History of Western Nebraska Regional Airport

William B. Heilig Field

The first landing strips in Scottsbluff are believed to exist since approx. 1928 in a private pasture. Inland Airlines provided air service through Scottsbluff from Cheyenne, WY, to Rapid City, SD, Spearfish, SD, and Pierre, SD, with a Boeing 247 beginning August 1940.

On September 1942, an announcement was made that Scottsbluff was selected as one of seven satellite air bases that would be located in Nebraska. Twenty-eight farms were purchased and the new airfield’s construction. Construction began at the new base in September 1942. A temporary railroad spur was occupied as early as October 1942. Initially, Scottsbluff Army Airfield was a satellite to the Casper Wyoming airbase. The first troops arrived December 1942. 

The airport was then built by the U.S. Army in 1943 at a cost of 5.5 million. Today, the replacement value is estimated at 125 million. Scottsbluff Army Airfield was part of a series of training bases built in Nebraska during World War II. The original mission of this installation was to train aircrews of B-17 and B-24 bombers of the 2nd Air Force. In 1944 base command was transferred from 2nd AF to the 1st Troop Carrier Command, and became a satellite field of Alliance Army Airfield. The 1st TCC  used the facility for the C-47 training flights and glider operations.

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Jane Fliesbach

One of many women who served in various capacities during World War II. Jane joined the Women's Air Service Pilots (known as WASPs) in 1943.

The WASPs were an organization founded by Jacqueline Cochran, who set may aviations records. Out of 25,000 women who applied for the honor to fly with the WASPs, only 1830 were chosen for training, 1074 graduated. The air miles flown by these women totaled over 60,000,000 and 43 died in service to their country.

Many women joined the workforce to support the war effort by working in the factories and shipyards, along with regularly meeting the troops trains. They flew the planes being developed for the war, including all the fighters and bombers, ferrying and towing target practices.

Chester H. Fliesbach

Chester H. Fliesbach served as naval aviator from 1941 through 1945 and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Seven Stars. 

In 1946 Chet, along with Chris Abbott from Hyannis, Nebraska, started Prairie Airlines, which ran from Scottsbluff to the eastern end of the state. As the co-owner of the West Nebraska Express, he flew Beechcraft Bonanzas and Barons during the twenty-six years of operation.

 

Fliesbach served for fifteen years as a member of the Nebraska Aeronautics Commission. He helped found the Panhandle Soarers Glider Club. In 1995, at age 77, he qualified as a helicopter pilot. He logged more than 10,440 hours in the air and held instrument, instructor, single and multi-engine land, sailplane and helicopter ratings. Chester Fliesbach was inducted into the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000.

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Byron M. Johnson

Byron M. Johnson a U.S. Navy Aviator, was born and raised in Potter, Nebraska. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Johnson left college and enlisted with the U.S. Navy and by August of 1942, he was being trained as a fighter pilot. Johnson became the subject of one of the most dramatic and most published photographs of World War II. Johnson crash-landed his Grumman F6F Hellcat onto the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise on November 10, 1943. Johnson's life was saved by Lt. Walter L. Chewning, who jumped through the flames to release the cockpit doors, allowing Johnson to escape from the burning wreckage.

 

In 1944, Johnson received the title of "Ace" after shooting down eight enemy aircraft. The footage of the crash was not released until January 1945 because of wartime censorship. Following his discharge from the Navy, Johnson returned to western Nebraska and started an airport in Sidney and also returned to college. He became a lawyer and practiced law in the Scottsbluff-Gering area before retiring to the Western Nebraska Veterans Home. Johnson was inducted in the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame in 1991. Johnson died in Scottsbluff in 2005 at the age of 84.

Shortly after WWII, in July 1947, the War Assets Administration should the Airfield land and runways to Scottsbluff for the use as a municipal airport. The military continued to use the airport for military training regularly until 1950.

 

In July 1970, the city transferred ownership of the Airfield to Scotts Bluff County, which continues to operate the facility today as the William B. Heilig Field. 

In July 2003, the county created an Airport Authority Board; which is continuing to make considerable improvements. Wildlife fencing, new fire equipment, remodeling of the fire station, and a new terminal are a few of the improvements made by the Board. In 2005, the Donald E. Overman terminal was completed.

Future improvements include rehab of both runways, in addition to the existing fire station, and much more! The Airport Authority Board is working with local law enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration for security screening.

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On August 21, 2017, the airport and community were able to enjoy a rare event…the Total Solar Eclipse! Scottsbluff, NE was in the path of totality and many avid eclipse enthusiasts traveled from far to enjoy the 1 minute 42 seconds of totality.

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