3638th Flying Training Squadron
Stead AFB, Reno, Nevada
A Brief History of Stead AFB.
Reno Army Air Base was originally assigned to the Second Air Force in October 1942 to train soldiers in the Army Signal Corps. Although the base was originally intended for use as a training center, the operation of its facilities required the additional construction to accommodate the number of troops brought there for training. The Ferrying Division of the Air Transport Command assumed command of the base in 1943 until its deactivation in 1945.
In April 1948, the 192nd Fighter Squadron, Nevada National Guard took over the then vacant base for training activities. In December 1949, Lt. Croston Stead, a Reno native, lost his life when his P-51 Mustang crashed at the base during a flying training mission. In January 1951, the base was named Stead AFB in his honor.
In 1952 it was determined that the Sierra Nevada mountains and forests would be suitable for survival training and the USAF Survival School moved here from Fort Carson, Colorado. In September 1954, Stead AFB became part of the Air Training Command and the 3635th Combat Crew Training Wing (Survival) was activated.
In January 1958, a small group of instructor pilots from Randolph AFB, Texas, were sent to Stead AFB to determine the feasibility of advanced helicopter training in the area’s mountains. On July 15, 1958, the 3635th Crew Training Wing was re-designated the 3635th Flying Training Wing (Advanced) concurrent with the relocation of the USAF Helicopter Pilot School at Stead.
During the summer and fall of 1958, the USAF Helicopter School was moved from Randolph AFB to Stead AFB and designated the 3638th Flying Training Squadron (Helicopter). The base provided ample facilities and an unencumbered airspace in which to operate the flying training mission. The base had also recently undergone a large building project of all new Capehart family housing which lent well to the accompanying military families.
The pilots would undergo training in the H-19B and H-21B helicopters. The syllabus would contain basic transition training and instruments as well as advanced operational techniques in high altitude confined area and mountain operations. Most pilots would also attend the USAF Survival School in preparation for overseas assignments.
The flying training would be conducted at Stead as well as an auxiliary airfield, Sky Ranch, located about 10 miles east of the base. A number of unprepared ridgetop and pinnacle landing spots at altitudes up to 8,100 feet MSL were located on Peavine Mountain directly south of the base. A similar number of tree-lined spots were located in Dog Valley, southwest of Peavine, to conduct confined area landing and takeoff procedures. The area north of Stead to Pyramid Lake was used for instrument training.
The first students to go through helicopter pilot training were rated fixed wing pilots. In fact, all pilots undergoing helicopter pilot training since 1944 had been rated pilots. In 1965, students were entered into helicopter pilot training having received approximately 120 hours in T-28’s but had not received their wings. They would receive their wings upon graduation from helicopter training.
The 3638th Flying Training Squadron (Helicopter) trained not only USAF pilots but also many from foreign countries. At least a dozen countries, including Japan, Argentina, Pakistan, India, France, Bolivia and China (Taiwan), sent pilots to basic helicopter pilot training as well as instructor pilot upgrading. There was an Exchange Program with England’s Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force for a 2-year tour by the Exchange pilots. Two U.S. Marine pilots flying H-34’s were given a short course in high altitude mountain flying techniques. Four RAAF helicopter pilots also received several hours of mountain indoctrination on their way from UH-1 training at Ft. Rucker and returning to Australia to fly their own “Hueys”. From 1958 through 1965, the Helicopter School trained over 1252 USAF and 384 foreign helicopter pilots.
Part of the School included the Instructor Training (IT) Section of the Squadron. Experienced line pilots assigned to the Squadron to be instructors had to be indoctrinated into the standardized techniques and grading procedures used in the School. This sometimes required some rethinking on the part of the new instructors that had been used to doing it “their way” when in the field. They were reminded about how they handled the controls when they had only 5 hours of helicopter time and relate it to their students. Standardized procedures were necessary for scoring of the student’s progress and if a change of instructors might be required.
The Helicopter School was tasked with many other missions.
From February through July 1962, eleven pilots and 6 H-21B helicopters where airlifted by C-124 aircraft to Christmas Island, South Pacific in support of Operation Dominic atomic tests. They would provide personnel airlift and search and rescue. They also conducted recovery of rocket nose cones shot through the clouds of an atomic device detonation by Research agencies. This required entering ground zero within 20 minutes of detonation and flying 15-25 miles over the shark infested Pacific Ocean without any flotation device on the helicopter. All nose cones were successfully recovered.
Each year, aircraft were sent to Nellis AFB, Nevada to support the ensuing “William Tell” TAC Gunnery Meet. Some were flown as far as Hill AFB, Utah, and Luke AFB, Arizona. They would provide VIP airlift and as well as target scoring and other “chores”. In August 1963, some H-19’s and H-21’s were flown from Stead to South Carolina to support Swift Strike III war games.
In May of each year, individual aircraft were sent to various locations for static and aerial demonstrations for Armed Forces Day observances.
