Excerpts for this article were taken from Tulare Advance Register May 15, 1991 Edition, entitled Golden Anniversary Edition.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of Rankin Field. If you asked a Tularean of 1939 if their city would soon become one of the busiest training grounds for the nation’s pilots, a disbelieving look might have been their reply.
An open laugh would probably greet the next prediction – that the flight center would be built on the God-forsaken alkali flats east of town.
But, the determination of a aerobatic pilot, the generosity of a town that adopted him and good strokes of fortune helped land the Rankin Aeronautical Academy for Tulare.
J.G. “Tex” Rankin, the academy’s namesake, was already one of the nation’s most famed stunt pilots and flight school instructors when war clouds began gathering around the nation in 1940.
With World War II raging in Europe and the Japanese threatening on the other side of the world, Rankin felt that conflict was imminent and that the nation had better ready itself by turning out a new generation of pilots.
“I was convinced then,” Rankin would recall later, “that we were going to get into a war. I thought I had something to offer the country since I had been in the flying school business since 1919 and put through 3,500 successful graduates without one serious injury
“I applied to the Army Air Corps for a contract to teach cadets to fly,” he said.
Rankin was operating the Rankin School of Flying at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport when he began scouting for places to train budding fighter aces.
Rankin first chose Bakersfield as a likely site, but was turned down by Army officials because of its proximity to another airfield. He veered north to Delano, and signals from the military about the location were optimistic as well. Then a Tularean named Don Cornell intervened. Cornell, an old friend and manager of what was then Tulare Airpark, contacted Rankin and urged him to visit Tulare. Tulare, finally, was the choice for the flight-training center. But, the airpark was located in the way of radio beams. A compromise was then struck with a huge plot of land four miles east on the destitute alkali flats on Tulare’s fringe.
With the site secured, financing was the next hurdle. The city helped by enthusiastic citizens, raised $300,000 to buy 560 acres of land and underwrite installment of services such as water and power.
Ground was broken on Feb. 12, 1941. It is more accurate to say mud was plowed on the site since it rained 45 of the next 60 days of construction, turning the field into a quagmire.
Money also continued to be a problem. Unexpected expenses cropped up, but were all dealt with in time for the Rankin Aeronautical Academy to open for its first classes in April 1941.
There were 41 aspiring airmen in that first class.
The war on each side of the world provided Rankin and his instructors with plenty of business for the next four years.
The flight center trained a total of 10,450 cadets of which more than 8,000 graduated.
Their skills drawn from Rankin and his top-notch staff of instructors spoke for themselves. Those pilots who learned their craft in Tulare collected 6,820 medals for their war efforts, and 12 earned “ace” status for downing five or more enemy planes.
Rankin’s most famous graduate was Maj. Richard I Bong, also known as “Bing Bang” Bong, who shot down 40 enemy planes in the Pacific Theater, the most of any American pilot.
The activity at Rankin Field through those years was frenetic. For example, those cadets logged a total of 584,500 hours flown, or the equivalent of 67 straight years in the air.
Mechanics also kept pace with the volume of flying activity. In Rankin’s tenure, there were 1,121 engines installed, 81,800 spark plugs changed and 3,696 tires gone through.
Through it all, only five fatalities were recorded at the school.
After the wars wound to a close and the school’s job was done, the government ordered it closed in July 1945.
The local high school district used some of the buildings as classrooms, and others were converted into emergency housing facilities.
The field was too remote for most uses. It was eventually abandoned, its barracks sold off, and the airfield reverted back to the dusty, sun-baked plot it started as. It is now the site of the recently reopened Rankin Field Weapons Range.
Tulare Historical Museum houses much of Rankin Academy’s history in its Military Wing, as well as many archives in our Tom Hennion Archives Center. (Next month look for another article on Rankin Field).