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March 11, 2014

Luke, 56th FW history traces back to ‘40s

RICK GRISET
56th Fighter Wing historian

Luke Air Force Base and the 56th Fighter Wing have long and meaningful histories. They both began back in the ‘40s playing major roles in World War II. They both continue to offer important contributions to the military might of the nation.

In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the annual production of 12,000 military pilots. It was determined the Army Air Corps needed eight new airfields.

On Feb. 13, 1941, Donald Scott, Phoenix city manager, announced the War Department had approved a site for a flying-training base.

The site was two miles north of Litchfield Park. It had year-round flying weather and vast stretches of Sonoran Desert close by that made the site ideal for bombing and gunnery practice. Two days later Lt. Col. Ennis Whitehead arrived. He supervised construction of the base and was its first commander.

Construction on Litchfield Park Air Base began March 31 of that year. The base was renamed on June 6 in memory of 2nd Lt. Frank Luke Jr., a Phoenix native who died in World War I as a flying ace. He was the first aviator awarded the Medal of Honor.

The first student pilot class taking advanced single-engine flying training graduated Oct. 31, 1941. With up to 546 aircraft, Luke Field flew almost 50,000 sorties a month. At that rate of activity, Luke Field surpassed one million flying hours within 31 months.

Pilots flew the North American AT-6 Texan, and Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and also trained in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and North American P-51 Mustang. During World War II, Luke Field produced 17,321 U.S. and allied fighter-training graduates. The base closed Nov. 30, 1946, after the war ended.

However, the base soon reopened. Due to the need for fighter pilots to engage in the Korean Conflict, it reopened for pilot training on Feb. 1, 1951, as Luke Air Force Base.

Pilots initially trained in the North American F-51 Mustang and Republic F-84 Thunderjet aircraft. In 1957, Luke joined the supersonic age by flying the North American F-100 Super Sabre. In 1961 and 1962, the North American F-86 Sabre flew here. Foreign military sales programs in 1964 brought the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and the Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter.

The Ling-Temco-Vought A-7D Corsair II arrived in 1969, but was reassigned a year later due to an Air Force decision for Luke to be the primary McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II training base. The first F-4 arrived in 1971 and the first next-generation fighter, the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, arrived in 1974. In 1982, the second next generation fighter arrived, which is Luke’s current main training aircraft, the General Dynamics (later Lockheed Martin) F-16 Fighting Falcon. The McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle arrived in 1988, but in 1991, the Air Force made Luke the Air Force’s primary F-16 training base. That led to the immediate reassignment of all F-15 aircraft with the last one departing in 1995.

Before the F-15E departed, the world situation changed. Leaders sensed a drop in international tensions. That perception resulted in a downsizing of the nation’s military. Senior Air Force leaders wanted the most decorated U.S. Air Force units to remain in the active force. That led to the reassignment of the highly decorated 56th FW to Luke AFB.

The 56th FW traces its roots back to the 56th Pursuit Group (Interceptor), which activated on Jan. 15, 1942, flying Bell P-39 Airacobras. The group was redesignated the 56th Fighter Group on May 15 of that year. A month later, the group received the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, which helped to make it famous.

The group began flying combat sorties on April 13, 1943, and obtained its first kill on June 12. Over the next two years, the group damaged or destroyed almost 1,600 enemy aircraft. While losing only 25 aircraft in aerial combat, 40 aces emerged.

The Air Corps inactivated the group after the war, but it was reactivated May 1, 1946, at Selfridge AFB, Mich. The group flew air defense equipped with the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star and later the North American F-86 Sabre.

The 56th FW was activated on Aug. 15, 1947, and the 56th Fighter Group became its subordinate. Wing aircraft flew west-to-east across the Atlantic on July 14, 1948, the first time military jets had ever made the crossing. Later, the wing moved to O’Hare International Airport, Ill., then to K.I. Sawyer AFB, Mich., where it was deactivated on Jan. 1, 1964.

The unit reactivated under a new name, the 56th Air Commando Wing, and later Special Operations Wing, at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AFB, Thailand, on March 16, 1967.

The city of Saigon, Vietnam, fell to the communists at the end of April 1975. A few weeks later, the Cambodians seized the merchant ship, Mayaguez and the 56th took part in rescue efforts. The next month it was redesignated the 56th Tactical Fighter Wing, reassigned to MacDill AFB, Fla., and trained F-4 crews and later F-16 pilots. It was redesignated the 56th FW on Oct. 1, 1991, and moved to Luke April 1, 1994.

Since 1941, Luke has produced more than 58,400 U.S. and allied fighter-training graduates and over 10,000 F-16 crew chiefs. Led by the 56th FW, Luke AFB truly is, “The Home of the Fighter Pilot.”




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