1st Fighter Wing lays claim to numerous accomplishments

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  • By 1st Fighter Wing
  • History Office
The name says it all -- 1st Fighter Wing. As the first air combat unit organized under the U.S. Army air arm 80 years ago, the wing can make claim to many historic accomplishments.

The study of the 1st FW's history is comparable to examining the history of air power itself. The groaning of wooden frames as the first aces put their aircraft through daring maneuvers in World War I has evolved into the roar of jet engines as the symbols of air superiority, the F-22 Raptor and the F-15 Eagle, are thrust into desert skies and another chapter of history.

World War I
During World War I, the American expeditionary force included pilots who would fly alongside their European counterparts in reconnaissance, escort and eventually combat missions. The United States had not kept pace in aviation technology with England, France and Germany, and the U.S. Army was not equipped with sufficient aircraft for combat. Therefore, American units primarily flew French-built aircraft.

On Jan. 16, 1918, Brig. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois, chief of Air Service, AEF, ordered an Army officer by the name of Maj. Bert M. Atkinson to organize a group of American aviators into the 1st Pursuit and Organization Center. This entity would inherit five aero squadrons: the 94th, 95th, 147th, 185th and the Air Force's oldest fighter squadron -- the 27th.

On May 5, 1918, the AEF evolved the 1st Pursuit and Organization Center at Gencoult, France, into the first American group-level fighter organization, the 1st Pursuit Group -- precursor to today's 1st FW. Major Atkinson's title became commander, 1st Pursuit Group.

During their combat in Europe, the pilots of the 1st Pursuit Group primarily flew Spads and Nieuport 28s. From May until the Nov. 11 armistice, the group recorded 1,413 aerial engagements, accumulating 202 confirmed kills on enemy aircraft and 73 confirmed balloon victories. For its participation, the 1st Pursuit Group received seven campaign credits.

Many aviation pioneers and legends served with the 1st Pursuit Group in France. A total of four recipients earned the Medal of Honor for actions during World War I. Two of those were the most prolific pilots assigned to the 1st FW -- 2nd Lt. Frank Luke Jr. and 1st Lt. Edward V. "Eddie" Rickenbacker.

Nicknamed the "Arizona Balloon Buster," Lieutenant Luke was known as one of the most dangerous pilots in the group. The 27th Aero Squadron ace specialized in fearlessly attacking enemy balloons. During a 17-day period, Luke shot down 18 balloons and four enemy aircraft.

On what became his final mission, Lieutenant Luke shot down two aircraft and three balloons before his aircraft was hit by enemy fire. Upon descent, he strafed a German unit, followed by a forced landing. As German troops attempted to capture him, he drew his pistol and died in the ensuing gun battle.

Eddie Rickenbacker had a more scientific and methodical approach to his flying. His style of engagement resulted in being heralded as America's "Ace of Aces." The 94th Aero Squadron pilot scored 26 kills, more than any American pilot.

At one time, the 27th AS led the 94th AS by six confirmed kills. Known as a great motivator, Lieutenant Rickenbacker led the 94th AS with a prophetic quote: "No other American squadron at the front would ever again be permitted to approach our margin of air supremacy."

Leading by example, on the day he took command, Lieutenant Rickenbacker flew in the mission that earned him the Medal of Honor. While on voluntary patrol over French lines, he single-handedly dove upon and attacked seven enemy aircraft (five Fokkers and two Halberstadts.) Lieutenant Rickenbacker scored kills on two of the planes, causing the retreat of the remaining five.

On Nov. 10, 1918, Maj. Maxwell Kirby of the 94th AS recorded the last aerial victory of the "Great War." The next day, Germany signed the armistice, ending four years of brutal warfare.

The Interwar Years
The end in hostilities brought upon the air service a massive reduction in personnel and the inactivation of many units. Preserved through such changes was the 1st Pursuit Group when the War Department re-organized it at Selfridge Field, Mich., on Aug. 22, 1919.

Except for the period of August 1919 to July 1921 when the group moved to Kelly and Ellington Fields in Texas, the group was based at Selfridge where it remained until tensions in Europe erupted into World War II. The group's pilots honed their fighter tactics, and participated in activities such as air races, testing new aircraft and delivering the mail under orders from the president.

