Biggs Army Airfield facts for kids
Quick facts for kids
Biggs Army Airfield
USGS 1996 photo of Biggs Army Airfield
|Owner||United States Army|
|Location||Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas|
|Elevation AMSL||3,946 ft / 1,203 m|
- Runway: 13,576 feet (4,138 m) long, 300 feet (91 m) wide, asphalt concrete (porous European mix) surface, capable of handling B-52, C-5, traffic. 1,000 feet (300 m) asphalt overrun on the "21" end of the runway.
- Taxiways: approximately 9.7 miles (15.6 km) of taxiways.
- Parking (hardstand): west ramp (near DAACG) can park 12 heavy aircraft, the hot cargo ramp can park 3 heavy aircraft, the heavy load can park 6 heavy aircraft, and the main ramp has been recently refurbished and can facilitate parking of over 100 helicopters.
- Parking (aprons): 3,600,000 square feet (330,000 m2), asphalt surface with numerous 50' X 120' concrete pads.
What is now Biggs Army Airfield started life in 1915 as an encampment at Fort Bliss, Texas, for the 82d Field Artillery. That location was on what is now Ft Bliss, approximately two miles, south southwest of the current Biggs Army Airfield. The next year aircraft of the 1st Aero Squadron used the field as a stopping point between San Antonio, Texas, and Columbus, New Mexico, in response to Pancho Villa's raid on the town. They were equipped with Curtiss JN-2 "Jennys", and their mission included scouting, observation, and courier service for the cavalry and infantry units on the ground. The field was referred to as "Fort Bliss Aviation Field". In 1919, the field was used to conduct air patrols of the US–Mexico border, when two squadrons of DeHavilland DH.4 bombers, known affectionately as "Flying Coffins", replaced the frail Jennys and the Border Air Patrol was born.
In 1920, Camp Owen Bierne opened on the site of the current airbase as a base for airship operations, but the units were soon disbanded. On 25 January 1925, the field was officially named "Biggs Field" in honor of Lieutenant James Berthes "Buster" Biggs (1897-1918), an U.S. Army Air Service officer from El Paso killed in World War I. Lieutenant Biggs was an El Paso native and a student at the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy who on October 27, 1918, was killed in a plane crash at Beltran, France. On 30 June 1926 the original Biggs Field was closed and Camp Owen Beirne was renamed Biggs Field. Camp Owen Beirne had been a National Guard camp and was the location of the large airship hangar that would be a Biggs landmark for many years. Major units assigned were:
- 1st Bombardment Group, 16 June 1919 – 30 June 1926 (DH.4B)
- 3d Bombardment Group, 12 November 1919 – 2 July 1921 (DH.4B)
- 2d Airship Company, 15 November 1919 – 30 June 1926
Between the two World Wars, Biggs served as a refueling stop for transient aircraft. When the United States entered World War II in late 1941, Fort Bliss was home to the largest horse cavalry force in the nation, the 1st Cavalry Division. The Division continued to patrol the border during the early years of the war. However, the need for maintaining an outdated horse cavalry along the border all but vanished in 1942 when Mexico declared war on the Axis powers. In 1943, the War Department dismounted the 1st Cavalry Division.
World War II
With World War II imminent, a massive construction effort was begun at Biggs Army Airfield from 1942 to 1945. The field itself was moved to its present location. Huge hangars and longer concrete runways were built to accommodate Army Air Corps bombers and other aircraft as Biggs assigned to Second Air Force in 1942. During World War II, Biggs Army Airfield became a hub of training activity for Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberators.
Enough construction was completed by the late summer of 1942 to allow the 303d Bombardment Group to begin training with B-17Fs under Second Air Force on 7 August. Already formed, the group began what was known as third phase training at Biggs AAF. The third phase aimed at developing effective unit operation, the goal of the entire program. It included extensive exercises in high-altitude formation flying, long-range navigation, target identification, and simulated combat missions. By the end of August the group was deployed to the European Theater of Operations, assigned to the VIII Bomber Command in England, where it became one of the Eighth Air Force's most highly decorated units.
