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Home : News
NEWS | Dec. 8, 2023

Flying Yankees hit 100

By Curt Jans

“Tactical airlift has been around a very long time. It is about specific capabilities, and we know what the C-130 does in terms of airland, airdrop and formation flying,” said Col Neal Byrne, Commander 103rd Air Wing. “However, you’re not going to execute your training in an uncontested environment and expect to be successful on today’s battlefield.”

To build tactics and capabilities at the next level, the training team at the 103rd AW includes staff from each aircrew position: pilot, navigator, flight engineer and loadmaster. For local training, the team builds scenarios simulating a contested environment and adds ‘frustrations’ to missions to challenge aircrew. Greater mission and threat complexity training is conducted as part of an integrated mission sortie at regional electronic ranges with sophisticated, threat replication capability. The top-tiers of flying training include multinational exercises and especially large-formation, fully integrated exercises on instrumented ranges, such as the Nevada Test and Training Range.

Last year, the Flying Yankees deployed to Europe for three weeks as part of Swift Response 22, an annual exercise supporting NATO defense strategy, deterrence, and interoperability. At Swift Response, the unit conducted airlift and airdrop missions with European allies as part of airfield seizures and air assault/airborne operations. In addition, the Wing and Squadron have participated in Joint Forcible Entry exercises at Nellis Air Force Base the last four years to leverage the best of tactical airlift training on a simulated contested battlefield.

“In light of near-peer threats, we have to rethink the way we employ the airplane,” said Col Byrne. “Agile Combat Employment (ACE) and specialized fueling operations (SFO) – things this airplane has always been capable of – are now necessary. Our fuel is a game changer in a combat environment, and we have the capacity to carry a lot of fuel to a location along with cargo.”

Air Force doctrine describes ACE as a “proactive and reactive operational scheme of maneuver executed within threat timelines to increase resiliency and survivability while generating combat power.” The ACE doctrine shifts operations from major operating bases that are static and easily targeted to a network of smaller, scattered locations. The objective is to complicate adversary planning and execution through dispersal of assets to multiple locations that are defensible, sustainable, and quickly relocatable. Aerial refueling tankers, like Air Force MC-130s and Marine Corps KC-130s, have conducted ground-based refueling for decades, but specialized fueling operations is a recent application to airlift squadrons. In a scenario where airfields are targeted and unusable, the Flying Yankees can operate from remote, austere sites supporting fighter aircraft dispersion and forward operating bases, one of the primary objectives of ACE doctrine. The C-130 can “bring everything you need to set up operations anywhere – munitions, fuel, support equipment, vehicles,” said Col Byrne.

In 2021, a team from the 103rd OG developed, tested and standardized wet-wing defuel for the C-130H. Wet-wing defuel is the process by which a C-130, with engines running, transfers fuel directly from the onboard fuel tanks to an intermediate fuel storage system such as a storage bladder, storage tank or R-11 fuel truck. The local team on the ground subsequently dispenses the fuel to aircraft and support equipment. Within a year, the process was validated and employed in combat operations during a deployment to the Africa Command (AFRICOM) area of responsibility. The 103rd OG are now the subject matter experts actively training other C-130H units.

The Forward Air Refueling Point (FARP) process is the next phase of specialized fueling operations. FARP provides a direct aircraft-to-aircraft refueling capability from Air Mobility Command C-130s to other aircraft, bypassing the intermediate fuel storage system with wet-wing defuel. While the FARP equipment is the same as HC-130J Rescue and MC-130J Special Operations aircraft, the application is different with airlift C-130s using the single-point refueling panel instead of rapid ground refueling from the wing mounted refueling pods. The 103rd OG was identified by Air Mobility Command as the Major Command C-130H FARP lead, and as such, collaborated with the Air Force Special Operations Command to develop the H-model FARP training syllabus and operations manual.

As part of ACE tactics, the wing has crafted procedures to launch the C-130H in a quick response, expedited manner. Sometimes called launch-to-survive, aircrew use an expedited process and flush checklist to get off the ground quickly in a contested environment or upon notification that the aircraft or location is being targeted. It’s about escape and evade: “You can never get comfortable with the technology our adversaries have. Our tacticians want to use every capability of the C-130, and they are volunteering to create those procedures and tactical developments that make the C-130 a lethal and valuable contributor,” said Col Byrne.

Real-world execution
The most recent Wing deployment, in 2022, was to support the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa, currently a rotational assignment for Air National Guard Airlift Wings. The primary mission was support and resupply of US and coalition ground forces in the Horn of Africa through daily sorties – mostly airland missions with sporadic airdrops. During the air-land missions to forward operating bases, the training and process for ACE and SFO became part of normal operations. Capt Jennifer Petrow, executive officer for the Operations Group and a C-130H pilot, described a mission during the deployment. After offloading supplies “...we moved into position to offload fuel - completely blacked-out and operating on NVG’s.” As they were offloading fuel and watching the onboard fuel levels drop, “a helicopter popped over the base perimeter, lands 100ft away, refuels and took off within minutes,” said Petrow. “It was really rewarding to see the mission play out in front of us, and we continued to give them more and more fuel on subsequent sorties.”

As part of the deployment, the Wing maintained an alert mission to transport the East Africa Response Force (EARF) – wheels up within an hour if needed. The EARF is a rapid deployment force, manned by a rotation of US Army divisions, which responds to contingency and security operations including protection of US personnel and diplomatic facilities, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and personnel evacuation and recovery.

