Mather Air Force Base was named after Second Lieutenant Carl Spencer Mather, a 25-year-old army pilot killed in a mid-air collision while training at Ellington Field, Texas on 30 January 1918. Mather learned to fly in 1914 at the Curtiss Flying School in Hammondsport, New York, and became an instructor there at the age of 20. He enlisted as an aviation cadet in August 1917 and as a licensed pilot was commissioned with part of his class as a second lieutenant on 20 January 1918. He continued training to earn a Reserve Military Aviator rating and promotion to first lieutenant but was killed ten days later. The remainder of his class requested that Mills Field be renamed in Mather’s honor.
After James Connally Air Force Base (AFB), Texas closed, Mather AFB was the only navigator/bombardier training base in the Air Force in the late 1960’s thru the early 1990’s. The base was assigned to Air Training Command, and closed 30 October 1993. It is now a Sacramento County Airport with mostly civilian aircraft using the facilities. Cargo aircraft like UPS and others are currently the largest users of the Airport.
The Air Force Base first opened in 1917, during World War l, for early pilot training. During World War ll, Mather was also a large pilot training base, with many of the trained aircrew, sent to the Pacific area of conflict.
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World War I
In January 1918, the Department of War sent a group of officers to the Sacramento, California area to survey sites for an aviation school. The group decided on a location about 12 miles southeast of Sacramento called Mills Station. An agreement to lease the land to the Army was concluded, and the construction of some 50 buildings began on 15 March 1918. Mills Field, named after the local community was opened on 30 April 1918. It covered over 700 acres and could accommodate up to 1,000 personnel. Dozens of wooden buildings served as headquarters, maintenance, and officers’ quarters. Enlisted men had to bivouac in tents. Mather Field’s first commander was 1st Lieutenant Sam P. Burman, who assumed command on 15 March 1918. The first unit stationed there was the 283d Aero Squadron, which was transferred from Rockwell Field, North Island, California.
Only a few U.S. Army Air Service aircraft arrived with the 283d Aero Squadron, Most of the Curtiss JN-4 Jennys to be used for flight training were shipped in wooden crates by rail. Mather Field served as a base for primary flight training with an eight-week course. The maximum student capacity was 300.
In 1917, flight training occurred in two phases: primary and advanced. Primary training consisted of pilots learning basic flight skills under dual and solo instruction. After completion of their primary training at Mather, flight cadets were then transferred to another base for advanced training. Training units assigned to Mather Field:
- Post Headquarters, Mather Field April 1918-November 1919
- 200th Aero Squadron, June 1918–November 1918 (redesignated as Squadron A, Mather Field July 1918)
- 201st Aero Squadron, June 1918–November 1918 (redesignated as Squadron B, Mather Field July 1918)
- 283d Aero Squadron (II), April 1918–November 1918 (redesignated as Squadron C, Mather Field July 1918)
- 294th Aero Squadron (II), June 1918–November 1918 (redesignated as Squadron D, Mather Field July 1918)
- Squadron E, Mather Field July 1918-November 1918
- Flying School Detachment (Consolidation of Squadrons A-E), November 1918-October 1919
With the sudden end of World War I in November 1918, the future operational status of Mather Field was unknown. Many local officials speculated that the U.S. government would keep the field open because of the outstanding combat record established by Mather-trained pilots in Europe. Locals also pointed to the optimal weather conditions in the Sacramento area for flight training. Cadets in flight training on 11 November 1918 were allowed to complete their training, however NO NEW cadets were assigned to the base. Flight training activities finally ceased on 8 November 1919.
With the end of World War I, in December 1919 Mather Field was closed as an active airfield. However, a small caretaker unit was assigned to the facility for administration. Nonetheless, on 13 December 1919, the House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill for $9.6 million for the purchase of additional land at military camps “which are to be made part of the permanent military establishment.” Mather Field was allocated $78,000 of this amount. Mather was used by the aerial forestry patrol. It also was used intermittently to support small military units. However, with the return to a peacetime economy, Mather Field were deemed unnecessary as a military training facility, and it was closed on 12 May 1923. The War Department ordered the small caretaker force at Mather Field to dismantle all remaining structures and to sell them as surplus. Throughout the remainder of the 1920s, the War Department leased the vacant land to local farmers and ranchers.
Mather Field was reactivated on 1 April 1930 as a sub post of the Presidio of San Francisco and Hamilton Field during the 1930s. Mather, however, had to be refitted with new electrical, water, and telephone lines. Soon, Mather was again alive with activity, though the renovation process could not compare to the original base construction.
