Military


117th Air Refueling Wing [117th ARW]

The 117 th ARW had 9 authorized KC-135 Stratotankers. The current compliment of personnel is 275, including military and civilian employees. This expands to 1,243 personnel for UTA weekends and during activation.

Early in 1919, Major James A. Meissner, a World War I flying ace and former member of Eddie Rickenbacker's famous "Hat-in-the-Ring" squadron, organized some ten to twelve ex-aviators from the recent war. This club was dubbed the Birmingham Flying Club, nicknamed the "Escadrille's". Its primary aim being the promotion of aviation in the City of Birmingham and the State of Alabama. Work began immediately to induce the Federal Government to recognize the unit as a National Guard flying squadron. After months of ceaseless work, word was received that the dream was to become a reality. On 21 January 1922, the organization was federally recognized as the 135th Observation Squadron, Alabama National Guard. Twenty-six officers and one hundred twenty enlisted men assigned to the squadron began developing the tract of land that was to be used for the air base.

Before the end of July 1922, seven Curtiss JN-4Ds, the famed Jenny, and necessary support equipment were on hand, and the squadron was functioning as a flying unit under the direction of Major Meissner. It was during this month that the 135th Observation Squadron went to Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama, for their first annual encampment.

On January 1, 1923, the unit designation was changed to the 114th Observation Squadron, Alabama National Guard, on orders from Air Service Headquarters, United States Army, Washington, D.C., the 114th continued flying the JN-4D on observation missions from Roberts Field. On 1 January 1924, the designation was changed from the 114th Observation Squadron to the 106th Observation Squadron, Alabama National Guard.

The observation squadron had many aerial mapping and survey assignments for government projects such as highways, dams, and inland waterways. The Alabama National Guard surveyed and flew the first airmail routes in the State of Alabama in 1928. That was one year prior to the first commercial airmail in the state.

Authorized aircraft during the pre-World War II period included the Curtiss JN-4D, Douglas O2-H, Consolidated TW-3 (PT-1), Curtiss O-11, Consolidated O-17, Thomas Morse O-19, Douglas O-38B, North American O-47, Curtiss O-1A, and North American BC1-A.

Efforts to secure more modern facilities for the organization finally had results when the construction of hangars and buildings at Birmingham Municipal Airport was funded by the government works project in 1935. In 1938, with construction completed, the unit moved into its present quarters at the Birmingham Municipal Airport. the existing hangar was constructed to accommodate and support thirteen O-47 type aircraft.

The 106th Observation Squadron was called to active duty on 25 November 1940 and was still on active duty at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. During this period the unit remained at Fort Sumpter Smith, Birmingham, Alabama except while participating in maneuvers in Louisiana and South Carolina. The unit was equipped with the O-47 augmented by the Stinson O-49. Key personnel were transferred from the unit to form the 65th and 69th Observation Groups. The 106th was assigned to the 66th Observation Group on 1 September 1941.

December 12, 1941, five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the unit was moved to Miami, Florida to perform anti-submarine patrol. Later state-side base assignments included Jacksonville, FL; Savannah, GA; Tullahoma, TN; Charlotte, NC; Fort Myers, FL; Clarksville, TN; and Camp Campbell, KY. Unit equipped aircraft varied considerably and included the North American O-47, Stinson O-49, Douglas DB-7, Douglas A-20, Bell P-39, Curtiss P-40, Seversky (Republic) P-43, Stinson L-5, and the Aeronca L-6.

While at Camp Campbell, KY, the unit was redesignated the 106th Reconaissance Squadron (Bomb) and was assigned to the 76th Reconnaissance Group. In June of 1943, the unit was returned to Savannah, Georgia and equipped with North American B-25s for overseas movement. Reporting to Camp Stoneman, CA, on 20 October 1943, the unit served in the northern Solomons, Southern Phillippines, Bismarck Archipelago, and New Guinea prior to being returned to the continental United States for release from active duty on 11 December 1945. The unit had, in the meantime, been assigned to the 13th Air Force and redesignated the 100th Bombardment Squadron (Medium). Serving as part of the 42nd Bombardment Group, the 100th established a brilliant war record and was presented a Presidential Unit Citation for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy.

