HERITAGE SERIES: Lackland established Selfridge as training site

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of an ongoing series of profiles of key aviation pioneers who served at Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)

Two decades before the Air Force named a key base in his honor, Brig. Gen. Frank D. Lackland helped initiate the future Selfridge Air National Guard Base as an important center of American air power. It was Lackland who developed a training program at Selfridge that allowed the fledging Air Service to begin to take its place alongside the infantry, cavalry and other components of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Today, Lackland is primarily known as the namesake of Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. That base, known as "The Gateway to the Air Force," has served as the sole location of Basic Military Training for the Air Force since the creation of the service as a separate branch of the Armed Forces. It was at Selfridge Field in 1918, however, that Lackland first became known for his ability to create a training center.

Lackland established the Aerial Gunnery School at Selfridge in 1918, during World War I. The school trained approximately 1,000 aerial gunners for service in "The Great War." The gunnery training, along with initial pilot flight training that also took place at the base during the war, helped establish Selfridge as a key hub in the nation's military infrastructure for the next 100 years.

In an interesting twist of history, Lackland began his career as an enlisted soldier in the District of Columbia National Guard, where he served in the infantry 1903-1911. After the conclusion of his Guard service, the Virginia native was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry in the regular Army and assigned to the 11th U.S. Infantry and posted to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Along with the 11th Infantry, Lackland was posted to the Texas-Mexican border during a time of rising tensions on the border, 1913-1914. Lackland would have already moved on to his next assignment, to a posting with the 13th Infantry in the Philippines, by the time of the U.S. Expedition into Mexico in 1915.

In 1917, Lackland was transferred to the Air Service in the Army's Signal Corps and sent to Kelly Field for initial flight training. He was promoted to major upon completion of his flight training and then arrived at Selfridge in April 1918, to serve as the young air field's third commander, replacing Major L.W. McIntosh. Selfridge's first commander, Capt. Byron Q. Jones, had made the first flight at the Michigan base less than a year earlier, when he went airborne in a JN-4 Jenny on July 8, 1917.

While Jones and McIntosh had created a pilot training program at Selfridge, it was up to Lackland to get the gunnery program up and running. Jones had previously stated that he saw Selfridge as an ideal place to train "aeroplanes to sweep down from the sky" to shoot at "concrete houses, armored boats and other targets" either on the base or in the adjacent Lake St. Clair.

When Lackland arrived at Selfridge, he assigned Capt. William Pedrick, Jr., to oversee the day-to-day operation of the gunnery school, which had as many as 250 students assigned to it at a time - along with more than 50 Lewis light machine guns assigned. The students trained on land, on the lake and in the air. Lackland and Pedrick oversaw the development of a "sled" - a sort of small floating barge - from which the officer trainees would fire at targets bobbing on the water to simulate the motion of flight. (To conduct such training, the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 and forbid the use of large-caliber weaponry by the U.S., Great Britain or Canada on the Great Lakes waterway, was either temporarily suspended or ignored. Canada and the U.S. renegotiated the terms of the Treaty again after Sept. 11, 2001, to allow the Coast Guards and Border Patrols of the two nations to utilize such weapons on the Great Lakes.)

Lackland remained at Selfridge for less than a year, and was assigned as commander of Langley Field in his native Virginia in February 1919.

Lackland would eventually spend about half of his 31 years on active duty at locations in and around San Antonio. While Lackland was serving as the commanding officer of Kelly Field and commandant of the Air Corps Advanced Flying School at Kelly, 1938-1940, the air service expanded into an undeveloped area adjacent to Kelly. Known as "The Hill," the new training center was designated the Air Corps Replacement Center, Kelly Field, during World War II. From there, thousands of pilot trainees earned their wings during the war.

Earlier in his career, Lackland served as the commander of Brooks Field, also in San Antonio, and had served at Duncan Field in San Antonio. He had also served for a time as commander of what later became Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and as the air officer for 8th Corps area at Fort Sam Houston.

The presence of two adjacent bases in San Antonio, each with "Kelly" in their name and each primarily focused on training, apparently was the cause of some confusion. The decision was made to change the name of San Antonio Cadet Center and the name of Brig. Gen. Frank Lackland was the obvious choice.

Following a parade in which some 15,000 Airmen and trainees participated, with AT-6 Texan trainers flying in formation overhead, the name of the facility was officially changed to Lackland Air Force Base on July 12, 1947 - about three months before the official birth date of the U.S. Air Force.

While today's Airmen mostly know the name Lackland exclusively from the name of their basic training base, such knowledge is fitting tribute to an early air power visionary who helped create the high standards for military training that is one of the hallmarks of today's U.S. Air Force.

Comprised of approximately 1,700 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marks its 97th year of continuous military air operations in 2014.