As World War II engulfed Europe and Asia in 1941, the United States readied its defenses by establishing new military bases in the interior of the country. Rapid City Air Force Base trained crews to fly B-17 Flying Fortress airplanes and became home to the 88th Bombardment Group and the 17th Bombardment Training Wing in October of 1942. Between 1942 and 1945, approximately 8,500 military pilots, radio operators, gunners and navigators rotated through the new facility.
As the tide of the war turned in 1944, the mission of the Rapid City Air Force Base changed. The new B-29 bomber had been developed to fly long range bombing runs over Japan. Crews had to be trained for these missions. In August 1945, soon after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered, ending World War II.
The Cold War Mission
Many temporary bases around the country were closed or refurbished for peacetime uses after the war. The Rapid City Air Force Base trained weather reconnaissance and combat squadrons until September of 1946. The base was deactivated for a short period, and then reactivated in March 1947 as the home of the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance United States Air Force. Crews at the Rapid City continued training on B-29 Superfortress airplanes.
In 1948, the air force base became the Rapid City Facility Weaver Air Force Base to honor Brigadier General Walter R. Weaver who had been instrumental in the development of the Air Force. But the public never embraced the new name, and the facility’s name reverted to Rapid City Air Force Base. Rapid City Air Force Base was declared a “permanent installation” in 1948.
Salaries paid to officers, airmen and civilians employed at the base added nearly $8.6 million to the local economy by 1950.
In 1953 a Rapid City RB-36 airplane crashed in Newfoundland, taking with it the lives of 23 crew members, amongst them Brigadier General Richard E. Ellsworth.
Ellsworth was the commander of the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing. On June 13th of that year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to Rapid City to dedicate the base in Ellsworth’s memory.
During the Cold War, there were national security requirements put in place with the Strategic Air Command Headquarters replacing the B-36 airplanes with B-52 Stratofortresses in 1957. In the 1960s, Ellsworth Air Force Base entered the “Space Age” with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and Minuteman I and Minuteman II missiles being placed at Ellsworth. Because of this, Ellsworth AFB became known as “The Showplace of SAC” (Strategic Air Command) maintaining strategic bombers and ICBMs for more than 20 years without a lot of change on base.
Defense in Post-Cold War Era
The 1980s brought many changes to the air force base. In 1986 Ellsworth stopped using the older B-52 airplane fleet and began using the more technologically advanced B-1 Lancer. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ellsworth permanently pulled one of its missiles from its silo, marking the end of an era. The 44th Missile Wing was declared inactive in 1994. With the Cold War ended the Strategic Air Command was deactivated by the Air Force and Ellsworth Air Force Base was reassigned to the Air Combat Command.
Throughout the 90s the base was transitioned to new military missions. Ellsworth’s 28th Bomb Wing during Operation Desert Storm deployed both tanker and airborne command posts during from August 1990 – March 1991. In December 1998 the 28th Bomb Wing deployed B-1 airplanes and over 400 personnel to assist in Operation Desert Fox in Kuwait and Iraq. These B-1 airplanes were the first to drop bombs on an enemy target during Operation Desert Fox.
After the events of the September 11th attacks, the 28th Bomb Wing deployed a number of B-1B aircraft in support of Operation Enduring Freedom which began on October 1st, 2001. Ellsworth Air Force Base B-1 crews have flown 48 percent of combat missions during the War in Afghanistan. The 34th and 37th Bomb Squadrons were deployed to undisclosed locations from Ellsworth to assist with Operation Iraqi Freedom, also known as the Iraq War. On March 30th, 2011, the 28th Bomb Wing from Ellsworth carried out the first ever B-1 global strike mission from the United States. The crews of the 28th Bomb Wing launched from Ellsworth AFB and struck targets in Libya during Operation Odyssey Dawn.
The public can now tour the command station for one of the
former nuclear missiles on Ellsworth Air Force Base.
(South Dakota Air and Space Museum photo)
Base Realignment and Closure
In 1995, Ellsworth Air Force Base was chosen for BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure).
The Department of Defense, in selecting military installations for closure or realignment, giving priority considerations to the military value (the first four criteria below) will consider:
Current and future mission capabilities
Availability and condition of land, facilities and associated airspace at both existing and potential receiving locations
Ability to accommodate contingency, mobilization, surge and future total force requirements
Cost of operations and manpower implications
Lt. Col. Barry Hutchinson, 28th Bomb Wing chief of plans,
records control readings during a hot pit refuelof a B-1bomber
at Ellsworth Air Force Bas Feb. 12, 2013. Hot pit refueling,
usually performed in a combat environment, is a carefully controlled
processduring which two engines continue running, which reduces
maintenance turn time for the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Other considerations include:
Extent and timing of potential costs and savings, savings must exceed costs
Economic impact on existing communities in the vicinity of military installations
Ability of the infrastructure of the base to support forces, missions and personnel
Environmental impact including restoration, waste management and environmental compliance activities
Senator Tom Daschle and Al Cornella, a business owner in Rapid City, advocated against it. Senator Daschle recommended Mr. Cornella for the Base Closing Panel that would decide if Ellsworth was to stay open. The panel decided against closing Ellsworth Air Force Base.
In 2003, the state of South Dakota closed Exit 66 and moved the exit down one mile to create Exit 67A and 67B. The exit change helped keep commercial development away from Ellsworth’s runways. It was hoped that the exit move would help deter Ellsworth from being named in the next round of base closings in 2005.
Ellsworth Air Force Base was again included in the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process. South Dakota rallied to support for the base and argued successfully that Ellsworth played an important part in the nation’s defense. Ellsworth was removed from the BRAC list before it went to Congress.
In 2006, the United States Air Force decided to make Ellsworth Air Force Base home to the Air Force Financial Services Center (AFFSC). The AFFSC was opened on September 14, 2007, and provides customer service and support to over 385,000 active duty, reserve military and civilian customers throughout the world. The AFFSC is responsible for processing temporary and permanent duty travel and military pay transactions. The AFFSC employs 775 Airmen and civilians. Its mission is “to deliver responsive, world-class, 24/7 financial services and to deploy skilled warriors supporting global operations.”
The MQ-9 squadron was activated in 2012 and flew its first combat mission in November of that year. In 2010, Air Force officials chose Ellsworth Air Force Base as the site of the MQ-9 ground control station. The MQ-9 Reaper remote piloted aircraft or drone provides the United States Air Force the ability to strike emerging targets and acts as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset. Although the squadron that operates the drones is located at Ellsworth, the drones themselves are located overseas supporting global operations.
Today, the base continues to serve:
As the home of the 28th Bomb Wing, flying B-1B Lancers and providing all essential base operating services for that group
As the site of the MQ-9 drone ground control station
As home to the Air Force Financial Services Center