Located seven miles north of Fort Walton Beach on the Emerald Coast of Florida’s panhandle, the Air Force Armament Museum, occupying a portion of Eglin Air Force Base, collects, preserves, displays, and interprets artifacts, weapons, bombs, and missiles from numerous wars and the aircraft that delivered them.
Eglin Air Force Base:
Eglin Air Force Base itself traces its origins to 1931, when personnel from the Army Air Corps Technical School, located at Maxwell Field in Alabama, sought a suitable site for a bombing and gunnery range. Because the forested area surrounding Valparaiso, Florida, and the expanses of the adjacent Gulf of Mexico, offered considerable potential, they set their sights on it. So, too, did James E. Plew, a local businessman and an aviation buff.
His interest, however, was financially fueled. Realizing the monetary boost to the area’s economy, which had sunken into the depths of the Depression, he leased 137 acres to the City of Valparaiso, giving rise to an airport in 1933. The following year he went a step further by donating 1,460 acres to the US government for the envisioned military facility.
Transformed into the Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Base on June 14, 1935 when it was officially activated, it was placed under the command of Captain Arnold H. Rich and redesignated Eglin Field two years later, on August 4, to honor Lieutenant Colonel Frederick I. Eglin of the US Air Corps, who lost his life in an aircraft accident that January.
World War II, not unexpectedly, had a significant impact on the fledgling facility. When President Roosevelt called for an expansion of the Army Air Corps, General Henry H (“Hap”) Arnold ordered the establishment of an aircraft armament proving ground. The Eglin facility was ultimately selected, but would hardly remain in its incubational state. Indeed, after the US Forestry Service ceded 384,000 acres of the Choctawhatchee National Forest to the War Department, an Air Corps Proving Ground was activated in 1941, and Eglin became the site of gunnery training for Army Air Force fighter pilots, as well as becoming a major testing center for aircraft, equipment, and tactics.
So significant was the new base, that it was chosen as one of the sites where Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle prepared his crews for the B-25 Mitchell raid against Tokyo from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet on April 14, 1942.
The isolated Eglin expanses had thus been transformed from disadvantage to benefit. It was here that tactics to destroy German missile installations intended to support V-1 buzz-bomb attacks on England were established.
“By the end of the war, Eglin had made a recognizable contribution to the effectiveness of the American air operations in Europe and the Pacific and continued to maintain a role in the research, development, and testing of air armament,” according to the Eglin Air Force Base website. “Eglin also became a pioneer in missile development when, in early 1946, the first Experimental Guided Missiles Group was activated to develop the techniques for missile launching and handling; establish training programs; and monitor the development of a drone or pilotless aircraft capable of supporting the Atomic Energy Commissions tests.”
The facility’s role continued to evolve. The Air Research and Development Command, partly in response to the Soviet atomic explosion, was established in early-1950, which in turn created the Air Force Armament Center the following year, for the first time bringing development and testing together. The benefits of their effects encompassed testing in actual combat during the Korean War, notching up improved air-to-air and close support tactic accomplishments.
The Air Proving Ground Center, the combined result of the formerly separate entities, was formed on December 1, 1957.
The highly instrumented Eglin Gulf Test Range, its birth child, facilitated the testing of major weapons, such as the BOMARC, Matador, GAM-72 “Quail,” and the GAM-77 “Hound Dog.”
Redesignated the Armament Development and Test Center on August 1, 1968, the initially-named Air Proving Ground Center served as the centralized location of research, development, testing, and evaluations, and was responsible for initial acquisition of non-nuclear weapons for the Air Force, an emphasis resulting from the Southeast Asian conflict.
The center’s Armament Divisions placed into production the precision-guided munitions for the laser, television, and infrared guided bombs and two anti-armor weapons systems.
Eglin Air Force Base’s importance was highlighted in 1970 when it became the training location of the Son Tay Raiders, who subsequently rescued American prisoners-of-war from a North Vietnamese prison camp. As one of the four main US Vietnamese Refugee Processing Centers in 1975, it housed and processed more than 10,000 at Auxiliary Field Two, and did the same four years later for an equal number of Cubans.
On the threshold of the 21st century, the Air Force Development Test Center was redesignated the Air Force Materiel Command’s Air Armament Center (AAC), which developed, acquired, tested, and fired all air-delivered weapons to provide superior combat capability through the three principle divisions of the Air Force Program Executive Office for Weapons, the 46th Test Wing, and the 96th Air Base Wing.
