Cover story: A history of the Olathe Naval Air Station

Olathe Naval Air Station building and control tower

The Prairie Navy landed in Johnson County eight decades ago with the construction and opening of the Olathe Naval Air Station. The site is now the New Century AirCenter.

The bygone military base was dedicated on Oct. 1,1942 in response to the increased need for air stations and naval reserve aviation bases as the United States entered World War II.

Over the course of its 27 years in operation, ONAS’s role was constantly in flux: It first served as a flight training facility for naval cadets, then as a training center and support facility for the Naval Air Transport Service in the latter years of WWII, and finally as a training center for Navy and Marine reservists in the Korean War and in the early years of the Cold War.

Nationally, the operation of American naval bases declined sharply after circa 1960, and Navy announced plans to close the ONAS in 1969 with decommission of the military base the following year.  After 1970, the Navy retained 13 buildings for non-flying Naval Reserve aviation programs as the Naval Air Reserve Center Olathe. All Navy activities ceased in 1996.

The naval air base also was the temporary home for the Air Force Reserve's 442d Troop Carrier Wing from 1950 to 1955 prior to its relocation to Grandview Airport, Missouri, later renamed Richards-Gebaur AFB. ONAS also became one of 28 radar stations established throughout the nation in 1952 by the Air Force’s Air Defense Command. The Olathe Air Force Station provided air defense radar coverage of the Kansas City area.

Units of the Navy, Marines and Air Force are gone. An Army Reserve detachment remains.

“From the days of canvas aircraft and wooden propellers to jet aircraft to the supersonic aircraft to GPS guided helicopters, Olathe Naval Air Station has been home to four different branches of our nation’s Armed Forces. These service men and women have participated in WWII to Korea to the Middle East and beyond,” said Aaron Otto, executive director of the Johnson County Airport Commission.

“Despite the ONAS not having a household name, like some other bases, there is no doubt that the individuals based at the ‘Great Prairie Navy’ made a significant contribution to preserving freedom and liberty both at home and abroad.”

Over the past 55 years, under the direction of the Johnson County Airport Commission, the site of the former naval air base has become a growing economic hub for Johnson County with two busy airports and increased, ongoing commercial and industrial development at the New Century AirCenter.

Flashback in time

Group photo of pilots with Olathe Naval Air Station in background

A flashback is in order. From Johnson County farmland, the Olathe Naval Air Station eventually spanned about 2,000 acres with three runways, 14 secondary fields and eventually 44 buildings to train and accommodate mostly Navy and Marine personnel for almost three decades.

It was a massive complex with three large hangars, including one with a control tower; storage and training facilities; clubs for enlisted personnel and officers; and barracks for Prairie sailors.

ONAS had all the comforts and amenities of a large military base with mess halls, a laundry, a bowling alley, a chapel, a hospital, a cold storage building with free ice, post office and small Post Exchange. The front gate had a small brig and a pass building for visitors to enter the base. Kinnick Hall featured an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The Prairie Navy also included a few notable Americans.

The late John Glenn, future astronaut and U.S. senator, was in the first class to be trained at the base, making his first solo flight in a military training plane.  Stearman yellow two-seater biplanes, nicknamed “yellow perils,” were used to train pilots.

In John Glenn: A Memoir, he mentioned his first days at ONAS, “Walking around on duckboards while the construction crews finished pouring concrete for the sidewalks. …The paint was still drying in the barracks.”

By Nov. 17, 1942, Glenn and the first group of cadets left for advanced training elsewhere. He served in both WWII and the Korean War in a military career from 1941 to 1965, including going into space and then later heading to Washington D.C. and Capitol Hill.

Another notable pilot who trained at ONAS was former TV game show host Bob Barker. He enlisted in the Navy Reserve in 1943 to train as a fighter pilot but did not serve on active duty. His military service ended with the war in 1945.

One of the emblems for the “Prairie Navy” was designed by artists from Walt Disney Studios. As a boy, Disney grew up in Kansas City.

“Navy Hill” in Olathe

Historical photo of a house in the Navy Hill subdivision

With the opening of ONAS, thousands of naval personnel were assigned to the military base, but housing was scarce, resulting in a housing boom at Olathe’s Highland Park, according to the Johnson County Museum. At the time, Olathe had a population in 1940 of 3,979.

Originally platted in the 1920s and planned for prosperous homeowners, Highland Park saw only two homes completed at the outset until the summer of 1941 when three prominent Olathe businessmen started to build more homes in Highland Park.

To meet housing demands for the military families, the Federal Housing Administration authorized 30 new homes in Highland Park, the largest housing project Olathe had seen at that time. In 1943, another developer added 25 duplexes to the Highland Park subdivision, which became nicknamed “Navy Hill,” according to the Museum.

Most of the Navy Hill homes were relatively small (less than 1,000 square feet), one-story wood structures. Home costs ranged between $4,000 and $4,500, although a few did peak at $6,000 and were usually purchased by naval officers.

Even under wartime conditions, the homes in “Navy Hill” were planned to be permanent with many still in use in south-central Olathe.

The influx of military personnel and families boosted Olathe’s population to 5,593 by 1950, a 40.6% increase. Gardner also had a population gain of 32.5% from 510 to 676 during the 1940s. In that decade, Johnson County’s population increased more than 88% from 33,327 to 62,783 by the 1950 Census.

