by Jeff Nash, Peterson Museum
Peterson began as Colorado Springs Army Air Base, established on April 28, 1942, at the site of the original Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, which had been in operation since 1926.
The first mission of the air base was photographic reconnaissance training under supervision of the Photo Reconnaissance Operational Training Unit. More than 20 reconnaissance squadrons were organized and trained for combat here from 1942 to 1943.
On Aug. 8, 1942, 1st Lt. Edward J. Peterson, operations officer with the 14th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron and a native of Colorado, crashed while attempting to take off from the airfield after the left engine of his twin engine F-4 (a reconnaissance version of the Lockheed P-38 fighter) failed. Lieutenant Peterson was critically injured and died at a local hospital that afternoon, becoming the first Coloradan killed in a flying accident at the airfield. Consequently, on Dec. 13, 1942, officials changed the name of Colorado Springs Army Air Base to Peterson Army Air Base to honor the fallen Airman.
The base assumed a new mission of bomber crew training in October 1943. The 383rd Bomb Group relocated here from Geiger Field, Wash., and formed a combat crew training school utilizing the B-24 "Liberator" heavy bomber. Hundreds of bomber crew members trained here prior to deploying to combat theaters. In June 1944, the mission at the base once again changed, this time to fighter pilot training. The 268th Army Air Forces Base Unit used P-40N Warhawks for this mission, under control of the 72nd Fighter Wing. The 72nd FW was also headquartered at Peterson Field.
In April 1945, the relocation of the Army Air Forces Instructor School to the base signaled another mission change. After the end of World War II, the Army inactivated Peterson Field on Dec. 31, 1945, returning the property to the city of Colorado Springs.
The legacy of Peterson Field took a significant turn in September 1947, following the birth of the U.S. Air Force. The fledgling service twice reactivated the base, from Sept. 29, 1947 to Jan. 15, 1948, and again from Sept. 22, 1948 into 1949. During the latter period, the base served as an airfield for Strategic Air Command's 15th Air Force, which was temporarily headquartered in Colorado Springs. Peterson Field inactivated again when the 15th Air Force moved to March AFB, Calif., in 1949.
The Air Force activated Peterson Field once more, following the Jan. 1, 1951 establishment of the Air Defense Command. ADC was headquartered at Ent AFB in downtown Colorado Springs (now the site of the U.S. Olympic Training Center), and controlled a vast network of radars, interceptor aircraft and missiles defending the U.S. against air attack by the Soviet Union. The 4600th Air Base Group (later redesignated Air Base Wing) activated simultaneously with ADC. Peterson Field served as an airfield and logistics base for the new command, and for the North American Air Defense Command when it was activated in 1958. Subsequently, on April 1, 1975, the Air Force redesignated the 4600th ABW as the 46th Aerospace Defense Wing, moving most functions to Peterson Field as Ent AFB was closed down. One year later, on March 1, 1976, Peterson Field was renamed Peterson Air Force Base.
Strategic Air Command briefly assumed control of the base from ADC on Oct. 1, 1979. Then, on Sept. 1,1982, USAF officials activated Air Force Space Command at Peterson, followed by the activation of the 1st Space Wing on Jan. 1, 1983. Peterson became a hub of Air Force space activity when the 1st Space Wing assumed host unit responsibility following the inactivation of the 46th Aerospace Defense Wing on April 1, 1983. The 1st Space Wing then transferred host unit responsibility to the 3rd Space Support Wing, which activated on Oct. 15, 1986.
An Air Force Reserve presence on the base began in 1982 when the 901st Tactical Airlift Group transferred here from Westover AFB, Mass. Redesignated the 302nd Tactical Airlift Wing in 1985, today's 302nd Airlift Wing continues its mission of training, equipping and employing airlift forces in worldwide support of the nation's vital interests.
As the USAF reshaped its organizational structure following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, units at Peterson also reorganized and renamed. On May 15, 1992, the 1st Space Wing and 3rd Space Support Wing inactivated. Their personnel and equipment transferred to the 21st Space Wing, which activated on the same day, assuming its present-day mission of global missile warning and space control operations. The 21st SW was also charged with host base support for numerous tenant units assigned here throughout the years, including Air Force Space Command, the U.S. Space Command, U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command.
From its humble beginnings as a small municipal airport to the sprawling complex it is today, Peterson AFB continues to show its worth as a center of our nation's defense. For more than 65 years, Airmen assigned to the base have served in conflicts large and small, wars hot and cold, in the air and in space.