Munitions and expeditionary combat support was provided to Operations Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom.
Because the Air Armament Center was deactivated on July 18, 2012 so that the number of Air Force Materiel Command Centers could be reduced from twelve to five, and the 46th Test Wing and the 96th Air Base Wing were combined to create the 96th Test Wing, the Air Force’s largest wing now houses all of Eglin’s test and support functions.
Eglin Air Force Base itself is subdivided into ten fields. As the world’s largest military complex, it consists of 724 square statute miles of land with some 45 established test areas, 125,834 square statute miles of water, and 133,927 square statute miles of available air space. Its major weapons systems include the UH-1 helicopter, the C-130 Hercules, the KC-97, the B-17 Flying Fortress, the C-124 Globemaster, the KC-135, the B-47, the B-52, the B-1, the AT-38, the A-10, the F-15, the F-16, and the SM-65 Atlas rocket.
Weapon and War Evolution:
Both weapons and the wars in which they were used evolved throughout history.
Only 11 years after the Wright Brothers conquered sustained, powered, and controlled heavier-than-air flight in Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, for instance, the airplane, which they foresaw as an instrument of peace, assumed the opposite role when World War I’s match was lit in 1914. The US itself did not officially enter the fray for three years, however, and aviation development was restricted to the Liberty engine, installed in the de Havilland DH.4 biplane, and the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, which mostly provided pilot training. Nevertheless, the airplane’s attribute, as was soon revealed, was its ability to enable pilots to scout enemy locations and movements.
Hand-held pistols and both fixed and flexible machine guns, along with a few rudimentary bombs, encompassed the first weapons. However, the most significant technological breakthrough came with firing synchronization introduced by Anthony Fokker, whose interrupter gear ceased actual bullet release when the propeller blade was in front it, avoiding self-inflicted damaged on his Eindecker or “monoplane” series of aircraft in 1915.
During the dual-deck interval between the First and Second World Wars, significant aircraft, weaponry, and combat tactics, spurred by the necessity of war itself, evolved.
“On December 22, 1941, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met in Washington, DC, for the three weeks,” according the Air Force Armament Museum’s website. “They and their advisers shaped Anglo-American strategy for the war against the Axis powers. The two Allies agreed that Nazi Germany had to be defeated, while they fought only a holding action in the Pacific. Once the European war had been won, they would turn their combined efforts into defeating Japan.”
Technological momentum, once initiated, was unarrestable. Increasing powerplant capability installed in single- and twin-engine fighters, escorts, and torpedo-bombers and four-engine, long-range, heavy bombers, injected these designs with greater speed, maneuverability, and ordinance-carrying capability.
Nevertheless, because the two principle European and Pacific theaters differed, so, too, did the munitions used in them. Strategic tactics in the former, for example, included targeting submarine pens, hydro-electric dams, industrial plants, transportation centers, and petroleum, oil, and lubricant (POL) facilities.
Compared to the enemy formations targeted in World War I, industrial complexes, cities, and even populations often replaced them in World War II, and phosphorous and fragmentation weapons of mass destruction were soon developed.
By the conflict’s end, piston aircraft speeds had eclipsed the 400-mph mark and the first propellerless turbines were nacelle-housed and wing underside-mounted on the German Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe or “Swallow.”
Five years after the conclusion of World War II, another conflict erupted-this time in Korea.
“Just before daylight on Sunday, June 25, 1950, the North Korea People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel of latitude into the southern portion of Korea,” the Air Force Armament Museum’s website continues. “The North Koreans, supported by Russians and later by the Chinese, invaded and tried to conquer South Korea, which was supported by the United States and other countries operating under the flag of the United Nations.”
Although technology had reached the pure-jet plateau, the North American P-51 Mustang, powered by a single Merlin piston engine, was capable of operating from the frontline airstrips that turbine-powered fighters could not. Coupled with its range, maneuverability, and still-significant speed, it proved instrumental in the Korean conflict.
Although North Korean advance necessitated tactical air strategies and heavy bombers which packed the proverbial punch on supply dumps and communication lines, communist Chinese intervention, albeit still in the threatened stage, resulted in the UN political restraint on air and surface operations.
Because it was forbidden to cross the Yalu River, the sanctuary that restraint created proved advantageous to enemy forces, since they were able to stockpile supplies, build up air bases, and increasingly employ MiG-15 jet fighters.
