Preserving history at K.I. Sawyer

The F-106A aircraft was dedicated on Sept. 9th, 2006 to all those who supported, maintained or flew the jet. When it was shipped across country in several pieces, crews at Sawyer had to reassemble the jet for display. (Courtesy photos from the K.I. Sawyer Heritage Air Museum)

K.I. SAWYER — There is a small group of former Air Force personnel and others who are working hard to keep the memories of the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base alive by operating the K.I. Sawyer Heritage Air Museum in the former Silver Wings Recreation Center along Third Street at K.I. Sawyer.

The museum was founded by members of local Air Force Association Lake Superior Chapter 238 in 1993 when it was discovered Sawyer Air Force Base was going to be shut down. The museum board was reorganized and a home for the museum was founded in December 2005.

“They knew they were going to close and they wanted to preserve the history,” said Bob Vick, president of the museum.

Vick, who served in Vietnam, was stationed at Sawyer from 1977-82 as communications maintenance superintendent, taking care of the control tower and radar. Six months later, he was back at work in civil service for the Air Force.

The museum has moved over the years before being housed in its current site at Third Street and Avenue A. Money and manpower continue to be challenges, but Vick said former residents love the museum.

Students from Sawyer Schools check out the plans on display during a visit to the K.I. Sawyer Heritage Air Museum. (Courtesy photos from the K.I. Sawyer Heritage Air Museum)

The museum with its artifacts and displays gives visitors a sense of what life was like when the base was active, Vick added.

In 1954, the government entered into negotiations with Marquette County for Sawyer’s lease. After several months of meetings and negotiations a 99-year lease was signed on Jan. 24, 1955. Construction started almost immediately. Approximately 850 people were employed during the construction.

Situated on over 5,200 acres of land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base was one of the newest major U.S. bases built by the Air Force. Utilizing the world-class air facilities located at Sawyer, aircraft operators have access to an all-weather runway 12,300 feet long and 300 feet wide.

The last aircraft assigned to Sawyer were six T-37B jet trainers of the 71st Flying Training Wing assigned to the “Accelerated Copilot Enrichment Program” in 1977 and are presently assigned to the “Companion Trainer Program” under the 410th Bomb Wing and the Air Combat Command.

From the mid-1950s to mid-1990s, the base was a bustling community with neighborhoods full of families, businesses to serve those residents and recreational facilities for their leisure time.

The base, its aircraft and personnel played an important role during the Cold War, being one of several bases spread across northern U.S. as protection against an attack from the Soviet Union.

The base also played an vital role during the Vietnam War, sending bombing and fighter jet units to southeast Asia and providing refueling to large aircraft heading to and returning from the war effort.

The Sawyer base officially shut down on Sept. 30, 1995, ending an era that began in 1954 when the U.S. government negotiated with Marquette County for the lease of 5,278 acres to become the new base.

Plaques and trophies are displayed at the museum, as well as old photographs and newspaper clippings, model airplanes, an F-106 ejection seat, a bomb safety pin used during Operation Desert Storm and other artifacts.

In addition, there is a static display of some of the types of planes that called Sawyer home. Among them are a huge B-52 bomber, F-101 Voodoo Intercepter, FB111A “Aardvark” fighter-bomber, a T-33A “Shooting Star” combat jet and a F-106A “Delta Dart” intercepter.

However, some of the memories aren’t pleasant. One exhibit shows pieces from a Sawyer B-52H crash in 1977 in which all eight people on board perished.

Located northwest of the museum is the museum’s outside static display where people can walk up to former Sawyer aircraft such as the McDonnell F-101B Voodoo Interceptor and the massive Boeing B-52-D Stratofortress. The Upper Peninsula Memorial Retreat Center also is next to the static display.

The museum not only contains memorabilia but houses a community center. The K.I. Sawyer Silver Wings Community Library, full of military-related books, also is at the facility.

Donations and $30 annual memberships keep the museum afloat. They can be sent to: K.I. Sawyer Heritage Air Museum, 500 S. Third St., Marquette, MI 49855.

Memberships can be purchased through the museum website at, where an online store offers items such as an “End Of An Era” mug, a KC-135A Stratotanker T-shirt, pins, patches and decals.

Admission to the museum, which is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, is by donation.