Pease Air Force Base, New Hampshire

Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire was a hub for Strategic Air Command Nuclear bombers during the Cold War. Today it is part of a national wildlife refuge, and some remnants of the former base can still be seen there.

Front gate of the abandoned air base

In 1930, the little town of Newington, New Hampshire, just north of Portsmouth and 55 miles north of Boston, built a municipal airport. It served as a hangar and refueling stop for airplanes on the Boston to Bangor route until the outbreak of World War II, when the US Navy took over the facility. The military made some plans to use it for patrol planes searching for Nazi submarines offshore and as a fighter base to defend the nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyards, but never actually based any aircraft there.

In 1951, with the Cold War raging, the airfield was transferred from the Navy to the new US Air Force as the Portsmouth Air Force Base. At this time, the Strategic Air Command was looking for locations to base its new B-47 Stratojet nuclear bombers, which were capable of reaching the Soviet Union with atomic bombs from bases in the northern United States, and the uninhabited and isolated tract of land near Newington suited the purpose. The airfield was formally designated a SAC air base in 1956 and was renamed Pease Air Force Base, in memory of a native New Hampshire pilot who had posthumously won the Congressional Medal of Honor during World War II. 

Hangar area

Two nuclear bomber wings, the 100th Bombardment and the 509th Bombardment (the successor to the B-29 squadron that had dropped the atomic bombs on Japan), were based there, and the airfield steadily expanded. By 1960, though, with the introduction of the nuclear-armed ICBM (and after several publicized accidents involving SAC bombers), the American bomber bases became less important. There was some consideration given to basing Minuteman nuclear missiles at Pease, but in the end it was decided that they would be too vulnerable there to possible Soviet submarine-launched missiles, and the idea was rejected. 

Pease remained a SAC bomber base for the rest of the Cold War, though it declined in importance over time. The 100th Bombardment Wing was inactivated in 1966 when the B-47 was retired from service (the 100th was one of the last B-47 forces still active at the time), but the 509th Wing was re-equipped with B-52 Stratofortress bombers and remained in service. Pease also served at various times as home base for groups of KC-135 air-to-air refueling tankers, C-124 and C-130 cargo planes, and F-111 Aardvark fighter-bombers.

By 1988, Pease, along with 85 other military installations inside the US, was scheduled to be closed. Everything on the base was dismantled, decontaminated and removed, and Pease officially locked its gates in 1991. A portion of the former base was used as a smaller facility for Air National Guard refueling tankers, and another portion was given to the city for industrial development around a new Portsmouth International Airport. The rest of the land was turned over to the Federal Government.

Weapons storage. That would be nuclear weapons.

In 1992, some 1,000 acres of the deactivated airfield was turned over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the newly-established Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department had already purchased some of this land back in 1957, and this was incorporated into the new Federal reserve.

The Refuge protects an area of habitat that runs along the coast of the Great Bay Estuary for over half a mile and into the forested interior. It is part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System and contains ecological zones ranging from rocky shoreline to mudflats to freshwater and saltwater marshes to Appalachian oak/pine forest, providing habitat for a wide diversity of wildlife. It is a popular spot for birders. Among the species that can be found here are Bald Eagles, Cormorants, Herons, Otters, Fox, Beaver, Painted Turtles, Spring Peepers, and Black Ducks. A separate parcel of land about 45 miles away is a refuge for the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly. Both the Refuge and the Karner Easement are, administratively, part of the much larger Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, in Massachusetts.

There are around ten miles of loop trails for hikers, including the Ferry Way Trail and the Peverly Pond Trail. The abandoned Pease SAC Base is fenced in and inaccessible, but a paved walking/biking path runs around the outside security fence and allows views of the front gate, the former weapons storage area, and some of the concrete runways and hangar areas.


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