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Modern history of MacDill ... A story of many mission changes, advancements

Story by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

courtesy photo

Like many a U.S. air base, MacDill has had its ups and downs, nearly fading away four decades ago and again in the 1990s, only to rise to become a major nerve center for worldwide military operations and arguably the most important U.S. military installation outside the Pentagon. The name MacDill is recognized throughout the world and has its origins in a tragedy that was followed by a great honor.

Colonel Leslie MacDill's BC-1 crashed minutes after takeoff from Bolling Field in Washington D.C. Nov. 9 1938. A year later, in honor of the distinguished flier, the Army Air Corps declared that Southeast Air Base, Tampa would from then on be called MacDill Field, even before it officially opened.

Flying operations began in 1941, when the field's mission included training pilots to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress. By 1942 that mission converted to training B-26 Marauder pilots. Difficult to fly and land due to its short wingspan, after several accidents, the slogan "One a day in Tampa Bay" became popular. Nine of the 12 combat groups that flew the B-26 in Europe were trained and activated at MacDill but despite the plane's difficulties, the B-26 had an exemplary record, having the lowest loss rate of any Allied bomber during the war.

In 1943 B-26 training stopped and the base reverted to training B-17 pilots, which continued for the remainder of WW II. Throughout the war, personnel at MacDill numbered as many as 15,000. A contingent of Women's Army Corps (WACS) arrived in 1943. The base served as a detention center for German prisoners of war between 1944 and 1945, detaining as many as 488 Germans at one point.

When the Air Force was established in 1947, the field became MacDill Air Force Base and upon the end of the war, MacDill's roll changed once again, this time to training B-29 crews. In 1951 the new B-47 medium jet bombers and KC-97 tankers took their place and MacDill's mission changed to combine bombardment and air refueling.

For a time in 1960, it was proposed that MacDill be closed but the Cuban Missile Crisis caused government officials to think twice. A strategic location with respect to nearby Cuba, MacDill survived cutbacks and in 1961 the United States Strike Command was established.

Elements of all branches of the military were brought together and made capable for rapid response anywhere on the planet.

It was in 1962 when F-84 crews began training here and in 1963 MacDill transferred to Tactical Air Command. In 1965 its two Tactical Fighter Wings, the 12th and 15th were deployed to Vietnam. The 15th later returned to MacDill and began training pilots to fly F-4 and B-57 aircraft.

In 1970 the 15th was replaced by the 1st TFW, which continued F-4 training, dropping B-57 training by 1972, when MacDill's U.S. Strike Command was redesignated U.S. Readiness Command. In 1975 the 56 TFW replaced the 1st and continued F-4 training until 1979, when the mission changed to F-16 training.

In 1983 the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force was activated at MacDill. The forerunner of U.S. Central Command, it was followed in 1987 by U.S. Special Operations Command, which replaced Readiness Command.

Between 1979 and 1993, about half of all F-16 pilots were trained at MacDill. Training accelerated for a time, allowing pilots to go right from training to combat units during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Due to downsizing, flying operations were ended at MacDill in 1991 and the 100-plus F-16s were transferred to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

By 1993 planes were once again flying in and out of MacDill, when National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aircraft transferred here to utilize the runway but it wasn't until Jan. 4, 1994 that the skies over the base came alive again, as the 6th Air Base Wing was activated at MacDill and assigned the task of supporting CENTCOM and SOCOM and other tenant and transient units.

In 1994 MacDill became a major staging area for operations in Haiti, when approximately 75 C-130s called the base home. The successful operation once again confirmed MacDill's strategic location and capabilities and by 1996 the base got a new mission. KC-135 tankers arrived and the 6th was designated an Air Refueling Wing. That changed again in 1997 when the roll expanded to include EC-135 and CT-43 aircraft with the mission of combantant commander support. CT-43s were retired in 2001 and replaced by the C-37.

Jan. 1, 2001, MacDill received its current designation when the Wing became the 6th Air Mobility Wing. On the same day the 310th Airlift Squadron took on the mission of supporting combantant commander assigned throughout the CONUS. Since then, the Wing has supported operations around the world and has grown to 3,000 personnel, who work to support the air refueling and airlift operations, as well as CENTCOM AND SOCOM, along with 49 other tenant units. (History information was provided by Tech. Sgt. J.R. Foster, 6th AMW Historian.)




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