Air Force Bases

Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota

Location: Located 2 miles NNW of Box Elder, SD, about 12 miles NNE of Rapid City, SD.

Origin of current name: Named in honor of Brig Gen Richard Elmer Ellsworth (1911-1953), who was killed on March 18th 1953 when his RB-36 crashed near Nut Cove, Newfoundland, during a training flight. During World War II General Ellsworth flew 400 missions in the China/Burma/India Theater. At the time of his death he commanded the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

Date current name was assigned to base: June 1, 1953

Previous Names: Rapid City Army Air Base, December 1941; Rapid City Army Air Field (unofficial designation) September 1st 1946; Rapid City Air Field, November 28th 1947; Weaver Air Force Base, January 13th 1948; Rapid City Air Force Base, June 24th 1948.

Date Established: January 2, 1942

Date Occupied: July 2, 1942

Construction Began: February 27, 1942

Changes in Capability: Control tower opened September 30th 1942; runways, quarters, offices, and facilities completed October 1st 1942; five hangars completed late 1942; concrete paving of three bituminous runways enabled heavy bomber operations mid-1943; additional concrete areas, buildings, and road constructions completed September 1945; B-29 facilities completed spring 1948; major overhaul of concrete areas completed and facilities converted to enable change from long-range bombardment to long-range reconnaissance missions April-December 1950; new hospital dedicated May 20th 1956; three Titan I ICBM launch complexes activated 1962, inactivated 1965; 150 Minuteman II launch and 15 Minuteman control facilities activated 1962; SRAM installation began August 15th 1972; new 15,000-foot “alert” runway completed mid-1974.

Changes in Status: On standby status, July 15th 1945; returned to active status July 23rd 1945; inactivated, September 1945; activated, October 11th 1945.


On 2 January 1942 the U.S. War Department established Rapid City Army Air Base as a training location for B-17 Flying Fortress crews. From September 1942 -- when its military runways first opened -- until mission needs changed in July 1945, the field's instructors taught thousands of pilots, navigators, radio operators and gunners from nine heavy bombardment groups and numerous smaller units. All training focused on the Allied drive to overthrow the Axis powers in Europe.

After World War II the base briefly trained weather reconnaissance and combat squadrons using P-61 Black Widow, P-38 Lightning, P-51 Mustang, and B-25 Mitchell aircraft. Those missions soon ended, however, and Rapid City Army Air Field temporarily shut down from September 1946 - March 1947. When operations resumed in 1947 the base was a new United States Air Force asset. The primary unit assigned to Rapid City Air Force Base was the new 28th Bombardment Wing (BMW) flying the B-29 Superfortress.

The installation changed names a few more times during its early years. In January 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Carl A. Spaatz renamed it Weaver Air Force Base in honor of Brig Gen Walter R. Weaver, one of the pioneers in the development of the Air Force. In June of that year, however, in response to overwhelming public appeals, Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington returned it to its previous name. The base was also declared a "permanent installation" in early 1948.

Shortly after additional runway improvements, in July 1949, the 28 BMW began conversion from B-29s to the huge B-36 Peacemaker. In April 1950 the Air Staff reassigned the base from 15th Air Force to 8th Air Force.

The base experienced one of its worst peacetime tragedies in March 1953 when an RB-36 and its entire crew of 23 crashed in Newfoundland while returning from a routine exercise in Europe. On 13 June 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made a personal visit to dedicate the base in memory of Brig Gen Richard E. Ellsworth, commander of the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, who lost his life in that accident.

Military organizations periodically upgrade manpower and machines from time to time to meet new national security requirements. Ellsworth Air Force Base's organizations were no exception. Headquarters Strategic Air Command (SAC) reassigned the 28 BMW from 8th Air Force back to 15th Air Force in October 1955. Approximately one year later, SAC set plans in motion to replace the 28th's B-36s with the new all-jet B-52 Stratofortress. The last B-36 left Ellsworth on 29 May 1957 and the first B-52 arrived sixteen days later. In 1958 all base units came under the command of the 821st Strategic Aerospace Division, headquartered at Ellsworth.

