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Port San Antonio’s yearlong celebration of Kelly Field’s 100th anniversary kicked off Wednesday night at the Port’s headquarters, where attendees lauded Kelly’s formative history and its role in creating middle class jobs in San Antonio.
“The great futures [of so many people] can only be built if you have a solid history and a strong past,” Port San Antonio CEO and President Roland Mower told more than 200 guests during the reception. “We owe a debt of gratitude to generations of San Antonians – the workers who formed the backbone of Kelly Air Force Base.”
Guests included U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), current and former public officials, board members, Kelly employees, leaders from companies located at the Port, and strategic partners from the U.S. Air Force and other entities.
Castro explained that Kelly allowed local graduates to stay in San Antonio and pursue jobs at Kelly rather than having to leave the city to seek employment elsewhere.
“This is a very special place in the history of San Antonio and in South Texas,” he said. “It really was a place that ushered thousands of families into the middle class here, allowed them to dream bigger for their children, send kids off to college and, most of all, to provide for their families. It also represents – the Port at least – a real transition in San Antonio’s economy.”
In 1917, the U.S. War Department authorized Gen. Frederick Funston to lease a tract of land near San Antonio for aviation purposes. What was initially called Camp Kelly eventually became Kelly Field, one of the world’s first military airfields. Over the past 100 years, Kelly Field evolved into Kelly Air Force Base, and finally into what is now the site of Port San Antonio.
Cradle of Early Military Aviation
Kelly Field has a rich history as the “cradle of early American military aviation.” Soon after the Wright brothers tested their first plane on Dec. 17, 1903, they delivered on contract to the U.S. Army the first Wright type-B airplane – Aeroplane No. 1 – to Fort Sam Houston in 1909.
On May 10, 1911, the Army sustained its first pilot fatality. That pilot was Lt. George Kelly, the namesake of Kelly Air Force Base. His crash led to the disbanding of the month-old Provisional Aero Company. Military aviation did not return to San Antonio until after Congress established the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1914. By August 1916, Congress had appropriated $13 million for aeronautics, to include setting up a training facility and the establishment of five aero squadrons.
Dodd Airfield, which was previously built at Fort Sam Houston, was deemed too small for two of the five squadrons in need of a new home. An open grassy area in the central part of Fort Sam Houston, just north of the military cemetery, is all that remains of the first military airstrip in San Antonio.
Instead, a 700-acre tract of land seven miles south of San Antonio became the home for the two aero squadrons. The U.S. government leased the land in early 1917 due to its own water source and its location next to the Missouri-Pacific railroad tracks, which allowed for easy shipment of material to the new post. The first airplanes arrived at Kelly Field on April 5, 1917, the day before Congress voted to declare war on Germany, marking the nation’s entry into World War I.
By Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, Kelly Field had graduated more than 1,450 pilots and solidified its crucial role in military aviation.
After World War I, military forces were rapidly demobilized and flight training at Kelly was discontinued. By 1922, the U.S. Air Corps decided to consolidate its flight training at Kelly and Brooks fields.
Kelly Field: Cornerstone of Kelly Air Force Base
Kelly Field’s strategic importance as a training center for American military pilots grew during the late 1930s and early 1940s by meeting the needs of a developing air force and supporting wartime efforts in World War II.
Kelly Field was reconstructed on the eve of World War II, and several buildings from that era now form the core of the property’s central historic district. The street boundaries of the historic district, located near the center of the base and east of the runways, are Billy Mitchell Road on the north, Wagner on the east, England on the south and South Frank Luke Drive on the west.
During World War II, Kelly’s civilian and military workforce increased significantly and included women, who were known as “Kelly Katies.”
Alamo Colleges Board Trustee Joe Alderete Jr. told the Rivard Report about his mother, Victoria Alderete, who became the first female forklift operator at Kelly Field.
“Mom was a skilled forklift operator,” Alderete said. “No one was to handle hazardous material unless it was my mom, because all the generals knew her and trusted her abilities.”
Alderete recalled hearing a story about a shipment of bombs that arrived with broken packaging.
“I remember my mom telling us how a general had said, ‘I don’t want anybody to touch this. Bring Vicky here,’” he said. “Mom was the only one allowed to move the damaged package that had contained the bombs.”
Once the Air Force was established as an independent military service in 1947, Kelly Field became Kelly Air Force Base. Personnel stationed at Kelly provided air transport and maintenance during the Korean conflict, throughout the Cold War, and for both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.
With a robust aerospace economy fueled by federal government and U.S. military contracts for airplane maintenance, repair, and overhaul work, Kelly Air Force Base provided workers across San Antonio a path to the middle class through well-paying jobs.
However, the dissolution of the former Soviet Union in 1991 signaled the end of the Cold War and, thus, a need to consolidate military bases. The Department of Defense realigned its operational budget to reflect the change in the strategic world order. These comprehensive, periodic reorganizations of U.S. military bases are known collectively as the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, with five rounds of base closures to date (1988, 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005).
The BRAC Commission voted in 1995 to close the San Antonio Air Logistics Center at Kelly and reassign some missions to the adjacent Lackland Air Force Base. An estimated 10,000-13,000 jobs were impacted at Kelly, which at the time was the single largest employer in the region.
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The congressionally mandated closure of Kelly Air Force Base required a transformational strategy to develop Kelly’s potential into a source of local jobs after the base’s shutdown. San Antonio was given a six-year transition period between the 1995 BRAC announcement and the base’s closure in 2001.
The anniversary provides a unique opportunity to understand how Kelly Air Force Base evolved over the past 100 years, and how early military aviation started in San Antonio.
The calendar of events celebrating the anniversary begins with the Port sponsoring a major international aerospace industry forum, the Aero-Engines Americas conference, scheduled for Feb. 2-3 with more than 200 participants from around the world anticipated to attend.
Also part of the anniversary celebration is the San Antonio Aviation and Aerospace Hall of Fame’s March 30 dinner featuring a reception, dinner, induction of 2017 honorees, and a display of current and historic U.S. military aircraft.
The year’s celebration culminates with a free event Nov. 4-5. The Port will partner again with Joint Base San Antonio on the U.S. Air Force Air Show 2017, featuring aerial stunts with both historic and state-of-the art military aircraft.