Approval for US bases in Spain came as part of the Defense Agreement of September 1953. In return for base rights, the US agreed to provide Spain with an air defense force. SAC organized its bases in concentric rings based on distances from Moscow. Installations with unobstructed runways of 12,000 to 13,000 feet whose pavement would support very heavy weight became the centerpieces of the SAC command. Some bases required further modification to meet the needs of USAF operations. SAC runway construction time varied from five to nine months under optimal conditions. The Air Force built two types of runways during this period: asphalt and concrete. High temperatures, jet blasts, and jet fuel spillage damaged asphalt runways more seriously. Concrete pavement was considerably more expensive and was chosen for permanent bases. The Air Force inherited World War II overseas bases from the Army Air Forces in Asia, Alaska, Newfoundland, Germany, Great Britain, Bermuda, the Azores, Libya and Saudi Arabia. At particular locations, SAC built up a Cold War presence. Key to its plans for strategic second strike capabilities, SAC needed significant new sites, and the focus was on North Africa for a large presence of men, rotating aircraft, training, and nuclear weapons depots. Morocco installations went in at four locations with a fifth location intended. By the mid-1950s SAC had accompanying refueling bases, supported by a huge oil pipeline project with fuel tank farms, in progress in lower Spain at Torrejon, Zaragoza, and Morón. These main operating bases in Spain were used primarily for SAC B-47 rotational alert aircraft. In the 1957-1964 years, military analysts predicted that a Soviet nuclear attack would begin with missiles, followed by a second wave bomber contingent. SAC bomber alert facilities were critically important during this time.
B-47 Stratojet Bomber
B-47s in Lineup Formation
Another reason for establishing Reflex bases was the relatively short range of the B-47, unlike the intercontinental range of the Convair B-36 "Peacemaker" and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress which could remain based permanently in the United States. Also, in this way SAC could spread out its potential as a Soviet target by placing its aircraft, weapons, and personnel on many more bases, with each bombardment wing having two additional installations to which it could disperse.
Torrejón Air Base
Torrejón Air Base was originally the home of the Spanish National Institute of Aeronautics, located 20 miles NNE of Madrid. In late 1953, construction began at Torrejón on a new 13,400-ft concrete runway to replace the much smaller grass airstrip. Also necessary was the construction of a massive concrete apron and other necessary maintenance and shelter facilities to accommodate the B-47. Torrejón Air Base opened officially on 1 June 1957, but Spanish officials were concerned about conflicting air traffic between the base and Madrid's airport (a persistent problem for Torrejón) and the base was not opened for flying until several months later. SAC Reflex operations began in April 1958 and B-47 bomber units rotated through the base. The 497th Fighter Interceptor Squadron was chosen to deploy to Torrejón based on outstanding achievements in maintenance, combat readiness, rocketry proficiency, and flight safety. During the Cold War, Torrejón Air Base was the headquarters of the United States Air Forces in Europe Sixteenth Air Force, as well as the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing. However, the Spanish Air Force retained ownership of the base and had an active wing there. Aircraft based at Torrejón were rotated to other USAFE airbases at Aviano AB, Italy, and at Incirlik AB, Turkey. Torrejón was, in addition, a staging, reinforcement, and logistical airlift base with three squadrons flying F-100s, then F-4s and then F-16s. The USAF withdrew its forces on 21 May 1992. The base was officially returned to the Spanish Air Force on 30 June 1998 and remains an active Spanish Air Force base.
General Francisco Franco and President Dwight D Eisenhower meet at the Torrejón Air Base in 1959
Click here to view a video of General Franco greeting President Eisenhower at Torrejón Air Base (no audio)
Zaragoza Air Base
The construction work on the Zaragoza Airport began in September 1954 with the enlargement and improvement of the existing Spanish Air Force Base located there. United States Navy engineers upgraded the facility for temporary or intermediate use as a war standby base for the USAF. The first U.S. construction project included strengthening the existing 9,900 ft runway and adding 1,000 ft overruns at each end. Work on a new 12,200 ft concrete runway with 200 ft overruns at each end began in 1956 and was completed in 1958. Zaragoza Air Base was transferred from the control of the Joint United States Military Group, Air Administration, Sixteenth Air Force, to the USAF Strategic Air Command on 1 July 1957, with the facility providing operational support for the SAC Boeing B-47 Stratojet alert force dispersal. In 1958, the 431st Fighter Interceptor Squadron moved from Wheelus Air Base, Libya, arriving at Zaragoza in September with North American F-86D Sabres and an Air Defense mission. On 28 September 1960 the 431st transitioned to the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger and was transferred to the USAFE 86th Air Division (Defense) at Ramstein Air Base, West Germany. The 874th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron was assigned to the USAFE Seventeenth Air Force, 65th Air Division, providing general radar surveillance over Spain. The squadron was headquartered at Zaragoza AB beginning in January 1959. The squadron operated a site near Elizondo, Spain, one of seven radar sites in Spain operated by the 65th Air Division which provided early warning of unidentified aircraft and controlled NATO airspace over the region. The 3974th Air Base Group was assigned to Zaragoza AB from May 1958 – June 1965. Support continued for B-47 operations until 1 July 1964, when Zaragoza AB was placed on standby status with the withdrawal of the B-47 from active service. With the closure of Wheelus Air Base, Zaragoza returned to active status in February 1970 with the activation of the 406th Tactical Fighter Training Group. Project Creek Step called for the buildup of Zaragoza AB as a USAFE weapons training site, with the 406th using the Bardenas Reales semi-desert region for an Air-to-Ground Bombing and Gunnery Range about 40 miles northwest of the base. August 1990 ushered in a period of intense activity, as the 406th and Zaragoza provided major air and ground support for Operation Desert Shield, conducted in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Thousands of military personnel and tons of equipment passed through Zaragoza en route to the crisis in the Middle East. The base and the wing continued to act as a major aerial port providing support during and after Operation Desert Storm. Zaragoza Air Base was a NASA Alternate Space Shuttle Landing Site. Typically this would be used as a Trans-Atlantic Abort Landing site, although fortunately this was never needed during the Shuttle program. Subject to the same provisions requiring the removal of other units from Spain, the 406th began efforts to end its operations and return Zaragoza to the Spanish government in 1992. The use of the training range ended in December 1991, followed by the turnover of base operations to Spain in April 1992. The 406th Tactical Fighter Training Wing was inactivated in April 1994 when the U.S. Air Force ended its presence and officially returned control to the Spanish government.
