A look back at Kingsley Field's ORANG history

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
  • 173rd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
World War II thrust a number of seminal changes upon the United States. Its economy leapt from the stagnation of the Great Depression to a wartime footing, fighting to produce adequate military hardware to win the war. Its citizenry signed up for the draft in droves, and women flocked to roles in factories, in military training capacities, and in the medical field. The sea of change stretched from coast to coast and a small, logging community in Southern Oregon was caught in the swirl.

Klamath Falls, Ore., found itself at the center of an effort to produce a large number of fighter pilots in close proximity to the Pacific Theater. Thus, the Department of the Navy gave birth to Klamath Naval Air Station in 1943. The hurry was so great the DoD actually shipped in the largest building, the base hangar, from Alaska. In short order, the base launched sortie after sortie to nearby ranges and target areas getting young men a degree of training before heading to the fleet for deadly combat primarily in the Pacific Theater.

Looking at a map one may wonder why the base wasn't located closer to the coast line, after all Klamath Falls is across the Cascade Mountains from the ocean and in drive time lies nearly four hours from the Pacific Shore. Maj. Ryan Bartholomew, the 173rd Fighter Wing Historian, says several qualities made the location an ideal place to train pilots.

"It has good flying weather, 95-percent of the time you can fly visual flight rules, and maybe most importantly it was close to several federally owned reservoirs used for torpedo bombing practice and strafing runs," he said. 

After Victory in Europe and Victory in Japan came to pass the frantic war effort gave way to peace-time operations and the training mission of the base slowed considerably. The Navy closed the base and turned it over to the City of Klamath Falls in the years 1948-1954, but in those six years rising tension with the Soviet Union prompted the U.S. to bolster its perimeter defense and in 1956 the Air Force recommissioned the base.

"The Air Force was building a protective ring around the country and Klamath Falls was a strategic location between Portland and the Bay Area to defend against Soviet strategic bombers," said Bartholomew. "It was 1959 before that squadron was fully operational."

The process of re-opening the base spurred its largest growth to date--construction of two large housing areas, renaming the base after the sole Army Air Corps recipient of the Medal of Honor from Oregon, Lt. David R. Kingsley, and bringing nearly 2,000 new employees aboard. From that point as the Cold War ground on, so named for its lack of actual hostilities, Kingsley Field once again saw operations pared back. In that environment it made sense to turn the operations over to a leaner organization and the Oregon Air National Guard began operations at Kingsley Field.

"The first presence was in 1971, it was the 104th Control Squadron, basically what we call Shadow Control today," Bartholomew said. "In 1981 the Air Force alert detachment left and turned everything over to the Oregon Air Guard."

A number of retired guardsmen who are still involved at Kingsley Field remember this time. Former base commander, Col. Billy Cox remembers his initial visits to the base in the early '80s when he was with the 142nd Fighter Wing out of Portland, Ore.

"It looked a lot like you might imagine after the busiest years of the base with many buildings standing vacant and most of the construction looked like it was from the World War II era," he said.

Retired Lt. Col. Bill Morris, former base commander, remembers driving a bob cat tractor to remove years of accumulated bird droppings from the main hangar floor so it could house aircraft again.

Once again Kingsley's good flying weather and proximity to large flying ranges pressed the little-used buildings back into service. In 1982 the U.S. Air Force announced the creation of an air defense schoolhouse for F-4 Phantoms at Kingsley Field, and the 114th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron was formed.

Cox sees the foundation of today's successful training mission in those early years as a combination of a supportive community, a strong work ethic and the quality of training provided.

"On a check ride for a student if there was any question of whether they passed or not then there really wasn't a question, and we made real sure they got the chance to do it again," Cox said.

Though the operation was challenging, it wasn't large consisting of three instructor pilots and four F-4 Phantom aircraft.  In 1983, eleven brand new F-4 pilots graduated.

Through the ensuing years that mission has grown.  In 1988, the 114th TFTS transitioned to the F-16 airframe and boasted a complement of 18 aircraft.

As the growth continued, the unit at Kingsley Field earned new designation--the 173rd Fighter Wing was activated June 27, 1996. This transition brought the unit in line with other stand-alone ANG flying units.  In an article from the local newspaper, then base commander Cox was quoted saying, "I think our future is bright and strong."

Nearly ten years after converting to the F-16 the wing moved into the air superiority business and began training F-15C pilots, and 2011 this small, southern Oregon base became the sole schoolhouse for F-15C training, as Tyndall Air Force Base converted to the F-22.

As a part of that progress the 173rd Fighter Wing has also added a detachment of active duty Airmen to bolster throughput of pilots.

Today the ramp holds 32 F-15 Eagles and flies more than 5,000 hours in a given year, one of the highest tallies for a fighter unit in the ANG.