The Olmsted Air Force Base, which was located where the Harrisburg International Airport is today, was a part of Middletown for decades.
In September 1917, the Heinz pickle farm was replaced with an Army warehouse. Planes began to come and go to deliver and receive supplies, thus the decision to call it the Middletown Air Depot. In 1922 it became an official Air Corp Facility. The base provided resources to a worldwide network of government air bases within the United States. The facility served under the administration of the Signal Corps of the United States Army until 1939. With the National Security Act of 1947, the Department of War and the Department of the Navy were merged into the Department of Defense while also establishing the creation of a new military branch: the Air Force. This caused the Army’s ownership of the base to be relinquished to the United States Air Force.
The true name of the military base, the Olmsted Air Force Base, came from a rather sad story. A young lieutenant named Robert Sandford Olmsted was born in Sheldon, Vermont, and got stationed at the Middletown Base. He served in the engineering section, specifically the balloon and airship division, of the Army Air Service. During the 1923 Gordon Bennet International Balloon Races in Brussels, Belgium, Olmsted and his co-pilot John Shoptaw had their balloon struck by lightning. The lightning strike and crashing of the balloon killed them both. On March 11, 1948, the Air Depot was renamed the Olmsted Air Force Base in memory and honor of Robert Olmsted.
Prior to the creation of the military base, the large amount of land had a few previous owners. The area first belonged to Colonel James Young. Young had many farms spread across the town, owning around 1400 acres of farmland. He grew wheat, hay, tobacco, and other assorted vegetables while also raising animals. There were pigs, sheep, hens, and cows, all used for food plus cows for dairy. During his time in Middletown, Young’s farms were known as “The Pride of Dauphin County” since they were the best in every aspect; his care for the environment and his animals produced quality goods and a distinguished positive atmosphere. A little while later, the famous H. J. Heinz Company bought the land so they could grow mainly cucumbers for their sales in pickle production. They grew a variety of other crops as well including onions, tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, mango-melons, horseradishes, and the unfamiliar martynia.
In 1949 and Olmsted Air Force base was designated as the head point for shipments of resources heading for Germany during the Berlin Airlift. (This was a mission to deliver needed resources to Berlin during the Berlin Blockade. The mission lasted for eleven months, in which the allies provided over 2 million tons of supplies to the Berlin people via aircraft.)
Naturally, this was not the first time the depot had pitched in on military war efforts. During World War II (1939-1945), the Middletown Air Depot had fixed 2,325 engines in one month, shattering previous records. Since it was the largest airplane engine overhaul center in the world (at the time of WWII), employment at the base sky-rocketed to 17,000 workers. Many areas in Middletown (such as Oak Hills and Pineford) were developed to house the base’s personnel. When Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan on December 7, 1941, the Air Force base became an important part of the war effort, helping mainly with supplies. They were involved in World War I, World War II, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean Conflict, the Cold War, and even the Vietnam War. In 1959, the base expanded and remodeled its buildings and runway along with being able to house several versions of supply planes, fighter jets (and do maintenance on their weapons systems). In 1960 it became the only guided air-to-air rocket overhaul/testing base for the Air Force’s Falcon missile.
However, in the mid-1960s, Air Force leadership determined that land was not available for the expansion needed for additional supply and maintenance buildings, and on November 19, 1964, the base was declared officially shut down. Once the base was closed, many base employees were relocated to new bases. However, since it employed over 10,000 civilians, many simply lost work, making the closure difficult news for Middletown. Not only did the shutdown leave the town shocked, but it also took a large amount of the town’s economy down with it. In 1968, to help with the economic impact of shutting down the base, the government replaced a sizable portion of the base with an airport to produce revenue, named the Olmsted State Airport. However, in 1973, the airport, turned international and was renamed the Harrisburg International Airport (Its Airport Code is MDT for Middletown). In 1966, the northern part of the air base became the Capitol Campus of the Pennsylvania State University (now Penn State Harrisburg), dedicated as a graduate and upper division school. In 1998, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania transferred the ownership of the airport over to the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority (SARAA). The airport, which now has three terminals, has accommodated several presidential visits on Air Force One. As of today, the Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard still operates there leaving a small portion of the previous base still intact.
Story prepared by: Alexis Jefferson
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