The skies across metropolitan Kansas City roared with the flight acrobatics of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels at the annual air shows at Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base between Grandview and Belton, Missouri.
The sonic spectacles could draw more than a half a million people from around the region.
The base closed 25 years ago this year. But many of the enlistees and officers stayed in the Belton area, investing the town with an identity as a community of miltary retirees.
KCUR spoke to a group of the retirees at Belton's Carnegie Village Senior Living Community about their time on base.
Jim Vallance, 73, arrived at Richards-Gebaur in 1982 as one of the original pilots of the A-10 fighter plane, nicknamed The Warthog. The base had 20 of the powerful gunners, more than the standard number at many bases. Vallance said the plane flies low, providing support to troops on the ground and is capable of firing more than 60 rounds per second.
A commander of the 303rd Tactical Fighter Squadron with the prestigious 442nd Tactical Fighter Wing, Vallance said the men had a special bond. He still gets together with those in the area several times a year for burgers and beer. They always remember the thrill of flying in the air shows.
“I think one year we had 600,000 people, but 300,000 wasn't an unusual show,” he said. “At that time you could just walk onto the base, have your picture taken in an airplane. People loved it, it was a big deal.”
It was unusual to see so many people flocking to the still semi-rural part of the Kansas City area.
Richard Lambert, 73, a former jet engine mechanic, wore his Air Force cap and brought a thick notebook of photos and memorabilia to the meeting. He said the surrounding residents sometimes learned about the military exercises at Richards-Gebaur in surprising and unwelcome ways.
“In 1970, an F106-787, it was flying around and had mechanical problems,” he said. “The pilot ejected (but) the plane kept flying. It landed, belly up, but it sat in that farmer’s field ‘til it ran out of gas.”
Nadine Cavanaugh, a spry woman in a bright red jacket with salt and pepper hair that takes 20 years off of her 97, worked in the procurement office for three decades. She said the community was suspicious and confused at first about what the Air Force was doing at the massive military installation on the outskirts of town.
“And then they finally had Air Force Appreciation Night,” she said, "and the base furnished all the chicken. I never served so much chicken in my life and I think that’s what really made us liked.”
Influence on the community
Richards-Gebaur opened in 1941 as the Grandview Airport on land owned by the city of Kansas City, Missouri. The Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy used the base during World War II as an overflow training airfield. With the onset of the Cold War, the airport was leased by the U.S. Air Force and upgraded to accomodate support units and fighter squadrons.
The base had a dramatic impact on the growth of Belton and surrounding areas. Officers, enlistees, civilian employees and their families almost doubled the population in the 1960s. Neighborhoods sprung up with off-base housing. Grocery and hardware stores, cleaners and repair shops opened up. Uniformed men and women patronized local restaurants and bars.
Chris Stewart, 52, went to grade school where he said he could see the base's gates from the playground. Many of his classmates were from military families. He recalled seeing the uniformed men and women packed into Sneeds Bar-B-Que restaurant and at the Dog N Suds drive-in.
“(Richards-Gebaur) made the town seem special,” he said. “There were always planes flying overhead. And when there were tornado warnings, (the military vehicles) would drive through the streets telling people to take cover.”
The base had a bowling alley and an officer’s club. But Darryl Littler, 80, remembers there wasn’t much to do, so he and his friends would go into Kansas City for entertainment.
“One of my fondest memories,” he said, "was February 26, 1966. Dick (Lambert) will remember this, we went down to the USO Club on McGee Street (in Kansas City.) That’s where each of us met our future wives on the same night.”
As the Soviet threat of the Cold War declined, the active-duty Air Force command gave way to the Army Reserves at Richards-Gebaur, which flew training missions to Europe until the base closed in 1994. The A-10s moved to Whitman Air Force Base in Knob Noster, Missouri, and the Air Force officially left the base.
Today, there’s still a small military presence on the former base. Veterans and reservists from across the region use a commissary that's in the old Richards-Gebaur hospital building. Nearby is a field of sand- colored tanks, painted to match the deserts of the Middle East.
Much of the old airfield is now an intermodal trade hub. In 1980, the Calvary Bible College moved its campus onto the old base property. Much of the old base housing is run down. There's a plan to renovate the North Scott corridor where many of the shops that served the base were located, but today it's marked by vacant storefronts.
Former Belton Mayor Phil Duncan, himself a retired Missouri Army National Guard, took office the year after the Air Force left and says the reputation of Richards-Gebaur endures.
“This name ... the base and the military, it will never go away,” he says. “it will always be a positive for the community and anybody who moves here, to have had a great air base."
When you talk to regular folks in Belton, they'll almost always say it's a military town.
In fact, most of the reserve soldiers don't live in Belton and the Richards-Gebaur veterans are dying off. Those still here don't see much of each other, but get them together and there's a palpable sense of pride and nostalgia for a shared military past.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on twitter @laurazig or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.