The History of Burlington International Airport: The Post War Years

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Thursday September 11, 2014

This is the fourth part of a series recapping the history of the Burlington International Airport.

Extensive expansion, a surge in commercial travel, and increased safety features were new markers of history in the post war years.

Vermont Air National Guard

One of the products of World War II was the group of skilled veterans who later served as guardsmen for the the Vermont Air National Guard (VTANG). VTANG was established at the airport on July 1, 1946, with Lieutenant Colonel William M. Bowden in charge of twenty-six chartered men. This fine group was federally recognized as the 134th Fighter Squadron the following month. VTANG’s primary national mission was fighter inception with a secondary role in fighter bombing. The Eldridge Schoolhouse served as VTANG’s headquarters.

In exchange for the 29 acres allocated for VTANG facilities, the Guard agreed to take care of snow removal, maintain the field, and assist with utility costs. Safety and preparedness was second to none as they provided fire safety services, ambulances, and additional equipment to keep the grounds in tip-top shape. Alongside these duties and their flying missions, the Guard was also skilled in water rescues on Lake Champlain.

AT-6 and L-5 trainers, C-47 “Gooney Bird,” and 25 P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes (aka “The Jugs”), what did they have in common?

They were all VTANG’s first aircraft, and, seeing the need for more aircraft storage space, the federal government funded two new hangars in 1947 that were ready for use by the end of 1948. On the other end of the financial scale, the federal government stopped funding the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) a year earlier in 1946.

When it came to airport development, there was always a solution, and to cure the conflict of a financially burdened CAP, the Burlington Merchants Bureau sponsored a large aerial display from August 23-25. With the newly acquired money, the CAP invested in radio network communications equipment for state emergencies as well as CAP training on radio operation and repair.

While CAP was settled, the airport still needed room for expansion. Federal money was available thanks to VTANG, but funds were still needed at the state and city level. The Burlington voters turned down a $150,000 bond issue once, but it was approved at a special meeting shortly thereafter, in 1948. The result was the purchase of 94 acres of much-needed land, which amounted to extending the diagonal runway (to 7,000 ft.), and completion of the new administration building.

With the onset of the Korean War in the early 1950s, VTANG effectively became an active base and was considered part of the Air Force on February 1, 1951. This prompted a complete takeover of all the airport buildings with the exception of the administration building. The Air Force had $2 million to spend on runway extensions and hangars, and the 68-acre purchase resulted in an 8,000 ft. runway extension with a 1,000 ft. overturn. Seventeen homes had to be relocated or demolished, and, during this time, the Fli-Rite School came to an end.

By October 31, 1952, VTANG was released from active duty.They still kept busy after active duty release. The Air Force remained on site until 1960 and used the north side of the airport --Ethan Allen Airforce Base, and in the first couple of months of 1952, the Air Force took advantage of Vermont’s extreme weather to conduct winter maneuvers. This included “Operational Snowfall,” a six-week paratroop exercise that trained 35,000 participants over the course of its time--1,000 of whom were from the Air Force, the remaining participants were from other bases. Cold weather also suited the February 22, 1953, “Operational Cold Spot” mock airborne invasion exercise.

In 1956, the VTANG Building 890 complex was completed and remained in use until 1973, and in 1958, F-89D Scorpion Interceptors replaced the F-94Cs.

By the time 1960 rolled around, it was time for the Air Force to bid Burlington farewell. The Air Force took VTANG’s F-51Ds, and in turn, the Guard received newer F-51H Mustangs. That same year, VTANG became part of the Air Defense Runway Program (active alert 30 minutes before dawn until a half hour after dusk) and then a part of the 158th Fighter Group under the United States Air Force Air Defense Command.

On August 14, 1966, VTANG’s 20th Anniversary was celebrated in a grandiose manner; the skies offered an airshow featuring the Air Force Thunderbirds before 25,000 people. The jet age at the airport was in full swing, and VTANG had received F-102 Delta Dagger Interceptors in replace of its F-89s.

Next week, the civilian side.

A special thank you to Ed Garvey for providing historical information from personal recounts as well as from Burlington International Airport: A Pictorial History written by 1982 Airport Commissioners (Credited for Part 1). There is also historical documentation in a 2010 publication Burlington International Airport: A History 1920-2010 by James Tabor.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent