America’s First Defense Airport
On Memorial Day Weekend 2017, Millville, NJ celebrated the 75th anniversary of Millville Army Airport- “America’s First Defense Airport”- by continuing a long tradition of hosting air shows. This year’s show welcomed back the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, who last appeared at Millville in 2007.
The story of Millville Army Air Field starts with the Millville Flying Club (chartered November 9, 1939) petitioning the city to build a local airport. The Flying Club’s dream came true on February 2, 1941 when, on a huge tract of wooded land, construction started under the National Defense Act of 1940 on an airfield (Moore’s Field) replete with asphalt runways. As construction neared completion, the mayor of Millville proclaimed August 2, 1941 “Millville Airport Day” by closing all businesses in the city, except drug stores and service stations. Ten thousand people attended the grand event dedicating the nation’s “First Defense Airport” that included the airfield’s first air show. Local flyers thrilled the crowd with snap rolls, inverted flying, stalls and loops, along with free airplane rides. The show concluded with a bomb-dropping contest and parachute jump. To the playing of the American National Anthem, the 2017 show opened with a parachute jump by the local Cross Keys Airport Skydive Team. Continuing the convention established in 1941, the crowd was later treated to thrilling aerobatics by Paul Dougherty in his Christen Eagle, Jacquie B’s Extra 300 and Scott Francis’ MX2 along with the Shelton’s wing walking act.
Unfortunately the Millville Flying Club never relocated to the new airfield. Several months after the dedication, the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. Millville airport was quickly taken over by the U.S. military, the flying club disbanded; its planes along with many of its members were quickly absorbed into Army Air Corps training.
Millville AAF Boresight Range remains.
In May 1942, with the airport still under construction, the Army Air Corps sent its first Operational Training Units’ (OTU) planes- P-40F’s “Warhawk” from the Philadelphia Airport’s Air Defense Wing- to provide air defense for the South Jersey region. In February 1943, the Millville Army Air Base opened as a P-47 “Thunderbolt” gunnery school for the Philadelphia Fighter Wing. With operational training flights being routinely conducted over their neighborhoods, the residents of Cumberland County soon grew accustomed to the sound of Army Air Corps plane roaring overhead as part of their daily lives. Nearly 1,500 P-47 pilots would receive their individual advanced fighter training at Millville Army Airfield. The “Thunderbolt” later proved to be the most effective WWII fighter-bomber, scoring more victories than any other American aircraft.
Operational Training Units (OTU)
After completion of individual primary and basic training, pilots were given eight to twelve weeks of advanced training in the same-type aircraft they would be flying in combat. This training practice instigated implementation of the United States Army Air Force (AAF) Operational Training syllabus. The flying portion of the Memorial Day weekend show opened with a wide variety of WWII era Army Air Force liaison planes along with primary, basic and advanced trainers that were used in WWII operational training. These fine examples joined together, circled the airfield and made numerous passes in front of the crowd. After this racetrack formation of warbirds landed, the audience was entertained by other period planes with solo demos by a PT-17 Stearman, SNJ-6 and formation flying by four SNJ-6s.
During the war, the skies over Southern New Jersey were filled with not only Millville’s army planes but navy and marine aircraft from nearby Woodbine NAAS, Atlantic City NAS and Wildwood NAS. P-47s, returning from aerial gunnery missions, were known to take-on some of these navy aircraft in friendly dogfights. Although strongly condemned by Army and Navy higher commands, admonishments were often ignored and these amicable skirmishes remained routine.
Along with the race track of Army planes, the Navy and Marines were also represented at this year’s air show with a FM2 Wildcat demonstration performed by Greg Shelton. Built by the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors, the FM2 entered the latter half of the Pacific War as an improved adaptation of the famous Grumman F4F-4.
