Clinton County Air Force Base

 

In 1947 the Army Air Force was reconstituted as a separate military branch - The United States Air Force, and Clinton County Army Airfield became Clinton County Air Force Base. Originally home to the glider program, CCAFB found a new mission that would prove just as historic, not only to military aviation, but civil as well.

Weather has always been the bane of aviation - more specifically "bad" weather. Continuous rain and heavy fog can reduce visibility down to zero obscuring the ground from the pilot's eyesight. In the early years of aviation there was but one solution to this problem - don't fly. Air transportation was expected to literally "take off" after WW II in an unprecedented explosion of growth. In order for safe and reliable (on schedule) air transportation to become reality, the Pilot had to be capable of flying in all sorts of bad weather as easily as he did when the sky was clear and the sun bright. The Air Force took on this challenge in the latter years of the war by seeking to take off and land an airplane solely by instruments, with no visual cues - in "zero-zero" visibility and ceiling conditions. Driven by the infamous bad weather of England, where 8th Air Force bombing missions had been scrubbed due to fog, a special unit was formed to tackle the problem. It became known as the "All Weather Flying Detachment".

Although individual aircraft had instrumentation to fly in clouds, the land based equipment necessary to guide an aircraft to a runway for a safe landing during such conditions, was woefully inadequate. In 1944 a B-17 Flying Fortress was used at Pinecastle Army Airfield in Florida to explore the problem of landing and taking off in very low visibility conditions. The following year a B-17  took off and landed solely on instruments without sight of the ground. The test people decided to find a new location where a total mixture of weather could be experienced, to include thunderstorms, sleet, and snow. The search ended at Clinton County Army Airfield, and it became known as The Clinton County All weather Flying Center.





 

C54D-1 All Weather Airline just prior to departure from Wilmington to Newfoundland to Brize Norton, UK - all on automatic pilot and on instruments.

Newly developed ground based equipment was installed at Clinton County that provided a rudimentary localizer and glideslope that could be detected by instrumentation onboard the aircraft. The tests conducted at Clinton County proved to the Air Force that airplanes could fly regularly (and safely) in deteriorating weather. Runway 22 at ILN had become the first runway in the world with a fully functional instrument landing system, now known as an ILS. To prove the concept to civilian airlines the Army Air Force operated a fleet of C-54s (DC-4) under the banner of the "All Weather Airline". For two years Douglas Transports flew from Wilmington to Washington, DC every day, five days a week, despite fog, snow, and thunderstorms. The All Weather Airline flew 45,510,000 miles, carrying 15,000 passengers without incident or one significant delay.
Part of the weather research involved flying into thunderstorms to investigate what happened when aircraft were subjected to multiple lightning strikes and savage updrafts and downdrafts. Phase II of Operation "Thunderstorm" was conducted at Wilmington in 1947. The Air Force selected a fleet of thirteen P-61 Black Widow Fighter Bombers with reinforced portions of the wing and nose to handle the fury of a typical Midwest thunderstorm. Many of the planes returned to Wilmington with windscreens shattered and wings pummeled by baseball-sized hail. For the test pilots it was hairy work, but valuable data was acquired and given to the University of Chicago. This data was compiled and studied, helping to further the design of future airplanes, which contributed greatly to civil aviation safety. In September of 1947 the All Weather C-54 achieved an aviation milestone by flying from Wilmington, across the North Atlantic and landing at Brize Norton, UK - all on an instrument flight plan and solely on instruments. The use of a first generation automatic pilot system was also part of the experiment. The concept was proven - Flights could be made over long distances in all kinds of weather, and more importantly - done safely.

 

P-61s of the All Weather Flying Detachment with 2 B-17s from the "zero-zero" tests and 3 C-54s from the All Weather Airline at CCAFB.

 



By late 1948 the All Weather Flying Detachment moved to nearby Wright-Patterson AFB and Clinton County AFB became host to another special project. A classified US Air Force project was based from CCAFB, known as Operation Skyhook. Skyhook involved the launch of huge observation balloons for upper atmosphere research. In January 1948 an F-51 Mustang was dispatched from Indiana to intercept an unidentified flying object detected on radar. The UFO was in fact a USAF Skyhook balloon launched from CCAFB. The pilot died in a crash while attempting to intercept the 73 ft diameter balloon. His death instigated a furor of UFO investigations and heightened civilian interest in the UFO phenomena.

In early 1958 Clinton County AFB became home to a USAF Reserve Troop Carrier Squadron composed of C-119 "Flying Boxcars". By September 1961 a reserve Strategic Air Command (SAC) KC-97 Tanker Squadron took up quarters. A NIKE air defense missile site was constructed southwest of the facility in addition to construction of alert hangars for several F-101 Voodoos assigned to the base. In 1969 CCAFB was home to the 302nd Special Operations Squadron Field Training Detachment tasked to train AC-119/AC-130 Gunship crews. The "Spooky" and "Spectre" units were subsequently deployed to action in Vietnam.

 

KC-97 StratoTanker

In 1972 the Department of Defense permanently closed Clinton County Air Force Base after 30 years of service as a vital military installation. It appeared that the Base would fade into obscurity and its history end with its closure. It didn't, and the next decade would see unprecedented expansion and new history written.


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