Navy Park honors 24 KIAs/MIAs

Two military veterans pose in front of a military plane at Navy Park

Unfortunately, ONAS also had its share of fallen heroes.

On Dec. 8, 1950, Navy Park, also called Naval Air Park, was dedicated to honor 16 Navy and Marine aviators who trained at the military base and were killed in the service of their county during and after WWII. Sixteen streets of the base were named in their honor. The dedication featured then Capt. James Flatley, the eighth commanding officer at ONAS and WWII hero. The base was renamed ONAS (Flatley Field) for him in 1962.

During the Korean War, Navy Reservists were called to active duty for two years from the Prairie Navy, including six months of action aboard the aircraft carrier USS Boxer. A plaque at the park honors five men killed in that war along with three who remain missing in action.

After closing of ONAS, the 16 street signs eventually were relocated to Navy Park. An A-4 Skyhawk and two A-7 Corsair II jets (one with a single seat, the other a two-seater) are displayed at the park.

Air shows past and present

Planes flying together at the KC Air Show

Throughout its existence, ONAS conducted aerial demonstrations and scheduled public air shows. In commemoration of its 10th anniversary in October 1952, an air show with carnival featured the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds in aerial maneuvers. The event attracted an estimated crowd of more than 50,000 attendees.

“A traffic jam tied up traffic most of the day. To and from the air base motor cars were lined bumper-to-bumper on major highways and country roads. Johnson County deputy sheriffs and state troopers estimated more than 20,000 cars entered the base. Many persons parked as far as two miles away and walked, they said …The throng was over most of the base,” The Kansas City Star reported.

In a somewhat repeat of history, a similar estimated number of attendees enjoyed a July 4th weekend air show with the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds in 2021, with over 50,000 in attendance.

A 2022 Garmin KC Air Show with the Thunderbirds is scheduled Sept 3-4 at the New Century AirCenter to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Air Force.

A few buildings/structures remain

Control tower and entrance sign at New Century AirCenter

Since ceasing as a military base in 1970, commercial and industrial buildings and warehouses have replaced many of the military structures at the New Century AirCenter. Only about a dozen buildings/facilities remain from ONAS.

The administration building of the naval air station has become the offices of the Johnson County Airport Commission.

The main hangar with control tower houses the U.S. Army Reserve's Bravo Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, and CH-47 Chinook helicopters. A helicopter from the unit was shot down in Afghanistan on Aug. 6, 2011. Thirty American service personnel, including five crew members, were among the 38 casualties. In 2021, the unit’s hangar was named in honor of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bryan J. Nichols, the helicopter pilot.

The base’s water distribution facility along with its back-up facility and ONAS’s public works building are used for the same purposes at the AirCenter.

The small brick brig, located near the Airport Commission offices, was renovated, and privately leased as office space.

A radar tower from the Olathe Air Force Station is leased to KMBZ for its Doppler radar. A small radio shack on five acres south of New Century still exists.

A handful of other storage buildings from the base are privately leased or used by Johnson County Government, including the Sheriff’s Office and Facilities Department.

Barracks and officer quarters, the pass building, front gate, mess halls, training facilities and the hospital are long gone along with the Olympic-sized pool. The old chapel, once a restaurant, was destroyed by fire years ago. The cold storage icehouse, which also served as the railroad depot, also stands but has been abandoned and in disrepair.

The streets at the AirCenter are mostly named after cities in Johnson County. One street honors John Glenn and another will soon honor Bob Barker.

New chapter for the ONAS site

Government officials and construction staff members dig dirt with shovels

One of the ONAS’s secondary airfields, the Morse Outlying Landing Field, was transferred to the city of Olathe in 1951 and renamed the Olathe Airport. The Johnson County Airport Commission, formed in 1967, purchased Olathe Airport from the city for one dollar, changing the name to Johnson County Executive Airport. The military base property was transferred to the airport commission in 1973 and renamed the Johnson County Industrial Airport. The name was changed to the New Century AirCenter in 1995.

Since then, the main runways, which once trained pilots for war, are still quite busy at both the AirCenter and Executive Airport with a combined more than 115,400 flights in 2021, mostly involving civilian and corporate aircraft. The facilities are the third and fourth busiest airports in Kansas.

The AirCenter is now home to more than 60 companies, employing approximately 5,100 workers. They include firms in the fields of telecommunications, printing, food processing, manufacturing and avionics with an estimated almost $1.3 billion total annual economic impact to the Kansas City Region.

Construction of a new New Century Commerce Center currently is underway to attract new businesses and fuel job growth.

The complex also has several Johnson County Government facilities, including the Adult Detention Center of the Sheriff’s Office; the Adult Residential Center of the Corrections Department; Johnson County Wastewater; and the New Century Fieldhouse of the Johnson County Park and Recreation District.

ONAS memorabilia and celebration

A military airplane with crew standing by it

In the years that followed closing the military base, artifacts, pictures, and other memorabilia from the bygone Olathe Naval Air Station were displayed at the New Century AirCenter in a small museum located in one of the few remaining original wooden houses, which previously served as the home for the base's commanding officer. The building became irreparable, and the museum was closed in 1989.

Most of the museum’s materials were sent to the Combat Air Museum at Forbes Field, Topeka. Many of the historic documents, papers, pictures, and military keepsakes, once only in storage at Topeka, are now located in the Bair House at the Gardner Historical Museum.

Find more information by calling 913-715-6000 or visiting the Airport Commission webpage.