Updated On: 10/31/2012 11:27:26 AM
Ellsworth Air Force Base
A few short weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a team of U.S. Army engineers arrived in Rapid City with plans to transform a barren plateau east of town into a new Army airfield. Surveying the landscape during that cold January in 1942, they could scarcely have imagined the long-reaching impact their work would have, both on the surrounding region and for the nation’s defense over the next 70 years.
In a herculean effort, workers from around the area worked swiftly to construct facilities on land adjacent to the old municipal airport. The new Rapid City Army Air Base welcomed its first B-17 Flying Fortresses in September 1942. Col. Charles Oldfield was the first commander of the base, where the Combat Crew Training School soon provided qualified B-17 aircrews desperately needed for missions in the European theatre.
From September 1942, when its military runways first opened, until mission needs changed in July 1945, the field’s instructors taught thousands of pilots, navigators, radio operators and gunners from nine heavy bombardment groups and numerous smaller units. All training focused on the Allied drive to overthrow the Axis powers in Europe.
Like many of the bases that sprung up around the country during the war, Rapid City Army Airfield was originally intended to be a temporary facility “for the duration.” The growing nuclear threat from behind the Iron Curtain, however, quickly established Rapid City in a new role on the front lines of the Cold War. After World War II, the base briefly trained weather-reconnaissance and combat squadrons using P-61 Black Widow, P-38 Lightning, P-51 Mustang and B-25 Mitchell aircraft. Those missions soon ended and Rapid City Army Air Field temporarily shut down from September 1946 through March 1947. When operations resumed in 1947, the base was a new United States Air Force asset. The primary unit assigned to Rapid City Air Force Base was the new 28th Bombardment Wing — flying the B-29 Superfortress.
The installation changed names a few more times during its early years. In January 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Carl A. Spaatz renamed it Weaver Air Force Base in honor of Brig. Gen. Walter R. Weaver, one of the pioneers in the development of the Air Force. In June of that year, in response to overwhelming public appeals, Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington returned it to its previous name. The base was declared a permanent installation in early 1948.
Shortly after additional runway improvements, in July 1949, the 28th BMW began conversion from B-29s to the B-36 Peacemaker. The massive B-36 Peacemaker, a 10-engine nuclear-capable bomber dubbed the “magnesium overcast,” is still the largest combat aircraft ever to see active U.S. Air Force service. This was a period of tremendous investment in base facilities, including the construction of the cavernous B-36 aircraft hangar — now known as the Pride Hangar — that remains a regional landmark. In April 1950, the Air Staff reassigned the base from 15th Air Force to 8th Air Force.
It was also during this period that a tragedy provided the installation with its namesake. While leading a procession of RB-36s back to Rapid City following an exercise in England, Commander Brig. Gen. Richard Ellsworth and 21 other crew members of the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing died in a crash over Newfoundland in March 1953. Three months later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower personally dedicated the newly-renamed Ellsworth Air Force Base in honor of its fallen leader on June 13, 1953.
Military organizations periodically upgrade manpower and machines from time to time to meet new national security requirements. The organizations on Ellsworth Air Force Base were no exception. Headquarters Strategic Air Command reassigned the 28th BMW from 8th Air Force back to 15th Air Force in October 1955. Approximately one year later, SAC set plans in motion to replace the 28th BMW B-36s with the new all-jet B-52 Stratofortress. The last B-36 left Ellsworth May 29, 1957 and the first B-52 Stratofortress arrived 16 days later. In 1958, all base units came under the command of the 821st Strategic Aerospace Division, headquartered at Ellsworth.
The 1960s saw further expansion of Ellsworth’s role as a pillar in our nuclear deterrent strategy. In October 1960, Ellsworth entered the Space Age with the activation of the 850th Strategic Missile Squadron, initially assigned to the 28th BMW. For more than a year, this squadron prepared for the emplacement of Titan I intercontinental ballistic missiles, which finally arrived in 1962, shortly after the activation of the 44th Strategic Missile Wing in January. At that time, Headquarters SAC also named the 44th SMW as host wing at Ellsworth.
Titan’s lifespan was short in western South Dakota. In July 1962, SAC had effectively rendered it obsolete by activating the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron, the first of three such units slated to operate 150 Minuteman I ICBMs under the 44th SMW. The 67th Strategic Missile Squadron joined the 44th in August, followed by the 68th Strategic Missile Squadron in September 1962.
