NAA-KS plant located in Fairfax - Kansas City, Kansas
NAA-KS plant located in Fairfax - Kansas City, Kansas

NAA-KS plant located in Fairfax - Kansas City, Kansas

Before the War

During World War I, the Kansas City area received no industrial development. By the late 1930's, as the government was handing out defense contracts, there was a growing group of local individuals that wanted to remedy that situation. At the head of that group was the then Governor Payne Ratner. In 1939, he created the Kansas Industrial Development Commission and funded it with a large $60,000 annual budget. The goal of this commission was to secure industrial development projects for Kansas. Local developer J. C. Nichols called Kansas City "a sleeping industrial giant" and he was determined to do all he could to awaken it. Nichols had once served on William Knudsen's Advisory Council of National Defense and set about lobbying for contracts with his contacts in Washington. Many prominent politicians of the time joined what would become a very successful campaign. By the wartime peak in 1943, the defense industry in Kansas brought almost 250,000 additional jobs to the state.

The Beginnings

On May 28, 1940, President Roosevelt established the National Defense Advisory Committee by executive order. He appointed William Knudsen, Edward Stettinius, and Sidney Hillman to lead the committee. Almost immediately Knudsen told J. H. Kindelberger, head of North American Aviation, to expand his facilities. Due to a concern that the facilities closer to the coasts were at risk for attack, he was given the choice of either Tulsa, Oklahoma or Kansas City, Kansas. Kansas City made the short list in part, due to the efforts of J. C. Nichols and conversations with his old friend William Knudsen. Richard W. Robbins of the Kansas Industrial Development Commission, who was a former associate of Kindelberger, flew to California to persuade his friend to choose Kansas City. On November 29, 1940, Kindelberger was in Kansas City "acting on direct orders of Mr. William S. Knudsen to locate a plant here or at Tulsa, Oklahoma". Upon inspection of Fairfax Municipal Airport, Kindelberger noted in a December 2, 1940 telegram: "Have inspected Fairfax site and it is okay. Airport small but suitable for immediate needs with improvements." The site was chosen.

First used for aviation in 1921, the land that would become Fairfax Airport was originally leased by E. J. Sweeny. By 1925 a single hangar and workshop were the only buildings on what was then known as Sweeny Airport. In 1928, the airport was taken over by the Wood brothers and many improvements were made. On August 4, 1929, Fairfax Airport was born. With the approval of Kindelberger a mere 11 years later, and exactly 1 year prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1940, the War Department announced a new plant would be built on 75 acres adjacent to Fairfax Airport. The project would be designated Project A-41.

The plant would be owned by the Federal Government and operated by North American Aviation. Kansas City voters approved $750,000 in bonds to purchase the Airport as the contract required unrestricted access. The Federal Government would finance required improvements to Fairfax Airport. The Army Air Corps would lease the airport from Kansas City under a 50 year lease. The Department of War would pay for the plant and the Army Corps of Engineers would build the plant with an astounding 1,166,200 square feet of floor space. The size of the plant would eventually double by the end of the war. At it's peak in October of 1943, the Fairfax plant would employ approximately 24,329 men and women. By the end of the war, 59,337 men and women would be employed there.

Designed as a "blackout" building, there were no windows and the doors were concealed by steel canopies. The Fairfax plant would be able to operate at night with minimal light shining from it. Although not camouflaged as such, the walls and roof of the building were designed and painted to blend in with the surrounding area. A curtain wall comprised of 1 foot thick reinforced concrete surrounded the plant. All of these enhancements were done to make the plant harder to spot and bomb from the air. This, in combination with a location well away from the coast was the first step in security.

Originally, the plant was to be an assembly center for over 1,000 subcontractors around the United States. As late as October of 1941, the plant was described by North American as a B-25C assembly plant. Just two short months later, the first B-25D would be born. The main suppler was Fisher Body. The Fisher Body plant in Detroit would build the cowlings and bomb racks. Memphis would produce the wings, stabilizers, and bomb bay doors. To allow for the delivery of these parts, Union Pacific railroad built a spur line to bring supplies right to the assembly plant. The finished aircraft would be tested and delivered from Fairfax Airport.


Work on the plant moved quickly. The site was approved in early December 1940. Survey work was started almost immediately. In January of 1941, contracts were awarded and signed. Although the construction would be completed by the Army Corps of Engineers, the structural steel contract was awarded to Muskogee Iron Works of Muskogee, Oklahoma. Allen and Kelly, Builders Building, Indianapolis, Indiana was selected as the architect. The General contractors were Tarleton Construction and McDonald Construction Company of St. Louis, and S. Patti Construction Company of Kansas City, Missouri. The bonds were approved by the voters of Kansas City, and the Fairfax Airport was purchased in February. The Federal Government purchased 85 acres just west of the airport on March 6, 1941 from the Kansas City Industrial Land Company for $183,288. The plant would set on 75 acres and the remaining 10 would provide taxiways to the airport and additional room to house completed aircraft.

