ZEPHYRHILLS — The Zephyrhills Municipal Airport has been deemed safe and clear of any potential explosives or contamination stemming from its time as a training ground for World War II pilots, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
After conducting a two-day inspection in December at the former Army air field, a special Army Corps of Engineers team determined that no military munitions, such as explosives, warheads, chemicals and more, were left behind when the military vacated the site after the war, according to a recently released report. Further, no environmental hazards were found.
The probe was part of the Defense Department's massive mission to investigate whether environmental or health hazards exist on formerly used defense sites, or FUDS, and to remedy any contamination found.
Under the program enacted by Congress in 1986, 9,908 former defense sites were identified nationwide. About half of those, including the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, were slated as projects to be managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The total cost of the nationwide project is estimated at $18.7 billion, according to the corps.
Originally known as the Zephyrhills Army Air Field, the 954-acre airport was built in June 1942 to serve as a satellite of the Orlando Army Air Field. From 1943 to 1944, hundreds of pilots from the 10th Fighter Squadron perfected their combat tactics and dogfighting skills over east Pasco's air space — flying P-40 and P-51 fighters that earned them the nickname "P-Shooters."
Several other units from the Orlando and MacDill Army Air Fields came to Zephyrhills to practice takeoffs and landings until the Army deactivated the field in November 1945. The military declared the site surplus property, then transferred it to the city in June 1947.
Under the FUDS project, two areas were identified as potentially hazardous: the former sites of the firing-in butt (a bunker-like firing range) and a skeet range.
Inspectors didn't find any significant munitions debris or other range remnants in the 1.36 acres around the firing-in butt area where a backstop still exists, according to the report. This is where small arms or .50-caliber machine guns were likely used.
Likewise, nothing of concern was found on the former skeet range, located on the current 18-hole golf course.
Soil samples were also taken from the project areas. While traces of copper and lead were found, there was not enough to be considered a health hazard, the report said.
No further action is recommended at the airport, said Amanda Ellison, an Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman.
Some parts of the airport's World War II history have been dismantled over the years, including the firing-in butt and the dispensary building.
An original barracks was later moved to another part of the airport. It now houses the city's World War II Barracks Museum, at 39450 South Ave.