Following World War II the unit returned to Fort Sumpter Smith Air National Guard Base, Birmingham, AL and to reserve status. The post war unit was reorganized under the leadership of Colonel John M. Donalson (now Major General retired) who had flown the lead C-47 in the Normandy Invasion. On 25 November 1946, flying B-26's, the unit was redesignated the 106th Bomb Squadron (Light). In 1947 the 160th Fighter Squadron was constituted in Birmingham flying F-51s. Both the 106th and the 160th were assigned to the 117th Fighter Group. The 117th Fighter Group later became the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Group with headquarters at Birmingham.

The 106th Tac Recon Squadron was ordered to active duty 1 April 1951 for a period of twenty-one months because of the Korean War. The Squadron spent most of the twenty-one month call-up at Shaw Air Force Base, Sumpter, South Carolina. The 160th Tac Fighter Squadron was ordered to active duty on 1 October 1950 and moved to Lawson Field, Columbus, Georgia. While at Lawson Field, they converted from their F-51s to RF-80s and deployed to Europe and served as the 38th Tac Recon Squadron. Personnel were pulled from both squadrons and sent to Korea as individuals during the twenty-one month call-up.

The 106th Tac Recon Squadron was rebased and reorganized under the command of the 117th Tactical Reconnaisance Group on 18 December 1952. The first jets arrived in Birmingham in mid 1957 when the official unit designation was changed to 106th Tactical Reconnaisance Squadron (Photo-Jet). The T-33 was the workhorse for the basic checkout program before stepping into the RF-84F.

The 117th Tactical Recon Wing and the 106th Tac Recon Squadron were recalled to active duty in October 1961 during the Berlin Crisis. The deployment was dubbed "Operation Stairstep". The 106th TRS Deployed twenty RF-84s from Birmingham, Alabama, to Dreux, France. This deployment consisted of five days of island hopping from McGuire Air Force Base to Argentina, Newfoundland; to Lajes, Azores; to Moran, Spain and then to Dreux. This was the first time Air National Guard RF-84 type aircraft had flown the Atlantic. In addition to the 20 RF-84s the unit was also tasked to deploy two T-33s and one C-47 in separate moves to Dreux. The T-Birds joined ten others from "Stair-Step" units at Langley AFB, Virginia and flew one flight a day from there. The route took them to Loring AFB, Maine to Goose Bay, Labrador to Sandestrom, Greenland to Keflivik, Iceland to Preswick, Scotland and finally to Dreux. The C-47 was equipped with several extra fuel tans and flew from Langley AB, to Goose Bay, to Lajes to Dreux. That trip took 29 hours and forty minutes flying time. After assembling the assigned personnel at Dreux, it was learned that flying operations would be from Chaumont Air Base, France. The newly named 7117th Wing headquarters remained at Dreux and the 106th Squadron moved to Chaumont. The units were relieved from active duty in August 1962.

While this movement proved the responsiveness of Air National Guard forces and was accomplished without incident, it pointed out the need for an Air National Guard air refueling capability. The goal was set: The 106th Tac Recon Squadron would develop and demonstrate the capability to deploy non-stop from the continental United States to Europe.

The first training mission aimed at this goal was Exercise "Poncho". The 106th deployed ten RF-84s from Birmingham, Alabama, non-stop to Puerto Rico with air-to-air refueling utilizing KC-97 tankers for the deployment and KC-135 tankers for the redeployment. This was the FIRST time that an Air Guard unit had deployed with the requirements for air-to-air refueling over water. This exercise was a complete success and served as a "warm up" for the second phase which would require much more exact planning and coordination.

The second mission was Exercise "Minuteman Alpha". The 106th discovered that the Alaskan Air Command was in need of photographic coverage on many outstanding targets. It was determined that this would afford an excellent opportunity with a two-fold purpose; first, to demonstrate the non-stop deployment capability of the squadron utilizing a distance of 3500 miles, and second, to assist the Alaskan Air Command by completing as many photographic sorties as feasible against outstanding targets. The squadron deployed twelve RF-84s non-stop from Birmingham to Anchorage, Alaska utilizing Air Guard KC-97 tankers. This was the first time an Air Guard jet unit had flown a non-stop mission of this duration. Flying time for the deployment from Birmingham to Anchorage was 8 hours and 27 minutes.