On Jan. 21, 1924, the Adjutant General approved the 1st Pursuit Group's emblem. The emblem was designed with the unit's history in mind. The green and black colors represented the colors of the Army Air Service. The five stripes signified the original five flying squadrons, and the five crosses symbolized the five major World War I campaigns credited to the group. A crest above the shield bore the group's Latin motto "Aut Vincere Aut Mori," which means "Conquer or Die." In 1957, the emblem was revised; the crest was removed and the motto was placed in a scroll beneath the shield.

Whatever morale boost the group received as a result of the emblem was challenged by the deplorable conditions during their cold weather missions in the Dakotas, where aircrews endured bitter cold and stubborn engines. Such conditions dictated the use of skis in place of wheels for their landing gear and plumbers' fire pots to warm the engines enough to start.

Eventually, the 95th and 17th Aero Squadrons transferred from the group. In their place, on Jan. 1, 1941, the 71st Pursuit Squadron joined the 27th and 94th AS as the fighting units of the 1st Pursuit Group.

World War II
Preparations for the possibility of war introduced the 1st Pursuit Group to a new weapon.

In July 1941, the 27th Pursuit Squadron received the P-38 Lightning, the first in the Army Air Force's inventory. The group would have just six months to acquaint itself with its new addition as the Japanese launched a surprise attack against air and naval targets in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, propelling the United States into war.

The United States wanted to cover any vulnerabilities to any Japanese attacks on the West Coast and sent the 1st Pursuit Group and its assigned squadrons from Selfridge to March Field, Calif. During its short time at March Field, the group was slowly being plucked of its personnel, losing more than half of its assigned officers and enlisted men.

Short of men and morale, the group prepared to deploy for Europe April 25, 1942. Before they left, however, an alumnus of theirs, Eddie Rickenbacker, made one of his two visits to the group during World War II. The retired captain listened to the group's concerns and reported them to Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold.

Captain Rickenbacker also worked with General Arnold to reinstate the hat-in-the ring emblem back to the 94th FS, absent since the captain himself claimed the right to it when he retired.

In 1942, military strategists decided that Hitler's Germany posed a greater threat than Japan and placed first priority with the war in Europe. As a result, the newly designated 1st Fighter Group deployed to England in what was called the Bolero operation.

During the summer of 1942, the 1st Pursuit Group trained and performed fighter sweeps over France. The group received the call to move again, this time to North Africa. By Nov. 13, 1942, the group completed the move to Algeria, where it provided aerial support against German-occupied territories.

On Nov. 29, 1942, the 94th FS flew the group's first combat sorties of World War II, strafing a German airfield and recording several aerial victories. However, as the year came to a close, the group's morale sagged. Few replacement parts and virtually no replacement aircraft were available. Although the group recorded some kills, the tally against the enemy was even at best.

For nearly a year, the group moved throughout Algeria and Tunisia, flying bomber escort and providing air coverage for the ground campaign. Allied forces pushed the Germans back, and the North African campaign ended with the capture of Tunis on May 7, 1943.

Six months of continuous, heavy fighting in North Africa was followed by a short break, when pilots flew reconnaissance and escort missions around the Mediterranean. The respite ended Aug. 15, as air attacks increased against southern Italy.

On Aug. 25, after much practice, the 1st Pursuit Group launched 65 aircraft and joined with 85 more for a historic attack against the Italian Foggia airfield complex. In addition to strafing ground targets, pilots of the 1st PG damaged or destroyed 88 enemy aircraft, with a loss of two P-38s. For this mission, the group received its first distinguished unit citation, or DUC.

Five days later, the group participated in a mission and earned its second DUC. The group launched a 44-ship formation, escorting B-26 bombers to the railroad marshalling yards at Aversa, Italy. Approximately 75-100 aircraft suddenly attacked the formation. Outnumbered two to one, the group persevered through a 40-minute air battle, and although losses were even on both sides, the bombing mission continued, unabated.

As a result, the escorted bombers struck their target and returned to base without a loss. The group hopped from base to base in Italy, before settling at Salsola Airfield, on Jan. 8, 1944. Living and supply conditions improved for the Airmen, who received new P-38Js in the spring. On April 16, 1944, the group flew its 1,000th combat mission.