Delta Dagger on the left, F-86-Sabre on the right
Morón Air Base
Spread over a large territory in Andalusia, Spain, Morón Air Base was one of the most strategic points controlled by the Americans in Europe. It is located in the southern part of Spain, about 35 miles from Sevilla and 75 miles northeast of Rota Naval Station. Construction on the Vázquez Sagastizábal Military Aerodrome, as Morón Air Base was initially known, began in 1940. The following year it began to function as a military airfield and was utilized to train fighter pilots for the Spanish Army Air Force. Following the 1953 agreement for American bases in Spain, construction efforts began under the direction of the US Navy, taking over 3 years to complete. On 1 June 1957, the 3973rd Air Base Group at Morón Air Base was formally activated as part of the Sixteenth Air Force assigned to the Strategic Air Command. On May 13, 1958, the first flight of B-47s were assigned to Morón Air Base to conduct Reflex operations and then KC-97s arrived to conduct alert tanker missions, and 6 weeks later the first rotational fighter squadron, the 1st Fighter-Day Squadron, flying F-100 Super Sabres and commanded by Lt. Col. Chuck Yeager, arrived from George AFB, CA, for temporary duty to conduct air defense alert missions. Morón continued to operate primarily as a Reflex base until 29 April 1962, when the first Chrome Dome KC-135 aircraft arrived. Operation Chrome Dome was a United States Air Force Cold War-era mission from 1960 to 1968 in which B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber aircraft armed with thermonuclear weapons remained on continuous airborne alert, flying routes to points on the Soviet Union border. B-52s performed airborne alert duty under code names such as Head Start, Chrome Dome, Hard Head, Round Robin, and Operation Giant Lance. Bombers loitered near points outside the Soviet Union to provide rapid first strike or retaliation capability in case of nuclear war. On 3 April 1963 the last B-47 aircraft departed Morón. The mission changed to communications support, Temporary Duty "fair weather" flying operations, and the support of air rescue operations provided by the 67th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. By 1966, three separate missions of continuously airborne bombers were being flown - one East over the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, another north to Baffin Bay, and a third over Alaska. It was during one of these missions in 1966 that a B-52 bomber having left Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina collided with a KC-135 while refueling over the Mediterranean Sea, near the small village of Palomares, Spain. Two of the four hydrogen bombs aboard the B-52 detonated, contaminating the countryside with plutonium. Political consequences included the Spanish government banning any aircraft from carrying such weapons over its territory. Airmen from Morón participated in the Palomares clean-up, hauling contaminated soil onto ships for disposal in the United States. Some of the USAF personnel were decorated with commendation medals by Major General Delmar E. Wilson for their efforts in the salvage operations. In 1971, Morón Air Base was re-designated to "modified caretaker status" and Torrejón Air Base was designated as the Primary Support Base beginning in 1972. A small Spanish Air Force contingent of F-5s utilized the air base during the 1980s; however most of the buildings were empty and on-base amenities were severely limited. Military personnel were reduced to a staff of approximately 100 members of the 7473 Combat Support Squadron. All flying activity was halted except for occasional exercises. On 14 Dec 1995, Morón Air Base was redesignated as a limited base, and in NATO terms, is a standby base. Morón is home to the 92nd Air Expeditionary Wing – tasked with providing fuel to Allied Forces. The base is run under the Turkey Spain Base Maintenance Contract. Morón holds the distinction of being the largest tanker base during the Kosovo war.
Update: As of November, 2016, Spain has agreed for the Morón base to be a permanent fixture, at least for the foreseeable future. Spain agreed to at least 3000 troops and 40 additional aircraft to be stationed there. The mission of Morón Air Base is to operate and maintain a strategic forward operating base to support the US and Allied air/space power projection, to include transient and aircraft maintenance operations. The installation hosts Air Mobility Command, Air Force Space Command and Air Force Office of Special Investigations units.
Click here to view a video entitled "Morón Air Base Celebrates 75 Years"