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Wendover Air Force Base

Second Air Force - Emblem.png

Part of Second Air Force (2d AF)
Located near: Wendover, Utah
B-29 Enola Gay w Crews.jpg
B-29 Superfortress "Enola Gay" and its crew, trained at Wendover Field.

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Type Army Airfield/Bombing Range/Test and Development
Coordinates Latitude:
Built 1940–45
In use 1941–1965
Still in use
Tooele County, Utah

Wendover Air Force Base is a former United States Air Force base in Utah now known as Wendover Airport. During World War II it was a training base for B-17 and B-24 bomber crews. It was the training site of the 509th Composite Group, the B-29 unit that dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. In 2009, a hangar at the base dubbed The Manhattan Project's Enola Gay Hangar was listed as one of the most endangered historic sites in the U.S.[1]

After the war, Wendover was used for training exercises, gunnery range and as a research facility. It was closed by the Air Force in 1969, and the base was given to Wendover City in 1977. Tooele County assumed ownership of the airport and base buildings in 1998, and the County continues to operate the airfield as a public airport. A portion of the original bombing range is now the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) which is used extensively by the Air Force with live fire targets on the range.


Wendover Air Force Base's history began in 1940, when the United States Army began looking for additional bombing ranges. The area near the town of Wendover was well-suited to these needs; the land was virtually uninhabited, had generally excellent flying weather, and the nearest large city (Salt Lake City) was 100 miles (160 km) away (Wendover had around 100 citizens at the time).[2] Though isolated, the area was served by the Western Pacific Railroad, and many of its citizens were employed by the railroad.

Construction of the base and ranges began in September–November 1940.[3] The first military personnel arrived in August 1941. Facilities were Spartan, with a few barracks, officer quarters, and a mess hall. There were also some warehouses, a theater, a medical facility, and a few other buildings located on the airfield. By the end of 1941, Wendover airfield had been expanded with additional buildings and paved runways.

Wendover Air Base became a subpost of Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City on 29 July 1941. By that time a total of 1,822,000 acres (737,300 hectare) had been acquired for the base and associated gunnery/bombing range.[3] The gunnery range was 86 miles (138 km) long and 18–36 miles (29–58 km) wide. To provide water, a pipeline was run (1943) from a spring on Pilot Peak (Nevada) to the base.

The first military contingent arrived on 12 August 1941, to construct targets on the gunnery range.[3]

World War II

With the entrance of the United States into World War II, Wendover Field took on greater importance. For much of the war the Wendover AAF and the Alamogordo AAF (in NM) provided the Army Air Force's largest bombing and gunnery ranges.

In March 1942 the Army Air Force activated Wendover Army Air Field and also assigned the research and development of guided missiles, pilotless aircraft, and remotely-controlled bombs to the site. The new base was supplied and serviced by the Ogden Air Depot at Hill Field.

Control Tower at Wendover

World War 2 barracks

Aerial photo of Wendover AAF looking north, 1943

Abandoned World War II housing units at Wendover Army Air Field

In April 1942, the Wendover Sub-Depot was activated and assumed technical and administrative control of the field, under the Ogden Air Depot. The Wendover Sub-Depot was tasked to requisition, store, and issue all Army Air Forces property for organizations stationed at Wendover Field for training.

By late 1943 there were some 2,000 civilian employees and 17,500 military personnel at Wendover. Construction at the base continued for most of the war, including three 8,100' paved runways, taxiways, a 300,000-square-foot (28,000 m2) ramp, and seven hangars. By May 1945 the base consisted of 668 buildings, including a 300-bed hospital, gymnasium, swimming pool, library, chapel, cafeteria, bowling alley, two movie theatres, and 361 housing units for married officers and civilians.

South of the main airbase and runways, a facility was built for development of the technology necessary to drop the first atomic weapons. These buildings were known as the "Technical Site", and were located as far as possible from the rest of the base for security and also for safety in the event of an accident. Today they are abandoned but still standing.

Heavy Bombardment Group training

Wendover's mission was to train heavy bomb groups. The training of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Consolidated B-24 Liberator groups began in April 1942, with the arrival of the 306th Bomb Group flying B-17s.

