Naval Air Station Sanford
A3D-2 (A-3B) Skywarriors of VAH-7, BuNo 138916 and Buno 142660, over NAS Sanford in the early 1960s
|Owner||United States Navy|
|Elevation AMSL||57 (now 55) ft / 18 (now 17) m|
Naval Air Station Sanford (IATA:
NRJ, ICAO: KNRJ, FAA LID: NRJ) was a United States Navy naval air station in Sanford, Florida, approximately 20 miles north of Orlando, Florida. Opening less than a year after the start of World War II, NAS Sanford's initial function was as an advanced training base for land-based patrol bombers, followed by carrier-based fighter aircraft. The air station briefly closed following the war and was placed in caretaker status, then reactivated in 1950, eventually serving as a Master Jet Base for carrier-based heavy attack and reconnaissance aircraft until 1969. After its closure, it reopened as civilian general aviation airport under various names with a non-Navy civilian airport identifier (IATA: SFB, ICAO: KSFB, FAA LID: SFB) until finally transitioning to a scheduled air carrier airport under its current name of Orlando-Sanford International Airport.
Naval Air Station Sanford was commissioned as an active naval installation on 3 November 1942 and was initially assigned the airport codes NRJ and KNRJ. The base initially concentrated on advanced land-based patrol plane training, operating PV-1 Venturas, PBO Hudsons and SNB-2 Kansans. Peak wartime complement during 1943-1945 reached approximately 360 officers and 1400 enlisted men, both Navy and Marine Corps, with an additional complement of Naval Reserve officer and enlisted WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) who served in air traffic control, meteorological services, administrative support, and aircraft maintenance.
In 1943, training at NAS Sanford shifted to carrier-based fighter aircraft using the F4F, FM-1 and FM-2 Wildcat and F6F Hellcat. The air station also held oversight of an auxiliary airfield known as Outlying Field Osceola (OLF Osceola) approximately 6 nautical miles (11 km) east-southeast of NAS Sanford.
Decommissioned in 1946 and placed in a caretaker status, the base was recommissioned as Naval Auxiliary Air Station Sanford (NAAS Sanford) in 1950 in response to both the Korean War and the Cold War. Subsequently, redesignated as a full naval air station and renamed NAS Sanford once again, the installation initially served as a home station for carrier-based AJ Savage attack aircraft assigned to the Atlantic Fleet. In the late 1950s, substantial upgrades followed in order to turn the air station into a Master Jet Base for the carrier-based Douglas A-3 Skywarrior (at the time, designated A3D) nuclear attack aircraft of Heavy Attack Wing ONE (HATWING ONE). In addition to the Skywarrior, other associated sea-based and land-based training aircraft supporting A3D training, such as the F9F-T Cougar and P2V-3W Neptune, were also assigned.
The upgrades to the former NAAS to achieve status as a full-fledged NAS and Master Jet Base included lengthening of the main runway to 8,000 feet (2,400 m) with additional overruns of approximately 2,000 feet (610 m) on both ends; construction of additional new hangars; barracks and administrative support buildings for the air station, heavy attack wing, heavy attack squadrons, and Marine Barracks; installation or upgrades to precision approach radar/ground controlled approach (PAR/GCA), non-directional beacon (NDB) and tactical air navigation (TACAN) navigational aids; a robust storage and distribution system for JP-5 jet fuel (which relied on resupply via a railroad spur into the base); secure weapon/air-dropped ordnance storage facilities; a Navy Dispensary; a Navy Exchange complex and associated garage/service station/MiniMart; and morale, welfare and recreation (MWR) facilities that included a base movie theater, two swimming pools, lakeside recreational facilities and separate clubs for officers, chief petty officer and enlisted personnel pay grade E-6 and below. Like Pinecastle AFB (later renamed McCoy AFB), a Strategic Air Command installation approximately 25 miles (40 km) to the south, a commissary and full-fledged Naval Hospital facilities were not considered necessary at NAS Sanford due to the relatively close proximity of a commissary and USAF Hospital at Central Florida's other major military installation at the time, the nearby Orlando AFB (which was transferred to the U.S. Navy's control in December 1968 and renamed Naval Training Center Orlando), approximately 12 miles (19 km) to the south.
NAAS / NAS Sanford also retained control of OLF Osceola into the early 1960s. However, OLF Osceola's 4000 to 5,000-foot (1,500 m) runways lacked sufficient length and pavement strength for contemporary carrier-based jet aircraft like the A3D. As a result, no improvements were made to the OLF's infrastructure and it was effectively abandoned as an operational facility.
HATWING ONE consisted of nine Heavy Attack Squadrons (VAH), also known as HATRONs: VAH-1, VAH-3, VAH-5, VAH-6, VAH-7, VAH-9, VAH-11, VAH-12 and VAH-13. All were Fleet deployable units with the exception of VAH-3, which conducted Replacement Air Group (RAG) / Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) functions. In addition to the HATWING ONE squadrons, Air Development Squadron FIVE (VX-5), based at NAWS China Lake, California, also maintained a detachment at NAS Sanford.
Due to the Skywarrior's nuclear strike mission and the presence of an associated special weapons storage area at NAS Sanford, U.S. Marine Corps personnel provided both base security and special weapons storage area security, leading to the establishment of Marine Corps Barracks Sanford aboard the air station.
