— From Staff Reports
Pryor Field, now surrounded by the buildings of Calhoun Community College, once was home to an Army pilot training center preparing fliers for World War II.
The field opened in Limestone County in 1941 as the Southeast Air Forces Training Center, and its two hangars are among the few to have been in continual use since that war. A beacon tower also is located on the property and is still in use.
The historic nature of the training facility and the reminders left standing are part of what led to the site recently being designated to the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
“These structures are the remaining artifacts of one of only a few World War II Army Air Forces Training Centers that have remained in continued use as airplane hangars since 1941,” said Lee Anne Wofford of the Alabama Historic Commission in a press release. “This center provided primary flight training for Army Air Force pilots. The facility was inactivated on December 28, 1944 and turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers on September 1945. The training center was eventually discharged to the War Assets Administration and became a civil airport.”
Larry Hall, a pilot and plane owner, said he used to listen to the late Clay Smith tell stories about the training center and his love for Pryor Field’s history. It was those stories and his own love of history that motivated him to spend four to five months working to have the site recognized by the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
“Those stories that he would share with me, there was such a rich amount of history that needed to be preserved,” Hall said. “There was a lot of paperwork to do in order to get this recognition, but it was certainly worth it. Anything I could do to preserve a piece of history like this in our community was worth some effort on my part.”
On Tuesday, the site was listed to the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. Limestone County Commissioners recognized the honor during their Tuesday meeting.
“That sight has been around longer than me, so I’m proud it’s being recognized,” said Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee about the designation. “This will be good for the airport, the city of Decatur and us, too.”
District 3 County Commissioner Bill Latimer said the historical recognition of Pryor Field is of great importance because of the significance it played during World War II.
“I was wondering why it hadn’t been done before,” he said. “I think it’s a really good thing.”
In 1995, Decatur-Athens Aero Services began operations at Pryor Field. The operation closed a month ago after Smith, its owner, died in 2007.
Currently, Stan Smith operates North Alabama Aviation at the field.
The field averages about 20 corporate aircraft landing there in a week with about 50 private aircraft housed in Pryor’s hangars.
Recent improvements to the airport have included the building of a new $1.8 million terminal, which opened in early 2009, and a 6,000-foot runway extension to handle corporate jets.
The original structures, however, will be preserved. The Alabama Register is a listing of historic, architectural, and archaeological landmarks developed by the Historical Commission, which “considers the notable historic properties in this register to be particularly worthy of preservation and appreciation, and therefore deserving of this special recognition.”
Hall said having the site listed is only the first step; the field now needs a historical marker from the state, and he would eventually like to see Pryor Field added to a federal historic registry.
“What historical markers do is draw our attention to a significant piece of our local, state and in our case, national history,” Hall said. “It will bring recognition and create a level of sensitivity to this project so that (the structures) will be protected and continue to be an integral part of Pryor Field.”