In October 1960, Ellsworth entered the "Space Age," with the activation of the 850th Strategic Missile Squadron, initially assigned to the 28 BMW. For more than a year this squadron prepared for the emplacement of Titan I intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which finally arrived in 1962, shortly after the activation of the 44th Strategic Missile Wing (SMW) in January. At that time Headquarters SAC also named the 44 SMW as host wing at Ellsworth.

Titan's life span was short in western South Dakota. In July 1962, SAC had effectively rendered it obsolete by activating the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron, the first of three such units slated to operate 150 Minuteman I ICBMs under the 44 SMW. The 67th Strategic Missile Squadron joined the 44th in August, followed by the 68th Strategic Missile Squadron in September 1962.

On 1 June 1971, SAC inactivated the 821st Strategic Aerospace Division. By October of that year an upgraded Minuteman II also replaced earlier missiles.

Ellsworth soon became known as "The Showplace of SAC" as it continued to fight the Cold War by maintaining two legs of America's strategic triad: strategic bombardment and ICBMs. It carried out these vital missions for more than 15 years with relatively little change. Then, the 1980s brought many new challenges. In 1986 the base and the 28 BMW made extensive preparations to phase out the aging B-52 fleet and become the new home for the advanced B-1B Lancer. Contractors completed new unaccompanied enlisted dormitories in March, a new security police group headquarters in October, and gave Ellsworth's 13,497 foot runway a much-needed facelift. In addition, they completed new aircraft maintenance facilities for the complex new bird. The last 28 BMW B-52H left in early 1986. In January 1987, the wing received the first of 35 B-1B bombers.

The 12th Air Division moved to Ellsworth on 15 July 1988. This organization was responsible for training B-1B, transient B-52, and the 28th's KC-135 Stratotanker aircrews. Headquarters SAC activated a third wing, the 99th Strategic Weapons Wing, at Ellsworth on 10 August 1989. This wing assumed primary responsibility for B-1B and B-52 advanced aircrew training.

Internationally, the destruction of the Berlin Wall in October 1989 symbolized the imminent demise of the Soviet Union over the next several months. During this transition the Air Force also had to reshuffle its organizations and resources to meet the diminishing, although shifting, threat. Changes came quickly. On 3 January 1990, SAC redesignated the 812th Combat Support Group as the 812th Strategic Support Wing (SSW), which, for a short time, became Ellsworth's fourth wing. The 812th SSW consolidated all combat support activities into one organization. On 31 July 1990 SAC replaced the 12th Air Division with the Strategic Warfare Center (SWC), which provided operational command and administrative control over Ellsworth's subordinate units. Then, as part of SAC's intermediate headquarters and base-level reorganization plan, on 1 September 1991, SAC renamed the 28 BMW the 28th Wing, the 44 SMW the 44th Wing and the 99 SWW the 99th Tactics and Training Wing. Ten days later SAC inactivated both the SWC and the 812th SSW. Once again the 28th became Ellsworth's host organization and it soon absorbed all previous 812th SSW functions. It was also during this period that, in acknowledgment of the elimination of the Warsaw Pact, the Secretary of Defense ordered alert operations to stand-down. The decades-long Cold War was over.

On 1 June 1992, as part of the first major reorganization since the creation of USAF, the Air Force inactivated SAC and assigned Ellsworth's organizations (including a renamed 28th Bomb Wing (BW) to the newly activated Air Combat Command (ACC). After less than a year under the new command, the 28th's mission changed from that of strategic bombardment to one of worldwide conventional munitions delivery. The mission of the 99th Tactics and Training Wing (later to become the 99th Wing) also continued, albeit slightly modified to fit the requirements of the new force concept. The 44th Missile Wing, however, had ably accomplished its deterrence mission. On 3 December 1991, the wing permanently pulled the first missile from its silo. On 6 April 1992, the first launch control center shut down. Deactivation of the entire missile complex ended in April 1994. In keeping with its patriotic Minuteman tradition, the 44th Missile Wing formally inactivated on 4 July 1994.

