Hanscom is a somewhat ubiquitous term here in Bedford. There is an exit ramp off the highway that says Hanscom, there is a federal credit union named after it, and a quick search in The Bedford Citizen reveals over 700 stories mentioning “Hanscom.”
Hanscom is such a presence here it has become almost invisible, with an occasional loud plane to remind us that we all live next door to an airport.
But what’s the story behind it, and what exactly is it? Is it an Air Force base? Is it a Regional airport? And who was Hanscom?
Well, explaining things is what we strive to do.
First, a little airport history pre Hanscom. Believe it or not, Hanscom was not the first airport in Bedford. Searching the Bedford Historical Society’s files we discovered that back in 1919 Bedford was home to an Aerodrome for a brief time . The Curtiss Airplane Company leased a field off South Road from the farmer Ernest Yates and named it Lee Field. These were the heady days, barnstorming pilots and wing walkers etc. This was also part of Curtiss Company’s plan for a series of regional airports to ensure safe landing areas for planes with limited range as well as a way to promote and sell aircraft. The Historical Society has several diary entries from a local teen named Mabel Kirkegaard. Her excitement was palpable; it’s hard to imagine seeing a plane fly now as something exciting, but in 1919 it was. The Aerodrome was not a commercial success and closed in 1921.
In May of 1941 the Massachusetts Legislature authorized the purchase of a tract of farmland in the towns of Bedford, Concord, Lexington, and Lincoln for what was to be called the Boston Auxiliary Airport. World War II was raging in Europe and the Pacific and the United States was considering whether to enter the war. The federal government had appropriated $40 million to build 250 new civil airports across the country. The thought was that these airports might be used for national defense if needed in the future.
By mid 1942, after the United States had entered the war, the state leased the Bedford airport to the War Department. It was used to train fighter pilots for the 85th and 318th fighter squadron that went on to fight in Europe and in North Africa.
Who was Hanscom?
The Hanscom field was named after Laurence G. Hanscom, who was a reporter for the Worcester Telegram-Gazette. He was a pilot and aviation enthusiast and an influential lobbyist. At the State House he was a strong advocate for the establishment of the airport here in Bedford. The airport was renamed Laurence G. Hanscom Field after Hanscom was killed in an airplane accident in 1943.
During World War II, Harvard and MIT as well as other universities were conducting research on behalf of the War Department. MIT was working on radar sets and brought them out to Bedford to conduct testing. This would be the start of Hanscom’s role after the war ended.
It became clear that electronic technology would be an important element for defense going forward, and Hanscom had emerged as the Air Force’s center for the development and acquisition of electronic systems. The electronic systems component from the Army Air Force with all their supporting contractors and companies played a crucial role in the creation of a high-technology area around Route 128. With the war over and MIT and Harvard’s wartime laboratories dissolving, the Army Air force wanted to continue their research into radar and other electronics and quickly moved to build technical expertise in house.
By 1950, during the cold war, the Air Force was working closely with MIT to develop a new air defense system for the continental United States. The Air Force decided to expand its facilities at Hanscom. After some negotiation, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts agreed in May 1952 to cede land on one side of the airport to the federal government and to give a 25-year renewable lease on the airfield itself. The Air Force started work on office and lab space.
In the early fifties, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory offices at Hanscom were completed, and the Air Force’s electronics and geophysics labs started to move to their new facilities in Bedford. The airfield’s runways were reconfigured and expanded in 1953, and new hangars, headquarters, and facilities were built.
Throughout the cold war, Hanscom’s work with radar and command and control was an important element in strategic defense. Along with the Nike Missile Site (Bedford Explained, The Bedford Citizen April 19, 2018). Bedford and Hanscom played an important role in civil defense.
At the end of the 1950s military operations declined at Hanscom and the Massachusetts Port Authority assumed control of the state land.
In 1961, the Electronic Systems Division (ESD) was established at Hanscom Field in order to consolidate the management of the Air Force’s electronic systems under one agency. Since that time, the Electronics Systems Division (redesignated the Electronic Systems Center in 1992) has been the host organization on the base.
