By TRACY THURMAN
When you fly into Minter Field (KMIT) in Shaftner, Calif., you notice a sprawling, fairly quiet airport situated in the heart of California’s central valley. It is flanked to the east by industry and Highway 99. The other three sides are surrounded by farm lands and orchards. Keep your eyes open for crop dusters who work on and around the airport.
It doesn’t look like much as you make your downwind, but under the veil of dust is a nest of eagles. There’s lots of history and some really cool aviation stuff going on here.
In June 1941 the U.S. War Department had a great need for training bases throughout the country — and California’s central valley had just what they needed: Miles of wide open country and a climate that offered reliable weather.
Just three miles east of the small faming town of Shafter and 14 miles northwest of the city of Bakersfield, they etched some runways into the open fields, pitched some tents, and began the process of establishing a training base. Lerdo Field, as it was called at the time, would soon become one of the largest and most important Army Air Corps training bases in the United States.
In December of that year, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II and the need for pilots was immediate. The base was rushed into service. The Army Air Corps officials had their work cut out for them: Operating and conducting training from a base that was still undergoing the process of becoming an “operating training base.” The base was officially dedicated as Minter Field Feb. 7, 1942, just two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The base was named for 1st Lt Hugh C. Minter, a member of a local family who was killed in a mid-air collision over March Field in July 1932. Permanent structures were quickly built and some still exist. The clap board architecture of the time is easily identifiable in the buildings now housing businesses and airport offices.
The primary aircraft at the growing base was the Vultee BT-13 Valiant and the Cessna UC-78 Bobcat. Many other aircraft also operated there, including the T-6 Texan, B-25 Mitchell, and P-38 Lightning. You can be sure that just about every aircraft the United States operated during that time came and went through the airspace of Minter Field.
More than 11,500 aviation cadets would graduate training by the end of the war. Most would find themselves in combat very soon after leaving Minter Field. Many would attain high level rank, and the nation’s highest awards for valor. Many would also fall in service to their country. Their names are etched in granite and their deeds written in the history books.
The Minter Field Air Museum is an astonishing collection of memorabilia and artifacts. It is located in the original fire house and manned by volunteers, many who trained at the base as cadets themselves.
Personal stories are represented in uniform displays, medal citations, and recollections of the men and women who experienced Minter Field’s days as an Army Air Corps base and the trials of America’s greatest generation. Newspapers boast headlines of news from the front. There is a display that honors the WASPs who served there as test pilots and ferry pilots. There is a LINK trainer, restored and operable. There is also a DVD library of more than 900 hours of military and aviation videos, cataloged by subject and names.
But there’s more than just World War II history at the museum. There is also a display that describes the space program, as wells an ejection seat from a B-52 bomber and a cavalry saddle from World War I.
The museum has a BT-13 in its hangar, a Fokker Dr1 replica, an Aeronca L-3 undergoing restoration, and a couple of homebuilt experimental aircraft on loan from their owners.
“The loaner aircraft are not flyable, due to agreements with the owners and since we operate mostly on donations and volunteer man power the cost of restoring an airplane to flight status just doesn’t pencil out,” explained Dave Patterson, one of the volunteer docents at the museum.
A lifelong resident of the area, Patterson spent his childhood years in the area when Minter Field was operating at its peak.
“You’d hear the airplanes coming and going all day and even at night,” he recalled. “It was a sound that we all loved — it was a reminder that we were doing our part for the country.”
When World War II ended, Minter field was deemed excess to the government’s needs and was turned over to the town of Shafter, the civilian aviation community took over but it never gave up it’s legacy.
“This airport is an important part of the community,” Patterson said. “History has been made here and there is still a lot of things going on here.”
In fact, for the last 16 years the field has been the site of the Warbirds In Action Air Show sponsored by the museum.
The many hangars on the airport contain every thing from J-3 Cubs, to Citation jets, to highly modified, unlimited class Reno racers.
Like many local, uncontrolled airports, Minter has its own cadre of aviators and aviation enthusiasts, folks who love the sky and the machines that take them there.
The Brookside Deli is the airport diner, the menu is simple and affordable, you can have a great cheeseburger with the locals or you can walk into any hangar with its door open and be greeted as if you were an old friend.
You might find yourself in the pattern with “Strega,” the super modified P-51 Mustang with a long list of Reno championships, or a T-6 or one of the many people planes that base there.
You will find the guys and gals who fly and maintain these aircraft, whether they be the local flight instructor and his Cessna 172 or the crew of one of the more legendary aircraft are just regular folks who enjoy talking about airplanes, flying, and all the common bonds and concerns that aviation people share.