On the cool, gray morning I parked before the terminal at the Alliance Municipal Airport (AIA) in northwestern Nebraska, I didn’t expect my airport archeology effort to be a lesson about the airport infrastructure that serves the nation today.
The layout of the airport’s three runways suggested that it started life as an Army airfield built during World War II. There were remaining signs—four brick chimneys standing at the head of concrete foundations—that confirmed this, but they didn’t register until later. Getting ready to put the quiet airport behind me, a TSA agent, on his way to empty a terminal trash can, asked if he could help me.
After explaining my aviation geek-quest, he said the airport started life as the Alliance Army Airfield. Pointing to the evenly spaced pillars of brick, he said the hangar chimneys were all that remained. “They trained glider pilots, paratroops, and airborne infantry here,” said the blue-shirted man. “If you’re curious, there’s a display inside that tells all about it.”
Alliance was one of 11 airfields the Army built across the state of Nebraska during World War II. Nebraska’s weather allowed for year-round flying, and it’s sparse, dispersed population made for wide open spaces, perfect for bombing, gunnery, and other training ranges.
Selecting the site in spring 1942, 5,000 construction workers nearly doubled the population of Alliance in July 1942. When they finished work in August 1943, they’d built 775 buildings and four 9,000-foot runways, long enough for C-47s to tow CG-4 gliders, full of airborne infantry, into the Nebraska sky.
After the glider troops left for their debut at D-Day, Alliance was a B-29 training base for awhile. It was declared surplus in 1945, and most of the buildings were sold at auction. And this is where the story gets interesting, as my later research into the airport revealed.
Of the 11 airfields the Army built more than 70 years ago, nine of them play an integral role in the national and state airport infrastructure. Six of them are municipal airports: Ainsworth, Alliance, Grand Island, Kearney, Lincoln, and Scottsbluff. Three are public airports, Fairmont, Harvard, and Scribner. (What is now Omaha’s Offutt Air Force Base was built before the war began.)
The National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) counts 72 airports in Nebraska. These airfield veterans represent all but one of Nebraska’s five commercial service, primary airports. Alliance is one of three airports with scheduled passenger essential air service. All the rest are public-use fields.
To give context to this contribution to the national airport infrastructure, imagine how we’d meet a similar need for training today. How much of it would be digitally simulated by civilian contractors at top dollar fees? And if we needed to build anything, whether it floats, flies, or is a home to anything that does, how long would it take, considering todays military-industrial corporate bureaucracy and political environment? Maybe we all owe the Greatest Generation a debt of gratitude more nuanced than giving them a casual thanks for their service. – Scott Spangler, Editor