This Week In AFLCMC History – February 12 - 18, 2024

  • Published
  • By Air Force Life Cycle Management Center History Office
12 Feb 1959 (Bombers Directorate)
65 years ago today, the Air Force retired its last operational Convair B-36 Peacemaker, tail number 52-2827. The B-36 had its maiden flight in 1946, just after the end of WWII. As the backbone of Strategic Air Command’s early Cold War nuclear deterrent force, the B-36 never dropped any bombs in combat. Lieutenant General C. S. Irvine, deputy chief of staff for materiel, noted in the Peacemaker’s retirement ceremony that over its lifespan, aircraft had gone from “350 to 1,200 mph;” and, indeed, the primary reason for the B-36’s retirement was that transition to jet aircraft, including the B-52 that replaced it. Although the Peacemaker had four GE J47 turbojet engines for additional power, it was primarily driven by six Pratt & Whitney R-4360 piston engines (“6 turning and 4 burning”) and propellers.
13 Feb 1951 (Mobility & Training Aircraft Dir./ISR & SOF Dir.)
From February 13-16, 1951, a critical battle took place during the Korean War around the village of Chipyong-ni, where approximately 5,000 French and American soldiers found themselves taking a stand against a much larger Chinese force. When the United Nations prevailed there, it took much of the power out of the Chinese Fourth Offensive—eventually reversing their efforts to drive U.N. forces off the peninsula. Although the battle was largely fought on the ground by the Army, the soldiers were supported throughout the engagement by airpower. More than 100 airlifters of the 315th Air Division (Combat Cargo) operated day and night throughout the battle, dropping around 420 tons of food and ammunition to troops on the ground. The Korean War was the first in which helicopters played a critical role, as well. During this battle, Sikorsky H-5 helicopters delivered medical supplies to the fight and evacuated more than 40 wounded soldiers; and the Fifth Air Force supported troops with Close Air Support missions until a friendly armored column could help relieve U.N. forces on the ground.
14 Feb 1964 (Hanscom AFB/Digital Directorate)
Sixty years ago today, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) System Program Office (SPO) was discontinued at Hanscom Field. The BMEWS itself—a series of three large radar stations in Alaska, Greenland, and Yorkshire meant to provide the U.S. with approximately 15 minutes warning if the Soviet Union launched ICBMs—continued operating. Many of the BMEWS SPO’s personnel and missions went to the Space Track SPO; but the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) Air Defense System and Back-Up Interceptor Control System SPO adopted the BMEWS SPO’s responsibilities as they related to the Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) Detection and Warning System.
15 Feb 1961 (Mobility & Training Aircraft Dir./Presidential & Exec Aircraft Dir.)
On this day in 1961, the Air Force received its first operational T-39B Sabreliner at Nellis AFB, Nevada. This twin-jet-propelled trainer, developed by North American Aviation, Inc., was designed to house three trainees at once. It was used specifically for the navigation and radar training of fighter pilots, with some alternate use as a utility aircraft; while other variants of the T-39 saw use in passenger and cargo transport. A T-39A was even converted for localized travel to ferry President Lyndon Johnson to and from his Texas ranch. In total, six of the T-39B variants were constructed.
16 Feb 1983 (Tinker AFB/Armament Dir./Propulsion Dir.)
Today in 1983, Air Force Logistics Command confirmed Tinker AFB’s Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex (OC-ALC) as the systems manager for both the AGM-129A Advanced Cruise Missile and the Williams International F112 small turbofan engine that powered it. OC-ALC was additionally named the source of repair for the F112 engine. The AGM-129A improved on the older AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile by incorporating low observable technologies into its design to increase its survivability. These nuclear-armed cruise missiles were carried and launched exclusively by B-52H bombers. The F112 engine also powered the X-36A remotely piloted aircraft and the X-50A, which was able to shift its form from helicopter-style rotary flight to fixed-wing flight.
