FLYING HIGH - A Look At 100 Years From The Sky
Since its formation in 1918,Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base and the capital city have been linked. Location was the initial common bond, but over the century-long relationship, a true partnership has emerged, one built on shared goals and shared vision that have proved key for both the area’s and the base’s prosperity. It’s changed all of Alabama too: The base’s presence in Montgomery provided impetus for the profusion of aviation and aerospace activity that’s taken off throughout the entire state. Today, as the base celebrates a milestone anniversary, the ties between Montgomery and Maxwell are stronger than ever, and the two are looking ahead to the next 100 years and what continued collaboration will bring.
In the Beginning
In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the dream of flight a reality when their bi-plane soared above the sands in Kittyhawk, North Carolina, for 12 seconds, covering 120 feet. After many more flights going longer and farther, on March 26, 1910, the duo established the nation’s first civilian flying school in Montgomery on an abandoned cotton plantation, and the first powered flight in Alabama took place. Dr. Robert Kane, Air University Director of History, explained why the Ohio-based brothers chose Montgomery. “After that very first flight, the Wright brothers perfected their plane design and got ready to patent it and then sell planes,” he said. “But they needed pilots to buy airplanes, so they decided to create their target market by giving flight lessons.” For their training courses, the brothers needed mild year-round weather and felt they’d find it in the South. Wilbur was investigating possibilities in Jacksonville, Florida, when someone told him he ought to check out Montgomery. “City leaders were thrilled to have him here; they wanted to move the city forward and saw aviation as a way to do that,” Kane said. Wooing the Wrights here was one of the newly formed Chamber’s first economic development efforts. And it was successful. “They worked hard to sell Wilbur, offering some incentives, helping him find good, flat land and even donating some materials for the hangar,” Kane said. Since the city already had the right weather, the Wrights confidently started operations here.
Though the Wrights’ school lasted only a short time, it set the stage for exciting things to come in Montgomery, most notably the establishment of Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base at the very same place that witnessed the state’s first flight.
With World War I raging, the Army Air Service (precursor to the Air Force) established Aircraft and Engine Repair Depot No. 3 at this spot in 1918, marking the foundation of what would become Maxwell-Gunter AFB. In 1922, the War Department re-named the depot Maxwell Field in honor of Second Lieutenant William C. Maxwell, an Alabama pilot who died in 1920.
The Making of Maxwell
The next major step in the base’s journey came in 1928, when the War Department decided to relocate the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) from Virginia to Maxwell Field, drastically increasing the number of personnel at the field from 210 to nearly 2,000, when the ACTS officially opened at Maxwell in 1931. The opening also signaled Maxwell’s move to become the country’s intellectual center for airpower education.
In 1941, Maxwell’s mission grew again. Air Corps established a basic school (phase two of the Air Corps’ three-phased flight training) at Montgomery’s Municipal Airport, called Gunter Field in honor of Montgomery recently deceased mayor William A. Gunter, and an advanced school (phase three) at Maxwell.
In 1946, Air University was established as a major command at Maxwell and tasked with preparing Air Force personnel for the future. It was to be different from other military education institutions, as its leaders worked to break from traditionalism and expand beyond the rigid thought and doctrine of past military education. Its importance to the nation and the overall goals of the Air Force cannot be underestimated: Maxwell is the premier Air Force educational base. “Air University is the strategic center of the Air Force,” Kane said. “It provides a very broad spectrum of education and training across several hundred professional continuing education programs, several degree granting programs and more. Currently, AU graduates about 80 percent of new Air Force officers every year, and just about every airman (enlisted, officer and reserve) will in some form or fashion be touched by AU.”
Growth at Air University and on Maxwell overall continued for decades. By the time the Vietnam War was over, the modern era of Air University was starting. AU re-energized its mission and curriculum was overhauled to “put the ‘war’ back into the war college.”
As far back as 1993, leaders at AU were deemed the “maverick thinkers” of the Air Force, and today, the base and its leadership are excelling in this role. Proof is in the efforts, started in 2013, to transform officer and enlisted professional military education programs using new education technologies and methods, such as blended learning and Internet platforms. In 2015, under the new AU commander and president, Lt. Gen. Steven L. Kwast, Maxwell
launched a new initiative, a tech-focused strategy to better prepare the Airmen who will lead tomorrow’s Air Force in an increasingly unpredictable world.
AU’s Cyber College, officially formed in 2017, is aimed directly at countering the world’s growing cyber threat. Other programs along the same lines include the e-School of Learning for officer distance learning and the AU research task forces and Integration Cell.
In 2018, Air University and Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base continue working toward lofty goals, goals that are integral to our country’s progress and safety: to formulate Air Force concepts, doctrines and strategies and to educate tomorrow’s planners and leaders in air, space and cyberspace power for the Air Force, other branches of the armed forces, federal government civilians and international organizations.
Ever since Maxwell-Gunter AFB located in the capital city, a beneficial relationship has flourished. The base has an estimated annual economic impact of $2.6 billion, and that number keeps growing, but its value goes far beyond dollars and cents, as Kane explained. “The base population provides a qualitative presence thanks to a number of collaborative events we do with the community, like this past September, when we provided some of our Air Force paintings for exhibit at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, an exhibit that drew 7,000 visitors,” he said.
