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Editorial: Langley Air Force Base's centennial should be highly celebrated

It was 100 years ago that military officials found a spot in Hampton to experiment with a promising new kind of weaponry: Aircraft.

Over the next century, the site — on more than 1,600 acres of plantation land near an opening to the Chesapeake Bay — was transformed from a mosquito haven into one of nation's most crucial military installations.

Those who selected the spot chose it for its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and Washington, D.C., and liked its location in the middle of the Eastern seaboard.

"The people of Hampton, Phoebus and Elizabeth City County have been given a wonderful Christmas gift," said an article in Daily Press on Dec. 17, 1916, when the government acquired the site for $290,000 and soon called it "Langley Field."

What started as a landing strip, a few buildings, and a handful of propeller-driven planes would come to have a huge impact on the Peninsula's culture, economy, neighborhoods and roadways.

The air base, along with a nearby site to research aeronautics, helped bring lots of trained engineers and technical types into the region. That diversified Hampton's economy beyond the seafood and hotel tourism industries that it had previously depended upon.

In the early part of the century, Langley brought into the region lots of airmen from the northeast, Midwest and elsewhere. Lots of eligible young men arrived at the base, with steady government paychecks. Historians say many ended up meeting young Hampton women at local dance halls, marrying them, and helping to change local culture.

The airbase also led the way on desegregation.

In 1955, the Air Force took over a local elementary school at Langley and racially integrated it — with the school becoming the first in the city to desegregate. Hampton later became one of the first school systems in Virginia to desegregate all its schools.

On the transportation front, the extension of King Street to Langley's front gate, and the accompanying expansion of other major roadways in the area, paved the way for many new suburban-style housing developments.

Over the years, aircraft based at Langley have played significant roles in wars from World War I all the way to the present day.

And Langley Air Force Base — which has doubled in size to more than 3,600 acres — has a had a huge economic impact on the region.

It now employs about 12,750 people — 9,500 military personnel and 3,250 civilians — with a payroll of about $700 million. More jobs are created to serve those base personnel and their 10,000 spouses and children.

All told, Langley Air Force Base has an annual economic impact of more than $1.2 billion, according to Air Force figures.

The planes and pilots, of course, are the base's reason for being.

Home to the 1st Fighter Wing, as well as the 192nd Fighter Wing of the Virginia Air National Guard, Langley now boasts 46 F-22 Raptors, one of the Air Force's most advanced warplanes. It also flies 17 T-38 Talons, a two-seater used primarily as an "adversary" aircraft to help Raptor pilots hone their warfighting prowess.

And these aircraft are busy, flying an average of nearly 1,000 sorties a month. That creates lots of jet noise near the base, of course, but others call that the reassuring "sound of freedom."

Langley is also home to Air Combat Command, which reports directly to the Air Force's Pentagon headquarters. That major command oversees all air combat forces — 1,300 aircraft and 94,000 active-duty personnel — at 19 air bases and other locations nationwide.

On top of all this, Langley also has two "Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance wings," which gather and analyze information from manned and unmanned planes across the globe. And it promises to play a crucial role with the drones of the future.

In short, with its historic past, robust present and promising future, Langley Air Force Base is truly a national, regional and Peninsula asset, and we are blessed to have it here.

It's easy, of course, to take the base for granted.

After all, Hampton Roads is home to the world's largest Naval base, Naval Station Norfolk; Virginia's largest industrial employer, Newport News Shipbuilding; the Coast Guard 5th District headquarters; and many other significant bases, air stations and private military contractors.

With that backdrop, it can be difficult to give every installation its due. But Langley Air Force Base is clearly one of the most crucial, and its centennial should be highly celebrated.

So whether you head to "Air Power Over Hampton Roads" this weekend to celebrate in style or mark Langley's first century in another way, think about all the people — past, present and future — whose service gives life to this important airbase.

Then think about how lucky we are that it has made the Peninsula its home.

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