units was shifted to air defense. The unit was redesignated as the 56th Fighter Interceptor Wing on Jan. 20, 1950. Its 61st, 62nd and 63rd Fighter Interceptor squadrons converted from the F-80 Shooting Star to the F-86 Sabre jet in April 1950.
The wing, with the exception of its tactical squadrons, was inactivated Feb. 6, 1952. The tactical squadrons were reassigned to new air defense wings as part of a general reorganization of the Air Defense Command.
Almost nine years later, having been redesignated the 56th Fighter Wing (Air Defense), the wing was reactivated at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Michigan, again with an air defense mission. The wing controlled a single tactical unit, the 62nd FIS, flying the F-101 Voodoo.
From Feb. 1, 1961, to Oct. 1, 1963, the 56th was part of the Sault Sainte Marie Air Defense Sector. From Oct. 1, 1963, to Jan. 1, 1964, the wing was an important part of the Duluth Air Defense Sector. Under both sectors, the 56th participated in many ADC exercises, tactical evaluations and other air defense operations. The single tactical squadron was placed directly under Duluth Air Defense Sector on Dec. 16, 1963, leaving the wing without a tactical mission. On Jan. 1, 1964, the 56th was assigned to SAC and inactivated.
Slightly more than three years later, the wing was once again activated, this time at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. The unit was designated the 56th Air Commando Wing and had a complex combat mission in the war then raging in Southeast Asia. Assigned to 13th Air Force, the 56th received operational direction from 7th Air Force in Saigon. The combat and support operations of the wing in Southeast Asia were numerous and varied. Until Aug. 1, 1968, the wing operated as an air commando organization. From Aug. 1, 1968, to June 30, 1975, the 56th was designated a special operations wing.
Special missions were the rule rather than the exception during the entire period of the wing’s stay in Thailand. It strongly supported the Southeast Asia conflict in a wide variety of specialized as well as general operations, directly carrying the fight to the enemy. The wing and its units participated in every military campaign beginning with the Vietnam Air Offensive, Phase II. The wing’s headquarters earned unit awards with the combat “V” device and Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm. Individual units of the 56th shared in some of these awards as well as earning others on their own.
On June 30, 1975, the 56th U.S. Air Force Hospital and 56th Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, two of the wing’s subordinate units, were inactivated. The wing itself, together with its supply and transportation squadrons and its combat support group (the latter containing its security police and civil engineering squadrons) moved without personnel or equipment to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. The wing was redesignated the 56th Tactical Fighter Wing and assigned to Tactical Air Command’s 9th Air Force.
The 56th replaced the 1st TFW, and several newly activated units bearing the “56th” designation replaced similar units bearing the “1st” designation. The inactive 61st FS and 62nd FS were redesignated as tactical fighter squadrons and the 63rd Fighter Interceptor Training Squadron was moved without personnel or equipment from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, redesignated as a tactical fighter squadron and assigned to the 56thTFW. Finally, the 4501st Tactical Fighter Replacement Squadron, later redesignated the 13th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, and the U.S. Air Force Regional Hospital, MacDill, were redesignated from the 1st to the 56th TFW.
On Oct. 1, 1981, the 56th had its designation changed once again. The wing changed from a tactical fighter wing to a tactical training wing. This designation was brought about because of the conversion from the F-4D Phantom II to the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The transition process began in November 1979 and was completed in June 1982.
With the change in the wing’s designation, each of its squadrons also had name changes. The 61st, 62nd and 63rd became tactical fighter training squadrons and the 13th was inactivated July 1, 1982. The 72nd TFTS was activated on the same day and was one of the four squadrons of the 56th.
June 27, 1988, marked another transition for the 56th. The wing began its conversion from the F-16A/B models to the updated F-16C/Ds. That was followed by another reorganization that saw the 56th redesignated as a fighter wing Oct. 1, 1991. Its flying units once again became fighter squadrons.
