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Howard Air Force Base

Howard was the bastion of US air power in Central and South America. In its heyday, it was the center for counterdrug operations, military and humanitarian airlift, contingencies, joint-nation exercises, and search and rescue. Carved out of a jungle a 500 yards from the Pacific Ocean, it opened in 1942. It was name after Maj. Charles H. Howard, who flew in Panama in the late 1920s. Once the busy hub of Air Force operations in Latin America, Howard boasted fighters, cargo planes, tankers, airborne warning and control system planes, "executive" jets, and search and rescue helicopters. It was also home for a host of Army and Navy aircraft. Its people tracked drug traffickers out of South America. And its cargo planes provided airlift for US Southern Command contingencies, exercises, disaster relief and conducted search and rescue in the vast region. Yet, only the C-27 Spartan transports and executive jets belonged to the wing. The others were Guard and Reserve planes that rotated into the base.

The only five star general in Air Force history, Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, played a prominent role in the history of Howard AFB and military aviation in Panama. As a captain, Arnold led the first air unit, the 7th Aero Squadron, to the Isthmus on March 29, 1917. Within a week, he left for Washington DC and more pressing duties there. When he returned to Panama in May 1939, he was a major general and chief of the Army Air Corps. The purpose of his visit was to select a site for a new air base. He chose what is now Howard AFB and even suggested the name Howard Field, in honor of Major Charles H. Howard, a personal friend and former subordinate who had served in Panama during the period 1926-1929 and who had been part of Arnold's crew on his famed flight of B-10 bombers to Alaska in 1934. Major Howard died in an air crash on Oct. 25, 1936. On Dec. 1, 1939 the new air base officially became Howard Field.

Construction began shortly thereafter and the first troops arrived on May 15, 1941. Howard Field hosted both fighter and bomber aircraft during the World War II era. The base was inactivated on Jan. 1, 1950 and its real estate turned over to the Army. The Air Force continued to use Howard as a deployment site for joint training exercises during the 1950's and by December 1961 all USAF flying operations in Panama relocated to Howard. On Oct. 1, 1963 the Air Force officially reclaimed Howard from the Army and the base has played the central role in US military operations in Latin America ever since, largely due to its 8500-foot runway and its status as the only jet capable US air field south of the Rio Grande.

Howard was on the closure list longer than any other Air Force base in US military history. Base workers didn't let Howard's trademark manicured look pale over the years. They kept Howard's tropical charm and scenic wonders from fading. Its massive white building and their ocher terracotta roofs are a reflection of an earlier time. And with the exceptions of a few new buildings, the base still looked much like it did 25 years earlier.

Control of the canal changed hands 31 December 1999, from the United States to Panama. DoD elements began drawing down more than a year earlier, in anticipation of the deadline established by the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977. The last of the fixed-wing US aircraft departed Howard Air Force Base 01 May 1999. Scores of support and tenant missions had moved on as well, including DoD counterdrug operations, which relocated to forward operating locations in Ecuador and Curacao. When the US Army-South lowered the flag at Fort Clayton 30 July 1999 and moved its operations to Puerto Rico, the less than 600 airmen remaining on Howard represented the final military element of US jurisdiction over the canal. By 01 November 1999, they too were gone; the mission ended; the 24th Wing inactivated. The government of Panama benefited from the closure of military facilities. The former Albrook Air Force Station becaem the country's largest municipal airport, while the housing there was sold to individual buyers. On 29 July 1999, a contractor hired by the Panamanian government took over the Howard golf course.

The Joint Interagency Task Force-South mission from Panama also came to an end 01 May 1999 with a closure ceremony, when the unit was awarded the Joint Meritorious Unit Award for their outstanding contributions to the counterdrug operations in Panama and South America June 11, 1997 through May 1. JIATF-South supported international partners that led to substantial disruption of the illegal narcotics industry in the region. The JIATF-S mission transferred to JIATF-East in Key West, Fla. This unit will be the headquarters element of a new US SOUTHCOM counterdrug architecture with forward-operating locations for counterdrug aircraft in the Netherlands Antilles and Ecuador.

The E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System planes that are the heart of the counterdrug fight, and the KC-135 tankers, now fly from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. And the F-15 and F-16 fighters that protect the AWACs - known as Coronet Nighthawk - are flying from three forward operating locations: the Dutch Caribbean islands of Curacao and Aruba, and Ecuador. The three bases are closer to South American drug-producing centers and Caribbean trafficking routes.

Howard Air Force Base, along with the neighboring Fort Kobbe and the Farfan residential zone, were turned over to the Panamanian government in late 1999 as part of a treaty that will transfer all canal operations to the Central American country by the end of the year. Howard Air Force Base, constructed in 1928, contained urban zones with hundreds of small buildings valued at $315 million.

Howard Airforce Base covers 3,707 acres and is located in the Pacific sector just 45 minutes from Panama City, near Rodman Naval Station and other military bases such as Kobbe, Cocoli and Farfan. The projected uses for Howard include industrial zones, residential communities, urban developments and areas for the construction of a possible third set of locks of the Panama Canal and a new port in Farfan with complementary maritime business.

Studies also indicate that Howard is a potential site for a multimodal transport centre due to existing infrastructure, such as an airport with a landing strip of approximately 2,591 meters, large enough to handle international cargo planes.

Other infrastructure at Howard includes well-developed road and highway systems within and near the base, various commercial, institutional and residential buildings, fuel storage tanks, drainage and potable water systems, sewage, electricity powered by a double 44 KV thermoelectric station at Miraflores, and a state-of-the-art fiber optic telecommunications system that interconnects all former and present military installations in Panama.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:49:24 ZULU