Defenders of Freedom, Offutt AFB Air Shows… I remember them!

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Let’s look at some air show warbird memories from Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base, which hosted a series of fantastic shows in the late 1990s and into this Millennium. Classics came from the south (especially from Texas), from the northeast, from the southeast, and from the west.  Although held in the not-so-distant past, the Defenders of Freedom Air Show is still held today, although runway construction and the Congressional Budget Sequestration of 2013 caused interruptions during the previous few  years.

First, let’s look at some history about this base. The land that the Air Base sits on has historical military significance that dates as far back as the 1890s. Originally an Army fort, the base sent troops to fight in the Spanish-American War; some of the original grounds are still visible and structures are still in use today.

The first aviation unit at the fort was a balloon company, deployed shortly after World War I.  In 1921, a flying field was constructed for military aviation and for transcontinental air mail service. In 1924, the base was named after an Omaha native who was killed in an air crash towards the end of World War I in France. After a period of relative calm, the apprehension that later became World War II caused the quiet post to rapidly expand into a manufacturing base, complete with a two-mile long runway adjacent to a massive Glenn Martin bomber plant. Later in the war, a manufacturing switch was made, and B-29 bombers were produced up through the end of the war.  Both the Enola Gay and Bockscar, the pair of bombers that dropped atomic weapons on Japan, were built in the Offutt plants. After the end of the War, the base became an Air Defense Command facility, but with a B-29 Bombardment Group stationed there.

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On November 9, 1948 the Strategic Air Command (SAC) came into being and Offutt became it’s headquarters, as Maryland’s Andrews AFB relinquished control. Strategically, because of its’ central location far away from either shore (and shorter-ranged submarine-launched missiles), Offutt AFB is in a prime location for command and control of the country’s strategic assets. It is also home to the strategically important 55th Wing, whose RC-135 Rivet Joint, Cobra Ball and Combat Sent jets monitor other nations’ strategic missile capabilities and technology from it’s relatively well protected home in Nebraska.

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But back to the warbirds… with the important aviation history that SAC has created over the years, bombers did have a big role to play at these shows.  Fifi, the Confederate Air Force’s B-29, made an appearance one year.  B-17s like Thunderbird attended an Offutt show too.  There were loads of fighters, especially P-51 Mustangs, although anything you wanted to see – bombers, fighters, trainers, transports and liaison aircraft were all on display across the sprawling ramps.

Of course, when these warbirds were interspersed with active military jet fighters and bombers, it was always interesting to listen to the “old warriors” and the “young warriors” swap tales of military life and how things have changed for air crews over the past 20 years. One year, retired Brigadier General Robin Olds appeared after the main show ended, and was treated to a P-51 jump seat ride in “SCAT VII”, his namesake Mustang. Fantastic!

 

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