At 2:30 pm on March 8, 1941, a formal groundbreaking was held. Widely covered by the press of the time, the event was well attended. Over 5,000 people came to watch as James Kindelberger, head of North American, and Kansas Governor Payne Ratner lead the activities. U.S. Army District Engineer Major A. M. Neilson and Guy Stanley, Executive Assistant to the President of Union Pacific Railway, were also present. Other distinguished guests included Mayor Gage of Kansas City, Missouri, and Mayor Don C. McCombs of Kansas City, Kansas.

The first earthmovers started work on March 11, 1941. The Fairfax area is a flood plain. As such, the earth is very sandy and slightly modified construction is required. The foundation for the plant would be set on concrete piles that went deep into the earth. On top of these piles, a "cap" would be placed and the building would set on this "cap". The first piles were completed by the end of the month. Again, an almost weekly report of construction progress made it's way to the press.

A milestone was achieved on April 7, 1941, when the first structural steel was erected. By the end of April, enough of the building was complete to start decking the roof. By the end of May, structural steel construction of the sub-assembly area was complete and work on the final assembly area was started. In less than 3 months from erection of the first steel, the last of the structural steel was placed the first week of July. During this time, improvements to the Fairfax Airport were also in progress. Although advertised as having 4 asphalt runways, 2 of those runways were too short for the B-25. All 4 runways were too narrow as well. The existing runways were widened to 150 feet and re-configured to accommodate testing of the B-25's produced at the plant. Other improvements were made to the taxiways and facilities as well. On June 24, 1941, North American Aviation, Inc. of Kansas would become a wholly owned subsidiary of North American Aviation, Inc. The first worker hired for the plant, James F. Bryant, would start work on July 8, 1941. Bryant was a young jig welder.

Work on the plant continued through August and September. Subcontractors installed multi-ton presses, huge engine lathes and punch presses. The workers even got to see some of their hard work put to use with the installation of some of the jigs they had been working on. This would include "Old Number One", a 16 ton center section jig. Work continued on everything from lights in the ceiling to desks in the offices. Plant Manager H. V. Schwalenberg, who had been on the job since May, was finally seeing everything come together.

By October 16, 1941, the plant was reported as 90 percent complete. I am not certain who did that math, but some of the original employees of the plant remembered quite well the "10 percent" that wasn't completed. The large north doors were not yet completed. Most of the plant did not have heat through most of the first winter. The average temperature that winter was about 15 degrees. Bomber builder Harold Tillman (one of the first 10 night shift employees) remembers how the security guards would gather around a heater in one corner of the plant at nights. There was over 1 million square feet of space in the plant, and most of it was empty. Unusual for it's time, the bomber plant was both heated and air conditioned, neither were completed until early 1942. Construction of the original Project A-41 would not be completed until April 15, 1942.

The first parts started arriving and learning to assemble the "Mitchell" began. Parts for the first 100 bombers were shipped in sub-assemblies with the first 6 farther along in assembly than the remaining 94. Many of the arriving parts didn't pass inspection or were missing. Rework for these parts was the first task at hand. Although I do not know the exact date work on the first bomber was started, it was likely mid to late November. There were three bombers that were started in the first group. The first completed, "Miss Greater Kansas City", would be completed on December 23, 1941. Her first flight would not be until January 3, 1942. "Miss Greater Kansas City" was completed almost 3 weeks ahead of schedule. Her dedication on December 23, 1941 was 18 days prior to the originally planned dedication on January 10, 1942.

The "High Bay"

On February 7, 1942, The Fairfax plant was assigned to produce 200 B-29 Superfortresses. That order was increased to 300 shortly thereafter. Even though construction on project A-41 was still not complete, a new project, Project AAPA-3 was created. This project would be a major expansion for the plant. The entire project would almost double the square footage of the existing plant. Included in the project were the new "high bay" to accommodate the larger B-29, the Armament Hangar, Flight Test Hangar, Cafeteria, machine gun testing bunker, and the north extension. These improvements would allow the bomber plant to produce the B-25 and the B-29 side by side in the same factory. Construction would begin the first phase of construction of the high bay on July 17, 1942. In a memo from Major General Oliver P. Echols to General "Hap" Arnold, he stated " Since the B-25 has apparently become a more useful plane than was anticipated, in that it not only seems to be a reasonably good medium bomber, but also, with gunnery modifications, will lend itself to support of ground troops. It is believed that circumstances will require the maximum number of these planes that we can build." The contract to build the B-29 was terminated on July 31, 1942, but work on Project AAPA-3 was allowed to continue in order to increase the ability to produce the B-25.

Commonly referred to as the "High Bay Expansion", the new construction would include more than just the "High Bay". The Armaments and Flight test Hangars were also included in the expansion. By October of 1942, construction began on a two-story building to house the cafeteria, personnel office and plant police. Additional employee parking and guard towers were also build. Just west of the new Armaments hangar, a concrete bunker was built. This bunker, referred to as the "pit" was used to test the machine guns after installation. This led to several fabulous night shots of B-25's with all guns blazing. In order to increase the production at the plant, an extension was built on the north side of the original plant to house paint, drop hammer, and a foundry. By this point in the war, steel was in short supply. As such, many of these buildings were built with wood and concrete. The Armaments Building and Flight Test Hangars were completed on February 15, 1943. In late April of 1943, assembly of the B-25 would move into the High Bay.

The Modification Centers

Early on, all B-25 bombers coming off the assembly line were identical. Any needed modifications were done after completion. This would sometimes mean a newly painted B-25 would be repainted. New parts would be removed, or modified. Initially, portable structures would be placed around the B-25 and modification would be completed outside. In the winter, a small heater would provide some degree of comfort. By August of 1942, most work would be completed at the TWA Modification Center located across the river at what is now the Downtown Airport. In operation from August of 1942 until November of 1943, the TWA Modification Center modified about 438 aircraft. After the war, that building would be cut in half and moved to another location at the airport. The resulting two hangars still exist today.

On May 20, 1942, it was announced that S. Patti Construction Company would build a Modification Center at the Fairfax Airport. This modification center would consist of two hangars separated by a mezzanine floor. It would be built entirely out of wood, with concrete floors and columns. The entire complex, consisting of 8 separate buildings, would be completed by November of 1942. Between March 18, 1942 until October 6, 1944, a total of 3,867 B-25's were modified. These modifications allowed the B-25 to operate in almost any temperature region from desert to artic. Some, such as the B-25D/F-10, were modified for use in reconnaissance. The first 63 B-25G bombers were modified B-25C's. Most of these were modified at the Fairfax Modification Center. B-25's were not the only aircraft modified. It is known that just over 100 P-51 Mustangs were also modified in Fairfax. Not all of the bombers modified at the Fairfax Modification Center were built in Fairfax. It was not uncommon for B-25 bombers to be ferried from the Inglewood plant to Kansas City for modification. By the end of 1944, the modification center was closed, and modifications were made while the aircraft was on the assembly line.


Between December of 1941 and the end of the war, the Fairfax plant would produce 6,680 B-25 Mitchell bombers. Of that total, 2,290 would be B-25D-NC models, and 4,390 would be B-25J-NC versions. Due to their production excellence, on October 6, 1944, the plant received the "E" for Production Award. The plant safety record was exemplary, exceeding the nation average. Efficiency at the plant would improve dramatically during the war to produce more bombers with fewer people at a lower cost. What the B-25 bomber builders achieved at the plant was nothing short of amazing. On March 2, 1945, the plant announced a contract to build the P-80 Shooting Star. Within a few days, preparation began for production of the new fighter. Modifications to the assembly line would include the destruction of "Old Number One" to make room. One complete P-80 was flown to the plant for reference as well as all of the parts for another.

May 8, 1945, now known as V-E Day, would change that plan. As the war in Europe was winding down, so was the need for further aircraft. On May 25, 1945, North American Aviation, Kansas received notification of the cancellation of the P-80 contract. This information would spur the first of 4 layoffs at the plant. More layoffs would come in the next several months.

August 14, 1945, V-J Day, the United States announced the Japanese surrender. The next day, the plant received a telegram instructing them to "stop all work". On August 18, 1945, the contract to build the B-25 would be cancelled. On August 20, 1945, approximately 5,700 employees were notified of their termination. The final 2,337 employees would spend the next couple of months completing the remaining 72 B-25 bombers and disassembling the plant. The lights were turned out on the North American Aviation plant for the last time by Jack Fichtner, security guard, on October 31, 1945.

Post War

On November 5, 1945, the plant would be turned over to General Motors. The plant would be run by GM's Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac division. On October 3, 1946, GM held an official flag raising ceremony. At the time, the plant was already producing 140 cars a day. It was announced at that time the plant was expected to be turning out 700 cars per day when running at capacity. The flood of 1951 would take it's toll on the plant as well as the rest of Fairfax. By 1952, the plant would again be called into action to build aircraft. This time, the GM plant would build the F-84F at the same time as automobiles.

General Motors would continue production at the Fairfax plant until 1986, when it opened the Fairfax II plant. The new plant, still producing today, sits in the center of the old Fairfax Airport. The historic building that had seen the creation of 6,680 B-25 bombers was closed on May 8, 1987. During demolition, on January 19, 1989 the building caught fire and was completely destroyed. In the aftermath, every trace, including the original plant footings were destroyed. Parts of the runway and taxiways are still visible today.