VIP transport for dignitaries such as Secretary of Labor Goldberg inspecting Titan missile sites near Mountain Home, Idaho in 1964.
In 1961, four H-21’s were dispatched to Moab, Utah to transport Secretary of Interior Udall along the Green and Colorado rivers in Utah to check out the area for possible National Park status (it later became Canyonlands National Park).
In 1960 and again in 1964, helicopters were provided to Astronaut desert survival training sites near Fallon, Nevada.
March 7, 1962, found an H-19 and H-43 on their way to Quincy, California to retrieve a balloon and gondola from a 6,000-foot mountainside where it had landed. The 2,000-pound gondola was used in extreme high altitude research directed by Captain Joe Kittinger, Mission Commander of Operation Stargazer.
Two H-21’s were dispatched to Indian Springs, Nevada Test Site to support underground nuclear tests of Project Mercury in February 1961.
Some of these extended missions severely drained the instructor numbers and required extra duty time for many. The loss of IP’s during Operation Dominic cut the squadron resources by 60 per cent. This meant the remaining Instructor Pilots had to “double-up” to maintain the training schedules.
From March 1962 to March 1963, the 3638th FTS (Helicopter) flew 213 hours on search and rescue missions and rescued 15 persons.
On 3 September 1962, an H-43B made an extremely difficult and hazardous rescue of an injured mountain climber in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. The rescue was accomplished at nightfall at an altitude of 11,900 feet on a 70-degree slope and is possibly the highest rescue ever performed by a helicopter in the continual United States.
In October 1962, two H-19B’s were sent to Susanville, California to assist in the search for and evacuation of hunters stranded following heavy rain and snow.
In December 1964, unseasonable rainfall of over 12 inches in the Northwestern states created regional flooding. H-19, H-21, H-43 and CH-3 helicopters and crews were dispatched to Yreka, California to conduct rescue and humanitarian aid missions. Three of the H-21’s were sent to Lakeview, Oregon to carry bales of hay to hundreds of starving cattle stranded on dikes above thousands of acres of flooded land.
A search mission was launched with Stead H-19 helicopters after strong winds swamped several boats on Pyramid Lake. Several bodies were sighted but unfortunately no survivors.
A Navy F8U fighter pilot was recovered by two Instructor pilots after they heard his Mayday call and diverted from an instrument proficiency flight to the crash site north of Fallon, Nevada.
In May 1962, Lt. Colonel Francis M. “Blackie” Carney, the commander of the 3638th, was awarded the Frederick L. Feineberg Memorial Trophy for setting four new official world helicopter records in an HH-43B helicopter. In October 1961, Lt. Col. Carney piloted an H-43B to 32, 840 feet, over 2,000 feet above the old record. He also set 3 “Time to climb” records.
In January 1963, eleven officers, commanded by Lt. Colonel Jimmy Hamill, were sent to South Vietnam to organize a helicopter pilot school. The 917th Field Training Detachment established a training course in one month and began training Vietnamese officers to become helicopter pilots. This school is the first USAF Helicopter Course ever set up in a foreign country. During their 18-month tenure, the 917th FTD trained 95 helicopter pilots and 92 mechanics.
For its exceptional meritorious service in support of military operations, search and rescue, and service of great international significance during the period from 1 March 1962 through 1 March 1963, the 3638th Flying Training Squadron (Helicopter) was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.
In 1964, Defense Secretary McNamara (Mac the Knife) made the announcement that Stead AFB was to be closed and the Helicopter School would be relocated. Among the bases discussed were Hill AFB, Utah, Sheppard AFB, Texas, and Kirtland AFB, New Mexico. The USAF Helicopter School moved to Sheppard in late 1965.
Ironically, the School was moved to Hill AFB in 1971 and to Kirtland in 1976 where USAF Advanced Helicopter Training is still being conducted. (see,” History of the USAF Helicopter School”).
The manning of the Helicopter School consisted of about 50 helicopter instructor pilots. The School was the only flying squadron on the base so everyone knew everyone else. The wives socialized and watched the kids play together. The men flew together, hunted and fished together, played poker and partied together so a special camaraderie developed. We became a large family.
One of the favorite functions was the (more or less) annual BBQ cookout. Jimmy Hamill’s secret BBQ sauce was liberally applied to large chunks of beef cooked over manzanita wood in the fire pit. The following feast was the highlight of the season. (This tradition continued even on to Sheppard but with mesquite instead of manzanita).
Stead was where “the School” became a very cohesive unit and many life-long friendships were established. From this close relationship over the years grew the USAF Helicopter Pilots Association. (see, “How It All Began”).
The USAFHPA held a reunion in Reno in 1987 and again in 2005. Although the city and former base have changed much over the past 40+ years, our fond memories of time spent at Stead will remain forever.
Kyron Hall, Unit Historian