A period of organization and continued construction followed, with II Bomber Command taking over training. The 16th Bombardment Training Wing was activated to provide 2d phase heavy bomber training. Training provided at Biggs stressed teamwork of bomber crews formed during their initial first phase of training, with emphasis made on bombing, gunnery, and instrument flight missions performed by full crews. Known units that trained at Biggs were:
- 94th Bombardment Group, 1 November 1942 – 1 January 1943 B-17s
- 380th Bombardment Group, 2 December 1942 – 4 March 1943, B-24s
- 389th Bombardment Group, 1 February-18 April 1943, B-24s
In April 1943, the 330th Bombardment Group was established at Biggs to begin replacement training (RTU) of personnel, rather than the training of entire groups. The RTU system necessitated a few important changes from the traditional organization and administration of combat units. Men designated as replacements were sent to Biggs and received instruction in their specialties, particular attention being given to instrument and night flying exercises for pilots, cross-country tests for navigators, target runs for bombardiers, and air-to-air firing for gunners. Once assigned personnel completed replacement training, they were assigned to deployed combat units where they joined established crews. Operational training, however, continued under the 16th BTW.
- 389th Bombardment Group, 1 February – 18 April 1943, B-24
- 392nd Bombardment Group, 1 March – 18 April 1943, B-24
In April 1943, the airfield came under the command of the Second Air Force and became headquarters for the XX Bomber Command. The 330th Bombardment Group became an operational B-29 Superfortress (very heavy) group and trained at Biggs with the new bomber before being deployed to the Pacific Theater, after which Biggs became a replacement training base for B-29 aircrews.
After World War II, B-29 Superfortress personnel-replacement training ended in October. Control of Biggs went to Continental Air Command on 20 November 1945. The support units and base units at Biggs were under the 471st Air Service Group beginning in September 1945. Initially placed under Third Air Force control, XIX Tactical Air Command moved in from Germany in early December. The 362d Fighter Group, which had been in Europe, moved in from the inactivating Seymour Johnson Field, North Carolina, where it had been training with long-range P-51H Mustangs for deployment to the Pacific. At Biggs, the 362d became one of the original groups of the postwar Tactical Air Command (TAC), but the group was inactivated on 1 August due to postwar budget restrictions.
With the activation of TAC, the new command assigned Headquarters, Ninth Air Force to Biggs on 28 March upon its return from Germany. This, however, was a temporary relocation as Headquarters, Ninth Air Force moved to Greenville AFB, South Carolina, on 31 October 1946.
With the inactivation of the 362d, its personnel and aircraft were assigned to the newly reactivated 20th Fighter Group. Also the 47th Bombardment Group (Light), was moved to Biggs in October 1946 from Lake Charles Army Airfield, Louisiana (now Chennault International Airport) when Lake Charles was transferred to Strategic Air Command. The 47th operated A-26 Invaders, but began to upgrade to the new B-45 Tornado tactical jet bomber beginning in early 1947.
On 27 September 1947, Biggs Army Airfield became Biggs Air Force Base with the establishment of the United States Air Force, replacing the Army Air Forces. On 1 October 1948, control of Biggs was transferred to Strategic Air Command, however a joint-use agreement was established with TAC to allow operation of the 20th Fighter Group and 47th Bombardment Wing until the end of 1948 while SAC organized and also built a new jet runway for strategic bomber operations. TAC moved the 20th Fighter Group to Shaw AFB, South Carolina in October where it became part of the new 20th Fighter Wing; the 47th Bomb Wing moved to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana in November.
