Flying Yankees Begin A New Mission in 2013
The 103rd Airlift Wing (AW) of the Connecticut Air National Guard (CTANG) celebrates 90 years of flying heritage in 2013. This milestone takes place as the Wing transitions from a period of uncertainty to a new mission in a new type of aircraft. The “Flying Yankees” publically unveiled their first of eight C-130H Hercules transports on Saturday October 5th. The ceremony featured a formal Wing assembly, followed by a family-style gathering that featured tours of the Wing’s initial “Herc”. The big gray plane had already been decorated with a stylized yellow and black lightning bolt across its tail, a bit of history from a bygone era. The unit’s new mission – that of tactical airlift – has added new flying and maintenance jobs for the state’s only ANG Wing at a good time, as it recently lost a pair of core responsibilities and their associated staffing. That sole C-130 on the ramp signified that the proud heritage of the 103rd AW and the 118th Airlift Squadron (AS) will continue , something that was in question for a few years as the effects of a Base Realignment and Closing (BRAC) decision loomed over the state.
First, here’s a history lesson about Connecticut’s Air National Guard. The Army’s 118th Aero Squadron stood up at Texas’ Kelley Field in August, 1917, moved to France during World War I, and disbanded after returning home after the war’s end. In 1921, the 43rd Division Air Service Squadron was formed with Guardsmen from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont; it was based in Rhode Island under that state’s control. Soon, the 43rd split along state lines, and on November 1, 1923 (90 years ago), the Connecticut Air National Guard was officially recognized. Within a year, the CTANG’s new 118th Observation Squadron, with its reissued squadron number, was flying Curtiss JN-4 Jennies from Hartford’s Brainard Field. Throughout the remainder of the 1920s and 30s, various types of observation aircraft served with the squadron. The 118th acquired the nickname “The Flying Yankees”… and is still known by this moniker today.
With the advent of World War II, the 118th Observation Squadron was federalized, and initially sent to Florida and South Carolina to operate fighters and bombers (including P-40, P-39, A-20 and B-25 aircraft) in defense of the country. By 1943, the unit was re-designated as the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) and sent to the China-Burma Theatre, attached to General Claire Chennault’s 23rd Fighter Group (otherwise known as the Flying Tigers). Towards the end of the war, the “Black Lightning Squadron” decorated their P-51 Mustangs with a distinctive black lightning bolt bordered by thin yellow lines, a design that would disappear and then crop up later.
After the war, the 118th TRS returned to service at Windsor Locks CT’s Bradley Army Airfield as the 118th Fighter Squadron, attached to the CTANG’s 103rd Fighter Group (lineage of the 103rd Fighter Group begins with World War II’s 324th Fighter Group that fought in the Mediterranean, Middle East and African Theatres). The 118th Fighter Squadron assumed the history and lineage of the 118th TRS and all those units before it. An associated radar unit, the 103rd Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron, was established soon after World War II ended. Known as “Yankee Watch”, the unit fell under the CTANG’s control as a non-flying unit and soon deployed to Iceland and Germany.
At the beginning of the Korean War, the 103rd Fighter Group was re-purposed as an Interceptor Wing, and the 118th as a Fighter Interceptor Squadron under its control, operating F-47N Thunderbolts. Soon, the Wing was federalized; much of its personnel and equipment were sent to airfields outside of Connecticut until the end of hostilities. Back at Bradley Field, and under state control again after 1952, the 103rd Fighter Wing and 118th Fighter Squadron bounced between tactical fighter and interceptor duties, operating F-51H Mustang propeller-driven fighters, and F-84D/G, F-94B, and F-86H jets. By 1960, the unit became a pure Air Defense Command Wing, and received F-100A Super Sabres and later, F-102A Delta Daggers. In 1971, the 103rd was tasked with a tactical fighter mission again, equipped with F-100Ds. It was with these late-model “Huns” that the 118th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) deployed to Germany to support NATO’s commitment to western Europe.
