Fort Novosel

Helicopter Maintenance at Fort Novosel Fort Novosel, a 64,000-acre base in Coffee and Dale counties, is Alabama's largest military installation and home to U.S. Army Aviation. Its unique assets, which include a vast airspace for military flight activities and its proximity to other defense and commercial resources, enables Fort Novosel to perform functions that no other military base in the world can duplicate. Through its many functions and thousands of graduates, Fort Novosel has played a key part in every major military operation involving the United States since World War II.

The property comprising the main post and main airfields was built on marginal farmland that the federal government bought directly from farmers during the Great Depression as part of New Deal agricultural programs. Purchased lands were combined to create the Pea River Land Use Project. A local rumor that the government acquired the site to raise bears earned the federal reservation the nickname of "the Bear Farm." During 1940, the state of Alabama obtained a lease on this land for recreational purposes. The lease provided that the federal government could repossess the land at any time.

War-Time Focus

Edmund Rucker In 1941, as U.S. participation in World War II grew likely, the Army planned an infantry training camp on the reservation and acquired another equally large tract of land adjacent to the "Bear Farm." In January 1942, the federal government signed a contract for construction of 1,500 buildings within 120 days for $24.6 million. Completed in 106 days, the facility was named Camp Rucker for Tennessee-born Confederate Col. Edmund Rucker, later a prominent businessman in Birmingham. During World War II, four infantry divisions, as well as smaller units, trained at Camp Rucker. German and Italian prisoners-of-war were housed there toward the end of the war. The camp was deactivated in March 1946.

During the Korean War, Camp Rucker reopened as a training site for the Forty-seventh Infantry Division, a National Guard unit. When the war ended, Camp Rucker again closed. The negative effects of this closure on the local economy prompted citizens to seek a permanent use for the site through congressional channels. This inquiry coincided with the Army's effort to find a new, permanent location for its aviation activities. Army officials soon made the decision to relocate the Army Aviation School from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to Camp Rucker. In February 1955, the Army Aviation Center began operations at the site, which became a permanent installation and was renamed Fort Rucker on October 13.

Army aviation immediately began new initiatives at its new home, including experiments involving armed Army aircraft in joint maneuvers with ground forces. These and related efforts at Fort Moore (formerly Fort Benning) and Fort Bragg led to an air mobility doctrine that became the hallmark of the Vietnam War and the foundation for modern Air Assault. Air mobility meant using aviation to move forces so that they could immediately engage in combat on the ground.

Camp Rucker, ca. 1940s Military operations in Vietnam brought dramatic changes to Fort Rucker. Between January 1966 and December 1967, the number of pilots that Fort Rucker graduated each month multiplied about sixfold. The annual output of new pilots exceeded all aviators in the Army before the buildup. The amount of flying time at Fort Rucker increased even more dramatically. Programs and locations for training of all types of Army pilots changed as a result. In July 1966, initial fixed-wing training moved from Fort Rucker to Fort Stewart, Georgia. The Army also acquired Hunter Air Force Base in Georgia, which Fort Rucker supervised as the training base for Cobra helicopter gunships. Meanwhile, Fort Rucker expanded training in instrument flying. The fort's reserve of World War II structures largely accommodated the expansion. Once Vietnam ended, the post population again shrank, and some satellite training facilities closed. But Vietnam had given aviation and consequently Fort Rucker a much larger, permanent importance within the Army.

Mission Expansion

The establishment of a true Army aviation center at Fort Rucker in 1955 quickly brought in agencies with related functions. In 1956, both the Transportation Corps and the Signal Corps set up test and support activities at the facility. In 1957, Fort Rucker became the host site for the U.S. Army Board for Aviation Accident Research, which would in 1983 be expanded to cover all Army safety matters and be renamed the Army Safety Center; in 2005, it was renamed again as the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center. In 1962, the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory was activated at Fort Rucker to support Army aviation and airborne activities and to provide a central aeromedical research and reference library. In 1971, Fort Rucker received the first class of U.S. Air Force initial entry helicopter students. In 1986, the U.S. Army Air Traffic Control Activity at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, moved to Fort Rucker, and in 1995, after decades of reorganizations of aviation-related test activities, Fort Rucker became the consolidation site for the U.S. Army Aviation Technical Test Center.

Helicopter Training By 2003, successive reorganizations resulted in the Army Air Traffic Services Command locating at Fort Rucker. The importance of warrant officers within the Army, the predominance of Aviation warrant officers, and the success of the school at Fort Rucker led the Army in 1993 to consolidate all schooling for warrant officer candidates at the U.S. Army Warrant Officer Career Center (WOCC) at Fort Rucker. Warrant officers are technical experts in a specific field. They provide technical leadership and supervision for senior enlisted personnel but do not have broad command authority. The WOCC is the focal point for all warrant officer education for the Army's Active and Reserve Components, including the Army National Guard.

Not all of the installation's increasing responsibilities and operations have meant expanding the facility itself. Fort Rucker acquired command or supervisory relationships with activities conducted elsewhere. For example, in 1986, Fort Rucker took command of the Army Aviation Logistics School at Fort Eustis, Virginia. In 2003, the Army transferred responsibility for unmanned aerial vehicle systems from the Military Intelligence Branch at Fort Huachuca to the Aviation Branch at Fort Rucker, but most training and related activities remained at Fort Huachuca.

In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission opted to move the U.S. Army Aviation Technical Test Center to Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville as part of consolidating Army materiel functions. In 2021, the federal National Defense Authorization Act included language requiring the removal of all names, symbols, displays, and monuments on Department of Defense property that celebrate the Confederacy. In April 2023, Fort Rucker was renamed Fort Novosel after Medal of Honor-winning aviator Michael J. Novosel Sr., a native of Enterprise.

Economic Impact

In 2007, the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission noted that Fort Novosel's military training mission had an annual economic impact of $2.2 billion on southeastern Alabama. The installation's payroll in 2007 exceeded $400 million, and the direct value of contracts was more than $750 million. In 2007, Fort Novosel's daytime population was about 19,000, consisting of about 8,000 people in uniform, 7,000 civilian and contract employees, and 3,800 military family members. In addition, tens of thousands of military personnel and their families have come from all parts of the country and from more than 60 nations around the world, and thousands of these people have chosen to return to and retire in the Wiregrass region. Currently, Fort Novosel supports about 15,000 military retirees in the surrounding area. The infusion of generally higher incomes, skills, and education levels among current military and civilian workforce, as well as retirees choosing to settle nearby, has enhanced the community socially as well as economically. Indicators include high levels of academic and extra-curricular achievement among high schools in surrounding communities.

U.S. Army Soldier Show at Ft. Novosel The constellation of aviation activities at Fort Novosel has drawn many related businesses into the area. These businesses range from a thousand or more employees, such as Sikorsky at Troy and U.S. Helicopter at Ozark, to a handful, such as and DynaLantic at Ozark. The jobs provided by these companies have been essential in replacing the employment lost in the now-vanished textile industry. A collateral effect has been the rise of programs for advanced technical education, such as at the Aviation Campus of Enterprise State Community College, which began in the 1960s as an initiative of Ozark High School to prepare graduates for technical jobs at Fort Novosel. Effects ripple upward into the university system and down into the elementary grades through programs such as the Wiregrass Math and Science Consortium at Troy University, Dothan. Many Alabama elementary schools use aerospace education to motivate students to learn important math, science, and technology concepts.

The Fort Today

U.S. Army Aviation Museum The physical layout of Fort Novosel has changed considerably since 1955. Basefields, stagefields, and tactical sites were added—most within a short distance of main post but some scattered across adjacent counties to handle the large number of aircraft and diverse training needs. Many of the World War II wooden buildings stood until the late 1990s, but by 2000 most had been replaced with permanent, more energy-efficient structures.

Visitors to Fort Novosel today find echoes of its earlier eras. Lake Tholocco, created in 1935, now has two recreational beaches and public fishing. A prominent testimony to the infantry heritage is a 15-foot statue of a polar bear, created by members of the Thirty-first Infantry Regiment, stationed in Siberia at the end of World War I and later at Fort Novosel until 1961. Many facilities carry names of soldiers who died serving their country, whereas many street names are callsigns of Vietnam-era aviation units. Immediately inside the Daleville gate is a memorial park containing monuments to various units with a connection to Fort Novosel and Army Aviation. The Army Aviation Museum is the technical archives of the Aviation Branch, as well as a venue for instruction and ceremonies. Exhibits include the Army Aviation Hall of Fame and a memorial room listing the names of more than 4,000 Army Aviation soldiers killed in Vietnam.

Further Reading

  • The Army Flier (Fort Rucker newspaper), 50th Anniversary Edition, 2004.
  • McGee, Val L. The Origins of Fort Rucker. Ozark, Ala.: Dale County Historical Society, 1987.
  • Noles, James L., Jr. Camp Rucker During World War II. Images of America series. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
  • Tierney, Richard K. Forty Years of Army Aviation. Fort Rucker, Ala.: U.S. Army Aviation Museum, 1982.
  • Williams, James W. A History of Army Aviation: From Its Beginnings to the War on Terror. Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, 2005.

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Michael J. Novosel Sr.