In August, 1964, twelve Birmingham based RF-84F jets streaked into the sky for a non-stop transatlantic flight. The flight proved that the 106th TRS was ready to be deployed to foreign countries within a matter of hours, in the event of a crisis. The 3400-mile deployment to Europe required three air refuelings. Within forty-five minutes after landing the jets were refueled, checked, loaded with film, and were standing on alert with pilots in the cockpits ready for reconnaissance missions. On August 20, twelve jets were heading for home after flying more than 10,000 miles in a little over a week. The jets required four air refuelings on the return trip. The twelve jets landed in Birmingham August 21, 1964, completing the history making Operation "Ready-Go".

Another sizeable exercise in which the 106th TRS participated was Operation Clove Hitch III. In April 1967, the Alabama Air National Guard deployed four RF-84s and 93 pilots, intelligence, photo processors, interpreters, and maintenance personnel to Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico to participate in the largest Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Exercise as of that time. The Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and other Air Guard Units participated in the mock invasion of the islands.

In June 1968, the 106th participate in an exercise called Operation Brim Fire which consisted of high-speed low-level attacks on the Army's Hawk Missile System to defend a position such as an airfield against an enemy attack.

During the unit's summer encampment of 1968, the 106th TRS photographed more than 600 targets in the north while participating in Guard Strike II. This was an Army and Air National Guard exercise involving 88,000 men in 36 states.

The 106th TRS participated in an operation during the summer of 1970 to determine if reconnaissance aircraft could detect oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The results showed the aircraft could not only spot oil spills, but with special film and techniques, could determine where they originated.

In continuing the progress of the Alabama air National Guard, on February 25, 1971, the 106th TRS received the RF-4C Phantom II, the most sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft in the Air Force inventory. The aircraft were equipped with the most highly advanced electronic equipment, and were capable of all-weather day or night reconnaissance and speeds in excess of twice the speed of sound.

A WS430B, a modular, air transportable, photographic processing and interpretation facility valued at $800,000 was received in August 1972. The 106th took part in Exercise Jack Frost '75 in Alaska.

The Birmingham based unit provided four RF-4C Phantoms along with aircrews and support troops and equipment, to supply the aerial photo intelligence information needed by the Army ground forces participating in this annual winter exercise held at Eilson Air Force Base. In addition, the men of the 106th TRS flew missions for the Alaskan Air Command over virtually the entire state of Alaska, from Anchorage to the North Slope, and from Nome to Juneau.

In October of 1975, the pilots and weapons system operator of the 106th took part in a special training exercise with Army Airborne Forces and other Tactical Air Forces. Called "Brave Shield XIII." It was a United States Readiness Command exercise conducted at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The 106th's mission was to provide the kinds of intelligence information needed to assist the complete gamut of reconnaissance operations including the collecting, reporting, interpretation, and dissemination of intelligence information and imagery.

The 106th TRS flew a total of 45 sorties and compiled more than 100 hours of flying time. It was the first time aircrews utilized electronic counter-measures, chaff, and the aircraft detection devices in an operating environment.

During the last two weeks of March, 1976, 18 RF-4C Phantom jets and 180 men from the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing and the 106th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron went to Germany to prove that United States based units could beef up NATO forces in Europe within a matter of hours and to introduce the Air Guard aircrews to unique European flying conditions.

The exercise dubbed "Operation Coronet Sprint" started on March 16, 1976, when two Air Force C-141 transport jets left Birmingham with 100 officers and airmen and support equipment.

March 19, found the total compliment of the 117th at Ramstein Air Base in the southwestern corner of West Germany situated 35 miles north of the French border and 75 miles east of the tiny country of Luxembourg. During the two-week exercise, the aircrews of the 106th stayed very active, flying 137 sorties over West Germany and surrounding NATO countries for a total of 537 hours.

