A visit to Kingman Army Airfield Museum 2012
Kingman is a name that is a part of WWII history, a place where men learned to fight in the skies and then after the war was won, their aircraft were brought there to die. Everyone has seen the pictures and the only good part is that the airport and the memories are still there.
The Kingman Army Airfield Museum is run by a small group of dedicated people. The President is Bob Loose a former USAF Flight Instructor, as well as American Airlines Pilot. Even with that, Bob spent most of his career starting and managing a flight department for a Fortune 100 Company. Rob Chilcoat is the Museum Curator and also former USAF. He worked at the GM Proving Grounds in Yucca NV, (now owned by Chrysler) were also a former Army Air Corp Base in WWII. Rob is also the unofficial base historian, researching it since 1989. You could say these are the guys who look after the history as well as view the current crop of civilian aircraft that are parked and awaiting disposition. Aircraft may be in storage and return to flight status. When you see the windows gone from an airliner, you pretty much know it’s about to be recycled.
I stopped by the airport on the way to Chino and what attracted me to come back was the WWII control tower. It’s still there and oversees the base now, just as it did since it was built in 1942. I thought a photo op from the top of the tower would be a great thing, but that was thwarted by the TSA (2 commercial flights a day; I may leave nail clippers up there for terrorists) as well as the reputation of the Airport Authority for not allowing access.
The museum itself started in a shipping container in the backyard of its first President. The current museum grew out of a series of “base reunions” in the early 1990s. They stopped as the WWII group aged and the numbers attending the reunions dwindled. One of the regulars at the reunions was a colorful lady named Cleo Brown. Cleo ran the NCO Club during the war. She saw that the troops were entertained and even though the base was quite a few miles from town (without a nice paved road I may add) she saw to it that the ladies from town came to see the troops when they couldn’t make it into town. Enough said. I’m sure she was something else, rest in peace Miss Cleo, you did your part for the war.
The base had a wide variety of other entertainment for the troops. Minnesota Fats came in once to shoot pool, Bob Hope was there, the Three Stooges put on a show, even the Lone Ranger and Tonto came to visit.
This was the 6th largest AAF base in the USA which is no mean feat considering there were 345 main AAF bases, 116 more sub-bases and 322 auxiliary airfields. It’s mission was to train fliers in the art of aerial flexible gunnery. The base had a ground range (behind the airport) and two aerial ranges. The course was 6 weeks long. There were 2 weeks of classroom training, then 2 weeks of ground training (shooting skeet with a shotgun), then 2 weeks of actual aerial firing from B-17s. If you think that Kingman is in the middle of nowhere, consider how big the two aerial ranges had to be to shoot .50 BMG at altitude; those projectiles could go 5 to 7 miles without a problem. Initially there were P-39s making passes as targets. The later targets were the “Pinball” P-63s which were armored and strengthened to allow live frangible ammo to be shot at them. The bullets were painted (yes… Paintball was invented here) to see where a gunners rounds actually hit the targets.
Again later in the war, there was B-17 co-pilot transition training and even two classes of WASPs were trained to fly B-26s there.
Still training wasn’t without hazards. On January 6, 1944 a bus coming back from town full of soldiers was hit by a train at the railroad crossing just outside the base. Twenty eight men were killed, it’s still the worse motor vehicle accident in Arizona history. On November 3rd a B-17 and P-39 collided in practice and all 15 men were killed. There were several other accidents, but these really stood out as true disasters.
At the end of February 1946 the base closed and became “Storage Depot 41”. By the time that closed in the first quarter of 1948 over 5500 airplanes moved in and 70 million pounds of ingots moved out. B17s, B24s, P38s, B26s, and A26s all met their fate here. A 1954 aerial photograph in the museum still shows the roads where the planes were towed out to be parked. Since it’s desert, those paths are probably still there. The aircraft stretched 5 miles out to about where the present I-40 is located. If you look from I-40 towards the airport, it must have been a sight to see all those airplanes. Probably the greatest Air Force that has ever been assembled in one place and all were virtually none were saved.
The Museum is housed in a WWII temporary “theatre of operations” hangar that has been there “temporarily” since the fall of 1942 and it is one of the first buildings erected on the field and one of the last originals still standing. The hangar was in a poor state of repair when the Museum took over and it was on the verge of being torn down. They raised funds, did a lot of repairs and eventually raised over $50,000 for a new roof. There is a whole lot of sweat equity in that building. The hangar itself is an artifact worth seeing. The construction of it was simple for its time, but there was a lot of wood and plenty of carpentry that went into it. It’s really a work of art and should be considered a National Historical Landmark.
The museum contains an amazing collection of artifacts from the base. The collection ranges from pictures to the radios from the control tower to aircraft, the museum quite a few things to see for a facility of its size. There are few aircraft; with a WAR scale Corsair, and a pair of WWI replicas. There is a Hiller UH-12E4 helicopter there which had the distinction of laying the water line across the Grand Canyon. It’s a very rare helicopter with about two dozen left flying in the world. There is even a Bede 5. They have beautiful White Scout car in the collection which they may consider selling for the right offer to fund other projects. This Scout car has 168 original miles on it and looks like new. They also have a variety of aircraft engines and of course the hangar. When you look at the woodwork there, you understand that real carpentry is rapidly becoming a lost art.
While the museum doesn’t have lot of aircraft, they do have a lot of history and a certain personal touch. You can actually ask Bob or Rob to give you a personal tour to explain the history, and tell stories, then sit down in the hangar for a Coke and do some hangar flying. I stopped on my way back from Chino, and had about an hour to spend, really, I could have spent the day there. Really a great place with some super people.
Still if you call it Kingman Army Air Field or Depot 41 or Kingman Airport, the last mission hasn’t changed a lot. There are still airplanes there waiting for the end to come. There was a ramp covered with Continental Express Regional Jets (gliders, the engines were gone), as well as DC-9s with no windows (not a good sign), and lots of DHL 727s, and even a DHL DC-8. On the brighter side there was a C-123 that looked like a potential flyer as well as a DC-4 that used to be firebomber. Still Rob looks after them keeping notes; he’s not only the curator of the past, but also of the future. He records the history of the field as it happens and I think he’s going to be around for a long time.
If you find yourself headed though Kingman; the airport is worth a stop. The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10AM to 3PM. You’ll be able to say you were there next time someone mentions Kingman.
I’d like to thank Museum President Bob Loose and Museum Curator Rob Chilcoat for some really exclusive access to the facility; Roy Forbes for getting us all together.
You can contact the author Mark Hrutkay at TNMark@Me.Com.
The Museum’s website is at http://www.armyairfieldkingmanmuseum.org/