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Home : News : News
NEWS | March 3, 2017

A century of upgrades has Kelly Field ready for JBSA Air Show, Open House

By Jeremy Gerlach 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

(Editor's Note: This article is the first installment in a monthly series celebrating Kelly Field's centennial. Check back next month for more stories from Kelly Field's history, as well as information about the upcoming JBSA Air Show and Open House this November, which is expected to draw more than 350,000 visitors.)


This November when a host of Thunderbirds, A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-15 Eagle aircrafts take to the skies for the Joint Base San Antonio Air Show and Open House at Kelly Field, these planes will be relying on an airstrip with a century’s worth of technological progress.


From humble beginnings as a cow pasture, Kelly Field has come a long way in 100 years, said Gil Corpus, Kelly Field manager.


Corpus is overseeing a magnetic variation change scheduled to be installed in May which provides crucial support to several landing instruments the aircrafts at the air show rely on to take off and land safely.


This upgrade will help aircrafts adjust to a subtle shift in earth’s magnetic field over the past few years. It’s a far cry from some of the original work done on Kelly Field during the early 20th century, Corpus said.


“Since 1917, so much has changed,” Corpus noted. “There’s more instruments here that allow us to put landing aircraft on the center line. The field’s gotten longer and wider. It’s a different game entirely.”


Kelly Field, now under the command of the 802nd Mission Support Group, was originally commissioned as an air service training camp. It served the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force as a flying field, a flying school, and an engineering and supply hub throughout the 20th century until it was decommissioned as an Air Force base in 2001. The property was later reorganized into Port San Antonio in 2007, a public-private partnership with the city of San Antonio, which has become a major economic driver in Bexar County.


Here’s a brief look at the last 100 years of upgrades at Kelly Field:




In 1917, airfield personnel weren’t focused on magnetic variation or radar. They had more grounded concerns. Since planes of that time landed on open strips of grass and dirt, many of the first major upgrades consisted of tilling these fields using donkey and mule-driven plows to remove large rocks and other obstacles from the runway.


After the fields were cleared a small city of barracks, streets, electrical infrastructure and hangars sprung up around the landing strips, transforming what had been premium South Texas ranchland into one of the U.S. government’s largest regional airfields.




The advent of World War II saw the U.S. Army Air Corps fighting an increasingly air-based war. The airfield shifted from a hotbed of pilot training to aircraft maintenance. As a result, the airfield saw larger hangars and advanced machining equipment take up space alongside the newly paved airstrip.


In 1947, shortly after the war’s end, the newly-formed U.S. Air Force relied on these warehouses and machine shops to store and maintain its now-idle fleets of P-51 Mustang and B-29 Superfortress, among other craft.




During the 1950s, then-Kelly Air Force Base saw rapid advancement in weather mapping systems and air traffic control communications. These upgrades helped the Air Force map out its operations in Europe and Japan.


One of these operations – the Berlin Airlift – had a distinct Kelly flavor. In order to airlift food supplies to the West German population of Berlin that was surrounded at that time by East Germany, the U.S. Air Force dropped in packages from the C-54 Skymaster. The powerful engines on these planes were meticulously maintained by the mechanics at Kelly Air Force Base, the only air base depot in the country with the capacity to support this kind of operation.


Over the next several decades, Kelly AFB continued to receive specialized upgrades, such as a unique outdoor lighting system, continually-improving radar systems and runway surface upgrades, as it contributed to war efforts in Vietnam and Korea.


By the time Kelly AFB closed in 2001, the base had shifted from its special relationship with big bombers, like the B-52 Stratofortress, and was focused once again on supporting individual pilot training.




Kelly Field now serves as a logistics hub for thousands of private, commercial and military aircraft each year, according to records provided by Port San Antonio officials.


Adjusting the field’s magnetic variation change is “nothing out of the ordinary,” but will prove critical towards keeping the airstrip running smoothly, Corpus said.


Magnetic variation, also called magnetic declination, is the angle between true north and magnetic north that pilots and air controllers use to calculate travel and landing trajectories. Incorrectly calculating this angle, even by a few degrees, could take pilots to the wrong airport or cause a disastrous landing approach, according to a 2011 study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey.


If this wasn’t complicated enough, air field managers like Corpus also have to contend with occasional shifts in Earth’s magnetic field. The adjustment consists of a small change in designation in the airfield’s entry in the Federal Aviation Administration records, as well as physical signage on the runway itself.


What this means for the JBSA Air Show this November is that modern-day aircrafts soaring through the South Texas skies above Kelly Field can look forward to a routine landing after their performance.


With Kelly’s century-long track record of success, that safety will come as no surprise to Corpus.


“As it applies to the air show, everything will be business as usual,” he noted.