What do you do with an Air Force Base that is closing? While flying in and out of Phoenix Mesa Airport in January, a picture on the wall caught my attention. It gave me a clue as to the origins of the airport through which I was flying.
The picture was of Charles Williams. Then it clicked for me. I know this place, this is Williams Air Force Base, or at least it used to be.
When I graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1984, there were a total of five Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) bases. They were: Reese AFB (Lubbock TX, near Texas Tech University; Laughlin AFB (Del Rio, TX near the Mexican border; Columbus AFB (Columbus MS, with the most challenging weather), Vance AFB (Enid, Oklahoma) and Williams AFB (Phoenix, AZ affectionately known as “Willie”). “Willie” was popular for a number of reasons. First the flying weather was great. The constant sun and calm winds led to few weather cancellations. The joke was if the winds every shifted and they had to switch runways, it was time to declare an emergency.
The base was also popular among the mostly male pilot force as it was located near Arizona State University, with its large co-ed population.
Beginning in the early 1990s the Department of Defense (DOD) began to designate several Air Force Bases for closure. It was felt that with the end of the Cold War there was a decreased need for so many active bases. Like many government decisions, a committee was formed to decide which bases would close. The committee was dubbed the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC).
BRAC made some interesting decisions. They kept an unpopular base open (Laughlin) and closed the more popular Reese AFB. BRAC reportedly cited the devastating impact the closure of Laughlin would have on the small town of Del Rio, while it was assumed that Lubbock would not be crippled by the closure of Reese. The decision, of course, fails to consider the druthers of the active duty personnel who would have preferred to be in Lubbock versus Del Rio.
BRAC also chose to close the very popular Williams AFB, citing high costs to operate near a big city. I wonder if they accounted for the cost savings in rarely cancelling for weather. Williams closed in 1993.
Phoenix’s major airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor was getting busier each year. It was decided that Williams would serve nicely as a “Reliever” airport for Sky Harbor. The topic of Reliever Airports is covered in www.DoctorAviation.com Sessions 10 and 11. A Reliever airport is a general airport that helps relieve congestion at a large airline airport.
So as Williams AFB closed, the new airport opened as Williams Gateway Airport. The name was changed in 2007 to the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. Mesa is a suburb of Phoenix. Therefore all that remains of Williams is the portrait that I saw in the terminal back in January.
Most passengers will be familiar with Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport due to Allegiant Airlines (https://www.doctoraviation.com/allegiant-a-new-way-to-travel/). The Ultra-Low Cost Carrier (ULCC) began operating out of the airport in 2007 and are the largest user of the facility.
So what do you do with an Air Force Base that is closing? At least in one case, you make it a popular Reliever Airport used by a ULCC.
**For some great vintage photos from “Willie” see: http://azaerophoto.com/forum/index.php?topic=2317.0