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.
Phoenix bought 1,440 acres of land that it leased to the government for $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 became 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 Texan, although only a few essential buildings had been completed. Flying out of Sky Harbor Airport until the Luke AFB 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 Field 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 Texan, P-40 Warhawk, P-51 Mustang and P-38 Lightning. By Feb. 7, 1944, pilots at Luke Field had achieved a million hours of flying time. By 1946, however, the number of pilots trained dropped to 299 and the base was inactivated 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 AT-6 Texan, P-51 Mustang and F-84 Thunderjet. Flight training at Luke AFB changed to the F-100 Super Sabre, and July 1, 1958, the base was transferred from Air Training Command to Tactical Air Command.
Luke AFB continued its tradition of providing fighter training for allied nations when an F-104 Starfire program for German air force pilots and a program in the F-5 Freedom Fighter for pilots from other nations began in 1964.
In the 1960s, thousands of American fighter pilots left Luke AFB to carve their niche in 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 Air Force Base. It was joined in December 1982 by the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Luke AFB fighter pilots began training in the new F-16 aircraft Feb. 2, 1983.
The 405th TTW received the first E model of the F-15E Strike Eagle in 1988 and began training in this dual-role fighter.
The early 1990s brought significant changes to the base. As a result of defense realignments, four tactical fighter training squadrons 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 AFB, was redesignated the 58th Fighter Wing and once again became the host unit.
56th Fighter Wing Established At Luke To Preserve AF Legacy
In April 1994, after 24 years at Luke Air Force Base, the 58th Fighter Wing was replaced by the 56th Fighter Wing (FW) 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 FW 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 FW was reassigned as a special operations wing to Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Luke AFB 56th FW traces its heritage to the 56th Pursuit Group that first activated Jan. 15, 1941, 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 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk aircraft, the unit flew air defense patrol until June 1942, when the group became the first to train with and fly the
The 56th FW left for England Jan. 6, 1943. During the following two years, pilots of the 56th FW 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 FW’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 (FS). As part of a restructuring, the 56th FW was activated Aug. 15, 1947, and the 56th Fighter Group was assigned to the new wing.
In July and August 1948, a 56th major operation involved 16 of the wing’s F-80 Shooting Stars. By way of Maine, Labrador, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland, the flight flew to Furstenfeldbruck, Germany. Although not connected with the Berlin Airlift, which was in progress, the operation focused world attention on the U.S. Air Force’s ability to rapidly deploy jet fighters during a crisis.
The wing was transferred to the Continental Air Command’s 10th Air Force Dec. 1, 1948, and the mission of the wing’s tactical units shifted to air defense. The unit was redesignated as the 56th Fighter Interceptor Wing Jan. 20, 1950. Its 61st, 62nd and 63rd Fighter Interceptor squadrons (FIS) converted to the F-86 Sabre jet in April 1950.
While the wing inactivated Feb. 6, 1952, Air Defense Command reorganized its tactical squadrons reassigning them to other wings.
Almost nine years later, the wing reactivated at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Michigan, as the 56th FW (Air Defense) with an air defense mission. The wing controlled a single tactical unit, the 62nd FIS, flying the F-101 Voodoo.
Starting Feb. 1, 1961, the wing was part of two air defense sectors. As such, the 56th FW participated in many air defense exercises, tactical evaluations and other operations. On Dec. 16, 1963, the Duluth Air Defense Sector reassigned the squadron directly underneath itself. On Jan. 1, 1964, the 56th FW was assigned to the Strategic Air Command and inactivated.
Just over three years later, the wing reactivated as the 56th Air Commando Wing at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. War then raged in Southeast Asia. Assigned to 13th Air Force, the 56th FW received operational direction from 7th Air Force in Saigon. The wing’s combat and support operations 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 FW was designated a special operations wing. Due to its efforts in every military campaign beginning with the Vietnam Air Offensive, Phase II, the wing earned several awards for valor.
On June 30, 1975, some of the wing’s subordinate units were inactivated. The wing, with combat support group (containing its security police and civil engineering squadrons), supply and transportation 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.
As part of the move, the 61st FS and 62nd FS reactivated as tactical fighter squadrons. The 63rd Fighter Interceptor Training Squadron moved from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, without personnel or equipment. Redesignated a tactical fighter squadron, it was assigned to the wing as was the 4501st Tactical Fighter Replacement Squadron, which later became the 13th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron.
In November 1979, the wing began converting from the F-4D Phantom II to the F-16 Fighting Falcon. As they converted, they became tactical fighter training squadrons. On Oct. 1, 1981, the 56th FW became a tactical training wing. On July 1, 1982, the 13th inactivated and the 72nd Tactical Fighter Training Squadron took its place.
On June 27, 1988, the 56th FW began converting from the F-16A/B models to the updated F-16C/Ds. Then another reorganization redesignated the 56th as a fighter wing Oct. 1, 1991. Its flying units once again became fighter squadrons. The 56th FW was reassigned to Luke Air Force Base April 1, 1994.
With the F-16C/Ds, the 56th FW remains the primary F-16 aircrew and maintenance training wing in the Air Force. Under the 56th FW, which retains its F-16C/D training mission, are the 21st, 309th, 310th and 425th Fighter squadrons at Luke AFB, along with the Wing. At Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base, the 550th Fighter Squadron trains F-15C pilots and reports to the 56th Operations Group.
Since 2015, the 56th FW at Luke AFB has trained pilots to fly the F-35A Lightning II. Units flying the F-35A Lightning II are the 61st, 62nd, 63rd and 308th Fighter Squadrons.
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, Sept. 29, 1918.
For several months, his grave was marked with a wooden cross that read, “Unknown American Aviator.” To the citizens of Murvaux, France, who saw his last flight and 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. He went to 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 18 days, but 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, watched his final blaze of glory. That 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 just 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 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.