JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
When it comes to memories of a military career, there is perhaps nothing as iconic as a Basic Military Training flight photo. The BMT Flight Photo website (https://www.bmtflightphotos.af.mil/) is rich with these photos – nearly 17,000 of them. They represent the “first step” as Air Education and Training Command celebrates its 80th anniversary, with the theme: “First Step, First Flight, First Command.”
Tracy English has been the 37th Training Wing historian since 1999 – first on active duty, and then as a civil servant when he retired from the Air Force. He named the BMT flight photo archives after his father, Master Sgt. William T. English.
“My dad was a big fan of the site and of his Air Force life,” English said. “In fact, his BMT flight photo from Sampson Air Force Base (New York) was one of the first ones that were on the site. It also proved pivotal to the collection. A member of the Sampson Air Force Base Veterans Association saw his photo on the site and reached out to me. He donated more than 400 BMT flight photos taken at Sampson!”
The vast majority in the collection are BMT flight graduation photos at JBSA-Lackland, but the “Gateway to the Air Force” hasn’t always been here. Other bases that have conducted BMT since the 1940s include Sampson Air Force Base, New York; Parks Air Force Base, California; Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi; and Amarillo and Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.
English said the biggest challenge in maintaining the site is keeping up with the information requests.
“The goal is to get an answer to everyone within 48 hours and to get the photos sent processed and placed online in a very timely manner,” he said. “People tend to get quite anxious once they send in a photo. They expect to see it online within a very short time.”
Interest in the website, which launched in 2004, has remained steady throughout the years, with spikes typically around Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Christmas.
“We can see these trends on the website and how many people are getting onto the site and which countries they are logging in from,” English explained. “Of note, we have seen people from more than 60 countries around the world who have enjoyed this awesome bit of Air Force history.”
Interest has also piqued when articles have been published in media with a large audience. In 2004, the Air Force retiree newsletter, Afterburner, featured an article on the site. Shortly thereafter, then-Maj. Rich Curry, who was a public affairs officer at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, wrote an article that was published in Airman magazine and Air Force newspapers worldwide.
“Maj. Curry had stumbled upon the site and thought it was great and did not understand why more people were not talking about it! Between his article and the Afterburner’s, the office received more than 500 photos in the following two months and another 300 in the months after,” English said. “Needless to say, the weeks became quite long, along with weekends, as I worked to process the photos and get them online.”
English stressed that he couldn’t do this project alone.
“This project would not have moved as far as we have in the past seven years were it not for the untiring assistance of Mrs. Karen Mann,” he said. “She came to the office, saw this project and made it her own. She takes the time to ensure that everyone who contacts this office receives an answer to their question on this project.”
He added that Mann loves to “take an extra minute” to engage with the people requesting information.
“Oftentimes, vets have a story to tell and when it comes to their memories of basic training either here at Lackland or elsewhere, we want to know! There are many, many gaps in our story here at Lackland and we are extremely fortunate that many vets take the time to reach out to us with the information we need to better tell the Lackland/Air Force story,” English said. “To be sure, this project has had a number of very important volunteers who took of their own time to spend countless hours contributing to the continued success of this world-renowned project!”
According to English, the most challenging group of photos to get are from the early 2000s.
“It seems that the older Air Force veteran generations take a renewed interest in their Air Force heritage and are thus readily willing to contribute toward preserving their history,” he said. “That’s not been the case with the younger generations.”
The site has also proved to be invaluable to about a dozen Air Force veterans who came to English’s office for help. In 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed an estimated 18 million official military records. That number included a 75 percent loss to records of Air Force personnel discharged between Sept. 25, 1947, to Jan. 1, 1964. English said the veterans had no way to prove they had served in order to get Veterans Affairs status. Once they found their flight photos, which listed their names, they had the proof to get VA benefits.
“That was enough to prove they had worn the uniform and served their country,” he said. “Their families were so grateful we were able to help.”
It may come as no surprise that English’s project wish list includes: more photos.
“I’d love to get another resurgence of BMT flight photos into the office,” he said. “My best guess is that we still need to get around 200,000. I remain hopeful.”
To see if your BMT flight photo is listed on the site, check it out at https://www.bmtflightphotos.af.mil/. For more information or to submit your flight photo, call 210-671-2248 or 210-671-2232, or email email@example.com.