Hanscom’s role in acquisitions continued throughout the sixties while the operational mission of the base continued to become less of a factor. By 1973 all regular military flying missions ceased operations. The next year the Air Force terminated its lease of the airfield and it reverted to Massport. The Air Force did retain the right to use the field.
In 1974, general operations and maintenance of the airfield became the responsibility of Massport as military operations declined to only occasional use. Hanscom has since been managed as a regional aviation facility.
Hanscom Survives Base Closings
In the early 1990s, there was a real threat that Hanscom might close. The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) initiative was established to consolidate operations throughout the defense department. There was a threat that Hanscom would not survive. Speculation as to what that might mean was rampant. Hanscom currently adds $6.4 billion dollars to the local economy and is responsible for 10,000 plus jobs. Hanscom’s closing would have been a huge blow. The base survived by showing its technical expertise. One big advantage, either by luck or design, is the fact that although there are only four towns connected to Hanscom, it is represented by three different congressional districts. Bedford, Concord, Lexington, and Lincoln are represented by three different members of Congress. The surrounding towns have a very peculiar relationship to the base. It seems no one wants it to either grow or shrink, and talk of closure is met with the same shock as talk of expansion. Hanscom really is the goldilocks air force base, not too big, not too small, and it seems this is just how everyone likes it.
Air Shows at Hanscom
The occasional Air Shows at Hanscom are one of the highlights of having an air force base in town. They happened fairly frequently as I remember from my childhood. They were great, they often had vintage aircraft, as well as modern equipment. The highlight was always the Thunderbirds, and once the Navy’s Blue Angels were here too. The last air show that Hanscom hosted was in 2002. It was the first air show to be held after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.
So What is Hanscom Air Force Base Now?
So What is Hanscom Air Force Base Now?
*Hanscom Air Force base develops and acquires technology for a variety of purposes, with a specific focus on systems used to collect, process and distribute critical information to commanders and warfighters, where and when they need it.
Hanscom hosts the 66th Air Base Group, which is part of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB, is one of six centers reporting to the Air Force Materiel Command. Led by a Lieutenant General, AFLCMC is charged with life cycle management of Air Force weapon systems from their inception to retirement.
Hanscom is also home to three Air Force Program Executive Offices (PEOs): The PEO for Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks (C3I&N); PEO Digital; and the Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (NC3) PEO.
The Program Executive Office for Presidential & Executive Airlift, headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, also has a significant presence at Hanscom. The Survivable Airborne Operations Division, with more than 80 people, is located here and working to acquire a replacement Weapon System for the aging E-4B, National Airborne Operations Center. The E-4B NAOC is a key component of the National Military Command System for the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In addition, Hanscom also hosts other units, including the Massachusetts National Guard Joint Force Headquarters, and services myriad others throughout the region.
So What is LG Hanscom Field?
According to Massport, LG Hanscom Field is the second busiest airport in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s 2019 Aviation Economic Impact Study determined that there were 2,243 full-time equivalent jobs related to Hanscom. Annual wages for those workers are nearly $134 million. Further, the study concluded that Hanscom generated an overall economic benefit of $679 million when considering all direct, indirect, and induced economic benefits.
So that’s Hanscom. If you have any other things in Bedford you would like explained, let us know. BTW, another air show might happen sometime. Currently, they just say no shows are scheduled.
Hanscom by the Numbers
* Total Economic Impact – $6.03 billion
FY16 Contract Expenditures – $4 billion
Total Gross Salary – $395 million
Total Employment ~ Total Workforce – 10,306
- Active Duty – 899
- Mass. National Guard – 400
- LCMC Civilians – 1,743
- DOD Civilian – 555
- Non-Appropriated Fund Civilians- 170
- Non-DOD Civilian – 92
- Contractors – 2,208
- MIT Lincoln Lab – 4,058
Secondary Jobs Created – 10,050
- Contractors – 2,208
- MIT Lincoln Lab – 4,05
- Editors note: this paragraph has changed for clarification after hearing from Hanscom AFB