The 1st Fighter Group received its third DUC for action on May 18, 1944. That day's target was the oil fields at Ploesti, Romania. The fighters were scheduled to escort 700 bombers, however, bad weather caused many bombers to abort the mission. The fighters continued through the heavy weather in case any bombers had continued to the target.

When the P-38s reached the target, 140 American bombers were under attack by 80 enemy fighters. The group's 48 P-38s attacked the German fighters, driving them off. The pilots shot down and damaged nearly 20 enemy aircraft, with a loss of one P-38, whose pilot parachuted to safety.

The remainder of the war proved less eventful for the group, as the air war in Italy came to a close. On Aug. 11, 1944, the 1st deployed 60 aircraft to Corsica to assist in the allied invasion of southern France known as Operation Dragoon.

The group's last major operation of the war came in January 1945. Under Operation Argonaut, the group escorted British and American delegations to the Yalta Conference. A total of 61 aircraft deployed in missions to escort the ships and aircraft carrying President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and their aides to and from the Crimea. On April 15, 1945, the 27th Fighter Squadron, which earlier scored the group's first kill of the war, recorded the group's last kill of the war.

During nearly three years of combat flying, the 1st Fighter Group flew more than 21,000 sorties on more than 1,400 combat missions.

As was custom, the United States demobilized after the war. However, with its tradition and heritage, the 1st Fighter Group remained at the forefront. Returning to March Field, the group once again made history when it was assigned America's first operational jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star.

Shortly afterward, the arsenal evolved into the P-86 Sabre. After its independence in September 1947, the Air Force re-designated the Ps to Fs the following June.

The Cold War Era
The 24 years following World War II were chaotic for the 1st Fighter Group. During this period, the group was assigned under the newly created 1st Fighter Wing, worked for three different numbered air forces, three regional air defense organizations, an air division and four major commands.

The group made three permanent change of station moves. During the summer of 1947, the Army Air Force issued the "wing-base" plan, creating a self-sufficient wing at each base.

As a result, on Aug. 15, 1947, the 1st Fighter Wing was activated at March Field. The 1st Fighter Group, with the 27th, 71st and 94th Fighter Squadrons, were assigned under the wing. In addition, maintenance, supply and support organizations fell under the wing's control.

In January 1950, while stationed at George Air Force Base,, Calif., the 1st created its own aerial demonstration team, the "Sabre Dancers." The team, composed of five pilots of the 27th, flew its most distinguished show April 22, 1950, at Eglin AFB, Fla. The audience included President Harry S. Truman and several political leaders.

During the Korean War, the 1st FW served an air defense role while its elements split to opposite coasts. The 1st Fighter Interceptor Group headquarters and 27th and 71st Fighter Interceptor Squadrons were assigned to the Eastern Air Defense Force, while the wing headquarters and the 94th FIS served with the Western Air Defense Force. After the cease-fire, the wing returned to a more traditional organization. With exception of the 27th FIS, the wing, group and most of its squadrons reunited in Selfridge.

The 27th FIS remained on the East Coast, flying the F-106 Delta Dart from Loring, Maine. Meanwhile, the 94th and 71st FIS transitioned from the F-86 to the F-102 Delta Dagger.

In response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the wing deployed personnel and aircraft to Patrick AFB, Fla., in October 1962. During its six-week stay at Patrick, the 1st flew 620 sorties, maintaining an 80 percent mission-capable rating.

During the Vietnam War, the wing served as a transition wing for many pilots en route to or returning from Southeast Asia. As the decade came to a close, the units split again, serving across the nation: the 27th in Maine, the 71st in Montana and the 94th in Michigan.

In order to maintain the historic 1st Fighter Wing and to provide a new combat training unit necessitated by the Vietnam War, Tactical Air Command inactivated the 15th Tactical Fighter Wing and activated the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at MacDill AFB, Fla., on Oct. 1, 1970. The personnel and equipment formerly of the 15th now served under the 1st. The three flying squadrons of the 15th were assigned under the historic wing: the 45th, 46th and 47th.

Completing the wing's historic preservation, the commanders of the three squadrons participated in a shoot-out at the Avon Park Gunnery Range to determine which squadrons would receive the designations of the 27th, 71st and 94th. The commander of the 47th marked the highest score, and chose the 94th; the 46th placed second, choosing the 27th, leaving the 45th with the squadron having the shortest history, the 71st.