Starting in early 1942, men were rushed through combat training, producing pilots and crews at a rate that is unthinkable by today’s standards. Training included firing the P-47’s .50 caliber wing-mounted guns at Atlantic City’s or Millville’s Ground Gunnery Ranges and Camera Gunnery Training over Atlantic and Cumberland Counties. Another major part of training was Skip Bombing and Aerial Gunnery (where a pilot would fire on a target being towed by another plane) that took place over the Atlantic Ocean or nearby Delaware Bay. Throughout World War II a constant flow of new pilots was needed to replace those captured, killed in action or rotated back to the States. As OTU pilots prepared for movement overseas, most of the training bases in the United States, including Millville, discontinued Operational Training and switched their emphasis instead to Replacement Training. Today, the only remaining evidence of Millville’s gunnery range is a concrete structure used to bore-sight the P-47’s .50 caliber guns. Bore-sighting was needed in order to harmonize the guns with the aircraft’s gunfire system and make alignment adjustments to the gun’s sights for zeroing in on targets from a predetermined distance.
Replacement Training Units (RTU)
Replacement pilots were first given radio range, link trainer (aka “Blue Box” flight simulator), landing gear operation, parking, and taxing preflight examinations. After successful exam completion, pilots were started on twelve weeks of Advanced Fighter Training along with one-hundred-and-twenty flying hours similar to the OTU program. Once all training was completed, pilots were drawn from the RTUs to serve in overseas units.
Accidents at Millville
Due to the fast pace of war training over the course of the war, the US Army Air Forces suffered over 54,000 accidents in the United States resulting in over 15,000 fatalities. 1944 held the all time record number for accidents resulting in a drastic increase in loss of life and aircraft. And Millville was not immune. Training accidents sometimes occurred while over water during Aerial Gunnery exercises with tow-targets being pulled by another plane. The target was connected to a ¼ inch cable along with a four-foot stiffening bar with a metal weight at the bottom, allowing the target to remain upright in flight. While firing on the target, a pilot would sometimes collide with it as he made his pass or the target would break loose into the path of the plane. Most of these collisions caused minor harm, however some resulted in a fatally damaged aircraft falling into the water below, initiating a “downed pilot” rescue mission. Today, most over-water rescue missions are carried out by the U.S. Coast Guard. Arriving at show center from their home base at Atlantic City International Airport, a USCG MH-65D Dolphin displayed to the 2017 show audience what they have been doing on a routine basis for more than one hundred years- saving lives through Search and Rescue.
Since military facilities were secured and closed to the public, civilians could only observe from the ground and rarely got a close-up view of Millville’s airplanes. However, most training accidents were over land which brought the war directly to the local communities below. Accidents or aircraft shoot-downs in a war zone sometimes resulted in downed-pilot rescue missions. Today, that task is carried out as demonstrated by the 227th Air Support Operations Squadron. The Millville air show crowd held their collective breath when New Jersey Air National Guard Tactical Airmen, hanging from long ropes slung underneath 1-150th Assault Helicopter Battalion’s UH-60 Black Hawks helicopters, were interjected at show center for a Special Purpose Insertion Extraction. Once on the ground and released from their ropes; the Tactical Airmen made their way towards the crowd line where they were met by an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.
Accidents could occur during take-off or landing, in-flight spins or stalls, in-flight fires, structural failures, or in-flight collisions. One accident of note- in August 1945, Brigadier General Hawkins, the Commander of the First Air Force, attempted to land his B-25 at Millville. The landing gear collapsed (officially being reported as mechanical failure), although it was a very common error to pull-up the landing gear instead of the flaps! At this year’s air show, all went well when B-25 “Panchito” safely landed after performing his demonstration. The last fatal P-47 accident at Millville occurred after the war on September 24, 1945. Investigations of those accidents and others led to corrective measures that help establish modern-day safety practices. During the three years of war training, there were nearly two hundred OTU and RTU accidents at or around Millville Airport, killing a total of fourteen pilots. Sacrifices of those men and so many others contributed to establishing the rules that help save lives today.
During WWII 10,000 men and women served at Millville and about 1,500 pilots received advanced fighter gunnery training in the P-40 “Warhawk” and P-47 “Thunderbolt” before the army airfield was closed in October 1945. Following the war, the airfield was returned to the City of Millville with most of the airport buildings being converted to apartments for returning war veterans. Today the airport is a hub of aviation and industrial activity as well as home to the Millville Army Air Field Museum (MAAFM). Located in the original base headquarters building, the MAAFM displays large collections of WWII aviation artifacts of national interest, including an original WWII fully-operational link trainer- all dedicated to preserving the history of “America’s First Defense Airport.”