World War I
In 1917, the U.S. government purchased 1,280 acres (5.2 km²) of land from Dr. R. W. Knox and the Wright Land Company to establish an airbase in Houston. The location, near Genoa Township in southeast Houston, was selected because the weather conditions were ideal for flight training. Soldiers from nearby Camp Logan briefly assisted with the construction of the airfield when civilian workers went on strike. Soon after construction began on the airfield, the base was named after Lt. Eric Lamar Ellington, an Army pilot killed four years earlier in a plane crash in San Diego.
The base, which consisted of a few hangars and some wooden headquarters buildings, was completed in a matter of months. By the end of 1917, the field was ready to receive its first squadron – the 120th Aero Squadron, which was transferred from Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, along with its Curtiss JN4 Jenny biplanes, which were shipped in wooden crates via railroad. In December, the first planes from Ellington Field flew over Houston for a benefit for the American Red Cross. A flight of ten JN-4s took off from grass runways and followed the interurban tracks stretching north from Genoa to Houston. Throngs of men, women, and children watched in amazement as the JN-4s flew overhead. The roar of the aircraft was almost drowned out by the wail of sirens and factory whistles as the planes passed over. As the planes circled the city, they dropped paper flyers for the American Red Cross. Next, the formation flew to Camp Logan and then turned south toward Galveston Island. The entire flight took about an hour.
During World War I, Ellington served as an advanced flight training base. As of 1918, Ellington had its own gunnery and bombing range on a small peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico near San Leon, Texas.
For the first months of operation, Ellington Field had no pilot fatalities. Within the year, however, this record changed for the worse. By August 1918, Ellington Field recorded the most pilot fatalities of the 18 U.S. Army Air Service training bases in the United States. Ellington became well known in military circles, and had a series of "firsts", including the first camp newspaper, the first American aerial gunnery and bombing range, the first "canteen girls", and the first aerial ambulance in American military history. Before the end of the war, approximately 5,000 men and 250 aircraft were assigned to the base.
Ellington was considered surplus to requirements after World War I and the base was inactivated as an active duty airfield in January 1920. A small caretaker unit was kept at the airfield for administrative reasons, but generally, the only flight activity during this time was from Army pilots stationed at Kelly Field who flew down to practice landings on Ellington's runways
Training units assigned to Ellington Field were:
Post Headquarters, Ellington Field, November 1917-January 1920
120th Aero Squadron (Service), November 1917-February 1918 (Deployed to: American Expeditionary Forces, France)
69th Aero Squadron (II), February 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "A", July–November 1918
70th Aero Squadron (II), March 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "B", July–November 1918
113th Aero Squadron (II), March 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "C", July–November 1918
232d Aero Squadron (II), April 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "D", July–November 1918
233d Aero Squadron (II), April 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "E", July–November 1918
250th Aero Squadron, November 1917
Re-designated as Squadron "F", July–November 1918
272d Aero Squadron, April 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "G", July–November 1918
285th Aero Squadron, March 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "H", July–November 1918
286th Aero Squadron, March 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "I", July–November 1918
303d Aero Squadron (Service), June 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "K", July–November 1918
Squadron "L", August–December 1918
Squadron "M", September–December 1918
Squadron "N", November–December 1918
850th Aero Squadron,
Re-designated as Squadron "O",
Squadron "X", September–December 1918
Squadron "Y", September–December 1918
Squadron "Z", September–December 1918
Flying School Detachment (Consolidation of Squadrons A-Z), November 1918-September 1919
World War II
World War II, with its increasing need for trained pilots, helped to reestablish Ellington Field as an active facility. Rep. Albert Thomas, one of Houston's representatives in the United States House of Representatives, pushed for rebuilding Ellington as a pilot training center. Beyond the area's excellent weather for flying, Thomas argued that the Houston area's petroleum refineries, upon which the war effort depended, would need military protection in the region. In 1940, construction began on a much-expanded Ellington Field, which eventually included five control towers, two 46,000-square-foot (4,300 m2) hangars, the most modern medical complex in south Texas and 74 barracks.
Ellington Field was the site for advanced flight training for bomber pilots. Initial plans called for the training of 2,800 bomber pilots per year at Ellington Field or about ten percent of the total number of pilots trained throughout the United States. Beginning at five-week intervals, classes of 274 cadets entered the 10-week course. Cadets moved from the AT-6 to the more complex twin-engine AT-10 or AT-11. At that level, cadets were taught how to fly the larger multi-engine aircraft. After successful completion of the advanced training course, graduates were transferred to different airfields for more training in actual bombers. Eventually the USAAC Advanced Flying School was transferred to Blackland Army Airfield in Waco.
Ellington Field was also a site for the USAAC, later USAAF, Bombardier School, also known as "the Bombardment Academy of the Air." At Ellington Field, officials planned to train 4,480 bombardier cadets per year. Bombardier cadets spent most of their time during the 10-week course in the classroom learning the skills necessary to accurately drop bombs on enemy targets. Hands-on training for the bombardier cadets took place over the Gulf of Mexico. In AT-10s or AT-11s, bombardier students practiced bombing several small islands in Matagorda Bay or small target boats anchored in the bay. The Bombardier School remained at Ellington Field until 1942.
In 1943, Ellington Field became the site for advanced navigator training when the Army Air Forces Training Command transferred the Navigator School from Mather Field, California to Houston. The USAAF Navigator School consisted of a rigorous 18-week course consisting of instruction in celestial navigation and dead reckoning. To complete the course, cadets were required to have 100 hours in navigating both local and long-range flights. By 1944, the Navigator School used instructors with combat experience to teach classes. Veteran navigators from every theater of operations lectured cadets at Ellington Field. These lectures were invaluable to cadets because the veteran navigators gave their students insights into navigating under combat conditions and life overseas. From 1941 to 1945 the Navigator School graduated 4,000 USAAF navigators that were assigned to every theater of operations during the Second World War.
By the end of 1943, more than 65 women who served in the Women's Army Corps were also stationed at Ellington. The WACs worked in noncombat Army jobs in order to free men for combat duty. "By taking over an Army job behind the lines, she frees a fighting man to join his fellow soldiers on the road to Victory," stated WAC director Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby. With the end of World War II, Ellington served primarily as a reserve air base from the end of the war in 1945 until 1948.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, Ellington Field was utilized for pilot and navigator training for the active Air Force, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and Naval Air Reserve, Marine Air Reserve, and foreign students.
NASA established its facilities at Ellington as its base for astronaut flight proficiency training and specialized aircraft training in the early 1960s because of its proximity to the newly constructed Manned Spacecraft Center. The T-38 Talon (T-38N) is the primary jet aircraft used for astronaut training at Ellington. From 1967, Ellington was used for the Apollo program's Lunar Landing Training Vehicle. Today, most of NASA's aircraft based at the Johnson Space (Manned Spacecraft) Center are kept and maintained at the base.
Ellington Field was officially inactivated by the Air Force in 1976 and all Air Force Reserve squadrons were transferred to other military facilities; however, the following still maintain a military presence at the base.
Texas Air National Guard
Texas Army National Guard
U.S. Army Reserve
U.S. Navy Reserve
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
U.S. Coast Guard (Coast Guard Air Station Houston)
In 1984, the city of Houston purchased Ellington to use as a third civil airport, and it was renamed Ellington Airport on 14 January 2009, while the military cantonment area is known as Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base and Coast Guard Air Station Houston.