Davis-Monthan Began as an Airport, Now a Force in Tucson

By David Pittman –

It was nine decades ago when “The Jazz Singer” opened, marking the end of the silent film era; when work began on the sculpture of four former U.S. presidents on Mount Rushmore; when baseball immortal Babe Ruth hit a record 60 home runs; and when pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh flew from New York City to Paris in the first solo transatlantic flight.

That same year, on Sept. 23, 1927, Tucson had its own landmark day that set in motion the series of events that have been incredibly beneficial to the Southern Arizona economy and U.S. security interests.

In fact, just four months after Lindbergh’s historic journey, the pilot flew his famous airplane, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” into Tucson to dedicate a new municipal airport, Davis-Monthan Field – named after Lieutenants Samuel H. Davis and Oscar Monthan, two World War I pilots from Tucson. It was the day the seed was planted that blossomed into Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

An anniversary celebration honoring Davis-Monthan’s 90th year in Tucson and its significant contributions will be hosted by DM50 from 4 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 5, at Pima Air & Space Museum. It is the third “Salute to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base” event organized by DM50 since 2014. Funds raised by the Salute help to ensure that Davis-Monthan Air Force Base can maintain its vital flying missions.

“DM50 is pleased to lead the birthday celebration for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which is both an American asset to our national defense and a treasure to the Tucson community,” said Bob Logan, past president of DM50, a diverse group of Tucson civic and business leaders that advocates on behalf of the base, its missions and the airmen who serve there.

“Ninety years ago, when the roots of what would become Davis-Monthan were planted, no one could have foreseen the enormously positive impact it would bring.”

D-M is one leg of a three-legged economic foundation – including Raytheon Missile Systems and the University of Arizona – that comprises Pima County’s largest employers.

An economic impact study released by the U.S. Air Force in May concluded that D-M – combined with the nearly 20,000 military retirees living in metro Tucson, many of whom served at the base – contributed about $1.54 billion to the local economy last year. The study also reported that 10,235 personnel were assigned and employed at the base, including 5,743 active duty military, 1,804 Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard members, and 2,688 civilians. The combined payroll of those employees last year was nearly $580 million.

“Davis-Monthan’s importance to Tucson cannot be overstated,” said Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “It is not only an important employment center and a significant driver in the economy of our region, but also a source of community pride and a center for our aerospace and defense sector.”

Defense dollars flowing

The U.S. military and defense contracting industries fly higher than any other in Tucson and Arizona.

Nearly $5 billion in federal defense dollars flows into Tucson annually, according to a comprehensive Bloomberg Study released in 2011. That national analysis ranked Tucson as the seventh-highest recipient of defense dollars among all U.S. cities and No. 1 in Arizona. The state receives about $15.3 billion in federal defense dollars, eighth-most among the 50 states.

“It is clear to me that the Department of Defense is the state’s largest and most important employer,” said Dennis L. Hoffman, professor of economics at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. “I don’t want to think about what Tucson would look like without defense spending.”

Tucson’s first airport

According to historical records provided by D-M, Davis-Monthan Field was not Tucson’s first municipal airport. City leaders, who were quite progressive about the future of aviation, established the first municipal airport in the United States, Tucson Municipal Flying Field, in 1919 on property where the Tucson Rodeo Grounds are today at South Sixth Avenue and Irvington Road.

The City Council authorized the purchase of the 1,280-acre site on property now part of D-M and transferred airport operations there in hopes the U.S. military would establish an aviation branch in Tucson.

A small military presence at D-M Field began Oct. 6, 1927, when Staff Sgt. Dewey Simpson transferred military aircraft refueling and service operations from the old airport. Simpson also brought a log book signed by the field’s patrons, which includes signatures of early aviation immortals, such as Amelia Earhart and James Doolittle. That registry is currently displayed at D-M’s Base Operations.

However, a military branch was not established at D-M until 13 years later when the U.S. government began preparations for entering World War II. The U.S. War Department took over Davis-Monthan Field in September 1940. It opened an Army Air Base there on April 17, 1941, and the first Bombardment Wing Headquarters assumed command. The first base commander was Brig. Gen. Frank Lackland.

Military aircraft filled the skies over Tucson until V-J Day (Victory over Japan) in August 1945.

At the end of World War II, constant airport operations ceased and D-M’s mission transitioned from training airmen for combat to the bureaucratic process of sending thousands of them home after their military service was complete.

It was around this time that Davis-Monthan, because Tucson’s dry climate and alkali soil proved ideal for aircraft preservation, took on the responsibility of aircraft storage. That mission, known as “the boneyard” is conducted by the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at D-M to this day.

Officially an Air Force base

In March 1946, the newly activated Strategic Air Command took control of the base. In 1947, the U.S. Air Force was created as a separate branch of military service and two bombardment groups at D-M achieved “Wing” status. On Jan. 13, 1948, Davis-Monthan Field was officially re-designated as Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Since the end of World War II, D-M has grown into a major military installation that resembles a small city. Throughout D-M’s history the airmen stationed there have been required to adapt to an ever-changing world that brought, among other things, a decades-long “Cold War,” the operation of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Wing, vast technological advancements in aircraft and weaponry, and deployments to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era and the Middle East during wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, as well as a Global War on Terror.

