Tinker at 80: Base a great investment for Oklahoma

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  • 72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

What started as a seemingly small investment has turned into a gold mine for both Oklahoma and the U.S. Air Force.

Thanks to the vision of a dozen Oklahoma City businessmen and the gift of 960 acres of land to the government, what is now known as Tinker Air Force Base has grown and thrived for 80 years.

It all started in October 1940, when those businessmen formed the Oklahoma Industries Foundation in an effort to attract a bomber base, an aircraft plant or an air repair depot to the Oklahoma City area. The group acquired the land and offered it to the government at no cost. While holding the option on another 480 acres, they promised to provide necessary utilities, roads and a rail spur to the airfield. Their hard work and long hours paid off. On April 8, 1941, the order was officially signed awarding the depot to Oklahoma City.

On January 15, 1942, Lt. Col. William R. Turnbull issued General Order No. 1 marking the establishment of the Midwest Air Depot. Because the installation was far from complete, operations began in downtown Oklahoma City, first in the Commerce Exchange Building and later in the Bass Building.

As February began, Colonel Turnbull announced that the new air repair center would be known as the Oklahoma City Air Depot. On March 1, 1942, the War Department officially activated the airfield. Hiring new workers accelerated as the depot competed with the Douglas Aircraft Plant going up east of the runway.

During the war years, thousands of Oklahomans and military personnel from across the United States laid the foundation of Tinker’s reputation for excellence in depot repair and maintenance. At the employment high point in late 1943, 13,500 people worked at the air depot, while another 23,000 worked for Douglas Aircraft. Nearly half of all the Tinker and Douglas workers were women who exemplified the famed “Rosie the Riveter.”

Douglas employees built more than 5,000 C-47s for World War II and at one time produced 13 Skytrains per day. Meanwhile, Tinker Toilers repaired, modified and maintained B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers. Their important “Eagle Project” enabled B-29 Superfortresses to conduct high-altitude precision bombing in the Pacific theater of operation.

When victory came, the Douglas Plant ceased operations, and everyone wondered what would become of the installation. Soon word arrived that Tinker Field would not only survive, but would expand and take over the three-quarter-mile-long facility now known as Bldg. 3001. In recognition of its permanent status, 150,000 people attended the formal dedication of Tinker Field on Nov. 18, 1945, and heard Durant native Lt. Gen. Ira C. Eaker deliver the keynote address.

In February 1946, depot employees began modifying B-29s for atomic testing near the Bikini Atoll, and the historic Enola Gay made its first visit to Tinker for an overhaul. On July 2, 1946, the depot received another name change as the Oklahoma City Air Technical Service Command became the Oklahoma City Air Materiel Area. In 1947 Tinker employees began working on jet engines and also completed a modification of Pres. Harry S. Truman’s C-54 airplane, the “Sacred Cow.”

Subsequent to creation of the Department of the Air Force in 1947, the airfield received its modern name, Tinker Air Force Base, effective Jan. 13, 1948. The year proved to be one of the most notable in the installation’s long history. Five days following a massive tornado that caused more than $10 million in damages to aircraft and facilities, another tornado threatened central Oklahoma. On March 25, 1948, base meteorologists – Maj. Ernest Fawbush and Capt. Robert Miller – issued the first official tornado warning in American history. Another form of Tinker expertise took center stage in late 1948 when the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin, and Oklahoma City depot leaders went to Burtonwood, England, to establish procedures for the successful airlift mission that saved the German city from Russian domination.

The 1950s pulled the United States and Tinker AFB into the Korean Conflict. B-29s, B-50s and B-36s came to the base for modifications necessary to combat communist aggression. The work force increased in numbers as the depot work load continued to expand. Soon, new aircraft types such as the B-47, B-52 and KC-135 were seen in Tinker hangars as Cold War deterrence ushered in another generation of weapon systems.

Base workers provided logistics support during the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The first C-141 Starlifter in the U.S. Air Force inventory, named the Spirit of Oklahoma City, was delivered to Tinker AFB in October 1964. For the next 10 years all thoughts were on the war in Southeast Asia as Vietnam-weary aircraft and Airmen passed through Tinker’s portals. During the period, more than 2,000 A-7 Corsair IIs, F-4 Phantoms and B-52 Stratofortresses received depot repair and modification.

On April 1, 1974, the Oklahoma City Air Materiel Area became the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center. Three years later, the first E-3 Sentry aircraft arrived at Tinker AFB as the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing recognized the merits of co-locating its main operating base with its maintenance and repair center. The unusual-looking radar and communications aircraft with a rotating dome on top of the fuselage became a frequent sight in the Sooner skies and a sign of American interests around the world.

In the 1980s Tinker returned to workforce and workload levels not seen since the end of the Vietnam War. Pride in aviation achievement was demonstrated when an estimated 200,000 people saw the space shuttle Columbia, riding atop a B-747, land at Tinker on April 27, 1981. In 1988 the first B-1B bomber arrived for programmed maintenance and overhaul. That same year the center assumed management responsibility for the B-2 stealth bomber.

When Operation Desert Shield began in August 1990, Tinker associate units deployed to the Near East, and the base’s aerial port of embarkation began moving cargo and troops to areas of operations. In January 1991 conventionally armed, air-launched cruise missiles, modified at Tinker, were among the first weapons fired in the Gulf War.