From March 1942 through April 1944 Wendover AAF hosted twenty newly formed B-17 and B-24 groups during one phase of their group training. In March 1942, heavy bomber training was a two-phase program, with each phase being six weeks. Later, the training was changed to a three-phase program, and each stage lasted four weeks. Wendover would do the second-phase training.

At Wendover, these groups utilized the huge Wendover Bombing and Gunnery Range southeast of the airfield.

Heavy Bomb Groups Trained at Wendover Army Air Base
Group Type Destination Training dates
306th Bomb Group B-17 Eighth Air Force April–August 1942
302d Bomb Group B-24 Operational Conversion Unit July–September 1942
308th Bomb Group B-24 Fourteenth Air Force October–November 1942
100th Bomb Group B-17 Eighth Air Force November 1942 – January 1943
379th Bomb Group B-17 Eighth Air Force December 1942 – February 1943
384th Bomb Group B-17 Eighth Air Force January–April 1943
388th Bomb Group B-17 Eighth Air Force February–May 1943
393d Bomb Group B-17 Operational Conversion Unit April–June 1943
399th Bomb Group B-24 Operational Conversion Unit April–December 1943
445th Bomb Group B-24 Eighth Air Force June–July 1943
448th Bomb Group B-24 Eighth Air Force July–September 1943
451st Bomb Group B-24 Fifteenth Air Force July–September 1943
458th Bomb Group B-24 Eighth Air Force July 1943 – September 1943
461st Bomb Group B-24 Fifteenth Air Force July 1943
464th Bomb Group B-24 Fifteenth Air Force August 1943
467th Bomb Group B-24 Eighth Air Force August–September 1943
489th Bomb Group B-24 Eighth Air Force October 1943 – April 1944
490th Bomb Group B-24 Eighth Air Force October 1943
494th Bomb Group B-24 Seventh Air Force December 1943 – April 1944
457th Bomb Group B-17 Eighth Air Force December 1943 – January 1944
Source: Hill Aerospace Museum

509th Composite Group

By late 1943, Manhattan Project scientists were confident enough to direct the Army Air Forces to begin preparations for the atomic bomb's use against Germany and Japan. The AAF concluded that the Boeing B-29 Superfortress aircraft would be the most suitable delivery vehicle in either theater of operations. In April 1944, Gen. Henry H. Arnold selected Col. Paul Tibbets, to form and train a group to drop the device. Tibbets chose the remote Wendover Army Air Field over Great Bend, Kansas, and Mountain Home, Idaho, as the location for the Silverplate training program. The 509th's training was classified Top Secret; therefore the desert isolation of Wendover Field was ideal.

For a short time, beginning in May 1944, Wendover field trained fighter groups. However, this was abruptly canceled in September 1944. In September, Boeing B-29 Superfortresses arrived on the field, as part of an operation code named "Silverplate". They would begin preparations for the dropping of the world's first atom bomb.

This operation required utmost secrecy. The base was given the code name "Kingman" and the activity to assemble, modify and flight test prototype bombs was named "Project W-47".

In September 1944 the 393d Bomb Squadron, nearing completion of its training as part of the 504th Bomb Group, was moved to Wendover. In November 1944 the 393rd was reassigned directly to the Second Air Force and in December became the core of the new 509th Composite Group. As part of the buildup of the 509th, about 800 people stationed at the field, were transferred into the group and began training. Some of the other units transferred were the 390th Air Service Group, the 320th Troop Carrier Squadron (the "Green Hornet Airlines"), the 1395th Military Police Company, and later the 1st Ordnance Squadron. In addition, qualified personnel throughout the military were filtered into the group. Security was so intense, that 400 FBI agents were involved to help maintain it. Personnel were instructed to talk with no one about their activities, not even among themselves. Those who did were immediately transferred from Wendover to other assignments, some as far away as Alaska.