Strategic Air Command
97th Bombardment Wing
Prior to the takeover of Biggs by SAC in October 1948, it had previously moved the B-29 Superfortress-equipped 97th Bombardment Group to the base in May. The 97th Bomb Group was previously stationed at Smoky Hill AFB, Kansas (now Salina Municipal Airport), however it had been deployed at Mile 26 Field, now Eielson AFB, Alaska since November 1947 to provide a strategic-bombing force east of the Bering Strait as part of the early Cold War maneuvering of United States Strategic Forces against the Soviet Union.
While in Alaska, the 97th Bombardment Wing had been activated under the Hobson Plan, and the 97th Bomb Group became a subordinate organization under the wing. Eighth Air Force assumed control of the wing on 16 May 1948 and the entire organization was moved to Biggs on 22 May 1948. Upon arrival, the 97th Bombardment Wing became the host organization at Biggs, taking over from the TAC 47th Bombardment wing over the summer.
The 97th operated B-29s from Biggs, and participated in numerous exercises, operational readiness inspections, and overseas deployments. It deployed twice to the United Kingdom as part of SAC's forward rotation of B-29 groups to Europe. The group element was left unmanned from 10 February 1951 to 16 June 1952 after its second forward deployment to England when the group was inactivated when the Air Force reorganized its wings into the tri-deputate system.
The 97th Air Refueling Squadron, activated in March 1949, saw its manning increase as it received its first KB-29P in January 1950. Its mission, as stated in the wing's history, was: "to extend the range of the strategic bombers." The 97th was the first unit to operate the new boom-type or "American-type" equipment. As such it had the burden of testing the equipment and standardizing the operating procedures. The unit received KC-97 Stratofreighters in 1954 to replace its KB-29s.
Beginning in 1950, the 97th Bomb Wing received its first B-50 Superfortress, an improved version of the B-29 capable of delivering atomic weapons. As crews trained and became qualified in the B-50, the wing transferred some of its B-29s to second-line reserve units or were sent to reclamation as obsolete.
The 97th experienced two mission changes in 1955. First, the 340th Bombardment Squadron, a subordinate unit, started flying RB-50Gs on electronic reconnaissance missions. The 340th went to RAF Upper Heyford, England and to Tachikawa Airfield, Japan on intelligence gathering missions and operated in this capacity for over a year. Meanwhile, the other bombardment squadrons (the 341st and the 342d) in the 97th started replacing the propeller-driven B-50s with new B-47E Stratojet swept-wing medium bombers in 1954, capable of flying at high subsonic speeds and primarily designed for penetrating the airspace of the Soviet Union.
In 1958, the ability of the B-47 to penetrate Soviet airspace became compromised by improvements to the Soviet air defense system. The B-47s began to be retired, and maintenance teams began to retrain for duty in the Air Force's latest bomber, the B-52 Stratofortress. A further change to the 97th Bomb Wing was made when Eighth Air Force reassigned the wing to its 4th Air Division in 1959 with its pending receipt of B-52 aircraft. It then reassigned the 97th to Blytheville Air Force Base, Arkansas, leaving Biggs on 1 July 1959.
95th Bombardment Wing
Along with the B-50-equipped 97th Bomb Wing, Strategic Air Command established the 95th Bombardment Wing at Biggs in June 1952 and planned to base its heavy B-36 Peacemaker heavy bomber at the base. The B-36 was the largest mass-produced piston engine aircraft ever made, and was the first bomber capable of delivering all the nuclear weapons in the US arsenal from inside its two bomb bays without aircraft modifications. Although technically obsolete, the B-36, as the only truly intercontinental bomber, was the primary nuclear weapons delivery vehicle SAC until the late 1950s when the B-52 Stratofortress began to be deployed to operational Wings.
With the arrival of the 95th Bomb Wing in June 1952, the host unit at Biggs was changed to the SAC 810th Air Division, which operationally controlled both the 97th and 95th Bombardment Wings. Activated as an intermediate command echelon of Strategic Air Command, the 810th AD assured the manning, training, and equipping of assigned units to conduct long range bombardment missions with its assigned B-50D Superfortress and B-36 Peacemaker strategic bombardment Wings using either nuclear or conventional weapons.