On the morning of April 1, 1976, all 18 of the RF-4C's were launched from Ramstein for the re-deployment to Birmingham.

On November 19, 1977, Birmingham Air National Guard personnel completed their participation in Operation Red Flag which is designed to test the Air Force, Navy, Marine and the Army under simulated combat conditions. The task force from Birmingham consisted of 82 crew members, maintenance, intelligence, photo processors and interpreters. The exercise lasted for four weeks and was conducted at Nellis AFB, Nevada. This exercise is conducted annually and provides the most realistic flying training which has ever been conducted. It is as close to an actual combat environment as can be simulated.

The wing and 106th TRS members were involved in four separate exercises during 1978, Operation Gallant Eagle, Exercise Photo Finish, Operation Jack Frost, and Operation Sombrero. Operation Gallant Eagle involved the deployment of the Weapons Systems Security Flight to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida and the 106th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron flew photo reconnaissance missions from Birmingham Municipal Airport. Operation Gallant Eagle was a Joint Chiefs of Staff Command and Control exercise. The large scale exercise provided a simulated combat environment for the training, planning, preparation and execution of joint combat operations in a lightly forested terrain. The exercise also tested the flying skills of tactical air forces operating in non-permissive environment. Exercise Photo Finish is a National Guard Bureau sponsored photo competition with all tactical reconnaissance units from all services being invited. The competition spans three to four days of highly competitive flying and intelligence reporting. Awards include best overall unit, best crew, best intelligence reporting, and best maintenance. Operation Sombrero involved no deployment. All missions were flown form Birmingham Municipal Airport. Its purpose was to conduct aerial reconnaissance on sea targets off the Gulf Coast.

In 1979, the 106th TRS participated in four major training exercises. The exercises were Rapid Recce, Photo Finish II, Jack Frost '79, and Bold Eagle '80. All of these exercises were completed successfully and earned the 106th TRS much praise. Exercise Photo Finish II was from October 20 through October 27. The exercise tested both day and night capabilities. Two full days and two nights were utilized to determine the winners. Members of the 117th Recce Tech Squadron also deployed to process and assist in grading the photo missions. One hundred and seventy-three members of the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing and 106th TRS spent two weeks in January at Elmendorf AFB. AK while participating in Operation Jack Frost '79. The exercise required six RF-4C's and was a Joint Chiefs of Staff exercise to test readiness of forces in an arctic environment. Various Alabama Guard units including the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, 106th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, the 226th Combat Communications Group from Gadsden, and the 232nd Combat Communications Squadron from Montgomery, were deployed to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida during October, 1979, to participate in Operation Bold Eagle '80. The Joint Chiefs of Staff exercise was designed to provide a simulated combat environment to evaluate active duty and guard commanders, staff, and forces in joint tactics, techniques and procedures.

Members of the 117th played a major role in the joint exercise Empire Glacier '80. The exercise was designed as a cold weather training exercise, staged at Fort Drum, New York.

On May 4, 1980, a group of 27 Guardsmen from the 117th Tactical Hospital left Birmingham enroute to a two week summer encampment at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, Suffolk, England. The Alabama Guardsmen received a tremendous opportunity to see England and provide service to the United States Air Force Hospital at Lakenheath.

Ninety-three members of the 106th TRS including air crews, maintenance, photo processors and interpreters, intelligence, supply and public affairs had to work hard to gain survival knowledge in an environment as close to actual combat as possible. When guardsmen deployed to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada to participate in Operation Red Flag 80-4. The exercises taught the aircrew members of the 106th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron how to avoid detection or evade enemy aircraft during combat.

The 117th Communications Flight traveled to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida to train with their Air Force counterparts. While there the unit received extensive training in the field of communications network.