17 Feb 1972 (Presidential & Executive Airlift Directorate)
On this date in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon took off from Andrews AFB in the Spirit of ‘76, a Boeing 707 (VC-137C) that was the first jet aircraft specifically built for the President (aka “Air Force One”). The President and First Lady were heading to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the President’s historic visit, where he became the first U.S. president to visit the country since its establishment in 1949. The week-long visit was widely regarded as an important first step in establishing and normalizing relations between the two nations. The plane, Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000, nicknamed for its tail number, served 8 presidents, from Kennedy through Clinton, and is now on display at the National Museum of the USAF.
18 Feb 1990 (Hill AFB)
Today in 1990, a WWII-era building at Hill AFB (Bldg. 130) burned to the ground, destroying both the building and approximately $200,000 worth of equipment. The fire was caused by the spontaneous combustion of wooden beams near the aging building’s heating pipes. Normally, fresh wood begins igniting at about 450°F; but, over time, prolonged exposure to heat caused the wood here to undergo pyrolysis—a chemical change that produces pyrophoric carbon, which dramatically reduces the ignition point of wood (a bit like charcoal). It eventually lowered that ignition point to the same temperature of the heating pipes, starting a fire.
AFLCMC Black History Month Highlight:
Tuskegee Airman and First Black Curator at the Smithsonian, Louis R. Purnell
Louis R. Purnell was born in Snow Hill, Maryland, in 1920. His parents were both schoolteachers; though, shortly after his birth, Purnell’s family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where his father traded teaching for a manufacturing job with the Pullman Company, constructing Pullman rail cars. When the family moved into a predominately white neighborhood in New Jersey a few years later, in 1933, Purnell’s father advised him that “to appear equal to [whites], you have to be twice as good.” Purnell would face this challenge repeatedly throughout his life, as many would prove resentful of or threatened by his achievements—particularly in academia—and attempt to hold him back in his aspirations. Even as a youth, however, he rose to the occasion—graduating high school with honors (a status reserved for the top six students in each graduating class) as the only black student in his entire grade.
Following high school, Purnell attended Lincoln University in 1939, where he earned his private pilot’s license—fulfilling a childhood dream to fly airplanes—as one of only 124 licensed black pilots in the country. Then, as the U.S. entered WWII, he sought to join the fight. He learned that the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was the only place in the country training black military aviators for the then-segregated Army, and enrolled in its seventh class of black Army Air Force aviation cadets in December 1941. There, in the South, he encountered a new level of “Jim Crow” racism he’d not faced in the northeast—later noting that “we fought two wars, one with the enemy and the other back home in the U.S.A.” He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1942, and went overseas with the 99th Pursuit Squadron—the first all-black fighter unit in the Army Air Force. He flew 88 combat missions with the Tuskegee Airmen, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with eight oak leaf clusters.
After the war, Purnell finished college and then searched for a job that could satisfy his intellectual curiosity, working everything from teaching the learning disabled to identifying the remains of unknown soldiers lost in the recent conflict. In 1961, he joined the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History—where he became an expert on nautiloid cephalopods. Overcoming the discouragement of white colleagues who told him that he didn’t “know what he was doing,” Purnell published an exhaustive catalog on these and other pre-historic invertebrates in 1968 that is still used to this day. Frustrated with the increasing intellectual jealousy in that field (including supervisors trying to take credit for the catalog they’d said he couldn't write), Purnell shifted careers once more in 1968, joining the National Air and Space Museum (NASM).
Despite his experience as a veteran and a pilot, Purnell had been warned off of applying for NASM’s Aeronautics Department by a friend who worked there, who suggested that he’d face yet more racial discrimination. He instead applied for the newer Department of Astronautics, whose chair, Frederick C. Durant, hired him on the spot after meeting with him. Purnell’s timing couldn’t have been better—right before the 1969 moon landing—and over the next decade he became a world-renown expert in spacecraft and spacesuits. It was in this department that Purnell eventually became the Smithsonian’s first black curator. Retiring from NASM in 1985, Purnell died of cancer in 2001, aged 81 years old.