During the deployment, the Flying Yankees flew over 100 combat missions, moved 2.1 million lbs (952,544 kg) of cargo and delivered 150,000lbs (68,038 kg) of fuel to combat outposts in austere and often contested areas of Somalia and Kenya through the wet-wing defuel process developed at the Wing. Col Byrne recalled: “There was a time during the deployment when overland fuel shipments were being disrupted by the enemy. To keep the recovery task force and the ISR airplanes flying, we were able to wet-wing defuel into bladders and keep them flying” until ground shipment routes were secured. Real-world validation of
wet-wing defuel tactics and procedures in a combat environment.

Into the next century
The 103rd AW has adapted to the new Air Force Force Generation (AFFORGEN) model which dictates a two-year deployment rotation cycle based upon four, six-month phases: prepare, certify, ready/available [to deploy] and reset. The Wing is currently in the prepare phase focused on aircrew qualifications, currencies, proficiency training and specialized training in advance of Wing level graded exercises and certification prior to an expected ready/available cycle in 2024. The dates and location of a potential deployment have yet to be determined, but it will likely be the final Flying Yankees deployment in the C-130H.

On September 14, 2023, the Air Force announced selection of the 103rd Airlift Wing and three additional Airlift Wings as the preferred locations to receive C-130J Super Hercules to replace aging C-130Hs. The final decision will not come until 2025 pending a required environmental impact analysis at each location, so the actual J-model conversion process will not start for at least two years and could be six years away depending upon the order in which the four Airlift Wings convert to the C-130J.

New and more capable airframes are certainly welcomed, but they also come with significant transition training requirements for pilots, loadmasters and maintainers. Additionally, the loss of roles such as Navigator and Flight Engineer will lead to retirements, departures and conversions to new jobs for some. Col Byrne knows the Wing is up to the challenge: “There is no preordained pedigree that ensures success in combat aviation. A lot of us that make serving our nation a career find real meaning in this type of work, which is why we grow to love so much the diversity and resilience of the Flying Yankees who expertly execute tactical airlift – anytime, anywhere!”

While in Asia during World War II, the 118th TRS adopted the black lightning insignia created by Lt Phil Dickey. First painted along the engine cowl and fuselage of P-51s, the black lightning has graced multiple airframes as part of the squadron’s heritage including the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the 100th anniversary C-130H Hercules.

In February 2023, the 103rd AW debuted C-130H, serial 93-1456, in a commemorative paint scheme celebrating the centenary of the 118th AS. The design illustrates wing and squadron heritage through multiple features. The yellow and black lightning bolt down both sides of the fuselage and at the top of the tail recalls the paint scheme first applied to aircraft flown by the 118th TRS in World War II. The 118th AS emblem on the tail recalls American colonial history. In 1687, England’s King James II revoked the right of self governance from the colonies, and his representative arrived in Connecticut to reclaim the original parchment charter which granted autonomy to the Connecticut colony. Depicted on the emblem is Capt Joseph Wadsworth, an officer in the colonial militia, who spirited the original document to its hiding place in a large oak tree which became known as the Charter Oak. At the top of the emblem are three letters in Morse code, F-E-A, which stand for ‘Fidelis Et Alertus’, Latin for ‘faithful and alert’, the code of the Connecticut Air National Guard. The black and white D-day invasion stripes on the wings and fuselage represent the
parent 103rd AW, a descendent of the famous 324th Fighter Group which fought in the European theater during World War Two.

The 118th Observation Squadron (OS) was activated on November 1, 1923, as one of 29 National Guard observation squadrons established the 1920’s. Initially equipped with surplus Curtiss JN-4 ‘Jennies’, the unit flew observation missions in support of the US Army.

In February 1941, the squadron was ordered to active service anticipating increasing American involvement in the war underway in Europe. Deployed to the southeast United States, the 118th OS conducted antisubmarine and defensive patrols along the Atlantic coast until 1943 when the squadron was redesignated the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) for combat missions. Deployed to the China-Burma-India theater of operations, the squadron joined the famous ‘Flying Tigers’ of the 23d Fighter Group and flew the P-40 Warhawk and the P-51 Mustang from bases in China and India. After the war, the squadron became the 118th Fighter Squadron and was assigned to the 103rd Fighter Group of the Connecticut National Guard at Bradley Field.

From the 1950s, the 118th spent nearly three decades in interceptor or tactical fighter roles while flying the F-84D Thunderjet, F-94B Starfire, F-86H Sabre, F-100 Super Sabre and F-102 Delta Daggers. In 1979, the unit received new A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft and was redesigned the 118th Fighter Squadron in 1992. Flying the A-10 for 29 years, the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) of 2005 recommended distribution of the Wing’s A-10s to the 104th Fighter Wing at nearby Barnes Air National Guard Station in 2008. After the loss of the A-10s, the Wing and Squadron redesignated to the 103rd Airlift Wing (AW) and 118th Airlift Squadron (AS) and retained a flying mission through transition to C-21A Learjets for executive airlift and counter narcotics missions. The Learjets proved a critical bridge assignment during the tumultuous BRAC years and ultimately led to the Wing transitioning again in 2013 to the C-130H Hercules which are still employed today.

Editor's note: this article first appeared in the January 2024 issue of Combat Aircraft and was reprinted with permission.