As a pilot, Hugh Elmendorf got a late start; he spent four years in the infantry before joining the Air Service. Then, when he got into a cockpit, he showed the world he belonged there.
His career zoomed upward. It ended 12 years later in the wreckage of an experimental aircraft.
Hugh Merle Elmendorf, after whom USAF named an Alaskan air base, came from a wealthy family in Ithaca, N.Y. His father had been mayor. He descended from the area’s earliest Dutch settlers.
Hugh attended Cornell University, from which he took an engineering degree in May 1917—a month later, America entered World War I. He joined the Army, was commissioned, and served as an infantry instructor, but he never got to the war in Europe.
This may have rankled him; he transferred into the Air Service as soon as he could, in March 1921. Nine months later, he was rated as a pursuit pilot. Others began to refer to him as “a natural.”
Soon, Elmendorf was moving up through important jobs—as commander of the 19th Pursuit Squadron in Hawaii in 1923-24, and as commander of the 94th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, Mich., in 1925-27. He was renowned as an exceptional sharpshooter; he won the service’s aerial gunnery meet with the highest score ever recorded. Moreover, he wrote scientific papers on high-altitude flight.
In the slow-promotion days of the inter-war era, he never rose above captain’s grade, but he seemed destined for bigger things.
Bad luck struck on July 14, 1927, at Selfridge. A transport pilot, wrongly given takeoff clearance, flew into the path of a P-1 flown by Elmendorf, who was landing. The two collided. Elmendorf suffered a broken back and damaged spinal cord.
After recovering, Elmendorf was given command of the 95th Pursuit Squadron, Rockwell Field, Calif. His work there focused on developing tactics for combat at extremely high altitudes.
On April 12, 1930, nineteen pilots led by Elmendorf set a record for high-altitude formation flying. The P-12 pilots reached 30,000 feet, shattering the old record of 17,000 feet.
Then came terrible luck. Elmendorf was the main test pilot for the Consolidated Y1P-25 fighter prototype at Wright Field, Ohio. On Jan. 13, 1933, he put the Y1P-25 into higher-G-level maneuvers. Then, he slumped over. His rear-seat observer could not revive him and bailed out. Elmendorf died in the crash, near Byron, Ohio.
What happened? Doctors speculated a flare-up of the old spinal cord injury somehow caused him to lose consciousness at higher Gs.
Elmendorf’s peers thought he surely had been headed for an important service leadership role; for that reason, they pushed for an airfield to be named in his honor. Elmendorf never set foot in Alaska, but that’s where his number came up. On Dec. 12, 1940, War Department General Order No. 9 made it official.
In 2010, Elmendorf was amalgamated with the Army’s nearby Fort Richardson, producing JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. For all practical purposes, Elmendorf still functions as an Air Force major base. The main unit is the 3rd Wing, an outfit built around F-22s, F-15s, and air mobility systems.
Hugh Merle Elmendorf
- Born: Jan. 3, 1895, Ithaca, N.Y.
- Died: Jan. 13, 1933, near Byron, Ohio
- College: Cornell University
- Occupation: US military officer
- Services: US Army—Infantry; Air Service; Air Corps.
- Main Eras: World War I, Inter-war period
- Years Active: 1917-33
- Combat: N/A
- Final Grade: Captain
- Awards/Honors: World War I Victory Medal
- Interred: Arlington National Cemetery
Elmendorf Air Force Base
- Main Complex: JB Elmendorf-Richardson
- State: Alaska
- Nearest City: Anchorage
- Area: 131.3 sq mi / 84,000 acres
- Status: Open, operational
- Base opened (unnamed): June 27, 1940
- Base named Fort Richardson: Nov. 12, 1940
- Aviation zone named Elmendorf Field: Dec. 12, 1940
- Aviation zone renamed Elmendorf AAB: June 21, 1942
- Base renamed Elmendorf AFB: March 26, 1948
- Current owner: Pacific Air Forces
- Former owners: Alaskan Defense Force; Alaskan Defense Command; Air Field Forces, Alaskan Defense Command; Alaskan Air Force; Eleventh Air Force; Alaskan Air Command.
- Home of: 3rd Wing