The next conflict, that in Vietnam, raged not far away in Southeast Asia. The US Air Force, providing direct fire support and ground force air lift, sprang into action in 1965, and experienced a lower loss rate than that in any previous war, despite the fact that they delivered far more men and supplies, employed more ordinance, and flew more missions.
A cross-section of aeronautical evolution plied the skies from piston power and pure-jets to supersonic fighters. Observation types lumbered at 100 mph. B-52s, designed for nuclear strikes, dropped iron bombs. Training aircraft assumed fighter-bomber roles. Transports, once carrying passengers, released flares and defoliated Vietnamese jungle underbrush.
“These and other peculiarities form the basis of the jet age Air Force, conducting a limited war against an enemy fighting an insurgency in a jungle environment,” states the museum.
As had occurred with the border crossing of the North Koreans in that war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait marked the second time that the United Nations voted to enter war to thwart the aggression against one of its members on November 29, 1990, resulting in the 30-nation effort and the successful Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm strategies. So precise were their air attacks, that a subsequent, protracted land war was avoided.
Air Force Armament Museum:
Much of the technological development of both weapons and the aircraft that delivered them can be viewed in the Air Force Armament Museum, located on Highway 85/Eglin Parkway.
Although it was approved in 1971, the lack of a suitable facility on Eglin Air Force Base precluded its opening until an enlisted club building became available two years later. Despite its expanding collection and increasing popularity, to the tune of some 80,000 annual visitors, the structure itself fell in disrepair and was condemned five years later, in 1981. A lengthy fundraising effort ultimately resulted in the 28,000-square-foot facility that stands today, deeded to the United States Air Force. It opened its doors in November of 1985.
Encompassing both indoor and outdoor displays, it features an extensive collection of weapons, bombs, missiles, rockets, simulators, and some 30 actual aircraft, covering the World War I, World War II (European and Pacific theaters), Korean, and Vietnam eras.
Armament includes an AGM-158 joint air-to-surface Standoff missile; an ADM-160B miniature air-launched decoy; a Tomahawk cruise missile; a BUM-34F Frebee II, which was an air- or ground-launched, remote-controlled, supersonic subscale aerial target; a JB-2 pilotless, pulse jet propelled bomb; an AN-M 66A1 2,000-poumd general purpose bomb; a BQM-34A Firebee drone, which was a pilotless, swept-wing jet-powered aircraft capable of speeds of up to Mach.97; and “The Fat Man,” the second and last nuclear weapon detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, after it was dropped from the B-29 Superfortress on August 9, 1945. Its kiloton yield, equivalent to 23,000 tons of TNT, caused two square miles of devastation and 45,000 immediate casualties.
There are four significant aircraft currently on display inside the museum.
The first of these is the famed Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Powered by a 2,800-hp Pratt and Whitney R-2800-77 radial engine and dubbed the “Jug,” it was virtually invincible, remaining in the sky, despite enemy hits, because of its heavy armament, pilot armor, and self-sealing fuel tanks. Flown in every World War II theater, with the exception of Alaska, it was produced in greater quantities than any other US fighter, totaling 15,683 aircraft of all versions.
The second significant design is the P-51 Mustang. Because of its speed (437 mph) and range (2,300 miles), it was one of the most renowned Allied fighters, slicing through the sky at altitudes that varied from treetop level to 40,000 feet. Powered by a 1,695-hp Packard Merlin 12-cylinder, V-configured, liquid-cooled V-1650-7 engine, it destroyed some 4,950 enemy aircraft in Europe during the Second World War and even served in the Korean conflict.
Another important aircraft is the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, which achieved several “firsts,” including the first US Air Force one to exceed 500 mph (maximum speed was 594), the first US pure-jet to be manufactured in large quantities, and the first to be used in combat.
Designed in 1943 as a high-altitude interceptor and first flying on January 8 of the following year in prototype form as the XP-80, it was extensively employed as a fighter-bomber in the Korean War in P-80C guise. Powered by a single 5,400 thrust-pound Allison J33-A-23/35 turbojet, it had a 1,380-mile range and a 46,800-foot service ceiling. Production totaled 1,731.
Finally, the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, with its swept wing and 24,500 thrust-pound afterburning Pratt and Whitney J75-P-19W engine, says “speed,” at a supersonic 1,390 mph in the museum.