As Charisse Stokes, President of Tidal IT Solutions and part of the Chamber’s cyber innovation team pointed out, base personnel contribute to the city simply by being here. “The people of Maxwell-Gunter AFB bring us a wealth of intellectual capital and information technology expertise as well as experience across several other demographics and areas,” she said. “Because professional military education occurs at Maxwell, they have a variety of personnel that spend time here and lend their skillsets and talents to the community.”
Leslie Sanders, Vice President of Alabama Power’s Southern Division, agreed. “Maxwell has a worldwide scope and impact, and it is here in Montgomery, allowing Montgomery to affect the world, again,” she said. “It also gives us an opportunity to plug into that on the private side; our partnership with the Air Force has a positive impact on our businesses’ bottom lines and on our residents’ quality of life.”
She also outlined Maxwell-Gunter’s integral role in the city’s newest and fastest growing sector, innovation and technology. “This is where we are really moving forward, working with the base on the Smart City-Smart Base initiatives and leveraging our military resources to solve problems on the civilian side,” Sanders said.
Sanders went on to stress the value of the connection that forms between Montgomerians and base personnel. “The people that work at Maxwell are integral to our community,” she said. “They can be here for six weeks to 30 years, either way, they are a crucial part of the fabric of our community.”
As Sanders mentioned, the generosity of base personnel is another positive they add to the area, donating their time and talents to give back. Airmen stationed at the base routinely volunteer to staff local events, assist local charities, plant trees, tutor area students, hold and participate in blood drives, food drives, park and public school cleanup efforts and more. “Our population volunteers and engages with many groups and organizations here, putting in tens of thousands of volunteer hours each year,” Kane said.
And many people who’ve served even a short time at Maxwell-Gunter AFB return to make Montgomery a permanent home. “One great indicator of how all the collaboration works is that Montgomery has large military retiree presence,” he said. “Folks feel welcome here and want to stay or come back. My wife and I are an example. My last assignment was Maxwell, and we decided to stay because we love the area.”
Sanders and other business and civic leaders have long understood the prominent place the military occupies in Montgomery’s past and present and the critical role it will play in the city’s future, and she’s thrilled more people are coming to the same conclusion. “There has never been a time that the partnership between the city and base has been as strong as it is now,” she said. “I think the world is going to be amazed at what is going to come out of here soon.”
Don’t Miss It
Celebrate Maxwell AFB’s 100 Year Anniversary April 6-7, 2018 with a centennial themed Biscuits Baseball game on Friday night and a Riverfront Block Party on Saturday. Visit visitingmontgomery.com for complete details.
Host with the Most
In 2015, the warm welcome and strong support that Montgomery has consistently provided to all who live and work at Maxwell earned the city a prestigious national award, the Altus Trophy. The recognition is presented annually to the city that has shown the most “outstanding support to an Air Education and Training Command base,” and Montgomery was chosen from many other cities for the distinction. The city is proud to be recognized as the “Best Hometown of the Air Force.”
Maxwell-Gunter AFB’s presence in Montgomery brings with it multiple positive impacts like the cultural breadth and depth that Air University’s International Officer School brings. The program brings close to 250 officers and their families from countries all over the globe – Israel, Australia, Japan and more – to live and learn in Montgomery each year. Area families volunteer to sponsor these students and their families. Since 1954, more than 11,000 international military students from 143 countries have graduated from IOS preparatory courses and added some international flavor to our community.
The Montgomery community (city, county, state, private industry, DoD contractors and our higher education institutions) have worked with Maxwell-Gunter AFB to create an innovation center that will allow all these entities to collaborate and innovate more efficiently. “MGMWERX will be an off-base innovation center,” said Joe Greene, The Chamber’s Vice President, Military & Innovative Strategies. “It will allow Air University to collaborate with our tech companies and universities on issues of importance to cyber and national security,” he said. Located in downtown Montgomery and funded by the Air Force, it will be a spot where the military can share ideas and expertise with our tech creatives. It will also allow students attending courses on base to work with tech innovators in the private sector.
Thanks in large part to Maxwell- Gunter AFB’s presence here, Montgomery has grown to become a hub of military aviation advancements and information technology, with multiple IT companies headquartered here to support contracts and services for the Maxwell-Gunter IT complex. The bases are also crucial players in the city and Chamber’s TechMGM initiative, collaborating heavily with the community on multiple tech and cyber initiatives. Here are a few points to ponder from Joe Greene, The Chamber’s Vice President, Military & Innovative Strategies:
There are two broad categories of focus for the Air Force in Montgomery.
1) Thought leadership and education of Air Force leaders at Maxwell, and
2) managing, developing, procuring and defending all the technical and software systems for the ENTIRE Air Force (worldwide).
These two complimentary focuses led General Kwast (former AU commander) to create the Air Force Cyber College under Air University that seeks to train Air Force leadership to think more critically about the newest form of warfare: cyber warfare.
TechMGM has created the internet exchange, developed the RSA Datacenter, established coding communities and accelerated tech certification programs and is currently working with Alabama Power and other entities to lay an extensive fiber network downtown and to the bases to support these efforts.