Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first sustained controlled powered airplane flight Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Seven years after their historic endeavor, Wilbur Wright visited Southern cities for a place to open a temporary civilian flying school. Wilbur Wright eventually visited Montgomery, Alabama, where he met with a group of businessmen. In exchange for establishing a flying school in the Montgomery area, these businessmen offered Wright an old cotton plantation owned by Frank D. Kohn. In 1910, Wilbur Wright opened one of the world’s earliest flying schools at the site that would later become Maxwell Air Force Base. The school lasted only a few months — training a handful of pilots — before this brief but significant chapter in aviation history came to an end; flying activities in Montgomery ceased for nearly eight years.
During World War I, the Army established aviation repair depots to ensure the flying fields were stocked with enough planes and engines for uninterrupted training. In April 1918, local business leaders leased 302 acres of land and a portion of the Kohn plantation to the U.S. government for use as an aviation repair depot where military planes were maintained and overhauled. Known as Wright Field, this was the same site used by the Wrights in 1910.
On Nov. 8, 1922, the War Department redesignated the depot as Maxwell Field in honor of 2nd Lt. William C. Maxwell. Maxwell died Aug. 12, 1920, in the Philippines when his DH-4 aircraft struck a flagpole after he had swerved to avoid striking a group of children at play.
Construction began in 1918 when the James Alexander Construction Co. of Memphis, Tennessee, started to erect 52 temporary wooden buildings and lay down 3 miles of roads. Repair activity at the depot was sharply curtailed at the end of World War I, and the government purchased the depot site in 1920.
The 22nd Squadron (later Observation) moved to Montgomery in 1921. It was the first major operational unit stationed at the field and carried out the depot’s first official flying mission. The squadron dominated flying activities at Maxwell Field for the next 10 years.
This was the first time that food and supplies had been airdropped by U.S. military forces during a major civilian emergency.
In 1928, the War Department announced that the Air Corps Tactical School would move from Langley Field to Maxwell, where the weather was more conducive to aerial demonstrations. Personnel strength at the field grew quickly from 210 in spring 1931 to nearly 2,000 by September. In 1940, Gen. Henry H. Arnold announced that the installation would be converted into a pilot training center. A few months later, the War Department created the Southeast Air Corps Training Center, based at Maxwell Field, to manage the growing number of flying schools in the eastern United States.
Three years later, on Aug. 23, 1943, the War Department redesignated the center as the Army Air Forces Eastern Flying Training Command. During the next five years, Maxwell was home to six schools that trained U.S. military aviators and their support teams for wartime service. These schools graduated more than 100,000 aviation cadets during World War II.
In 1941, a new phase in military aviation training began at Maxwell when the Air Corps Replacement Center opened at the field. The center provided candidates for pilot, bombardier and navigator training with classification and preflight instruction. In mid-1942, the center became a preflight school for pilots. As World War II progressed, and the number of required pilot trainees declined, preflight training was centralized in San Antonio, Texas. The preflight school at Maxwell Field closed in December 1944.
In 1943, the Army Air Forces opened a specialized four-engine pilot school. The first B-24 Liberator landed at Maxwell Field that month, and training began. In 1945, Maxwell saw B-29 transition training at peak production, with a class graduating every two and a half weeks. When the program ended in the fall, 728 B-29 crews had flown 46,550 hours and 112,809 sorties at Maxwell — all without a major accident.
Besides its flying training mission, Maxwell had been home of the Air Corps Tactical School since 1931, but that changed in the early part of World War II when the wartime need for officers proved too great to permit the continuation of academic pursuits. The school closed June 30, 1940. Later, to fill the void left by the school, the War Department established the Army Air Forces School of Applied Tactics at Orlando, Florida.
In June 1945, the school was redesignated as the Army Air Forces School. It continued to operate in Orlando until November 1945, when it moved to Maxwell Field and became a major command. Then, on March 12, 1946, it was redesignated as Air University. Throughout its history, the Air University has developed future leaders of the U.S. Air Force. It continues that tradition today as a major component of Air Education and Training Command. In early 2018, Maxwell Air Force Base celebrated its 100 years of history.