AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – For 54 years, the Amarillo Air Force Base has been decommissioned and closed. But the legacy of the base still remains.
The Amarillo Air Force Base was originally built as an Army airfield, originally named the Amarillo Army Air Field at the start of World War II and its purpose was to train aircraft mechanics and aircrew along with ground mechanics to service B-17 aircraft.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, between 1943 and 1945, basic training and special courses of instruction were conducted, and the field was later designated to train technicians for B-29 aircraft.
The field was closed in 1946 but reactivated in 1951 for the Korean War as the Amarillo Air Force Base and in 1954, the base was declared a permanent installation.
The Amarillo Air Force Base became the first Air Force all-jet mechanic-training base when it reopened in 1951.
In 1959, the base was redesignated the Amarillo Technical Training Center.
“The main function was training aircraft mechanics again only for the aircrafts of the time, the base developed from there. SAC moved in, Strategic Air Command for the B-52s and KC-135s. They kept adding more courses and the base expanded. Also, Air Defense Command had a radar sight at a corner of the base and it was active until 1968 when the base shut down,” said Chuck Accurso.
Accurso was stationed at Amarillo Air Force Base from 1964 to 1968, when the base closed, and was a radar operator control and interceptor.
“They sent me here from 1964 to 1968, and when the base closed they sent me to Oregon. I retired in ’78. I liked Amarillo and I came back. So, I’m one of the transplants. I liked it, I thought I was a good place to live, a good place to raise a family,” said Accurso.
During the time of the base operating in Amarillo, it had a tremendous boost on the economy.
“The air base employed a lot of civilian staff and of course, the airmen would come to town, buy things. The base would buy supplies, food, furniture, and other things like that. Office supplies from Amarillo, so it was real a boost to the economy,” said Dr. Perry Gilmore, the executive director of Texas Panhandle War Memorial.
After it was announced in 1964, that base was closing, both the population and economy in Amarillo took a hit.
“The population by about 1964 was about 170,000 people and had risen quite a bit over the years. By the time the base closed, by the time you get into the 1970 census, the city’s population was under 130,000,” said Chairman of the Potter County Historical Commission Wes Reeves.
Reeves said that impact can still be felt today.
“A lot of the population drain came out off the north and east side of town because they were the closest to the base. A lot of the problems we see maybe on the east side are related to the closure of the base, we just never fully rebounded in that part of the community,” said Reeves.
According to the TSHA, the last class graduated on December 11, 1968, and the base was deactivated on December 31, 1968.
Both Reeves and Accurso also debunked the rumors that the base was closed due to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“Everybody had the idea it was because this area voted Republican against Johnson, but I know for a fact that the plans were already made to close it before the election, so that theory is false,” said Accurso.
“The timing is kind of weird, isn’t it? So, in 1964 or shortly after the election, that is definitely when word came out that the base was on a closure list and that was immediately after the election in which Johnson won the presidency, and at least Potter County and maybe Randall County both voted Republican that year, at least the city of Amarillo did. You know we hear that a lot and there are folks that rely on that and swear it’s the truth. But then there are others that say there was already a need to consolidate some of the bases and it just happens that way and bases do get closed. But it makes it for a better story, I suppose,” said Reeves.
Reeves added though the base wasn’t open very long, it’s still on the mind of many Amarillioans.
“World War II era and then the 50s and 60s, but to this day people still know what you mean when you say ‘the old Air Force base.’ Even though a lot of us grew up with there not being a base there. It’s always present in our minds as a place name on a map,” said Reeves.
Right before the closing of the base, Bell Helicopter Company would expand its operations into Amarillo by taking over some of the Amarillo Air Force Base hangers to maintain a repair unit, fixing helicopters such as the UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter.
After the base closed, in 1970, the Amarillo branch of the Texas State Technical Institute open on the former base grounds. The Institute would later become Texas State Technical College-Amarillo, and according to Amarillo College, in 1995, state legislation transferred Texas State Technical College-Amarillo to Amarillo College, which would later become the Amarillo Technical Center and then Amarillo College East Campus.
Remnants of the Amarillo Air Force Base still remain, with Amarillo College East Campus repurposing many buildings, and the old military family housing area still being used as the housing division Highland Park Village managed by Amarillo College.
Accurso added that the radar sight is still partially there, and said the Federal Aviation Administration still uses the radar for their aircraft control surveillance.
In addition, the main runway at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport is the original runway of the air base and at just over 13,500 feet in length, it is one of the longest in the country for use in commercial aviation.
Dr. Gilmore said that due to its length, it was considered a secondary landing facility for NASA’s space shuttle in the case of emergency.