KLAMATH FALLS, Ore.–Mothballed fighter jets mounted on pedestals as if in flight are reminders of the decades that Kingsley Field, in Klamath Falls, has been on the frontline of the nation’s defense, or for training of future Air Force and Air National Guard pilots. “From 1954 to 1981 the Air Force was in charge of Kingsley Field,” says base historian Ryan Barthalomew. “At varying times the peak population was about 2000 in the late 1960’s, but in 1981 the Air Force left and the Oregon Air National Guard out of Portland took over the alert duties at the base.”
Today Kingsley is the only place in the United States where pilots learning to master the F-15 can get their training, Air Force or Air Guard. Barthalomew adds that, “from 1988 to 1998, Klamath Falls trained Air National Guard F-16 pilots. And then we did another conversion in 1988 to the F-15, “C” model, and we’ve been training F-15 from ’98 to the present.”
The history of military flying in the Basin goes back a lot longer than that. It was actually in the late 1930’s that city fathers first tried to get a military air base here. Ryan says, “it was inland from the coast. Great flying weather. We have visual flight rules as they call it 95% of the time. They thought it was an ideal spot for an air base.” When World War 2 came around, the Navy agreed, and the Klamath Falls Naval Air Station was established here in 1944. Barthalomew says, “in 1943 the ground was broken on the Klamath Naval Air Station, and the mission of the Klamath Naval Air Station was to train both Navy fighter pilots and Navy torpedo bomber crews.” The Navy closed their operations soon after the war and turned everything back to the city of Klamath Falls. “But it wasn’t until ’54 when the Air Force decided to make it a jet interceptor base that the military presence returned.”
In 1957 the Air Force turned to World War 2 history to find a hero for the new name for the base. Bartholomew says, ” but the community ultimately decided on David R. Kingsley, since he was from Oregon and he had won the Medal of Honor. So on July 3rd, 1957, the base became Kingsley Field.” Today a mural on a downtown Klamath Falls building features Kingsley’s wartime portrait, and the image of bombers on a mission over Romania. Kingsley was a Second Lieutenant, the bombardier of a B-17 known as the “Opissonya”. Under attack by German fighters, the pilot was forced to drop out of formation. Badly damaged, Kingsley was able to get the bombs away on the Poleisti oil fields. But the tail gunner was badly injured and Kingsley pulled him into the center of the bomber and was administering first aid when the call came to bail out. Kingsley saw the gunner’s parachute was damaged, and fitted his own onto the injured man and sent him to safety out the open bomb bay doors. Everyone else escaped. But not Kingsley. “The last time that anybody saw Kingsley alive was as they were falling, lookin’ up, and he was on the catwalk on the bomb bay doors,” says Barthalomew. The plane crashed a few moments later. Kingsley’s body was found and buried by local Bulgarian villagers, and today a monument to him and the family of seven who died when the plane went down is near their village.
At Kingsley Field, a piece of the B-17 that was saved is part of another monument to the Oregon flyer who gave up his own parachute so a wounded companion could have a chance to get home alive. For that he received a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, the only Oregon airman in the war to receive the honor.