Most of the 509th Composite Group's training was done at Wendover. Crews were trained to drop one bomb with a high degree of precision, and to execute a sharp turn after dropping it in order to avoid the effects of the nuclear blast. These practice bombs were called "pumpkins" because some were painted orange, and because one of the two types being tested had a round shape.

The 215th Base Unit (Special) continued constructing prototype atomic weapons (without the nuclear material) and drop testing them. Little was known about the flight characteristics of the prototype atom bomb designs and how the fusing mechanism would work. Much time and effort was spent to perfect the design of the prototype bombs, which were later called Fat Man and Little Boy. Much of the technical work was done outside the site but the prototype bombs were assembled there. Once assembled they were loaded into specially modified B-29s and then dropped over Wendover's bombing ranges and elsewhere. The flight characteristics of the bomb would be noted, analyzed at a different location by scientists, and changes in design would be ordered. This continued until shortly before the weapons were deployed.

The aircrews trained continuously for the classified mission until May. In late April 1945, Colonel Tibbets declared the group combat ready and the ground echelon moved to its new home, North Field, Tinian, in the Marianas, on 29 May with the air echelon following on 11 June.

JB-2 Loon Testing

JB-2 Loon being inspected by USAAF personnel at Wendover AAF, 1944.

In early September 1944, a detachment of the Special Weapons Branch, Wright Field, Ohio, arrived at Wendover with thirteen JB-2 Loon flying bombs. The JB-2 was a United States copy of the Nazi V-1 flying bomb, which was reverse-engineered from malfunctioning wrecks of V-1s recovered in England. The United States JB-2 was different from the German V-1 in only the smallest of dimensions.[4]

At Wendover AFB, a launch ramp was constructed for the JB-2, engineered from plans developed from aerial photographs of ramps used by the Germans in the Low Countries. In addition to the ground launch ramp, a B-17 Flying Fortress was modified to be able to carry the jet bomb underneath a wing aand air launch it. Numerous tests were conducted and an initial production order was 1,000 units was made by the Army, with subsequent planned production of 1,000 per month.[4]

The fortunes of war in Europe in the spring of 1945 led to the decision to use the JB-2 in the Pacific Theater, to be used as part of the planned invvasion of Japan (Operation Downfall). The sudden end of the war in September 1945, caused by the atomic bombs dropped by the 509th Composite Group, based only a few hundred feet away on the Wendover ramp, led to the curtailment of the JB-2 program and the weapon was never used in combat.[4]

The remains of the launch site are visible in aerial imagery just to the south of the "Technical Site" buildings (40°41′53″N 114°02′29″W / 40.69806°N 114.04139°W / 40.69806; -114.04139). However visitors can only see them from a distance since the site is on the grounds of the still-active bombing and gunnery range.

Postwar use

The training of B-29 aircrews and the testing of prototype atom bombs was the last major contribution of Wendover Field during World War II. After war's end, some crew training continued, but at a reduced level. For a while, B-29s which had returned from the Marianas were flown to Wendover for storage. In the summer of 1946 the Ogden Air Technical Service Command assumed jurisdiction over all operations at Wendover Field except engineering and technical projects.

Wendover played a key role in the postwar weapons development industry. Three areas were being developed. The first were further testing of the JB-2 Loon flying bomb. The B-17 Flying Fortress, obsolete as a combat aircraft, was being tested to fly remotely. Gliding bombs, based on captured technology from the wartime Henschel Hs 293 German radio-controlled glide bomb were being developed that could be controlled by radar or radio. The third consisted of bombs that could be controlled by the launching plane. The historic GAPA (ground to air pilotless aircraft) Boeing project resulted in the first supersonic flight of an American Air Force vehicle on 6 August 1946.[5]

In March 1947, the Air Proving Ground Command research programs were moved to Alamogordo Army Airfield, New Mexico. as a result, 1,200 personnel from Wendover Field were moved to New Mexico from Utah and were relocated to Alamogordo to conduct guided missile research projects. Three ongoing projects were transferred: Ground-to-Air Pilotless Aircraft (GAPA), JB-2 Loon flight testing, and ASM-A-1 Tarzon gliding bomb. Transferred to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in 1947, Wendover was used by bombardment groups deploying on maneuvers. With the establishment of the U.S. Air Force as an independent service, the installation was renamed Wendover Air Force Base in 1947, inactivated in 1949 and retained in a caretaker status. It was transferred to the Ogden Air Material Area at Hill AFB in 1950 and the range continued to be used for bombing and gunnery practice.