The Navy’s Strategic Communications Wing One relocated to Tinker in May 1992, allowing the unit’s E-6 Mercury aircraft to be maintained while providing communications to its worldwide fleet. Having the first naval operational unit assigned to an Air Force base, Tinker became a model for defense inter-service cooperation. The pace-setting practice was one of the factors enabling Tinker AFB to survive base closures in 1993 and 1995. The future looked even brighter after the 1999 announcement that the public-private team of the Oklahoma City ALC and Lockheed-Martin Corporation had won a $10 billion engine work-load bid competition. Tinker began work on the F135 engine, which powers the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, in October 2012.

Always a community partner, Tinker supported relief efforts after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 and after a devastating tornadoes struck Oklahoma County in May 1999, 2003 and again in May 2013.

After terrorists attacked the United States in September 2001, heightened security and urgency could be seen all around the base. For the first time since the Revolutionary War, foreign troops were defending the homeland as North Atlantic Treaty Organization Airborne Warning and Control System aircrews began flying operational missions out of Tinker AFB. After seven months here, NATO crews left Tinker on May 15, 2002.

In late 2011, the Air Force announced an initiative to restructure Air Force Materiel Command from a 12 center configuration to a new five-center structure. Under this organization Tinker AFB became the host site for the Air Force Sustainment Center, one of six centers under AFMC and the supporting command for readiness. The AFSC was activated on July 10, 2012, the same day the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center was re-designated as the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard was acquired in February 2015 for conversion into the KC-46A maintenance campus. The railyard is transforming into the maintenance repair and overhaul home for the KC-46A Pegasus, which will eventually replace the KC-135 Stratotanker. On July 26, 2016, leaders officially broke ground on the new campus.

The first B-52H Stratofortress to be resurrected from long term storage at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group spent nine months at Tinker in 2016 before rejoining the active strategic bomber fleet. The historic Sept. 27, 2016, flight of tail number 61-007, known as “Ghost Rider,” marked the end of the warbird’s 19-month transformation from a mothballed 55-year-old, eight-engine jet parked in the Arizona desert to a fully updated conventional- and nuclear-capable global strike bomber platform. Tinker AFB’s 76th Aircraft Maintenance Group handed over the plane 90 days ahead of schedule to Air Force Global Strike Command. The team working to bring Ghost Rider back to life was made up of members of the OC-ALC, 76th Aircraft Maintenance Group, 76th Propulsion Maintenance Group, 76th Commodities Maintenance Group, 848th Supply Chain Management Group, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, 10th Flight Test Squadron and Defense Logistics Agency.

On Nov. 16, 2018, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson announced that Tinker had been selected as the maintenance hub for the B-21 Raider. She said Tinker was selected because of its experience and expertise in large aircraft maintenance and the quality of its workforce.

After two years of cost-effective modernization of its energy infrastructure, Tinker Air Force Base dropped from first to fourth place in Air Force energy consumption in 2019.

In April 2020, the OC-ALC received the second B-52 resurrected from the boneyard. “Wise Guy” spent nearly a year undergoing PDM at Tinker before rejoining the fleet at Minot AFB, North Dakota.

In July 2020, members of the OC-ALC produced the first additively manufactured metal component successfully tested on a U.S. Air Force aircraft engine, a significant milestone for future sustainment of aircraft like the E-3 and the B-52. The OC-ALC used additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, to create a component for the TF33-P103 engine, an innovation meant to save time and improve efficiency. A collaboration between the 76th Propulsion Maintenance Group, the Reverse Engineering and Critical Tooling Lab and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Propulsion Sustainment Division produced a 3-D printed anti-ice gasket. The gasket is a critical part of safe and efficient operation of the TF33 engine, which powers the E-3, the B-52 and the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.

An historic first for the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex occurred Nov. 2, 2020, when the first KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft completed C-check maintenance by the 568th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. The aircraft, from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing stationed at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, spent 52 days undergoing maintenance. This also marked the first time in Air Force history that a fleet of aircraft will use Federal Aviation Administration techniques.

In August 2021, members of Team Tinker were actively involved in the U.S. military’s evacuation operations from Afghanistan. The 552nd Air Control Wing supported the evacuation efforts by coordinating and de-conflicting airspace, providing long-haul communications and executing data link operations to support air and ground forces. DLA Distribution Oklahoma City immediately responded to an urgent request from the Air Force to ship 11 critical life support assets valued at over $2.1 million, in support of aircraft operations from McConnell AFB, Kansas. Both the 72nd Air Base Wing and 552nd ACW provided personnel to support Joint Task Force Holloman, which served as a bed down location for Afghan evacuees, and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, to assist where needed.

In addition to the base’s 80th anniversary, the 552nd Air Control Wing celebrates 45 years of the E-3 Sentry at Tinker, Strategic Communications Wing One celebrates 30 years at Tinker and the 507th Air Refueling Wing celebrates its 50th anniversary at Tinker this year.

Members of Team Tinker will continue to carry the torch lit by those Oklahoma City businessmen in 1940 through innovation, warfighter support and cost-effective processes for many years to come.

(The Tinker History Office contributed to this article.)