North Dakota's Hidden Air Museum: Grand Forks Air Force Base
When you think of North Dakota, what comes to mind? Is it a Bison on the prairie? Or seemingly endless farm fields? If you're like me and love aviation, the first thing that comes to mind is bomber aircraft. In the past sixty years, two Air Force Bases have called North Dakota home; Grand Forks AFB and Minot AFB. While both were originally built for Air Defense Command (ADC) in the mid to late 1950s, they would both go on to serve Strategic Air Command (SAC) aircraft from the 1960s until the end of the Cold War and the disestablishment of SAC in 1994. Although Minot AFB continues its manned flying mission with the 5th Bomb Wing flying the Boeing B-52H Stratofortresses, Grand Forks AFB is now home to the 319th Reconnaissance Wing.
Although many of the manned flying aircraft have since left Grand Forks AFB, there are a handful that have stayed behind to 'Guard the Gate' and serve as a reminder of the many different missions that the Grand Forks Air Force Base has supported since its construction in 1957.
Now you might be wondering why call it a 'hidden' air museum? While Minot AFB and the North Dakota Air National Guard Base have their 'gate guards' on display within the perimeter of their respective bases, the aircraft at Grand Forks are free to view by the general public just outside of the main gate. Upon exiting U.S. Highway 2 and driving northbound, it won't take long for you to spot the unmistakable profile of the B-52G, the largest of all the gate guards at Grand Forks AFB. After parking in the visitors lot, you'll have to walk across the street to be able to get up close with the aircraft on display. In total, there are seven different aircraft spread out in front of the gate. For the sake of my virtual tour, I'll be starting with the aircraft closest to the front gate and working my way to the largest of the gate guards at the entrance to the base's main road.
The first aircraft on our list is the Bell UH-1F Huey helicopter (USAF s/n 65-7946). Marked as a UH-1 that was flown with the 37th ARRS, it's markings represent the UH-1Fs that flew in support of the 321th Missile Wing that was stationed in and around Grand Forks AFB from November 1964 until September 1998.
The next aircraft in our virtual tour is the Sikorsky UH-19D Chickasaw (USAF s/n 57-5959, displayed as 54-1428). This Chickasaw was one of the last to be built. It is displayed in the markings of the UH-19s that flew Missileers to and from remote Missile Alert Facilities before the UH-1s became more readily available.
The third aircraft is the Douglas A-26B Invader (USAAF s/n 43-22258, displayed as 43-5493). In 1949, the 319th Bombardment Wing was allocated to the Air Force Reserves at Birmingham, Alabama. The 319th flew the A-26B from 1949 until 1951, when they became the 319th Fighter-Bomber Group. The 319th was deactivated in 1957, however, they replaced the 4133d Strategic Wing at Grand Forks in February 1963. A-26Bs never actually flew from Grand Forks, and interestingly this is the only A-26 in North Dakota. Sadly, there is little known about the specific history behind A-26B 43-22258 or 43-5493.
Next on the list is the McDonnell F-101B Voodoo (USAF s/n 58-0315) Interceptor. This 'One oh Wonder' is arguably the best looking aircraft on display at Grand Forks AFB, as many of the original stencil and warning markings are still visible throughout the aircraft. Also, it is the only F-101B on display in North Dakota to have both of its external fuel pods still attached (there are two more). It bears the markings of the 18th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, which called Grand Forks AFB home from 1960 until 1971. 0315 never flew with the 'Blue Foxes', but did spend time with the New York and Oregon Air National Guard throughout the 1970s before coming to Grand Forks for display in the early 1980s.
The next aircraft on display is the North American TB-25N Mitchell (USAAF s/n 44-28834) in the false markings of B-25J (USAAF s/n 43-27899). Nicknamed 'Flo', the original Flo flew with the 321st Bomb Group, 37th Bomb Wing during WWII. The 321st flew support and interdiction missions in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations, often targeting rail yards, bridges and ships. This specific aircraft is dedicated to 1st Lt. John O'Keefe, a native of Grand Forks, North Dakota, who flew 'Flo' during the war. In February 1945, 1st Lt. O'Keefe was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying his crippled B-25 back to base after receiving a deadly hit from German AAA fire that killed his bombardier, 2nd Lt. Lonnie B. Harvey, Jr. 1st Lt. O'Keefe would go on to become the President of the 321st Association and a prominent businessman in North Dakota and Minnesota before passing away in 1998.
The next two pieces of equipment on display honor the 321st Missile Wing that operated at Grand Forks throughout the Cold War. An early 1960s GMC V12 powered Missile Transporter truck is the first. When the 321st was an active Missile Wing, these trucks would have been seen driving throughout the Grand Forks missile field, delivering and removing Minuteman II & III ICBMs from various silos in the region. Next up is a decommissioned LGM-30G Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Throughout the Cold War, Grand Forks AFB was in charge of the 6,500 square mile missile field in around Grand Forks, North Dakota. There were several Missile Alert Facilities scattered around the area with underground missile crews ready to launch the Minuteman IIIs at any given notice. Today, only one remains intact and open to the public in Cooperstown, North Dakota. It is the Oscar-Zero Launch Control Center, and the topside of November-33 missile launch facility is left intact several miles away.
The Largest of the aircraft on display is the Boeing B-52G Stratofortress (USAF s/n 59-2577). The 319th BW flew the B-52 from 1963 until 1986, when they transitioned to the Rockwell B-1B bomber. Unfortunately, the history behind the B-52G on display is not entirely known, however, it was retired and placed on display sometime before 1995. Right alongside the B-52 is an AGM-28 'Hound Dog" Air-to-Surface Nuclear Cruise Missile. Launched from under the wings of the B-52, the Hound Dog had a range of roughly 800 miles (1287 km) and carried a W8 Class D Nuclear warhead. They were gradually phased out, and by 1978 they had all been removed from active service and placed in dead storage or destroyed.
The last of the static aircraft on display is the Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker (USAF s/n 63-8005). Nicknamed 'City of Grand Forks / Spirit of North Dakota', this KC-135A has the distinction of being the first KC-135A to land at Grand Forks AFB when the base transitioned from Air Defense Command to Strategic Air Command. The aircraft itself was dedicated on 15 May 1995. Interestingly, both of her sister aircraft, 8004 and 8006, have been converted to KC-135Rs and are still flying with active and Air National Guard units.
Grand Forks Air Force Base plays a big part in the overall history of the United States Air Force. With the base supporting B-52s, KC-135s and the first Minuteman II ICBM base, it was one of the most important Air Force Bases during the height of the Cold War. As time has gone on, the missions at Grand Forks AFB have changed, however, the legacy of the men and women who worked to make it one of the best in the country are forever immortalized through the aircraft that they helped to service. The men and women who are now stationed at Grand Forks continue to maintain these birds, long after their flying days have ended. It is a testament to the quality of airmen that are stationed there. Time will only tell if one day more aircraft are added to this distinguished collection of gate guards.
Lt. Col. George A. Larson (ret.), "Grand Forks Air Force Base",Arcadia Publishing. 2020.