On June 1, 1971, SAC inactivated the 821st Strategic Aerospace Division. By October of that year, an upgraded Minuteman II also replaced earlier missiles. At its height, the 44th SMW consisted of three operational squadrons responsible for nearly 150 Minuteman II missiles. Ellsworth’s missileers faithfully performed this difficult and often lonely duty for nearly 40 years, until the last missiles were taken offline in April 1994.
Throughout the Cold War, Ellsworth developed a reputation as, “The Showplace of Strategic Air Command,” standing guard with the dual nuclear deterrent of ICBMs and bomber aircraft. It carried out these vital missions from 1961 to 1994 with relatively little change. Then, the 1980s brought many new challenges.
NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN
In 1986 the base made extensive preparations to phase out the aging B-52 fleet and become the new home for the advanced B-1B Lancer. Contractors completed new, unaccompanied enlisted dormitories in March, a new security police group headquarters in October and gave Ellsworth’s 13,497 foot runway a much-needed facelift. In addition, they completed new aircraft maintenance facilities for the complex new bird. The last B-52H left in early 1986. In January 1987, the wing received the first of 35 B-1 bombers.
The 12th Air Division moved to Ellsworth July 15, 1988. This organization was responsible for training B-1B, transient B-52 and the 28th BMW’s KC-135 Stratotanker aircrews. Headquarters SAC activated a third wing, the 99th Strategic Weapons Wing, at Ellsworth Aug. 10, 1989. This wing assumed primary responsibility for B-1B and B-52 advanced aircrew training.
Internationally, the destruction of the Berlin Wall in October 1989 symbolized the imminent demise of the Soviet Union over the next several months. During this transition, the Air Force also had to reshuffle its organizations and resources to meet the diminishing, although shifting, threat. Changes came quickly.
On Jan. 3, 1990, SAC redesignated the 812th Combat Support Group as the 812th Strategic Support Wing, which, for a short time, became Ellsworth’s fourth wing. The 812th SSW consolidated all combat support activities into one organization. On July 31, 1990, SAC replaced the 12th Air Division with the Strategic Warfare Center, which provided operational command and administrative control over Ellsworth’s subordinate units. Then, on Sept. 1, 1991, as part of SAC’s intermediate headquarters and base-level reorganization plan, SAC renamed the 28th BMW the 28th Wing, the 44th SMW the 44th Wing and the 99th SWW the 99th Tactics and Training Wing. Ten days later, SAC inactivated both the SWC and the 812th SSW. Once again, the 28th became Ellsworth’s host organization and it soon absorbed all previous 812th SSW functions. It was also during this period that, in acknowledgment of the elimination of the Warsaw Pact, the Secretary of Defense ordered alert operations to stand down. The decades-long Cold War was over.
On June 1, 1992, as part of the first major reorganization since the creation of the U.S. Air Force, the Air Force inactivated SAC and assigned Ellsworth’s organizations (including a renamed 28th Bomb Wing) to the newly activated Air Combat Command. After less than a year under the new command, the wing’s mission changed from that of strategic bombardment to one of worldwide conventional munitions delivery. The mission of the 99th Tactics and Training Wing (later to become the 99th Wing) also continued, albeit slightly modified to fit the requirements of the new force concept.
The 44th Missile Wing, however, had ably accomplished its deterrence mission. The wing permanently pulled the first missile from its silo Dec. 3, 1991. The first launch control center shut down April 6, 1992. Deactivation of the entire missile complex ended in April 1994. In keeping with its patriotic Minuteman tradition, the 44th Missile Wing formally inactivated July 4, 1994.
In March 1994, Ellsworth welcomed the 34th Bomb Squadron, a geographically separated unit awaiting airfield upgrades before it could return to its parent organization, the 366th BW, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. The 34th’s B-1s were part one of the Air Force’s composite wings, which also include F-15 Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons and KC-135s.
Also during 1994, the Air Force selected Ellsworth as the exclusive location from which to conduct a Congressionally-mandated operational readiness assessment of the B-1B, known locally as “Dakota Challenge.” After six months of hard work, under both peacetime and simulated wartime conditions, the 28th BW and Ellsworth passed the test “with flying colors” and proved the B-1 to be a reliable and capable weapons system — the mainstay of America’s heavy bomber fleet for years to come.
