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31st FW celebrates historic operation

by Lane Bourgeois
31st Fighter Wing historian

7/6/2012 - AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Sixty years ago, the 31st Fighter Wing was a young wing in a young Air Force, and the technologies taken for granted today were in their infancy.

Sixty years ago this week, the wing was directly involved in pioneering the use of aerial refueling to fly masses of fighter aircraft over the Pacific Ocean, rather than to ship them. It served to display to our enemies the ability of the U.S. Air Force to quickly project combat power to almost anywhere in the world.

That operation, called Fox Peter One, changed the way the Air Force operates to this day.

On June 24, 1952, Strategic Air Command issued a warning order to the then designated 31st Fighter Escort Wing. It ordered the wing to pack up its operations at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia, and fly to Misawa Air Base, Japan. The warning order gave the wing just eight days to be under way.

The base mobility plan immediately went into effect to process more than 1,000 people. Aircraft maintenance crews began preparing the 60 F-84 Thunderjets for the grueling flight over the Pacific Ocean, working around the clock to prepare for the historical mission. While elsewhere in the United States people would be celebrating the 4th of July, the wing's Thunderjets would be taking off towards the Far East.

Two days before July 4, two C-97 Stratofreighters, loaded with key administrative members and SAC control teams, headed out from Turner AFB to Misawa AB. The control teams were to be deposited along the way at each stop of the planned route. A day after the C-97s left, the first of four enroute maintenance support teams boarded a C-74 Globemaster for Travis AFB. These maintenance teams were responsible for keeping the Thunderjets airworthy during the mission.

At 9 a.m. on the 4th of July, Col. David C. Schilling, 31st Fighter Escort Wing commander, took off from Turner field. Fifty-nine F-84Gs followed. Having conceived and tested the idea of mass movements of aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean in a series of operations before taking command of the 31st FEW, It was only fitting Schilling lead the operation. This was the first such Pacific Ocean attempt -- hence the name, Fox Peter One (Fighters, Pacific, Number 1).

After an air-to-air refuel over Texas, the 60 fighters touched down at Travis Air Force Base, California. The flight from Turner AFB to Travis AFB took almost seven hours of flying. Upon landing, the enroute maintenance support teams worked around the clock to ensure the jets were ready for the longest over-water leg of the flight.

On June 6, the first package of about 20 fighters, again led by Schilling, took off for Hawaii. Another package would follow the next day, with the final leaving on the third day. The journey was not without difficulty -- Schilling had to turn back on that first day when a vital piece of equipment was damaged on his aircraft during a refuel.

However, his disappointment was tempered by the experience he gained.

He said, "The silver lining in this case turned out to be that in witnessing this initial over-the-Pacific refueling, I was able to return to Travis with data which proved of great aid to the pilots in the two succeeding flights."

Thus the wing proceeded to Japan, hopping from one stop to the next until tragedy struck on July 15. While on final approach to Iwo Jima, one of the aircraft experienced catastrophic structural failure. The pilot, Lt. Col. Elmer G. DaRosa, was killed.

After several days of weather delays at Yokota, Schilling led the main body of Thunderjets into Misawa on July 20. It was cause for celebration, though restrained by the loss of a pilot, and the knowledge of the difficult job that lay ahead -- providing air defense for the Japanese Islands. The 31st FEW would not return to Turner AFB until the latter part of September, with the remaining crews returning the first part of October.

Fox Peter One was a mission of many first's: the first mass movement of jet fighters across the Pacific Ocean, the first mass midair refueling movement of jet fighters, the longest mass movement of a complete jet fighter wing by air, and the longest mass nonstop over-water flight by jet fighters.

For its pioneering efforts, the wing received its first Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, and shaped the way the Air Force operates by extending its reach as a global force.

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