This week’s announcement by Jim Peitz of Mustang Aviation that he plans to bring the first airshow to Pierre Regional Airport next summer on July 4-5 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 on the northeast end of town 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 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.
Until commercial airline industry was de-regulated 40 years ago, Pierre saw lots of passengers using the airport, as many as 40,000 boardings a year, with more than one major airline often providing service.
Since deregulation, it’s taken the federally subsidized Essential Air Service contracts to attract smaller, feeder airlines to come to small cities such as Pierre. The past three years, industry-wide pilot shortages have hurt commercial air service to Pierre.
But this year, the new EAS contract obtained by SkyWest Airlines has led, through its partnership with United Express, to bringing more passengers to Pierre than have been seen for years, and it could keep growing, civic leaders say.
Peitz says the airport is something to show off, an impressive community asset that many are not aware of, Peitz said.
The terminal is relatively new, built a decade ago.
Peitz and his family-owned firm built a hangar a year ago for Avera St. Mary’s new air ambulance service, which provides a needed service for all of central South Dakota.
The new $2 million mostly-federally-funded Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Station at the airport was completed two years ago.
Peitz’s announcement to the city commission on Tuesday, 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 non-flying, 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.”
The airshow will have a P-51 fighter, among other legendary aircraft, Peitz said.
Peitz said his plan is to bring Pierre a “full-blown airshow of epic proportions.”
It’s typical at airshows to precede the flying with a couple days of letting people, including school-aged kids, crawl around cool airplanes on the ground, Peitz said.
He’s looking at Saturday, July 4, and Sunday, July 5, for the air show itself.
“We typically bring people in on Thursdays and have a Friday showcase, a practice show, a dress rehearsal we like to call it,” Peitz said. “It’s a great time to bring out the school kids, . . . church groups, the veterans.”
The air show he plans will be a special way to honor veterans, Peitz said.
Huizenga pointed out that in April this year, to mark the 77th anniversary of the legendary Doolittle Raid over Japan on April 18, 1942, a World War II era B-25 bomber like the ones used by Doolittle’s Raiders, landed at the Pierre airport.
“There was a tremendous turnout just to (see) the plane sitting there,” Huizenga said Tuesday. “A full-blown airshow,” on Fourth of July weekend seems certain to attract thousands of people, he said. Pierre had a piece of the Doolittle Raid as it did to the larger build-up of U.S. air power in the early 1940s. On April 18, 1942, two South Dakota men were key players as Lt. Col. James Doolittle led America’s first attack on Japan, four months after the Pearl Harbor surprise hit. Lt. Henry Potter of Pierre was navigator in Doolittle’s B-25. Capt. Don Smith of Oldham, South Dakota, was pilot of one of 15 other B-25 “Raiders.”
That connection is why the South Dakota Air and Space Museum organized the “Raid Across South Dakota” tour that brought a B-25 to Pierre in April, 2019.
Ethan Malavolti piloted the B-25 that landed in Pierre in April. “What I love most is the sound,” Malavolti told the Capital Journal about what was one of the loudest aircraft in World War II. “It’s the sound of freedom.”
Archives of the South Dakota Historical Society and of the Capital Journal contributed to this article.