Steve Black and a small group of volunteers are on a mission to save some American history – part of what remains of Naval Air Station Ottumwa, Iowa.
Their goal is “…to develop a Naval Air Museum dedicated to NAS Ottumwa and the primary and pre-flight training bases of the era,” says Black, president of the Friends of NAS Ottumwa. Black, an Ottumwa native, now lives in Urbandale, a Des Moines suburb.
The vestiges of the once-vigorous base are now part of Ottumwa Regional Airport, which is 91.8 nautical miles west of Galesburg, IL, home of the National Stearman Fly-In.
Black will discuss the project in a presentation, “Saving History: U.S. Naval Air Station Ottumwa, Iowa,” during the 46th National Stearman Fly-In. The talk will be at 7:35 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, in the Jet Air, Inc. hangar at Galesburg Municipal Airport. All Fly-In programs and seminars are free and open to the public.
The museum proper will be housed in what once was NAS Ottumwa’s Administration Building. When development of the base was approved, it had a budget of $5 miilion.
The primary building material was wood. But wood was in short supply, and the green lumber available wasn’t suitable for use. So the Administration Building fortuitously was constructed of durable brick, Black says. The total budget swelled to $15 million.
The group of 10-15 persons Black leads is supplanted by volunteer carpenters and electricians. Sometimes aviation students at Indian Hills Community College and their instructors join in the work. That currently includes new lighting inside the building and restoration of the front porch cover.
Numbers – lots of them – help explain the significance of NAS Ottumwa:
- The base had 350 Stearmans, which were divided into two squadrons. Some of those planes are still airworthy and are brought to the Galesburg Fly-In.
- NAS Ottumwa was built on 1,400 acres northwest of the city. Groundbreaking was Aug. 6, 1942. The first planes arrived Jan. 23, 1943. The base was commissioned March 13, 1943. The last plane left Oct. 2, 1947, and the base was leased to the city.
- NAS Ottumwa operated for 925 days. During that time, there were 397,214 training flights. Total training hours were 605,553 – an average of 1,000 flying hours a day.
- The Navy sent 6,656 aspiring aviators to Ottumwa. A total of 4,626 cadets completed training and were transferred to intermediate training.
- On average, about 3,500 persons were stationed at NAS Ottumwa.
- Besides the Administration Building, NAS Ottumwa had two large hangars, a drill hall, a hospital, bachelor officer quarters, barracks for enlisted men and WAVEs, classrooms, mess halls, a fire station, a brig and various storage and repair buildings.
- Today, Black says, in addition to the Administration Building one hangar, the fire station, a repair building, a mess hall, and the water plant are among surviving structures. “Several suffer from disrepair, including choices such as steel siding that affects appearance and long-term survivability,” Black says.
- Some of NAS Ottumwa’s “graduates” include Jesse Leroy Brown, the Navy’s first black pilot; Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter; Bob Steuber, who played for the Chicago Bears, and Eldon Price, who developed instruments to calibrate airspeed on early jet airliners, and was involved with early space station development, Project Apollo boosters, and Strategic Air Command missiles.
Navy Lt. Richard M. Nixon served in NAS Ottumwa’s Administration Building. He became the 37th president of the United States.