Bartow Air Base Museum preserves local military aviation history

The T-37 at the entrance to Bartow airport. Photo: John Stemple

The T-37 at the entrance to Bartow airport.
Photo: John Stemple

The T-37 at Bartow airport's Main gate. Photo: John Stemple

The T-37 at Bartow airport’s Main gate.
Photo: John Stemple

20 November 2010 (Updated 24 January 2015)  | Bartow, Florida. During World War II Florida found itself under invasion even as German U-boats occasionally killed tankers and freighters just offshore.

The incursion was a friendly influx of personnel from Allied air forces who were intent upon taking advantage of the state’s regularly good weather for the training of pilots.

Entrnce to Bartow Air Base Museum. Photo: John Stemple

Entrance to Bartow Air Base Museum. Photo: John Stemple

From coast to coast the peninsula quickly sprouted bases of all sizes, as there was an urgent need to turn raw recruits into competent aviators. One of these training centers would take shape some six miles north of the City of Bartow.

Interior of the Bartow airport terminal. Photo: John Stemple

Interior of the Bartow airport terminal.
Photo: John Stemple

Ground breaking took place for this airfield on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on military facilities around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The site would become a U.S. Army Air Corps station. In addition to three runways, the structures included barracks, hangers, and a mess hall, chapel and gymnasium. A notable feature was a skeet range for soldiers’ recreational shooting.

Aircraft in a BAAF hangar during WWII.

Aircraft in a BAA hangar during WWII.

At Bartow Army Airfield (BAA), trainees received practical experience in aerial combat maneuvering, air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery, and dive bombing techniques. For thoroughness a variety of aircraft were assigned to the facility.

By 1943, the center was operating as a Fighter Replacement Training Station. Facilities were present for the servicing of a fighter group and two squadrons of North American P-51 Mustangs. Women Army Service Pilots or “WASPs” delivered some of the Mustangs.

With the conflict at an end, the Department of Defense began to close stations. As a result, the closure of Bartow Army Airfield took place in 1945. The City of Bartow then took possession.

During 1950 the U.S. Air Force requested bids for a contractor to operate a primary pilot training program at Bartow. Mr. Fleetwood Garner won the bid and formed Garner Aviation Service Corporation to comply.

Physical additions included a golf course and swimming pool for trainee and staff recreation. In 1951, with the Korean War raging, the U.S. Air Force began a primary flight training program at the “new” Bartow Air Base.

Mustang undergoing maintenance at BAAF.

Mustang undergoing maintenance at BAAF.

Initially, the neophyte fliers flew Piper Cubs out of Gilbert Field (now known as the “Winter Haven Municipal Airport”) in nearby Winter Haven, Florida.

After mastering the docile and unsophisticated Cubs, the men undertook flying in more advanced aircraft. Types included those powered by reciprocating engines, including the North American AT-6 Texan, Beechcraft T-34 Mentor and North American T-28 Trojan. Afterward, Cessna T-37 Tweets, twin jet trainers, awaited the fledgling aviators.

Pilots at BAAF pose in front of a Mustang.

Pilots at BAAF pose in front of a Mustang.

In total, the two installations produced more than 8,000 pilots. Famous graduates include NASA astronauts Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Class in 1951, Edward H. “Ed” White, in 1953, and Karol J. “Bo” Bobko in 1961.

A T-37 at Bartow Air Base.

A T-37 at Bartow Air Base.

The closing of Bartow Air Base took place in 1961. The “new” owner was again the City of Bartow.

Today, the former base is home to the Bartow Municipal Airport and Industrial Park, as well as the Bartow Air Base Museum.

The only military remnants are a Florida Army National Guard unit and a mounted A-37 adjacent to the main gate. The Tweet is on loan from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

An interior view of the museum. Photo: John Stemple

An interior view of the museum.
Photo: John Stemple

The museum displays present much of the above history. Other holdings include copies of the publication The Eaglet and many photographs, exhibit items and copies of yearbooks relating to the pilot training classes, 70 in number, that formed between 1952 and 1961.

Note that admission is free to the public. One may contact the Bartow Air Base Museum by telephoning (863) 533-1195 or (863) 533-1361.

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The author (Col. John Stemple) thanks officials of the Bartow Municipal Airport and Industrial Park, Bartow Flying Service and employees of Pappy’s Canteen for their cooperation during the preparation of this article.

Sources and Suggested Readings

About Bartow Airport

http://www.bartow-airport.com/airhistory.htm

Bartow Air Base

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartow_Air_Base

Bartow Municipal Airport

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartow_Municipal_Airport

Bartow Municipal Airport & Industrial Park

http://bartow-airport.com/

4 Responses to Bartow Air Base Museum preserves local military aviation history

  1. Gordon says:

    Whatever happed to “Smilin” Jack Riley

  2. Amos Merritt says:

    About 1958 Garner lost the contract to Servair Inc. Servair was the operator until they moved the flying school to Enid Oklahoma. I know this because I was a jet engine mechanic when the base closed. Amos M.

  3. Tony Patrinostro says:

    Amos Merritt, I know your post is over a year old, but you must have known my dad, “Pat” Patrinostro. We also moved to Enid with Serv-Air in 1960. Moved back to Lakeland in summer of ’62. If I’m not mistaken, the Air Force took over flight training when Garner lost the contract and Serv-Air only had responsibility for aircraft maintenance and some other support services. It also could be that Serv-Air continued the flight training at Bartow and the AF took over that responsibility at Vance AFB. I’m pretty sure the AF did their own training at Vance.

  4. Edgar L Helmey says:

    Thanks for the preservation of that part of our history I am member of the class 53 B and fortune to have been able to visit the museum March 17, 2016 , 64 years after the picture of our class was taken and now hanging on the wall in the Museum Edgar L Helmey USA Ret.

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