In 1995, the 99th Wing also departed for a new assignment at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., although a small contingent formerly attached to that wing remained behind to continue bomber tactics training and radar munitions scoring from a handful of dispersed detachments. In the same year, one of Ellsworth’s oldest units, the 77th Bomb Squadron, was inactivated. While the unit (as an administrative entity) departed to save Air Force dollars for development of new follow-on B-1 munitions, the organization’s aircraft remained at Ellsworth (in a flying reserve status) under the care of its sister unit, the 37th Bomb Squadron.
A reversal of fortune occurred March 26, 1996 when an announcement was made that the 77th Bomb Squadron would soon return to Ellsworth. On April 1, 1997, the squadron again activated at Ellsworth, as the geographically separated 34th Bomb Squadron completed its transfer to its home at the 366th Wing, Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. By June 1998, the 77th had six of its B-1s out of the reconstitution reserve. This number balances those lost by the 34th Bomb Squadron.
In March 1999, the Air Force announced a reorganization plan that made Ellsworth AFB and the 28th BW partners in the new Expeditionary Air Force concept. The 28th BW was named a lead wing in the EAF. Under this plan, the 77th BS gained six additional B-1s, and Ellsworth gained about 100 more military personnel. The expeditionary forces helped the Air Force respond quickly to any worldwide crisis while making life more predictable for military members.
OPERATION ALLIED FORCE
It wasn’t too long before Ellsworth and the 28th Bomb Wing were taking the lead in the EAF concept. Five B-1s from the 28th BW joined NATO forces in Operation Allied Force and began striking military targets in Kosovo April 1, 1999.
By the end of the conflict in June 1999, B-1s from Ellsworth flew 100 combat missions and dropped more than 1,260 tons of Mk-82 general-purpose bombs. Once again the B-1 and Team Ellsworth proved themselves invaluable to the security of our national interests.
OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Ellsworth once again answered the call, deploying a number of B-1s in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Aircraft from the 37th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth AFB joined additional B-1s from the 34th BS at Mountain Home AFB and formed the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron. This squadron, along with other elements from Ellsworth, deployed to Diego Garcia and joined the 28th Air Expeditionary Wing where they recorded an impressive record against the terrorist factions. Their combat mission effectiveness was greater than 95 percent and they flew 5 percent of the total strike aircraft missions. They dropped 39 percent of the total tonnage of bombs, which was more than any other platform. The amount of ordnance dropped was tremendous. During their deployment, 2,974 JDAMs, 1,471 Mk-82, 135 Mk-84 and 70 CBU-87 bombs were dropped. Currently, the 28th Bomb Wing and personnel from Ellsworth Air Force Base continue to be the lead wing for EAF 8. Ellsworth personnel continue to prepare for ongoing deployments in support of operations around the globe.
34TH BOMB SQUADRON
REPLACES THE 77TH BOMB SQUADRON
On Sept. 19, 2001, the 34th BS joined the Ellsworth team and arrived from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. Due to a drawdown in the number of B-1 aircraft in the Air Force inventory, the 77th BS War Eagles at Ellsworth were inactivated and the Thunderbirds of the 34th BS moved to Ellsworth to take their place.
ELLSWORTH LANDS REMOTELY PILOTED AIRCRAFT MISSION
U.S. Air Force officials announced its decision June 21, 2010 to bring the MQ-9 Reaper Ground Control Station (GCS) to Ellsworth. The installation will gain about 280 civilian and military personnel to operate MQ-9 Reapers. While the squadron operating the aircraft will be based at Ellsworth, the aircraft will remain overseas, supporting continuing operations. The MQ-9 squadron at Ellsworth, designated the 432nd Attack Squadron, was activated Oct. 1, 2011, and flew its first combat air patrol in May 2012.
OPERATION ODYSSEY DAWN
In March 2011, B-1 bombers from the 28th Bomb Wing launched from their home station of Ellsworth to strike targets in Libya in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn. With less than two days from first notice to takeoff, Ellsworth Airmen generated several aircraft and hundreds of weapons to provide the combat configuration needed halfway across the globe. This mission marked the first time the B-1 fleet has launched combat sorties from the continental United States to strike targets overseas.
Today, Ellsworth Airmen continue to play a critical part in our nation’s defense. B-1s from Ellsworth continually provide critical air presence, precision strike, and surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in response to worldwide contingencies. The addition of ground control stations for MQ-9 Reaper aircraft reinforces Ellsworth’s ability to adapt to emerging challenges. While the facilities and mission of the base have changed over time to meet the nation’s needs, the dedication and commitment to excellence by our Airmen and their families remains as strong as it ever has been.