In March 1994 Ellsworth welcomed the 34th Bomb Squadron, a geographically separated unit awaiting airfield upgrades before it could return to its parent organization, the 366 BW, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. The 34th's B-1Bs are part one of the Air Force's composite wings, which also includes F-15 Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, and KC-135s.

Also during 1994, the Air Force selected Ellsworth as the exclusive location from which to conduct a Congressionally-mandated operational readiness assessment of the B-1B, known locally as "Dakota Challenge." After six months of hard work, under both peacetime and simulated wartime conditions, the 28 BW and Ellsworth passed the test "with flying colors"; and proved the B-1 to be a reliable and capable weapons system; the mainstay of America's heavy bomber fleet for years to come.

In 1995, the 99th Wing also departed for a new assignment at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, although a small contingent formerly attached to that wing remained behind to continue bomber tactics training and radar munitions scoring from a handful of dispersed detachments. The year also saw the inactivation of one of Ellsworth's oldest units, the 77th Bomb Squadron. While the unit (as an administrative entity) departed to save Air Force dollars for development of new follow-on B-1 munitions, the organization's aircraft remained at Ellsworth (in a flying reserve status) under the able care of its sister unit, the 37th Bomb Squadron.

A reversal of fortune occurred in early 1996 when, on 26 March, an announcement was made that the 77th Bomb Squadron would soon return to Ellsworth. On 1 April 97, the squadron again activated at Ellsworth as the geographically separated 34th Bomb Squadron completed its transfer to its home at the 366th Wing, Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. By June 1998, the 77th will have six of its B-1Bs out of the reconstitution reserve. This number balances those lost by the 34th BS.

In March 1999, the Air Force announced a reorganization plan that makes Ellsworth AFB and the 28 BW partners in the new Expeditionary Air Force (EAF) concept. The 28 BW was named a lead wing in the EAF. Under this plan, the 77 BS will gain six additional B-1Bs, and Ellsworth AFB will gain about 100 more military personnel. The expeditionary forces will help the Air Force respond quickly to any worldwide crisis while making life more predictable for military members.

Operation Allied Force

It wasn't too long before Ellsworth and the 28th Bomb Wing were taking the lead in the AEF concept. Five B-1Bs from the 28th Bomb Wing joined NATO forces in Operation Allied Force and began striking military targets in Kosovo on April 1, 1999. By the end of the conflict in June 1999, our B-1Bs from Ellsworth flew 100 combat missions and dropped over 1,260 tons of Mk-82 general-purpose bombs. Once again the B-1B and Team Ellsworth proved itself invaluable to the security of our national interests.

Operation Enduring Freedom

After the events of September 11, 2001, team Ellsworth once again answered the call by deploying a number of B-1's in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Aircraft from the 37th BS at Ellsworth AFB joined additional B-1's from the 34th BS at Mountain Home AFB and formed the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron. This squadron, along with other elements from Ellsworth, deployed to Diego Garcia and joined the 28th Air Expeditionary Wing where they recorded an impressive record against the terrorist factions. Their combat mission effectiveness was greater than 95% and they flew 5% of the total strike aircraft missions. They dropped 39% of the total tonnage of bombs, which was more than any other platform. The amount of ordnance dropped was tremendous. During their deployment the 28th EBS dropped 2,974 JDAMs, 1,471 Mk-82, 135 Mk-84, and 70 CBU-87 bombs. Currently, the 28th Bomb Wing and personnel from Ellsworth Air Force Base continue to be the lead wing for AEF 8, and Ellsworth personnel continue to prepare for ongoing deployments in support of operations around the globe.

34th BS replaces the 77th BS

On September 19th, 2001 the 34th Bomb squadron joined the Ellsworth team and arrived from Mountain Home AFB, ID. Due to a drawdown in the number of B-1 aircraft in the Air Force inventory, the 77th BS at Ellsworth was inactivated and the “Thunderbirds” of the 34th BS were moved to Ellsworth to take their place.

The men and women of Ellsworth AFB draw from past experiences to plan for the future. As they embrace the core values of "Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do," they stand ready to provide global power for America!

History of the Titan I and Minuteman at Ellsworth can be found here.