Hanscom Air Force Base is located
about 20 miles to the north and west of Boston next to Rte. 128 (now
I-95), the major arterial highway around the city. The base came into
existence during the time when the United States was considering its entry
into the second World War. In May 1941, the Massachusetts Legislature
authorized the purchase of a large tract of farmland bordering on the
towns of Bedford, Lincoln, Concord, and Lexington for a Boston Auxiliary
Airport. Funds for the new airport were contributed by the Federal
government, which had appropriated $40 million to build 250 new public
airports across the United States "necessary for the national defense."
In February 1943 the airport was renamed Laurence G. Hanscom Field
in honor of a Massachusetts-born aviation enthusiast who had been a
reporter for the Worcester Telegram-Gazette. Hanscom had died in February
1941 in an aircraft accident in Saugus, MA, while he was lobbying
vigorously at the State House for the establishment of the airport at
Bedford. By mid 1942 the Bedford airport had become a site for training
units of the Army Air Forces to fly the Curtiss P-40 fighter aircraft. The
85th Fighter Squadron and the 318th Fighter Squadron
who trained at Bedford went on to combat in North Africa and Europe.
The airfield also served as a test
site for research on radar conducted by MIT's Radiation Laboratory and
Harvard's Radio Research Laboratory. An elevation next to a runway hosted
an experimental Microwave Early Warning radar system and so was dubbed MEW
Hill. It was this secondary wartime activity at Hanscom that gave rise to
the base's postwar role. Since 1945 Hanscom has emerged as the Air Force's
center for the development and acquisition of electronic systems. The base
also played a significant role in the creation of a national
high-technology area around Route 128.
World War II had established the key
military importance of radar. In 1945, when the MIT and Harvard wartime
laboratories were dissolved, the Army Air Forces aimed to continue some of
their programs in radar, radio, and electronic research. It recruited
scientists and engineers from the laboratories, and its new Cambridge
Field Station took over MIT's test site at Hanscom Field.
At the turn of the1950s, the Air
Force was working closely with MIT to develop a new air defense system for
the continental United States. Expanding its facilities at Hanscom Field
was a step to accomplishing this massive project. After some negotiation,
the Commonwealth of Massachusetts agreed in May 1952 to cede land on one
side of the airport to the Federal Government, and it offered a 25-year
renewable lease on the airfield itself.
The first buildings for the new MIT
Lincoln Laboratory at Hanscom were completed in 1952, and the Air Force's
electronic and geophysics laboratories started to migrate out from
Cambridge to Bedford in 1954. The airfield's runways were reconfigured and
expanded in 1953 and new hangars built. To provide test aircraft for
Lincoln Lab's "Cape Cod" experimental air defense system, Hanscom's
6520th Test Support Wing logged in many hours of flying time.
The Semi-Automatic Ground
Environment (SAGE) system that was completed in the early 1960s
revolutionized air defense and also contributed significantly to advances
in air traffic control systems. As the SAGE system matured, the Air Force
pursued the development of advanced command, control, and communications
systems. In 1961 it established the Electronic Systems Division at Hanscom
Field, in order to consolidate the management of electronic systems under
one agency. Since that time, the Electronics Systems Division
(redesignated the Electronic Systems Center in 1992) has been the host
organization on the base.
While Hanscom's role in system
acquisition has flourished since the 1950s, its operational mission
gradually diminished. P-51 Mustangs, F-106 Delta Darts, F-80 Shooting
Stars, and F-86 Sabres were all stationed at Hanscom in the early days.
There were also a number of transport aircraft, including the C-47
Skytrain, the C-119, and the C-124 Globemaster II, as well as trainers
like the T-33.
As of September 1973 all regular
flying operations at Hanscom ceased. The following year the Air Force
terminated its lease of the airfield portion of Hanscom Field, which
reverted to State control and is currently operated by Massport. The Air
Force redesignated its own acreage surrounding the field as the Laurence
G. Hanscom Air Force Base. In 1977 the name was shortened to the present
Hanscom Air Force Base.
The base saw a new wave of
construction during the 1980s. The Electronic Systems Division put up four
new Systems Management Engineering Facilities (the O'Neill, Brown, Shiely,
and Bond buildings). For base personnel, there were new service facilities
-medical, youth, and family support centers-plus additional housing and a
Temporary Lodging Facility.
Since July 1992 the Electronic
Systems Center and Hanscom have been part of the new Air Force Materiel
Command. Organizations on the base include the 66th Air Base
Wing, the MITRE Corporation, Rome Laboratory, Phillips Laboratory, and the
MIT Lincoln Laboratory. The total strength of the workforce for the
Hanscom complex, including military, civilian, and contractors, currently
stands at about 10,000 personnel.