The 106th and supporting units of the 117th participated in three major exercises during the year. The Birmingham Air National Guardsmen deployed to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada to participate in Red Flag 81, to Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada for Amalgam Brave 81-1, and to Gulfport, Mississippi for Photo Finish '81. Many awards were earned by the 117th; for having the best National Guard Publication; for achieving flying milestones; for service to the United States Secret Service; and for outstanding accomplishments on Operational Readiness Inspections. The 117th also earned awards for having the best ANG flying unit in the United States. During the year, three former members of the 106th were inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame. Sixty-seven members of the 106th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron took part in exercises conducted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, which provided the 106th with realistic combat training. The enemy aircraft were United States Air Force pilots well trained in Soviet tactics. Evasion techniques were tested against simulated ground threats as well as aggressive aircraft. Sixty members of the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing and the 106th TRS deployed to Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada for operation Amalgam Brave 81-1. The six day exercise provided the Birmingham Air Guard members with adverse weather conditions to test the Aerospace3 Warning and Control System in tracking low level, high speed targets for interceptors. The Birmingham based RF-4C jet aircraft were used as target vehicles in the operation. It also gave the 106th aircrews a chance to practice evasive maneuvers and tactics. The 117th was host to the Photo Finish '81 reconnaissance competition at Gulfport, Mississippi. There were nine military units in the competition.

In January of 1982, six Air National Guard units and three active Air Force units combined their efforts in the largest flying exercise ever held in Alabama. Exercise Rapid Recce V tested the capabilities of Air National Guard aircrews in flying simulated combat. The 106th Squadron hosted the exercise.

A 92 manned force returned from Nellis AFB, Nevada, where aircrews and photo personnel from the 106th participated in Operation Red Flag. The 117th Maintenance Squadron supplied the specialist needed to take care of the RF-4C jet aircraft.

In August 1990 the unit deployed to the United Arab Emirates in support of Desert Shield/Storm.

In June, 1994 The 117th began a new mission with the arrival of the KC-135R aircraft. In October, 1994 the units were redesignated the 106th Air Refueling Squadron and the 117th Air Refueling Wing.

In November of 1995, the unit deployed to Pisa, Italy, in support of Operation "Deny Flight" over Bosnia. The unit next deployed to RAF Croughton, United Kingdom, in 1999 in support of Operation Noble Anvil over Kosovo.

Afterwards, the unit deployed to Curacao, Netherland Antilles for Operation Coronet Nighthawk, a Latin American counterdrug operation.

As part of Operation Noble Eagle, the 117th ARW was called to active duty and deployed to Mac Dill AFB, FL.

The unit has participated in numerous Blue Flag exercises and also in the Expeditionary Forces experiment 1998.

In its 2005 BRAC Recommendations, DoD recommended to realign Birmingham International Airport Air Guard Station (AGS), AL. It would distribute the 117th Air Refueling Wing's KC-135R aircraft to the 101st Air Refueling Wing, Bangor International Airport AGS, ME (two aircraft); the 134th Air Refueling Wing, McGhee-Tyson Airport AGS, TN (four aircraft); and the 161st Air Refueling Wing, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport AGS, AZ (two aircraft). The 117th Air Refueling Wing's firefighter positions would also move to Dannelly Field AGS, AL, and the remaining expeditionary combat support (ECS) would remain at Birmingham AGS.

Phoenix Sky Harbor (37) scored higher than Birmingham (63) (see BRAC Recommendations for rank explanation) in military value for the tanker mission. This recommendation would take advantage of available capacity at Phoenix by increasing the air refueling squadron size from eight to ten aircraft, increasing the wing's overall capability. It would also capitalize on the favorable recruiting environment of the greater Phoenix region that could sustain this increased squadron size. Although McGhee-Tyson (74) and Bangor (123) ranked lower, DoD's military judgment argued in favor of retaining and adding force structure to these installations to increase their overall effectiveness. Bangor would be increased in squadron size from 8 to 12 aircraft because of its critical role in the Northeast Tanker Task Force, as well as its participation in the transatlantic air bridge. The Air Force considered McGhee-Tyson's available capacity and Air National Guard experience in replacing aging, high maintenance KC-135E aircraft with re-engined KC-135R models and in increasing the squadron from 8 to 12 aircraft. Birmingham's ECS would remain in place to support the Air Expeditionary Force and to retain trained and experienced Air National Guard personnel.



NEWSLETTER
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list