In 1979, the Flying Yankees received A-10 Thunderbolts, and continued their tactical flying mission. In their final operational paint schemes, the A-10s proudly wore the “Black Lightning” bolt on their tail fins, as a sign of their lineage. Deployments to Italy in support of NATO’s operations in Bosnia, and to the Iraqi theatre of operations in the early 2000s followed. Yankee Watch was deployed to the Caribbean and South America to assist on America’s war on drugs. Due to their location close to New York City, both the Flying Yankees and Yankee Watch provided security and surveillance in the unsettled days that followed the 9/11/2001 attack.
The 2005 BRAC brought big changes and some uncertainty to Connecticut’s Air National Guard units. The “tactical” flying mission would disappear from the Flying Yankees in 2008, as the 118th TFS retired their A-10 fighters after 29 years and received a quartet of C-21A Learjets and their new airlift mission. In a bit of a throwback to their fighter heritage though, the jet transports still incorporated the Black Lightning bolt on their tails. This re-equipage was in fact a planned interim measure before the newly-named 103rd Airlift Wing would received new C-27J twin turboprop transports. Yankee Watch’s mission broadened with operations in Southwest Asia, and a new Centralized Repair Facility (CRF) for Air Force TF34 engines began overhauling the first of close to 200 engines. Early in the new Millennium, with a diversified portfolio and the new C-27J mission on the horizon, the CTANG’s future looked strong, at least on paper.
This solid outlook rapidly changed though; the C-27J program was trimmed, and then cancelled all together by the Air Force by 2012. The 103rd Air and Space Operations Group’s (as it was called in its final form) Yankee Watch mission was axed in 2013, closing what one source called the oldest control unit of its kind in the ANG. The CRF finished their final jet engine overhaul in 2013 too, and ceased operations due to budget cuts and maintenance program changes for the A-10 fleet. The operation of four C-21A Learjets also ended; the last of four jets departed Bradley International Airport in September 2013. On the plus side a flying mission would remain within the state after some intense lobbying efforts; eight C-130H transports were earmarked for the 103rd AW, and training in support of these transports began before the C-21As left.
During the Wing’s formal assembly, both civil and military leaders spoke about many challenges that had been met, and more that still exist for the 103rd AW today. U.S. Representative John Larson called the unveiling ceremony a “day of celebration for the Flying Yankees and the 103rd Airlift Wing”. He praised the leadership of Connecticut’s Adjutant General, Major General Thaddeus Martin, in helping to bring the C-130 mission to reality. He stated that the excellent reputation of the 103rd AW was key for winning the funding needed to accomplish the transition to tactical airlift when their tactical fighter mission was cut. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy praised the 103rd AW for their work in completing the required environmental studies 5 months ahead of schedule , thus allowing the unveiling ceremony to occur that day. The 103rd Airlift Wing Commander, Colonel Frank Detorie, spoke about the challenges of transitioning the base to accept the C-130 program. With personnel furloughs and training funds frozen just a week before the ceremony due to the government shutdown, he thanked the men and women in the unit for how [successfully] they faced “the challenges of this week”. Through their dedication, he said that “the 103rd AW earned the C-130 mission”. The unveiling ceremony might not had happened without the efforts of a lot of people, including some personnel working on their own time.
By the summer of 2014, all eight C-130s should be on the 103rd’s ramp, and work well underway on a $12 million upgrade to the base’s main hangar. Pilots are already in Little Rock, Arkansas training to fly the C-130s, a much different aircraft than the C-21 and A-10 aircraft of previous decades. Some Kentucky Air National Guard members, familiar with C-130 operations, have deployed to help educate Connecticut Guardsmen, although some training has been postponed or halted because of federal government budget woes and partial shutdown. Soon though, the Flying Yankees will be airborne over Connecticut again, in airspace where the CTANG has called home for the past 90 years .
Article by Ken Kula Photos by Scott Zeno and Ken Kula