In 1941 Mather Field became the site for advanced navigator training. The Army Air Force Navigator School began operating on 2 August 1941. Major new construction was completed 16 March 1942. The school consisted of a rigorous 18-week course consisting of instruction in celestial navigation and dead reckoning. To complete the course, cadets were required to spend 100 hours navigating during both local and long-range flights. However, in 1943, the Army Air Training Command transferred the Navigator School from Mather Field to Ellington Field, near Houston, Texas. Mather became a twin-engine Advanced Flying School, training pilots on North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers. In 1944–45 it became an aerial port of embarkation to the Pacific in preparation for the expected transfer of large numbers of men and aircraft from Europe to the Pacific.
During the Cold War, Mather AFB became the sole aerial navigation school for the U.S. Aur Force after its companion navigation schools at Harlingen AFB, Texas, and James Connally AFB, Texas, were closed and Ellington Field was converted into a Air Nationa Guard Base, Coast Guard Air Station and NASA flight facility in the 1960s.
The 3535 Navigator Training Wing was responsible for bombardier training beginning in 1946 and later transitioned to undergraduate navigator training (UNT), advanced navigator bombardier training, electronic warfare officer training and weapon systems officer training after the closure of the other navigator training bases. Renamed the 3535th Flying Training Wing, the wing initially flew the Convair T-29 for Air Force navigator training until 1974, when it was replaced by the Boeing T-43A (Boeing 737-200) aircraft.
The 3535th was replaced by the323 Flying Training Wing on 1 April 1973. In 1976, following the decommissioning of Training Squadron Twenty-Nine (VT-29) at Naval Air Starion, Corpus Christi, Texas, the 323d began training student Naval Flight Officers in the Advanced Maritime Navigation training pipeline. This resulted in the UNT course being redesignated as Interservice Undergraduate Navigator Training (IUNT). Cessna T-37 aircraft were added to the IUNT curriculum in the late 1970s for USAF students destined for high performance aircraft such as the F-4 /RF-4, F-111/FB-111 and B-1.
The 323d continued training USAF navigators, Naval Flight Officers, NATO/Allied students, and conducting advanced training for radar navigator/bombardiers, electronic warfare officers and weapons systems operators until it was inactivated on 30 September 1993. Concurrent with the wing’s inactivation, all USAF Navigator and Naval Flight Officer maritime navigation pipeline training was moved to Randolph AFB, Texas and consolidated under the 12 Flying Training Wing.
Strategic Air Command
On 1 April 1958, the Strategic Air Command (SAC)’s 4134th Strategic Wing composed of the 72d Bombardment Squadron and 904th Air Refueling Squadron was assigned to Mather AFB, the latter flying the KC-135A Stratotanker. The Strategic Wings were formed in the late 1950s as part of SAC’s plan to disperse its heavy bombers over a larger number of bases, thus making it more difficult for the Soviet Union to knock out the entire fleet with a surprise first strike. The wing had one squadron of B-52 Stratofortresses with 15 aircraft. Half of the planes were maintained on 15-minute alert, fully fueled, armed, and ready for combat. The remaining planes were used for training in bombardment missions and air refueling operations. The wing also had a squadron of KC-135 tankers. The 4134th Strategic Wing was discontinued on 1 February 1963. Concurrent with the inactivation of the 4134th, the 320th Bombardment Wing was activated and absorbed its assets. It operated as a tenant unit from 1963 to 1989, initially with the B-52F Stratofortress before converting in 1968 to the B-52G. The 441st Bombardment Squadron replaced the 72d and the 904th Air Refueling Squadron was transferred from the 4134th to the 320th.. In addition to SAC nuclear alert, the 320th also conducted conventional operations, including maritime missions in support of the Navy with aerial mines and AGM-84 Harpoon missiles. The 320th was inactivated on 30 September 1989.
The 940th Air Refueling Group, an Air Force Reserve unit, moved to Mather AFB from McClellan Air Force Base in 1977, shortly after it transitioned to the KC-135A. Operationally-gained by SAC, the unit upgraded to the KC-135E in 1986. With SAC’s inactivation in 1992, the unit was then gained by the Air Mobility Command and redesignated the 940th Air Refueling Wing in 1993. Following the closure of Mather AFB, the 940th relocated back to McClellan AFB in 1993. When McClellan closed in 1998 the wing then moved to its current station at Beale Air Force Base.
Parts of the airfield were listed on the National Priorities List as a Superfund site on 22 July 1987. The entire site was listed on 21 November 1989. On 30 September 1993, the 5,845 acres (2,365 ha), including 129 acres (522,000 m²) of easements, of Mather AFB was decommissioned under the 1988 Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Most of the base was transferred to Sacramento County, California.