By Jean Cole
Seventy years ago, the Limestone County land, now the site of Pryor Field Airport, was teeming with pilots being trained to fight in World War II.
Beginning in October 1941, student pilots gathered — about 50 at a time — at the Southern Aviation Training School located three miles north of Decatur, said Larry Hall, pilot and Pryor Field historical marker project manager. Their trainers — many of them skilled crop dusters — were bent on producing pilots who could help win the war, he said.
The facility began with an administration building and infirmary, classrooms, mess hall, two barracks, dispatch towers and two hangers designed to hold 30 planes each, Hall said. By December of ’41, workers had built additional hangars and barracks, a hospital, classroom building, link trainer building and enlarged the kitchen and mess hall, Hall said.
Thursday, a group of people gathered at the new Pryor Regional Airport Terminal to celebrate the placement of the former training school on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. Following dedication of the historical marker, an open house and lunch were held at the new terminal, which is located about a mile north of Calhoun Community College.
He said former Pryor Field owner Clay Smith, who died in 2007, was the impetus for seeking a historic marker. Hall said he pursued the project after hearing Smith.
“Clay shared stories about the pilots, the trainers and what went on here,” Hall said. “I was impressed by all of his information, his collection of memorabilia, his tremendous research and his efforts to get pilots together.”
With such rich history, Hall thought the site should be recognized, advertised and patronized but certainly retained for posterity and future generations. So, he began the process of getting the airport named an historic landmark. The application for historic designation was approved in December 2010. The Air Board agreed to buy an historical marker for the site; it arrived in May and was installed. The metal marker now stands between two of the original hangars built during the war. The following is an excerpt from the new marker:
“…These two aircraft hangars and beacon tower are the remaining artifacts of one of only a few World War II Army Air Force Training Centers that have remained in continuous
use as airplane hangars since 1941. The school provided primary flight training for Army Air Force pilots. The facility was deactivated on Dec. 28, 1944, and turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers in September 1945. The training center was eventually discharged as surplus to the War Assets Administration and became a civil airport. The hangars were then used to convert surplus Army aircraft for commercial airline use for the Southern Airways Company, which later became part of Delta Airlines.”