The hostilities in Vietnam brought a new mission upon the wing. Directed to "conduct combat aircrew academic and flight training in the tactics, techniques and operations of assigned aircrew and associate equipment," the wing provided training in the F-4E Phantom II and the B-57 Canberra. After training, most pilots continued onto service in Southeast Asia.

On March 14, 1974, the Air Force announced plans to station the Air Force's first operational F-15 wing at Langley AFB, Va. Langley was chosen due to its heritage and ideal location for TAC's secondary air defense mission. After studying the heritage of its wings, TAC selected the 1st TFW as the unit to receive the first Eagle.

The nation's most historic base and wing united to receive the Air Force's newest air weapon on June 6, 1975, TAC directed Ninth Air Force to move the 1st TFW and its associate squadrons from MacDill to Langley.

Although the designation of the unit moved, the majority of MacDill personnel remained in place and served under the newly designated 56th Tactical Fighter Wing. First TFW personnel, with their commander, Col. Larry D. Welch (who went on to become Air Force chief of staff), spent the next six months preparing for the arrival of the F-15.

By the end of 1975, the wing was ready for its new air superiority weapon, and on Dec. 18, 1975, Lt. Col. John Britt, operations officer, flew the wing's first F-15 (a two-seat trainer) into Langley. Official welcoming ceremonies took place Jan. 9, 1976, when Lt. Col. Larry Craft, 27th Fighter Squadron commander, landed with the wing's first single seat F-15.

In recognition of its accomplishment of introducing the F-15 into the Air Force's operational inventory, the 1st TFW received its first Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for the period of July 1, 1975, to Oct. 31, 1976. After achieving operational ready status, the wing took the experience it had earned and utilized it on a program nicknamed Ready Eagle.

The 1st TFW helped prepare the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, for its reception of the F-15. The 1st assisted in the training of maintenance personnel and pilots. By Sept. 23, 1977, the wing provided Bitburg with 88 operational ready pilots and 522 maintenance specialists, and later trained an additional 1,100 maintenance personnel at Bitburg.

On April 15, 1977, the 1st acquired another mission, as it assumed responsibility over the 6th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, previously assigned under the 4500th Air Base Wing at Langley. The 6th ACCS flew EC-135 airborne command posts in support of Atlantic Command missions.

After showcasing the new fighter across the United States, the 1st TFW participated in an exercise dubbed Coronet Condor. The purpose of this exercise was to execute the wing's first operational deployment of its F-15s overseas. The 94th deployed eight aircraft to Japan, Korea and the Philippines in the spring of 1978, and the 94th and 71st deployed 18 Eagles to the Netherlands in fall of the same year.

After returning from Europe in early 1979, the 94th deployed 12 aircraft to Saudi Arabia on a short-notice exercise known as Prized Eagle, and the 27th took its turn, deploying in the spring to Korea and Japan. Participation in worldwide deployments and training exercises continued through the 1980s. The wing served in countries throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Central America.

The Gulf War
The training and experience gained, especially from Prized Eagle, was called upon in the summer of 1990, when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. On Aug. 7, 1990, the 27th and 71st Tactical Fighter Squadrons began deploying to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield, in support of the defense of Saudi Arabia from further Iraqi aggression. In all, the wing deployed 48 aircraft to the Persian Gulf. By Jan. 16, 1991, when Desert Shield came to a close, the wing amassed 4,207 sorties.

At 1:15 a.m. local Saudi Arabian time on Jan. 17, 1991, 16 wing F-15s departed King Abdul-Aziz Air Base and headed toward Iraq to participate in Operation Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait from the Iraqis.

During the first night of the operation, Capt. Steve Tate of the 71st TFS shot down an Iraqi F-1 Mirage, which turned out to be the wing's only kill during the war. It was also the first combat credit awarded to the wing under the command of the U.S. Air Force.

Upon its return on March 8, 1991, the 1st TFW had amassed a total of 2,564 sorties during Operation Desert Storm. The end of the Gulf War did not bring an end to the wing's support in Southwest Asia. Monitoring the southern no-fly zone, the 1st provided six-month coverage every year under Operation Southern Watch.