With the F-16C/Ds, the 56th remains the primary F-16 aircrew and maintenance training wing in the Air Force. The 56th was reassigned to Luke Air Force Base on April 1, 1994. Under the 56th Fighter Wing, which retains its F-16C/D training mission, are the 21st, 62nd, 308th, 309th, 310th and 425th Fighter squadrons, along with the 56th Operations Support Squadron, 56th Training Squadron, 56th Operations Group, Det. 1 in Tucson, and Operating Location A at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Luke Air Force Base Named For 1st Aviator Medal Of Honor Recipient
Luke Air Force Base is named for the first aviator to be awarded the Medal of Honor — 2nd Lt. Frank Luke Jr. Born in Phoenix in 1897, the “Arizona Balloon Buster” scored 18 aerial victories during World War I (14 of these were German observation balloons) in the skies over France before being killed, at age 21, on Sept. 29, 1918.
For several months, his grave was marked with a wooden cross that read, “Unknown American Aviator.” To the French people of Murvaux, France, who were eyewitnesses to his last flight and who buried him with what honors the Germans would permit, this unknown was the hero of the war.
These bits of evidence from various sources, when pieced together, led to the identification of this aviator. The cross over his grave now bears the inscription “2nd Lieut. Frank Luke, Jr., Pilot, 27th Aero Squadron; 18 victories. Killed in action Sept. 29, 1918.” The young lieutenant’s record and details of his last flight disclose a story as inspiring as any ever to stir admiration, and a death in action as valiant as anyone’s to ever earn a country’s highest award.
His story starts in Phoenix on May 19, 1897. Luke grew up in the desert and was known as one of the best athletes at Phoenix Union High School. He was captain of the track team and a member of the basketball and football teams.
Soon after the U.S. entered World War I, the 20-year-old Luke enlisted as a private in the Signal Corps. From there he began pilot training and entered combat in France as a new member of the 1st Pursuit Group, 27th Aero Squadron. His exploits spanned only a scant 17 days, but in this time, as records now reflect, he destroyed 14 German balloons and four aircraft, earning him the title of the “Arizona Balloon Buster.”
Luke’s commander, Maj. H.E. Hartney, said of him: “No one had the sheer contemptuous courage that boy possessed. He was an excellent pilot and probably the best flying marksman on the Western Front. We had any number of expert pilots and there was no shortage of good shots, but the perfect combination, like the perfect specimen of anything in the world, was scarce. Frank Luke was the perfect combination.”
While balloons sound insignificant, in WWI’s trench warfare environment they were critical. They served as observation posts and enabled both armies to look deep behind one another’s lines.
The hydrogen-filled balloons were expensive and of great military value. Normally protected by heavy anti-aircraft gun batteries, there was usually a flight of pursuit planes stationed nearby. To attack a balloon was practically suicide.
But for whatever reason, these were Luke’s voluntary objectives. Some surmised it was because of the easy confirmation as the fireball fell from the sky, trailing a plume of smoke. On Sept. 12, 1918, Luke shot down his first balloon. His last flight was Sept. 29, 1918. At least 13 people in the village of Murvaux, France, watched his final blaze of glory. That little group later made a sworn affidavit of his actions that day.
They said they saw an American aviator with a squadron of Germans pursuing and shooting at him. He descended suddenly and vertically toward the Earth, then straightened out and flew toward Briers Farm where he found a German balloon, which he shot up and burned in spite of incessant enemy fire. He destroyed two other balloons while still flying through hostile fire both from troops on the ground and the German fighters.
He did not escape unscathed. Even though already wounded, he attacked one more observation balloon and the Frenchmen saw it burst into flames and plummet to the ground.
Luke descended to within 50 meters of the ground and opened fire on enemy troops, killing six and wounding as many more. But his time was limited. His wounds and the damage to his aircraft forced him to land. As German soldiers surrounded him on all sides, he drew his .45-caliber pistol and defended himself until he fell, mortally wounded from a bullet in his chest.
Infuriated by the savagery of the American’s final attack, the German commandant of the village refused to have straw placed in the cart that removed Luke’s body. He also refused to allow some women to shroud his body with a sheet. Witnesses reported he kicked Luke’s body and snapped, “Get that thing out of my way as quickly as possible.” Two men, Cortlae Delbert and Voliner Nicolas, loaded the Arizonan’s body on a wagon, escorted him to the cemetery and buried him.
His courage in combat not only earned him his nickname, but also the Medal of Honor. His awards included the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Italian War Cross and the Aero Club Medal for Bravery. In 1930, the American Society for the Promotion of Aviation named him the nation’s greatest air hero.
Though unmarried, Luke came from a large family, and many in the Valley of the Sun today carry on the Luke family name.