Raptor wing does not forget its past on road to future

  • Published
  • By Louis A. Arana-Barradas
  • Air Force Print News
Though a unit's past might be dotted with a book full of famous Air Force firsts, over the decades, its Airmen tend to forget that.

And sometimes, living up to a fabled heritage is just not an easy thing to do.

That is one reason Brig. Gen. Burt Field does not let the people of the 1st Fighter Wing forget the wing's past -- even as the historic unit blazes toward new firsts with the F-22 Raptor.

The wing commander, an Air Force "brat" who grew up watching his father pilot Air Force fighter jets, said heritage is "a big deal" at the wing. It is everywhere, especially since the unit's home is the equally heritage-laden Langley Air Force Base, Va.

"We're proud of our heritage," he said.

General Field has a lot to draw from when he reflects on the wing. The wing traces its roots to the 1st Pursuit Group of World War I, which flew Spads, Nieuport 28s and Sopwith Camels in the skies over Europe. It was the first American unit to fly and down an enemy aircraft in that war. In World War II, the group was the first to fly the twin-tailed P-38 Lightnings over Europe.

Since then, the wing was the Air Force's first jet fighter unit, the first to fly the F-15 Eagle and now the first to get the Raptor.

Among the wing's alumni is a virtual "who's who" list of Air Force heroes. On the list are the likes of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, 2nd Lt. Frank Luke, Maj. Raoul Lufbery and Gen. Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, to name a few.

That heritage is not lost at the base on the Chesapeake Bay, General Field said.

"If you go to any of our squadrons, our pilots and maintainers are very proud of that heritage," he said. "And you will see that heritage on the walls, in terms of pictures from World War I, up through World War II, the Vietnam era and into today."

The general joined the Air Force after seeing a photo of a 1st Fighter Wing F-15 Eagle "flying straight up in the air," he said. "I thought, that does not look boring."

After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1979, he flew mostly F-16 Fighting Falcons. Today, he flies the Raptor. He has a keen sense of the wing's history -- something he talks about to new wing members at newcomers briefings.

"I go over that history with everybody that shows up at Langley, to include the patch we wear on our shoulder, the wing patch that goes back to those roots in World War I."

The wing has added to its extensive heritage in the past 15 years. The general said it has had more than 25 separate aircraft deployments for duty in Operation Northern Watch, Operation Southern Watch, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Allied Force and Operation Iraqi Freedom -- to name a few. The wing also deploys Airmen to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, the wing is working on another first -- bringing the next-generation Raptor online and getting it ready for its role in the war on terrorism. The Air Force's oldest fighter unit, the 27th Fighter Squadron, is the first unit to fly the F-22. Its Airmen are focusing on getting the stealth jet ready for combat.

"So those folks have been training extremely hard across the spectrum of missions," General Field said. "They're ready to go and I think they're going to do a great job."

To get to that stage, the Raptor Airmen are putting the twin-tailed jet through its paces. The Raptor crews are learning how to integrate the F-22 with the rest of the Air Force. To help with that, the jet deployed to Alaska to fly and fight with other Air Force aircraft.

"We learned some great lessons on how to make the entire package, and that entire group of aircraft and pilots and Airmen, more effective across the board," he said. 

Now the wing has to ensure others get the message. General Field said the wing is actively working to ensure the Raptor squadron "gets the right operational look," he said. It is working to better integrate its new fighter with proven weapon systems. It is a job in progress.

"We're still working on those kinds of concepts," he said. "Fortunately, we still have an F-15 squadron here. We're able to work some of those lessons with aircraft that aren't stealthy and figure out how to talk to them, how to communicate the right way."

And the wing is sending out Raptor representatives out to other units to spread the word about what the F-22 brings to a fight.

"We want to emphasize that this isn't just another air-to-air platform, or just another air-to-ground platform," he said. "(The F-22) brings much more to the table than that."

What the Raptor provides the Air Force are the kind of capabilities causing the transformation to what Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley said, is "a fundamentally different Air Force." It is an Air Force much different than it was even five years ago.

But for Airmen to venture out into the future, they must first understand the heritage and history General Moseley has said.

So some things about the profession will not change, General Moseley said during a speech at the Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition in Washington, D.C., in late September.

"Some things are rooted too deeply in our past, and are too deeply ingrained to change, nor do we want to change them," the chief of staff said.

At Langley, General Field thinks the same way. So twice a month he stands before a group of newcomers and tells them how the wing is on a focused path toward Raptor readiness.

Then he talks about the wing patch. And then he tells them the wing has not forgotten that what it does today is an evolution of what its Airmen have done since the turn of the 20th century.

"We're really proud of that kind of stuff (heritage) here," he said. "And we're very conscious of trying to make sure that legacy lives on through the F-15 and the F-22."