PIERRE, S.D. — The recent announcement by Jim Peitz of Mustang Aviation that he plans to bring the first airshow to Pierre Regional Airport next summer includes his promise that “military assets” would be included in the show.
Peitz and others said Tuesday, Oct. 22, at the city commission meeting that the 2020 event would be a first for the community and could bring 10,000 people to town over the Fourth of July weekend.
But in a way, the airport began as a kind of air show featuring military assets as part of America’s buildup for World War II. Pierre’s airport, in fact, got its start because of World War II.
U.S. war planners in Omaha figured the Rapid City air base needed a satellite to help train B-17 bomber crews, and found one east of the state Capitol. The federal government bought 1,700 acres of pasture there in the summer of 1942. Buildings, including 23 barracks and a large hangar, were up within months in time for an open house of sorts at Thanksgiving, the Pierre Capital Journal reported in 2016.
B-17 bomber crews would spend time at the new Pierre air base to finish up training runs, some as far as dry runs over northeast Minneapolis, as their last step before shipping over to Europe for the real deal.
The 100th bomb group stationed at Pierre would later earn the nickname “The Bloody 100th” during its service in Europe in the war.
Meanwhile, in September 1943, the Pierre Army Air base was made independent from what would later be named Ellsworth air base outside Rapid City. By March 1944 the Pierre air base was re-tooled for gunnery training for fighter pilots flying P-40s and P-47s.
Fighter pilots cut a wider swath over — and maybe in — Pierre than bomber pilots, it was said. That included offering the civilian population below some non-regulation air shows from time to time.
In his book, “Pierre since 1910,” Harold Schuler said the base commander got flak when a P-47 buzzed Pierre Street downtown a little too close.
At least one other P-47 pilot flew under the railroad and highway bridges that arched over the Missouri River in those pre-Oahe Dam days.
The fighter pilots spread their wings and put to use the vast and empty spaces across South Dakota, using live ammo shooting at moving air targets pulled on cables by re-purposed bombers.
One P-47 pilot shot through a target’s tow cable and the cable wrapped around the wing of another P-47, forcing it into an emergency landing, according to Schuler’s 1998 book.
The Pierre Army Air Force base was deactivated in 1945. In 1947, the federal government turned over the deed to the 1,697-acre airfield to the city of Pierre. Vestiges of the old air base buildings still can be seen in a corner of the airport’s property.
Ever since, Pierre has had civilian air service at the airport of one kind or another.
Peitz’s announcement to the City Commission on Oct. 22 about the air show plans is “a big deal for Pierre,” said City Commissioner Jamie Huizenga.
It might bring 10,000 people to the two-day event, which could really start July 2, Pietz said. A 30-year veteran of flying in and helping put on air shows around the country, Peitz said he plans to have big “static” displays — meaning nonflying, suitable for walk-arounds-and walk-throughs — of aircraft, including some historic military planes.
The airshow will not only bring some of the best flyers to Pierre and show off the community and the airport, Peitz told the commission. “This is a great opportunity to gain showcase our airport but showcase our military hardware.”