In October 1994, when Saddam Hussein tested U.S. resolve by placing forces near the Kuwaiti border, the wing participated in a short-notice deployment, Operation Vigilant Warrior. When Iraqi troop movements began again in September 1996, the wing was prepared to deploy under Operation Desert Focus.

Setting the Standard
Following the end of the cold war, the Air Force underwent several re-organizations. On Oct. 1, 1991, the 1st TFW was redesignated 1st Fighter Wing. On June 1, 1992, Air Combat Command activated, combining forces from TAC and Strategic Air Command into a new command to provide "Global Reach, Global Power for America."

Marking the end of the cold war in July 1992, the wing hosted the first leg of a Russian-American fighter exchange. Thirty-seven members of the Russian Air Force, two Su-27 fighters and one IL-76 transport deployed to Langley AFB. Two months later, two F-15s and 40 wing members visited the Russians at their home station at Lipetsk Air Base, Russia.

During the early 1990s, the 1st FW assumed responsibility of three new missions -- air control, airlift and search and rescue. On March 15, 1992, the 74th Air Control Squadron was transferred to the 1st FW. The 74th ACS provided command and control of air operations for worldwide operations. One year later, on Feb. 1, 1993, the 41st and 71st Rescue Squadrons and the 741st Maintenance Squadron were assigned to the 1st FW. Stationed at Patrick AFB, Fla., the units provided search and rescue for NASA's space shuttle missions, and supported combat search and rescue operations in Southwest Asia.

Additionally, C-21 operational support aircraft were assigned to the wing April 1, 1993, with the establishment of Detachment 1, 1st Operations Group. On May 1, the detachment inactivated and the 12th Airlift Flight, with the same mission, activated.

Operation Vigilant Warrior demonstrated the need for the Air Force to provide combat air power anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. This need created the concept of the air expeditionary force, or AEF. During AEF II, the 1st FW deployed 12 F-15s and more than 600 personnel to Shaheed Mwaffaq Air Base, Jordan, from April 12 to June 28, 1996. Wing members built and operated from the bare base and provided support to Operation Southern Watch.

Serving in harm's way became a standard throughout the Air Force, particularly in the 1st FW. On June 25, 1996, a tragic event occurred which brought the reality of terrorism to the forefront. A bomb, attached to a fuel truck, exploded outside the Khobar Towers Housing area in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The bomb took the lives of 19 Air Force members, including five Airmen from the 71st Rescue Squadron:

Capt. Christopher J. Adams
Capt. Leland T. Haun
Master Sgt. Michael G. Heiser
Staff Sgt. Kevin J. Johnson
Airman 1st Class Justin R. Wood

President Bill Clinton attended the memorial services, and called terrorism "the enemy of peace and freedom." The cowardice act also forced the wing to move its Southwest Asia operations 200 miles southwest from Dhahran to Al Kharj.

Two reealignments ordered by Air Combat Command took effect on the same day, April 1, 1997. The most substantial one had been the 1st Rescue Group's re-assignment to the 347th Wing at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. This move meant the loss of two types of aircraft -- the HC-130P Hercules gunship and the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter.

When the Air Force decided to transfer the 12th Airlift Flight to Air Mobility Command, another type of aircraft, the C-21, was removed from the 1st FW's possession exactly four years after it had been assigned.

The Balkan War
What made the wing's valued participation in this contingency unique is the fact it sent no aircraft in support of it, exemplifying the diversity of the 1st FW's comprehensive mission. More than 150 personnel from 11 units within the 1st FW deployed to the European theater in direct support of Operation Allied Force and associated operations such as Noble Anvil and Shining Hope.

Responsible for the worldwide mobility commitment to execute command and control operations, the 74th Air Control Squadron provided the largest contingent of 1st FW personnel and equipment to Operation Noble Anvil. The 74th set up its equipment outside Budapest, Hungary, to provide joint forces and theater commanders with an accurate air picture for conducting offensive and defensive missions. During Operation Allied Force, the 74th ACS deployed to provide critical air control in the European theater of operations.

The performance of the professionals deployed by the 1st FW team contributed to one of the most decisive victories in warfare history ... a conflict concluded with zero allied combat casualties.