On 6 February 1959, NAS Sanford was dedicated as Ramey Field in honor of Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Ramey, USN, who lost his life in 1958 by electing to guide his crippled A3D Skywarrior away from a residential area. By staying with the aircraft, LCDR Ramey not only gave his flight crew time to bail out of the aircraft, but also saved the lives of numerous families in the residential community.
In the early 1960s, the A3D aircraft (redesignated as the A-3B in 1962) began to be replaced by the Mach 2+ North American A3J Vigilante (redesignated the A-5A in 1962). But by 1964, the strategic nuclear strike mission for carrier-based aircraft was eliminated and the Navy's strategic nuclear strike mission under the SIOP was transferred to the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) nuclear submarine force. As a result, all Vigilante squadrons were converted to a carrier-based tactical reconnaissance mission and redesignated as Reconnaissance Attack Squadrons (RVAH). Existing A-5A and A-5B aircraft were modified to the RA-5C Vigilante configuration and the North American production line shifted to producing all subsequent aircraft as RA-5Cs. Heavy Attack Wing ONE was renamed Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE (RECONATKWING ONE) and its subordinate squadrons as Reconnaissance Attack Squadrons (RVAH). Unlike HATWING ONE, which concentrated on supplying aircraft squadrons to the Atlantic Fleet, RECONATKWING ONE would be the Navy's sole functional wing for the RA-5C and would supply squadrons to both the Atlantic Fleet and Pacific Fleet.
NAS Sanford-based squadrons routinely deployed aboard both Atlantic and Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers of the Forrestal, Kitty Hawk and Enterprise classes, seeing extensive action during the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Numerous RA-5C flight crews and aircraft were also lost to enemy action in the Vietnam War, with several NAS Sanford-based Naval Aviators and Naval Flight Officers becoming prisoners of war in Vietnam until repatriation in 1973. In addition to RA-5C aircraft, NAS Sanford also continued to operate the TA-3B variant of the Skywarrior, several examples of which were attached to the RA-5C Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), Reconnaissance Attack Squadron THREE (RVAH-3), for training Naval Flight Officers as Reconnaissance Attack Navigators (RAN) in the RA-5C. NAS Sanford also operated the R4D-8/C-117 Skytrain as an operational support aircraft assigned to the air station proper. Transient aircraft from NAS Key West, NAS Jacksonville and NAS Cecil Field, Florida and NAS Glynco, Georgia would also utilize NAS Sanford for training or as a weather or fuel divert from the Atlantic offshore training areas or the Navy's Pinecastle Bombing Range in the Ocala National Forest.
In late 1967, in addition to the nine existing RVAH squadrons that had previously been VAH squadrons, a tenth RVAH squadron was formed in preparation for the impending commissioning of the new aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, culminating with the establishment of RVAH-14 on 1 February 1968.
Unfortunately, only a few months later, Congress directed the closure of NAS Sanford in 1968 due to funding constraints caused by the Vietnam War and President Johnson's concurrent Great Society programs that necessitated the closure or realignment of several stateside air force bases and naval air stations. As a result, flying operations rapidly scaled back at NAS Sanford during 1968 as the wing and squadrons were incrementally transferred to Turner AFB, a former Strategic Air Command B-52 and KC-135 installation, which was renamed as NAS Albany (Turner Field), Georgia. The Navy officially vacated NAS Sanford in 1969 and the installation was turned over to the City of Sanford.
With the later post-Vietnam closure of NAS Albany in 1975, the wing and squadrons subsequently relocated again, this time to NAS Key West, Florida, during the 1974-75 time frame and continued to deploy to both the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific aboard Forrestal, Kitty Hawk, Enterprise and Nimitz class aircraft carriers. RA-5C units remained operational at NAS Key West until the RA-5C's retirement from active naval service in January 1980.
A commemorative NAS Sanford Memorial Park, along with plaques and a retired RA-5C Vigilante aircraft on loan from the National Naval Aviation Museum were dedicated in May 2003 and are positioned on the main entrance road within the Orlando Sanford International Airport perimeter in memory to NAS Sanford personnel who served their country during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Additional Seminole County historical markers were placed at both the park and at the main passenger terminal, while additional markers and memorials to NAS Sanford exist in the city's redeveloped RiverWalk riverfront area facing Lake Monroe in downtown Sanford.
A PV-1 Ventura, also on loan from the National Museum of Naval Aviation, is in the process of being restored at the airport and will be placed on display inside the airport's passenger terminal along with additional NAS Sanford historical displays. An A-3 Skywarrior has also been requested from the Navy for future restoration and display, but the paucity of remaining airframes not already on display elsewhere will make this a challenge.
Following base closure, the City of Sanford assumed control of the facility, initially developing it as an uncontrolled regional general aviation airport and adjacent industrial park, later reactivating the former Navy control tower as a non-federal control tower in 1972. This was later upgraded to an FAA-operated control tower in 1994. Today, the airfield operates as Orlando-Sanford International Airport, a commercial airport with domestic and international airline service, augmenting commercial service at nearby Orlando International Airport (the former McCoy AFB) and Daytona Beach International Airport (the former NAS Daytona Beach).