Tactical Air Command (TAC) reactivated the base in 1954 and tactical units deployed there for exercises, utilizing the base for the next four years. TAC invested several million dollars renovating facilities. Wendover was transferred back to Ogden in 1958 and renamed Wendover Air Force Auxiliary Field, while the range was renamed Hill Air Force Range in 1960.

By 1965 the airfield was closed. The non-flying components were inactivated in 1969 and the entire facility was declared surplus in 1976.

In July 1975 the base was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1977 the federal government deeded much of the airfield to the City of Wendover, including the runways, taxiways, flight line, former hospital complex and hangars. Some acres, including the radar site, were retained by the military.

Beginning in 1980 the 4440th Tactical Fighter Training Group (Red Flag), Nellis AFB, Nevada, used Wendover for exercises, but they were discontinued after 1986.

Current uses

Today this former Air Force Base is used as a civil airport, with an unusually long runway for such a facility (there are two 8,000' long runways). The facility was turned over to the town of Wendover as a municipal airport, named Decker Field.

Many of the buildings are leased for storage, and there is a daily charter flight (using Boeing 737 jetliners) into the airport carrying casino gambling charter passengers. A few General aviation aircraft are based at the field. Located at the west end of a corridor running between two restricted USAF gunnery ranges, the field is a convenient refueling and lunch stop for light planes traveling between Salt Lake City and Nevada or Northern California.

Wendover is one of the most intact World War II training airfields. It is also one of the most historic. The airfield is very isolated in northwest Utah, sitting in the middle of a vast wasteland miles away from any major population center. It is probably for this reason, and the dry hot climate, that much of the airfield remains today.

Still-extant facilities include the vast runway system, numerous ramps, taxiways, dispersal pads, and most of the original hangars (including the Enola Gay B-29 hangar). Most of the hospital complex and many barracks remain, as does a chow hall, chapel, swimming pool and many other World War II-era buildings. The control tower is still in use. A local group, "Historic Wendover Airfield", is attempting to preserve the former base.

Numerous films and television shows have been filmed using Wendover Field.

One of these was the 1973 TV-movie Birds of Prey, in which stunt pilots flew and maneuvered helicopters inside one of the large hangars, possibly the first time this had been performed.

In addition to a post-war military base backdrop for the 1996 film Mulholland Falls, Wendover Field also stood in for the exteriors of Area 51 in the 1996 film Independence Day. Several flying scenes for the 1997 movie Con Air were filmed at Wendover, using Fairchild C-123K Providers, one of which was modified into a nonflying "prop" mounted on a bus chassis. Donated by the producers of the film, it now remains on the ramp as an attraction for visitors.

The northeast/southwest runway (3/21) has been pulverized and was used for base course material for the new 8/26 runway. The old east/west runway (7/25) was used by USAF engineers training for runway demolition and repair and is unusable. A joint program with the Utah National Guard will attempt to turn this into an assault training landing strip for C-130 and other aircraft. The mid-field east/west runway (8/26) is new, constructed in 1998 and is used as the main precision runway for the commercial Boeing 737 flights.

The base is also host to the Wendover Residency unit of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, as well as several exhibition spaces and workshops that resident artists and researchers use.

The Wendover airfield control tower is no longer in use. Visitors may ask permission to visit the now-empty tower cab for a panoramic view of the field.

The base is also used by Civil Air Patrol as the home of Desert Hawk Encampment.

See also


  1. 11 sites make new list of 'endangered historic places', at
  2. Wendover Air Base website (unofficial)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Wendover Air Base website
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 U.S. Air Force Tactical Missiles, (2009), George Mindling, Robert Bolton ISBN 978-0-557-00029-6
  5. Wendover AFB postwar history

External links

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