A preservation group is hoping to save one of the last remnants of an air station in southeast Iowa that closed at the end of World War Two. Today, the Ottumwa Airport handles roughly two dozen flights a day. But 70 years ago, it was the state’s busiest airport.
Just after Pearl Harbor, farmland near Ottumwa was converted into one of just 14 naval air stations in the country to train pilots for aerial combat. Ottumwa native Steve Black says only a handful of the original buildings remain on the site, including the old brick Administration Building.
“This represents not only the efforts of the greatest generation…anybody who stepped on that base, went into that building,” Black said. He and others hope to transform the building into an air and space museum. Nearly 5,000 pilots “got their wings” at the Ottumwa air station.
“They would start there, possibly never having been in an airplane, and leaving there successfully able to fly a plane,” Black said. “Otherwise, they were washed out and about a third of them were.” The Ottumwa training facility opening in March of 1943. Elsie May Cofer, who wrote the history of the air station, says pilots were trained to master the Boeing Stearman Biplane.
“If you’ve ever heard a Stearman airplane, it’s not quiet,” Cofer said. “I interviewed one fellow who had come into the base and saw 150 planes taking off from one mat and 150 taking off from another mat, just like 8 in a row, one right after the other going to the air. He said it looked like bees coming out of the hive.”
There were so many planes in the air at once, that the Navy rented farmland to build 18 auxiliary fields for takeoff and landing practice. Accidents were common, but Cofer said just 17 deaths were reported in 600,000 hours of flying. Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first black pilot and astronaut Scott Carpenter were among the Ottumwa air station’s most famous graduates.
Volunteers are already gathering exhibit materials, period flight manuals and old training films. The Stearman Biplanes vanished from the skies over southern Iowa in 1945, but if fundraising goes well, the preservation group hopes to bring one back in time for the museum’s opening in 2017, the Ottumwa air station’s 75th anniversary.