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The history of JBLM's airfields

McChord and Gray Field have interesting pasts

Courtesy photo On Aug. 9, 1966, Miss Washington 1966 Sandra Marth, left, assisted by Lt Col. George Demmon, 4th Military Airlift Squadron commander, christen McChord’s first C-141A as the “Tacoma Starlifter” during the bases official acceptance ceremo

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During World War I, a sod airfield was constructed at the side of today’s Gray Army Airfield. Major construction came in 1938 with two runways and buildings. On April 12, 1938, it was named Gray Army Airfield to honor Capt. Lawrence Gray, who lost his life during a 1927 free balloon flight.

One of the Gray Army Airfield’s exceptional events was the Feb. 14, 1949, ghost flight. That day, Lt. Herbert Winters checked out an L-16A Aeronca to maintain his flight status. Corporal William Kaiser came along for the ride.

Kaiser entered the plane and Winters started to spin the propeller by hand. Once the engine started, he went to the door to board. Kaiser reached over to open the door and accidentally pushed the throttle to full power.

The L-16 leaped forward knocking Winters to the ground as the plane taxied down the runway. In a panic, Kaiser jumped out of the aircraft and it lift off the runway.

It rose into the overcast skies and was heard over American Lake and Tacoma. A search was launched, but the aircraft was not immediately located. The next day, a farmer outside of Ellensburg, Wash., 90 air miles from the airfield, found the plane in his field.

It had crossed the Cascade Mountains pilotless and landed without any major damage. The plane was repaired and returned to Army service.

Gray Army Airfield would innovate in helicopter training for Vietnam and intelligence flights with fixed wing aircraft. Gray Army Airfield helicopter crews were developing missile systems to counter the Soviet tanks that had been encountered in Vietnam. Installing TOW — tube launched, optically tracked, wire-guided.


In the first year of the Korean War Military Air Transport Service from McChord Field carried 96,000 service members to the war. For the remainder of the war, transport numbers continued at a high level.

In the Vietnam War, McChord planes transported troops and material to the battlefield. On Aug. 5, 1966, in a significant event, the first C-141A, named the “Tacoma Starlifter” arrived. Miss Washington, Sandra Marth, now Hill, christened the plane.

Fifty years later, that same C-141 rests on JBLM’s Heritage Hill and was honored in a rechristening ceremony. This plane honors the 36 years that C-141s flew out of McChord. Hill, who was one of the first hosts on “Good Morning America,” attended the rechristening ceremony.

Not all the field’s flights were transport or war related. McChord fighters were ordered to the sky on Nov. 21, 1971, to track a hijacked Northwest Orient Airline commercial flight from Seattle to Portland.

On the flight was D.B. Cooper with $200,000 in ransom money. However, the jets could not fly slow enough to effectively observe the hijacked plane and did not see Cooper jump out of the plane.

Fort Lewis Soldiers would then participate in a ground search, but did not find the hijacker who remains missing.

There were many McChord Field humanitarian flights. Operation Baylift, bringing Vietnam orphans to the United States was one such effort.

On July 30, 1999, the aging C-141s were replaced with the more advanced C-17 Globemaster III. The C-17 would greatly exceed its predecessors in combat support.

Again, McChord aircrews serve the war fighters on the ground, delivering troops and military goods. They saw heavy use during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As in the past, many humanitarian flights assisted civilian populations. This was especially the case in the aid following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

McChord Field continues as an airpower giant.

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