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Feature | Sept. 18, 2007

Langley leads with long military history

By 2nd Lt. Georganne Schultz 1st Fighter Wing Public Affairs


Although the Air Force celebrates its 60th anniversary today, Langley holds more than 90 years of military history within its perimeters. 

In December 1916, the U.S. War Department purchased 1,659 acres of land - land that would house Langley Field - for $290,000. 

The land, which was bought in preparation for the upcoming war, was the first property purchased by for military aviation purposes. Langley Field's initial mission was to build an aeronautical experimental station and proving ground, as well as an airfield for aeronautical research, flight testing and experiments. As a result, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA's predecessor, was created. NACA built its first aeronautical laboratory here, the only one of its kind in the federal government. 

Another "first" was Langley's work of Albert Kahn, the leading industrial architect of the day. He was the only civilian architect at the time to design military buildings, some of which are still used today. 

In late 1917, Langley Field added a new mission: the U.S. Army School of Aerial Photography. A result of the pressing need for aerial photographers, the school trained students on taking photographs, photo development, interpretation and aerial mapmaking. By January of the next year, the first graduates were sent to the front lines in Europe. The school was later transferred to Rochester, New York, while the remaining portion became known as the School of Aerial Photographic Reconnaissance. 

Continuing its record of firsts, Langley established the world's original school for tactics of military aviation, called the Air Service Tactical School, in 1920. Its contributions were a key role in the advancement of Army air doctrine. 

Perhaps one of the most famous events of that era was the battleship bombing tests conducted by Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell. In 1921, he proved that airpower could successfully destroy battleships by sinking a German submarine, a light cruiser and the dreadnought, the Ostfriesland. These tests fueled the drive for a separate aviation service. 

The first step towards an independent air service came in 1935, when the General Headquarters Air Force, or GHQ AF, was created at Langley Field. Commanded by Brig. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, it was the heart of all combat aviation across the country, and during that year, the GHQ units underwent various exercises which strengthened the concept of the separate branch. 

The remainder of the 1930s was spent integrating the B-17 long-range bomber. In 1938, the Italian liner Rex became the target of the B-17s when General Andrews ordered a long-range navigation, sea search and intercept mission to show the importance of airpower. Rough weather conditions proved no difficulty for the lead plane's navigator, then-1st Lt. Curtis LeMay. He navigated the interception about 600 miles off the coast of New York, proving the merit of long-range capability. 

Langley's mission during World War II concentrated on antisubmarine operations, testing and training for radar bombing techniques, and the operation of a sub-depot which focused on aircraft maintenance and parts manufacturing. 

After the war, Langley became the home of the newly formed Tactical Air Command, or TAC, which brought a new mission. The 363d Reconnaissance Wing brought in FP-80A "Shooting Stars" and RB-26s, but in the coming years, Langley would undergo many changes. 

In 1948, Langley Field was transferred to the Department of the Air Force and subsequently renamed Langley Air Force Base. Throughout the 1950s, the operational unit at Langley would bounce between a tactical reconnaissance wing, a fighter wing and a bomber wing, whereas the 1960s brought in a theater airlift mission with the introduction of C-130s to the base. 

The 1970s were characterized by the acquisition of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing and the first F-15 Eagle, and during the 1980s, the wing focused on readiness by participating in various deployments and exercises around the world. This training was put to use in the early 1990s when the wing supported both Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, compiling almost 25,000 flying hours in the process. 

In 1992, a new era began with the inactivation of Tactical Air Command and the establishment of Air Combat Command. The wing had been renamed the 1st Fighter Wing a year earlier and later offered continued support of Operations Southern and Northern Watch. Langley also provided support for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, flying more than 360 training and combat sorties. 

Since then, Langley's tradition of leading the way has continued with the 27th Fighter Squadron being designated the Air Force's first operational squadron of the F-22A Raptor in December 2005.