Westover Airport: A Living Time Capsule
If you found a 70 year old time capsule, how much do you think things would have changed from 1942 to today? During a recent air show and open house at the Westover Air Reserve Base, we were surprised to see that some historic structures haven’t changed, although others have disappeared altogether. Westover is actually a joint-use facility straddling the towns of Chicopee and Ludlow Massachusetts. Depending on where you are on the grounds, the facility is known as either the Westover Metropolitan Airport or the Westover Joint Reserve Base.
Scratched out of the tobacco fields of western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, the facility was originally called the Northeast Air Base. Grading and clearing of the land began in late 1939, and construction of permanent structures began the next year. The Army Corps of Engineers took over the great project shortly after initial blueprints were drawn up; some buildings like the five main arched aircraft hangars were produced for decades-long use while other structures like the base’s barracks were made for shorter longevity. Those five main hangars are still standing and in use today, and are some of the oldest visible parts of Westover’s time capsule.
Before it officially opened in 1940, the base was renamed Westover Field after General Oscar Westover, once the Chief of the Army Air Corps who was killed in an aircraft accident in 1938. The facility became the major Army air base in the northeastern part of the U.S. during the Second World War. Originally it supported anti-submarine and other specialized flight operations, but gradually settled into the rhythm of flight training duties for Army bomber and fighter squadrons. Westover became a staging airport for aircraft and crews destined to the European Theatre.
After World War II ended, the base became a key assembly point for countless Air Transport Command (ATC) and later Military Air Transport Service (MATS) sorties to Europe to help rebuild the shattered countries and supply our garrisoned troops. It was also the main departure base from America for supply-laden military air transports destined for the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49. It served as a major transport hub for troops and supplies for the Korean War, and gained an Air Defense Command (ADC) mission to help protect New England, and especially Boston, from possible Cold War Soviet Bloc intruders in the early 1950s. Three different Air Defense Squadrons flew F-86, F-102 and F-104 jet fighters to defend the New England skies. Additional infrastructure, including hangars for numerous “alert” fighters, was added to the base.
By 1956, the MATS transport role at the now-named Westover Air Force Base was replaced with that of the Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) Cold War bomber operations. A Wing of air refueling tankers preceded SAC’s 99th Bomb Wing, which eventually became Westover’s main tenant right through to the mid 1970s. The base’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Circle (and the Soviet Union just beyond) was a major reason to maintain a nuclear-capable bomber base in New England.
As SAC moved onto the base, new buildings replaced those from the 1940s. Many new “nosedock” metal hangars were erected; they were designed for maintenance of KC-135 and B-52 aircraft. These partial hangars covered a large aircraft from the wings forward, exposing just the tail to the elements. Many nosedocks are still functioning as general aviation hangars and as warehouses. Another large hangar, known as the “DC Hangar” (DC stands for Double Cantilever – the structural design name), was added to the flight line, adjacent to the original five 1940-vintage hangars. Positioned at the southwestern corner of the airport, an alert bunker called the “Molehole” and its associated “Christmas Tree” parking ramp for nuclear-armed bombers was built. These structures survive today; the former bunker now acts as part of the terminal building for the civilian Westover Metropolitan Airport.
The 99th’s mission was gradually changed from one of nuclear deterrent to that of conventional bombing. During the late 1960s and 1970s the Wing’s conventionally armed B-52Ds supported the Vietnam War effort through Arc Light bomber deployments. By 1974, SAC bombers and tankers, as well as the ADC mission, had left the base and the Air Force Reserve (AFRES) took over, operating C-123 and C-130 transports from the runways. When the active military force left, thousands of service members and families departed the area for new assignments. The Reserve transports and their required staffing numbered far fewer than what had been needed at the base during its SAC years. The surrounding area, which had been built up supporting the base’s large economic footprint, suffered from the drawdown. Businesses closed, many jobs were lost, and the housing market in the towns adjacent to the base collapsed. On the plus side, the C-130 and C-123 transports did allow for the base to remain open, and an area was set aside as a target for locally-based cargo aircraft to practice their delivery techniques. In a long-term plan for economic recovery, the airport became a Joint Use Facility, as almost 100 acres of Federal land was set aside for the civilian Westover Metropolitan Commission to operate a part of the airport for civilian use. This called for the pair of runways to be shared, and several civilian airplanes moved into, and still can call Westover their home. There have been some civilian airline operations too, including those of the short-lived Skybus Airlines and occasional charter service.
In 1987, the AFRES (later the Air Force Reserve Component – AFRC) introduced C-5A Galaxy jets to the Western Massachusetts skies. A large isochronal inspection hangar (known as the ISO dock) to facilitate the maintenance of the massive Galaxies was built alongside the older DC hangar. Many structures that were built during the 1940s through the 1960s were either torn down or modernized. The old fighter alert “sheds” were demolished in the early 2000s, and a new air traffic control tower was built and commissioned, replacing the old structure. Since 2003, Westover has been named a Joint Reserve Base, as other Armed Forces Branches have established their presence on the base’s grounds.
Today, the AFRC’s 439th Airlift Wing operates 16 C-5B aircraft at Westover. The Wing has been targeted for redistribution of some of those aircraft to other bases, and will operate just eight modernized C-5Ms in a few years if the current Air Force plan is followed. Retirement of older aircraft and unit realignment are the driving forces in the drawdown. The 439th Wing will operate the Air Force Reserve’s only C-5 ISO maintenance facility, one of only three remaining in the country. As has been the case since the C-5 was introduced to Westover, the 439AW’s jets and personnel are routinely deployed worldwide.
Westover’s history is not unique as far as military bases go. Westover’s Joint Use agreement, executed when SAC vacated the air base in 1974, predates the current Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) process by some years. When many SAC facilities in New York and New England closed during the initial waves of BRAC in the 1980s, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units put the remaining infrastructure to good use. Parts of, or all these bases have either been demilitarized into civilian operations, or changed to a dual use status, following Westover’s example.
For many long-time residents of the Pioneer Valley, lasting memories of Westover Air Base include the great air shows that were produced regularly from the 1960s, and still continue today. During its SAC years, Westover invited some special aircraft such as British Vulcan and USAF B-58 Hustler bombers to their shows. Historic Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard aircraft took part too, including most Century Series fighters and transports like the C-124 and C-97. EB-57E Canberras of the Vermont ANG, which were stationed at Westover for a short period while still serving with the active Air Force, regularly attended. The Air Force Thunderbirds were headliners, as were the home town flyers, whether they were in B-52s and KC-135s, C-123s and C130s, or the C-5. Visits from the Canadian Forces’ Snowbirds and Italy’s Frecce Tricolori jet teams have occurred during the past two decades too. With the flat Tobacco Valley terrain, Westover was and still is a great air show venue.
At today’s Westover ARB, there is a bit of the old, including 70-year old hangars, mixed with the new, like the 439AW’s ISO dock and the airport control tower. The civilian air terminal was once an alert bunker for B-52 bombers. It’s a very interesting time capsule to look through; full of old and newly-minted history.
Article by Ken Kula
Photo Credits: historical photos by Ken Kula and via the U.S. Air Force’s 439AW Public Affairs Office; current base photos credit to U.S. Air Force/SrA. Kelly Galloway.
Many thanks go to Lt. Col. James Bishop and his team at the 439AW Public Affairs office for providing me with information about Westover. Senior Airman Kelly Galloway deserves special thanks, as she provided many of the current and archival photos of the base for this article.