Casper: Airport Appreciation Past & Present

By Scott Spangler on November 7th, 2016

Day24-30Working my way home on US 20, about 10 miles outside of Casper, Wyoming, I approached the entrance to the Natrona County International Airport. For a moment I debated making the left turn because nearly all of the airports I’d visited in the preceding several weeks were deserted, with few signs of aeronautical life. And those small town airports that advertised their empty hangars for rent as storage units were downright depressing. Still, to the side of the drive was a sign that looked like a historical plaque, so I turned. My reward was unexpected.

casperab2The history sign said the Casper Army Air Base was one of many military fields built after America’s entry into World War II. Crews started building the base, with its four mile-long runways and 400 buildings, in April 1942. The first airplane landed and commenced training operations five months later, in September 1942, Call me seriously gob smacked. Is it “progress” that there is no way either military or civilian leaders and workers of today could duplicate this feat today?

Given the decades that had passed since the war’s end and the airport’s transfer to Cody and Natrona County, I honestly did not expect to see any of those 400 buildings. And then there was an adjacent sign listed the airport’s tenants. A mix of aviation and nonaviation businesses, they ranged from FedEx, Atlantic Aviation, and the Casper College of Aviation to Conway trucking. Still, it was warm and sunny and worth a ride down the drive to put my nose through the airport operation area fence.

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To get there, I rode past several blocks worth of long, skinny, windowless buildings with big sliding doors on each end that had clearly started life as barracks for the 20,000 airmen that arrived from their respective schools across the nation to unite as the crew of a B-17, and then, starting in April 1943, a B-24. Sprinkled among them were pilots training in the P-39, one of them being a guy named Chuck Yeager.

My wandering in the barracks area wasn’t as thorough as it should have been. Feeding my curiosity online I learned that I’d missed the Servicemen’s Club, which is now the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum, a state-run institution that covers all services and all wars with original artifacts. More importantly, it preserves the World War II murals painted on the walls by four artists who each got his own wall.

Day24-44Oh, and I learned that 90 of 400 buildings erected in the 1940s exist today, making the airport what may well be the most complete living history museum of the era in existence. Like the barracks, the base’s five hangars are still in use. Built on concrete pads and measuring 120-by-160 feet, four of them would each swallow a B-17 or B-24 whole. The fifth hangar was a double-wide, 228-by-160 feet, which could shelter two bombers. All of the hangars were, said the sign, made of wood. Corrugated metal has replaced their original tarpaper siding.

Day24-36Making up for missing the Servicemen’s Center Museum was the sign outside the Crash Station, which held three truck bays and quarters for their crews in the rear of the building. It now seems to be used as a repair shop. But back in the day, with training filling the calendar 24/7, the crash crew was pretty busy, dealing with 74 crashes. And to improve the chances of survival of the crews, Fire Chief Hurley D. Bryant designed the world’s first fuselage fog nozzle. The base machine shop built the sharp, hard-nosed nozzle that punctured the fuselage and filled it with fog, which cooled burnable substances below their combustion temperature, and oxygen, which sustained the occupants. The nozzle is still in use today.

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Wandering among the buildings it was easy to imagine the purposeful bustle that would accompany the round-the-clock training of nearly 2,000 bomber crews. Summoning up the sounds of the round engines that powered those B-17s and B-24s was a bit more difficult. Natrona is, after all, a busy working airport, and its soundtrack is, mostly, a jet whine symphony of fans, props, and rotors which is a much sweeter sound than the susurrating wind playing empty hangars. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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2 Responses to “Casper: Airport Appreciation Past & Present”

  1. Casper: Airport Appreciation Past & Present Avjet News Blog Says:

    […] These article are taken from: Casper: Airport Appreciation Past & Present Copyright to the […]

  2. Glenn Januska Says:

    Scott, a nicely written article. We’d love to have you back anytime, and we will be sure to have your next visit include the Wyoming Veterans Museum (Serviceman’s Club), it’s a tour in and of itself.

    Glenn Januska, Airport Director
    Casper/Natrona County International Airport

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