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With BRAC Changes, Pope Air Force Base Returns To Its Roots

In August 2005, nine members of the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission deliberated behind closed doors for four days. The outcome of those discussions changed the face of Pope Air Force Base and its historic relationship with Fort Bragg and the surrounding community.

The commission decided, among other far-sweeping recommendations, to close Pope as an Air Force installation and turn it over to the Army. Becoming an Army airfield is nothing new to Pope, since it was established as such in the first place.

The War Department established the airfield a year after it created Camp Bragg in 1918 as an artillery training post. The airfield served purely a support function for Camp Bragg. It consisted of a few single-engine biplanes and observation balloons. Their function was to spot for artillery units, report forest fires, deliver mail, and provide aerial photography and mapping services.

The Army named Pope Field after First Lt. Harvey Halbert Pope, who died on Jan. 7, 1919, when his 90-horsepower, two-seat JN-4 Jenny biplane plummeted into the Cape Fear River. Sgt. Walter W. Flemming occupied the second seat and also perished.

In creating Pope Field in 1919 – only 15 years after the first successful heavier-than-air machine-powered flight at nearby Kitty Hawk – Pope Field and later Pope Air Force Base would eventually become one of the oldest installations in the Air Force.

In 1927, Pope Field edged away from a strictly support function to developing tactics that would play a significant role during World War II. During that year, Maj. Carl Spaatz led a flight of 14 twin-engine biplane bombers from Pope to a condemned bridge spanning the PeeDee River in South Carolina. His mission was to evaluate the effectiveness of aerial bombing structures.

The first major expansion of facilities at Pope Field occurred in the early 1930s. Construction included 32 buildings consisting of administration buildings, two hangars and 21 family residences. A three-story Georgian Revival structure named after Sgt. Flemming served as the command headquarters during World War II. Flemming Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 and today still houses administrative offices, including the Office of History for the 43rd Airlift Wing.

The one- and two-story family residences built along Etheridge, Maynard and Virgin streets also were added to the National Register of Historic Places, as were Hangars 4 and 5. The homes were initially constructed on concrete foundations with hollow tile masonry walls, wooden floors, painted stucco exterior and tile roofing.

In 1940, dirt runways and taxiways were paved and expanded to accommodate Pope’s role as a troop carrier, glider and airborne operations training center and the use of larger aircraft. A year later, Pope troop carriers made airborne history by performing the largest parachute demonstration of that time. More than 500 paratroopers participated in the mass drop.

Yet another significant event occurred two years later, when a squadron of A-20 Havoc attack bombers from Pope Field sunk the first German submarine off the coast of Cape Hatteras. The squadron was the first to engage an enemy off the U.S. coastline.

However, during most of WWII, Pope Field remained a trooper carrier, glider, and airborne operations training site, supporting nearby Fort Bragg and Camp Mackall, whose troop numbers swelled to more than 150,000 soldiers. In December 1943, the 440th Troop Carrier Group would call Pope its home before departing for combat missions in Europe. Ironically, the 440th would again return to Pope Army Airfield 64 years later as part of the BRAC decisions.

In September 1947, Pope Army Airfield became Pope Air Force Base with the activation of the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch of the military. In December of that year, the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Group with its sleek single-engine P-51 Mustangs arrived at Pope. Beginning in 1954, the 464th Troop Carrier Wing made Pope its home until 1971 when it deactivated and was replaced by the 317th Mobile Airlift Wing.

Modernization brought new aircraft into the Air Force inventory: the C-119 Flying Boxcar, the C-123 Provider, and the C-129 Super Skytrain. However, it was not until 1963 that Pope Air Force Base saw its first four-engine turbo-prop C-130 boasting a 17-ton payload. The C-130 would remain the mainstay of Pope Air Force Base. In fact, during the late 1980s and 1990s, the C-130s were at times older than the pilots flying them. Some of those older airplanes were grounded in 2005 because of structural fatigue.

During the mid 1960s, Pope Air Force Base again became a training center, this time for flight crews destined for Vietnam. The abundance of dirt runways, drop zones, paratroopers and low-flying airborne operations made Pope extremely suited for such training.

During peace time, Pope missions included humanitarian flights: aiding earthquake victims in Chile, snowbound citizens in the northeast, and hurricane survivors in the coastal regions. However, Pope’s function as a tactical troop carrier and re-supplier was always a priority mission.

In the early dawn hours of October 25, 1983, 18 Pope C-130s dropped U.S. Army Rangers on the Point Salines Airport in Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury. To avoid antiaircraft guns placed high along hills overlooking the airport, the C-130s flew below the aiming capabilities of the guns; however, that required the Rangers to parachute from an altitude of only 500 feet, making their reserve parachutes ineffective if they were needed.

Operation Urgent Fury would become a warm-up for future combat missions. Pope pilots would come in harm’s way supporting airborne operations in Panama, the Middle East and the Balkans. However, nowhere did the dangers of routine airborne operations hit home more than on July 1, 1987, when several thousand spectators witnessed a C-130 crash and erupt into a fireball before their eyes during a low-level equipment delivery demonstration. The crash killed four crew members and a solider who had been sitting in a vehicle at the end of the runway. That incident demonstrated to the public the hazards of what the Air Force considered routine tasks performed by C-130 pilots.

A major change in how Pope operated came in June 1992, when the Air Force established a composite wing consisting of a squadron of F-16 fighter jets, a squadron of A-10 Thunderbolts ground support fighters, and two C-130 airlift squadrons. The 23rd Flying Tigers was a composite wing that for the first time at Pope mixed fast flying jets with slower flying cargo haulers.

Two years later, on March 23, 1994, an F-16 and C-130 collided over a Pope runway causing the two F-16 pilots to eject. The unmanned F-16 crashed onto the runway and skidded toward Green Ramp where 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers were readying themselves for an upcoming airborne operation. The F-16 fireball killed 24 soldiers and injured more than 100 and was the largest peacetime death toll suffered by the 82nd since WWII. Once again, the community saw first-hand the dangers of routine training.

In 1997, another Air Force remix resulted in the removal of the F-16 jet fighters and an increase in A-10 ground support aircraft. That reorganization resulted in the activation of the 43rd Airlift Wing, which continues to operate at Pope today. The 43rd operates two squadrons of aging C-130s, two A-10 fighter squadrons, and a number of support units, such as maintenance, security and medical evacuation squadron. Under the BRAC mandates, the C-130s will be transferred to Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, and the two fighter squadrons will move to Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. Earlier in June, Pope celebrated the return of the 440th Airlift Wing, a reserve unit that has been headquartered in Milwaukee for the past 53 years. The 440th will continue to provide Fort Bragg the troop and cargo delivery services that make its airborne units so effective.