First flying on October 22, 1955, it became the mainstay of the Air Force’s fighter-bomber force, particularly in Vietnam, engaging in more strikes against enemy aircraft than any other type. The terrain guidance mode of its radar system enabled it to descend in all weather conditions over unfamiliar territory and then “ground hug” it to avoid detection, yet it had a service ceiling as high as 51,000 feet.
Of the 833 F-105s produced, the F-105D, which is displayed in the museum, was the most numerical one, accounting for 610 airframes. The aircraft holds the record for the heaviest load ever carried by a single-engine type.
Most of the airplanes in the museum’s collection are located outside.
“Driving onto the grounds of the Air Force Armament Museum, visitors first notice the array o numerous aircraft on display,” it advises. “The fastest plane ever built, the SR-71 Blackbird, is the centerpiece, flanked by numerous planes from the World War II, Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf War eras.”
One of them is the AC-47 Spooky. A DC-3/C-47 converted to a gunship, as evidenced by the three 7.62-mm SUU-11A Gatling mini-guns protruding from the three windows on the fuselage’s aft, port side, the aircraft, in an olive-green and brown camouflage livery, was initially flight-tested at Eglin Air Force Base in 1964, and the first of the type, assigned to the 1st Air Command Squadron, arrived in Vietnam on December 2.
The museum’s C-47K, construction number 44-76486, is depicted as an AC-47D, serial number 43-49010, which was one of the first 20 to have been converted to this standard.
Another historic aircraft, the Lockheed AC-130A Spectre, can be considered an old airframe outfitted with a new weapon system, which itself encompassed side-firing guns integrated with sophisticated sensors, navigation, and fire control. Its large-volume fuselage and high, obstructionless wings made it the ideal platform.
Operationally tested at Eglin Air Force Base between June and September of 1967, it was initially deployed in Vietnam on the 20th of that month, assigned to Detachment 2 of the 14th Commando Wing. Powered by four 3,750-shp Allison T56-A-90 turboprops and featuring a 124,500-pound gross weight, the Spectre accomplished several firsts, including the downing of an enemy helicopter and thus earning the nickname of the “fabulous four-engine fighter,” the evacuation of Americans from Phnom Penh in April of 1975 when it fell to Communists, the recovery f the USS Mayaguez after Cambodia captured it, the rescuing of medical students from Grenada in 1983, the partaking of the Panamanian invasion in December of 1989, and the participation in the Desert Storm effort to free Kuwait from Iraq.
The later AC-130H was equipped with 20-, 40-, and 105-mm guns.
The museum’s AC-130A example was the first off the production line in 1953.
Synonymous, perhaps, with World War II is another outdoor aircraft, the Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, which was thrown into the fray with the infamous December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although it operated in every theater of war, it was most known for its daylight strategic bombing of German industrial targets and dropped more than 640,000 tons of ordinance on Europe alone. The museum’s example sports the 96th Bombardment Group emblem.
The Boeing B-47 Stratojet, having also been Boeing designed, achieved several “firsts” of its own, including having been the first bomber with swept wings, the first to have been provisioned with a bicycle undercarriage, and the first to have been specifically built to carry nuclear weapons. Powered by six 7,200 thrust-pound General Electric J47-GE-25 turbojets, four of which were mounted in pairs, it had a 1,260-unit production run and was manufactured as a bomber by Boeing itself, Douglas, and Lockheed. Another 600 served as trainers and engaged in reconnaissance missions.
The museum’s example, with a 607-mph speed and a 133,030-pound gross weight, is portrayed as a B-47E that was operated in the 1950s and 1960s. However, it was actually the Air Force’s last operational RB-47.
Nearby is its bigger brother, the Boeing B-52G Stratofortress. Designed to fulfill the Army Air Corps’ need for a bomber with a 300-mph speed, 10,000-pound payload, and 3,000-mile range, its first appeared in B-52A form. Because high bypass ratio turbofans had yet to be devised, the mammoth high, swept-wing aircraft, with its own bicycle undercarriage, was powered by eight paired, water-injected, 13,750 thrust-pound J57-P-43WB turbojets in its B-52H version, enabling it to carry 50,000 pounds of ordinance in various configurations, along with four.50-caliber M3 machine guns in its tail turret. Its thrust and wing area endowed it with a 488,000-pound maximum takeoff weight, a 47,000-foot service ceiling, a 7,300-mile range, and a 634-mph speed, all with “straight-pipe” turbines.
Deliveries of the 744 aircraft built in all versions, which became the Air Force’s flagship bomber for more than four decades, took place between 1954 and 1962.