Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Under a warm March sun and a Southside sky vast and bright with future promise, City and County leaders gathered Friday afternoon to celebrate the rebirth of Hanger 9, a symbol of early military aviation, World War I sacrifice and innovation, and San Antonio's early roots as Military City USA.
It was an old-fashioned, flag-raising occasion, one fitting for the century-old wooden hangar, the sole surviving example of what once was a phalanx of 16 such hangars at Brooks Field built in 1917-18. Hangar 9 is a National Historic landmark and the last surviving home of the Curtis JN-4 ‘Jenny’ biplanes.
“Hangar 9 was an aircraft maintenance facility. It could fit eight Curtis JN-4 ‘Jenny’ biplanes in there, which was the primary trainer used at Kelly Field, at the time the Army Air Service’s primary training field,” said Rudy Purificato, the former Brooks Air Force Base historian, in a recent interview with the Rivard Report.
Hangar 9 was looking its very best Friday, as if the audience seated on white wooden folding chairs under the sun and others gathered under the welcoming shade of nearby oak trees were standing in the footsteps of San Antonio citizens 100 years ago.
The Sam Houston High School Junior ROTC "Hurricane Guard" raised the U.S. and Texas flags and then marched smartly in review. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dr. Kat Strus led the audience in a rendition of the national anthem.
Brooks City Base Chairman Manuel Villa read off the obligatory list of VIPs and elected officials in attendance, but it was his call to military veterans to stand that drew the strongest applause and appreciation as men and women of various ages reminded onlookers that those who survived their service to country span the generations.
"Hangar 9 is a rare and special tribute to the men and women who served in the Great War," Villa said, the first of several officials who spoke before the official reopening of the hangar.
Mayor Ivy Taylor pronounced the day a "momentous occasion," and was applauded when she said, "Brooks is the gateway to the city's Southside, which is growing like never before."
Few would have predicted such growth only a decade ago. Brooks Air Force Base, which closed in 2011 after its founding as Brooks Field in 1917, once was home to 2,700 airmen and support troops. Today it is a 1,300-acre mixed-use community with $300 million in economic development underway or on the drawing boards.
"Brooks represents the past, present, and future of San Antonio," Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said in her remarks following the mayor. "Our military helps to define us and our story."
Hangar 9 is no longer home to any Jennys. Its gleaming white walls, high, open ceilings and signature support struts will now serve as a community center where families, communities, nonprofits, and businesses can celebrate special occasions.
The Southside Chamber of Commerce will host Hangar 9's first such event on April 10 with its CityView luncheon featuring City Manager Sheryl Sculley as the keynote speaker.
"It seems that there is a groundbreaking or a new opening every day at Brooks," County Commissioner (Pct. 4) Tommy Calvert quipped as he launched into a detailed history of early army aviation, San Antonio's key role in that development, and its continuing role with important Air Force missions operating just miles away from Friday's celebrations at Lackland Air Force Base.
"We don't just have great things happening up North, we have them happening here on the Southeast side," Calvert said.
Brooks CEO & President Leo Gomez verged on the evangelical in his enthusiasm for the day and the future of Brooks. Pointing to a grove of nearby trees that shelter the grave of Lt. Sidney Brooks, the celebrated pioneer aviator whose name is honored with its own air force base turned mixed-use community, Gomez exhorted the crowd to support an initiative to commission a life-sized sculpture of a JN-4 for installation on a now-empty public pedestal.
With the $2.8 million restoration project just completed, it might take a while to summon enough support to fulfill that mission, but no one was counting out Gomez, either.
"You cannot really plan for your future unless you understand and appreciate your history," Gomez concluded.
The only hiccup in the program came as James LeBlanc, a Brooks maintenance worker, braved a hot sun for a slow ride in a "crow's nest" articulated boom lift to ceremonially return the red wind sock to the top of Hangar 9 where it will fly anew. Alas, the lumbering, loudly beeping machine hesitated, then froze a few feet from the target as officials looked on helplessly. After much fussing and no success, LeBlanc was lowered to safety and the massive hangar doors were slided open. The wind sock will be installed on another day.
It took little time for overheated people to seek the shade of the hangar interior where they were greeted by the Highlands High School Drum Line, a jazz band, and other festivities.
A surprised reporter couldn't help but notice the healthy appetizers of skewered melon, strawberries, and pineapple that quickly drew hungry crowds, as did tables with two different aguas frescas: strawberry watermelon cilantro and passion mango mint, a refreshing finish to what seemed like a throwback day, surely one for remembering.