The 86th anniversary of a tragic event takes place on New Year’s Day, 2023. It’s also the reason Eglin Air Force Base is Named Eglin Air Force Base.
Most people in the Air Force, certainly everyone in the Mid Bay Area, know Eglin Air Force Base. The land for the base proper – donated by local land developer James Plew – was given to the Department of War in 1935 and was used by the Army to train pilots.
But the land and small airstrip were known as the Valparaiso Gunnery Range for the first couple of years of the base’s existence.
Less than two years later, on New Year’s Day 1937, Lt. Colonel Frederick Irving Eglin died when his Northrop A-17 airplane flew into the side of the Cheaha Mountains, near Oxford, Alabama. Eglin was en route from Langley Field (Now Joint Base Langley-Eustis) in Hampton Roads, Virginia to Maxwell Army Air Field in Alabama when his plane crashed.
According to an article in Air and Space Forces Magazine from 2020, by Robert Dudney,
“his flight path took him through heavy rain and fog. Eglin could not have known it, but he was headed straight for the 2,407-foot peak of Cheaha Mountain, highest in Alabama. The A-17 crashed through half a mile of tree tops, slammed into the mountain, and burst into flames.”
10 months later, in October of 1937, the Department of the Army renamed the little gunnery range in Valparaiso, Florida after Lt. Col. Eglin, immortalizing his name.
Since then, the base has become a hub for cutting-edge test and training missions for the US Air Force. It also hosts the Naval EOD School and various international training components for planes like the F-35.
Eglin’s death is far from the most interesting part of the Army Aviator’s life.
Eglin had to overcome lots of adversity in order to make his way into the cockpit of his A-17 on that fateful New Year’s Day in 1937.
A lot about what we know of Eglin comes from articles from his Alma Mater – Wabash College.
Eglin was born in New York City to Swiss Immigrants who died when he was young. Though he wasn’t able to finish high school – an alum of the college took an eye to his athletic abilities and got him on a scholarship to Wabash, where he excelled as a three-sport athlete. He even captained the baseball team there.
Eglin excelled in college – joined Delta Tau Delta fraternity and the Indiana National Guard. It was with his service in the National Guard he went to the border of Mexico to help ward off attacks from legendary Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa.
After his time in the borderlands, Eglin secured a commission and a permanent flying spot in the Army Air Corps. He spent almost 20 years in the Air Corps as a training officer, earning a promotion to captain in 1929 and to Lt. Colonel in 1936.