In August 1953, the first B-36D arrived at Biggs, although the majority of aircraft received were the later-model B-36J-III models with a higher operational ceiling, strengthened landing gear, increased fuel capacity, armament reduced to tail guns only and reduced crew. The 95th operated in support of Strategic Air Command (SAC)'s global commitments and deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and operated under control of 3d Air Division from, July–November 1955.
Beginning in 1959, the B-36s were sent to Davis-Monthan AFB for reclamation as B-52B Stratofortresses began to arrive, being transferred from the 99th Bombardment Wing at Westover AFB, Massachusetts which was receiving new B-52Ds. Also, with the departure of the 97th Bombardment Wing for Blytheville AFB, the SAC 810th Air Division moved to Minot AFB, North Dakota, leaving the 95th as the host unit at Biggs.
Operational with the B-52B by 1960, the 95th Bomb Wing was part of SAC's nuclear deterrent force, and performed airborne alert patrols. The bombers routinely flew on long-range intercontinental missions and loitered at high altitude near points outside the Soviet Union to provide rapid first strike or retaliation capability in case of nuclear war. This was a part of the role of deterrence to the Soviet Union via the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction.
By 1966, the introduction of the Titan and Atlas Intercontinental Strategic Ballistic Missiles into the US Strategic Inventory lessened the need for intercontinental strategic bombers. Also, the B-52B was becoming obsolete with the introduction of newer models. To reduce costs, also in light of the escalation of combat operations in the Vietnam War, Biggs AFB was programmed for closure. The United States Army, however, saw a need for the base as a support field for its massive Fort Bliss complex. On 25 June 1966, the 95th Bombardment Wing at Biggs was inactivated, the facility being transferred to the Army on 1 July.
Biggs Army Airfield
In 1966, the USAF closed Biggs AFB in a budgetary move and released the base for Army use. In 1973, Biggs was reactivated as a permanent US Army Airfield, making it the largest active Army Airfield in the world as part of Fort Bliss.
On or around 1967 the Defense Language Institute Support Command was opened at Biggs Field. There was too great a need for interpreters to handle all of them at DLISC in Monterrey, CA. It was operational at least thru June 1969. There, Vietnamese civilians trained Army personnel in reading, writing, and speaking Vietnamese. Classes ran from 8 - 12 weeks to 32 weeks to 48 weeks. The length depending on what students were expected to know at the end of each class. At one time the base held close to 1400 service members learning Vietnamese. The training concentrated on military applications of the Vietnamese. Generally, the younger personnel were with military intelligence, almost without exception all were regular army. Once they graduated, they were sent to Viet Nam to interact with Vietnamese who were also interpreters. Some of the graduates ended up with 7th Psyops in Viet Nam as members of 3/4 ton truck operation teams broadcasting messages to the locals by loudspeakers. Others ended up as combat psychological teams trying to get Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers to Chieu Hoi or surrender under that program. These were 2 man teams with one person carrying the loudspeakers and another carrying the amplifier. When the DLISC operation closed down, the base was turned into a Sgt Major training school. (personal history of US Army personnel who attended school there)
In 1990–91, Biggs Army Airfield supported the large-scale airlift of forces and equipment deployed for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Biggs Airfield continues to host C-5 Galaxies and other Air Force airlift aircraft which transport personnel and equipment on rotation to Southwest Asia and other theaters of operation.
Biggs Field is the site of the annual "Amigo Airshow", held in October. The airfield is usually packed with spectators, as the attractions and army equipment encourage people to attend. A popular performer is the United States Navy Blue Angels, who make special appearances to perform aerobatic maneuvers for the crowd.
NASA forward operating location
The airfield was used by NASA as a layover point for the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in flights transporting the Space Shuttle from Edwards Air Force Base in California to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Aircraft assigned (Strategic Air Command)
- Boeing B-50 Superfortress (bomber)
- Boeing B-47 Stratojet (bomber)
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