Col. Scott Campbell, the current commander of Davis-Monthan and the 355th Fighter Wing, said that through all the changing missions at the base, there has been a single constant: “Tucson’s unwavering support” for the installation.

“We could not do what we do without the active support of our neighbors,” said Campbell. “Our service members and their families are grateful to be a part of this unique city and its many surrounding communities. We are proud of our long history here, and we are proud of the dynamic local partnerships that continue to grow.”

Mayor Rothschild said those serving at D-M are part of Tucson and often give back to the community. “We often overlook the contributions that our airmen and women make to Tucson with their volunteer work and their willingness to share their time with those in need, while doing the critical work of training and deploying for the defense of our country,” he said.

There are nine major military installations in Arizona, and eight of those, including Marine and Army operations, have flying missions because of the state’s vast, usable air space and warm, sunny weather.

“There is air space over land in Arizona that I think is unmatched anywhere in the world,” said Major Gen. Ted Maxwell, commander of the Arizona Air National Guard and president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. “The Barry M. Goldwater Range is a national treasure to the military that stretches essentially from Kitt Peak to the California border and from the Mexican border all the way to Interstate 8, with service to 50,000 feet.

“The big kicker is the weather. We plan for about five non-flying days a year. You can’t do that anywhere else.”

D-M’s future

D-M continues to be held in high regard by U.S. military leaders. Last year, the Air Combat Command named the Tucson base as the winner of the annual Commander-in-Chief’s Installation Excellence Award, an honor D-M also received in 2012.

But even though D-M has a long and impressive history, support from the Pentagon and the community, a near perfect climate, and abundant air space, some Tucsonans have recently worried about D-M’s future.

Those worries were brought on by efforts by Air Force officials to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II – also known as the “Warthog” because it is not viewed among the sleekest of military jets. In fact, the Pentagon has been planning to begin mothballing the A-10 in 2018 and completely retire the aircraft by 2021. The A-10 is the backbone of the 355th Fighter Wing, the host unit and primary mission at D-M.

The argument for scrapping the A-10 has been that it can no longer survive on the battlefield against modern, high-tech air defenses and that money needed to keep the aging aircraft flying would be better spent on the F-35 Lightning II, a fifth-generation fighter that features supersonic speed, advanced electronics and avionics, a wide array of high-tech weapons and stealth capabilities.

But what the Warthog lacks in youth and good looks it makes up for in toughness and efficiency. It is a rugged, bruiser of a jet that can fly low and for extended periods of time, allowing its pilot to target small ground targets with various bombs, missiles and a powerful seven-barrel, Gatling-type cannon that can fire 4,200 rounds per minute.

“I have A-10s and I will use them because they are fantastic airplanes,” Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, chief of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, said in 2015 when he announced the deployment of Warthogs to Turkey to fight the Islamic State. And of the A-10 pilots trained at D-M, Carlisle said, those “guys are incredibly well-trained and they do fantastic work.”

It seems there is growing support in Congress to keep the A-10 flying.

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican representing southeast Arizona, a former A-10 pilot and the first woman to fly in combat, led the charge that resulted in $126 million being included in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to provide new wings, electronic upgrades and safety inspections for 110 A-10s. Those improvements are needed to keep the 2018 phase-out of the aircraft from getting underway.

There are 83 Warthogs in three squadrons at D-M, making the base home to the nation’s largest contingent of A-10s.

McSally said the A-10 is “a one-of-a-kind aircraft that is critical in any battlefield to keep our troops alive and rescue anyone trapped behind enemy lines. It is currently in the demilitarized zone protecting against North Korea aggression, destroying ISIS in the Middle East, and regularly deployed in Europe to support NATO and allies in the face of Russian aggression. It is crucial to keep the A-10 fully funded and upgraded until there is a proven, tested replacement.”

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, took a tour of D-M last year. At the end of his visit, with McSally at his side, Thornberry said there is broad support in Congress for the A-10 because it is needed for close-air support for U.S. ground troops.

“I think we are going to have A-10s for a long time,” he said.

The Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, Arizona’s own John McCain, is also a Warthog fan. “There is no weapon in our arsenal that offers more effective close air support to American ground troops serving in harm’s way than the A-10,” McCain said.

DM50’s Logan, who is assistant dean for external and corporate relations at the UA College of Science, believes the A-10’s retirement will come later, rather than sooner. Nonetheless, he warns that the Warthog, like all military weaponry, cannot go on forever.

“As a community, we must be vigilant with our congressional delegation in pursuing and welcoming any flying mission the Air Force wants to bring to Davis-Monthan,” he said. “But D-M is among the most diverse military bases in the country and is home to many vital missions. We’ll be back celebrating the base’s 100th birthday 10 years from now and continue to do so for many, many decades to come.”

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