Vance joins with local community to celebrate 80 years of pilot training

  • Published
  • By Joe B. Wiles
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- What better way to celebrate 80 years of training the world’s best pilots than polishing up your newly painted aircraft and showing them off to several hundred friends and family.

Throw in a hangar dance with a 1940s theme, and you have the 80th Anniversary celebration of Vance Air Force Base, in Enid, Oklahoma, held Friday, Sept. 17, at the Woodring Regional Airport.

Four Vance training aircraft in military heritage paint schemes flew in formation over those gathered at the airport before landing and parking for photo opportunities. With the aircraft in place, and a formation of Vance Airmen in front of the stage, the heritage portion of the 80th Anniversary celebration began.

Special guests were introduced and friends and neighbors were welcomed. Among the guests was Nicholas Vance Matthews, the great grandson of Lt. Col. Leon Robert Vance Jr., whom the base was named after in July, 1949.

Colonel Vance was an Enid native who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action over France in June 1944.

Also present at the celebration were Enid Mayor George Pankonin, Vance’s Partners in the Sky, Honorary commanders and several hundred friends and neighbors.

The Vance Honor Guard presented the colors followed by Tonica Harris singing the national anthem. Chaplain (1st Lt.) Cory Prothero gave the invocation.

Two narrators, Master Sgt. Katelyn Moore and Staff Sgt. Lamont Eubanks, presented information on the history of Vance AFB, the aircraft flown over the decades and the units involved in training military aviators since 1941.

A moment of silence was observed in honor of POW/MIA Recognition Day and the 82,000 Americans still missing in action from America’s past conflicts.

The mayor recalled when he first arrived at Vance in 1988, “I thought I had done something wrong. But it didn’t take very long for me to figure out it was a very special place,” said Pankonin.

A few years later he received an assignment and had to leave Vance and Enid. “But I didn’t really want to. I liked it here. So when I retired, I didn’t go back to Minnesota where I’m from. I came back to Enid, where I wanted to be,” said Pankonin.

The community and the base have a very special relationship, one that started back in 1941, he said. “I can’t imagine Enid without Vance, or Vance without Enid,” he concluded.

The mayor was followed by Col. Jay Johnson, the 71st Flying Training Wing commander.

“I’m humbled to stand before you as the 59th commander of Vance Air Force Base, representing the 2,600 Airmen, civilians and contractors that make up Team Vance,” Johnson said.

He thanked the City of Enid for letting the base host this event at the Woodring Regional Airport. “Woodring is a shining example of the strong relationship between Vance and the City of Enid,” said Johnson.

He pointed out that Vance Aircraft touchdown at Woodring nearly 35,000 times a year.

Johnson welcomed the distinguished visitors at the celebration, to include Nicolas Vance Matthews, the great grandson of Lt. Col. Leon Robert Vance Jr., the namesake of the base. “Thank you for embracing your great grandfather’s legacy, something we do every day.”

“Making today even more special, we celebrate the 74th birthday of the U.S. Air Force tomorrow,” said Johnson. “The origin of the U.S. Air Force lies in a decision made just four years after the Wright Brothers conducted their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina,” he said.

“That spirit of innovation and ingenuity lives on at Vance AFB as we make the largest changes to pilot training that we’ve made in 30 years,” said Johnson.

“As we look to the future of aviation and continue to innovate, we remember those who paved the way for us, and we don’t forget that we stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said.

Some of those giants never came home.

“This third Friday in September is POW/MIA Recognition Day,” said Johnson. “We want to ensure that America remembers those who served, and to do everything we can to account for those who have yet to return. Many of the Americans who fought in our nation’s wars who are still missing, trained in the skies above us here today, and defended our freedom and our way of life,” he said.

“Thank you for joining us this evening. I look forward to seeing what the next 80 years have in store for Vance AFB and the city of Enid,” Johnson concluded.

In keeping with a tradition begun in 1965, when then Enid Mayor Leon Cook, and Vance commander, Col. James Little, named a Vance aircraft after the local community, Pankinon and Johnson removed a covering from the side of a Vance T-1A Jayhawk parked next to the stage, revealing the name, “The City of Enid.”

The 80th Anniversary ceremony concluded with the singing of the Air Force song.

From there, attendees with tickets were invited to gather in the Joint Use Hangar at the airport for an evening of 1940s music, dance, catered food and the traditional cutting of the Air Force birthday cake by the youngest and oldest veteran present at the dance.

Dance music was provided by Floyd Haynes and his orchestra from Oklahoma City.

The Vance Spouses Club worked hand in hand with the Air Force Association and the Stride Bank Center to arrange the dance.  

Planning for the 80th Anniversary celebration began in early March. The goal was to acknowledge the bond between the City of Enid and Vance Air Force Base that has existed since a local farmer decided to provide a place where American aviators could be trained. 

Since the beginning, when Ernest Baker sold the family farm to the War Department in 1941, the flight instructors, aircraft maintainers and base support teams have produced more than 35,000 pilots. Among the first was Ernest Baker’s son, Ralph, a flying cadet at the then named Enid Army Air Field.

The strong tie between the military base and Enid community was demonstrated from the very beginning. Just nine days after construction of the base began, Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was attacked by the Japanese military. All American military bases were immediately put on alert.

That included Enid Army Air Field. The installation commander, a Major Dorr, posted sentries to secure the construction site. The guards had rifles, but no ammunition. Dorr headed into town, and borrowed 300 rounds from the local police department.

That sense of community and family between Enid and the base was on grand display throughout the 80th Anniversary celebration.

The T-6A Texan II, T-38C Talon and the T-1A Jayhawk were flown in by instructor pilots that stayed with their aircraft to answer questions and pose for pictures with those attending the celebration.

Food trucks provided refreshments alongside a children’s play area complete with temporary tattoos, bouncy houses and a set of collectors cards about Vance and its aircraft. A local radio station provided a remote feed that kept toes tapping and activity announcements current.

The anniversary celebration ended just before midnight, when the commander thanked all those who helped make the 80th Anniversary a memorable evening.

And the band played one last song.