2007 has been quite the year for the 111th Fighter Squadron, 147th Fighter Wing. Recently returned from deployment, the only combat-coded Air National Guard fighter squadron in the great state of Texas celebrated 90 years of flying at its home base, Ellington Field, over the weekend of November 3rd and 4th. While it was the ideal occasion for the 147th’s personnel and local guests to look back at the long and illustrious history of the second-oldest flying squadron in the United States, there was also a keen interest in the future – a future that had already begun.
Words & Photography: Kevin Jackson
By a strange coincidence, both Ellington Field, southwest of Houston, and the 111th Aero Squadron were established in 1917, although the 111th started life at Kelly Field in San Antonio. The unit’s first tenure at Ellington began in 1923, and apart from brief moves to Houston Hobby Airport in the 1920s and 1950s, Ellington has been its home ever since.
The 111th‘s first airplane was the Curtiss JN-6H Jenny. The unit went on to operate Douglas O-2s and later Observation aircraft, then Douglas A-20s, Bell P-39s, and North American P-51s in the Fighter Reconnaissance role overseas during World War Two.
After a short period postwar with F-51Ds, the unit converted to jets with the Republic F-84E Thunderjet and deployed to Japan, to take part in the Korean War. The Texas Wing was the first Air National Guard Wing to be mobilized since WWII, and the first ANG Wing to down a MiG-15 fighter.
Following the Korean conflict, the 111th returned to Texas and began a long period in the Air Defense role. As the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, the unit operated the F-80, T-33, F-86D, F-86L and F-102 before becoming the primary training unit for all ANG F-101B Voodoo crews in 1971. In May 1968, a future President of the United States joined the 111th FIS right out of college. Lt. George W. Bush completed flight training in June 1970 and served with the squadron until September 1973.
The squadron transitioned to the F-4C Phantom in 1982 and the F-4D in 1987. 1989 saw the introduction of the F-16A Falcon and a C-26 Metroliner for Operational Support. The C-26 was converted to a UC-26 for use as a counter-drug, law enforcement and surveillance asset, acquiring the designation RC-26B in 2005. The aircraft remains in use and is currently undergoing further upgrades.
The F-16 era at Ellington Field has continued until today. The 111th’s original A-model Vipers were used purely in the Air Defence role. With the arrival of the F-16C in 1995, the Wing was redesignated as the 147th Fighter Wing. In 1998, the unit was assigned a multi-role, general purpose mission, adding air-to-ground capability to the previous air-to-air specialty.
2005 and 2007 saw the unit deploy to Balad Air Base in Iraq to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Wing’s final combat deployment with the F-16C saw 226 members of the 147th FW deployed for 45 days. They were tasked with 348 sorties but actually flew 358, for a total of 1537.1 flying hours. The sorties includes six no-notice Close Air Support scrambles and four short-notice scrambles not listed on the Air Tasking Order. The Wing had a maintenance delivery rate of 102%, a mission effectiveness rate of 100%, a weapons employment rate of 100% (8 of 8) and a desired weapons effective rate of 87.5% (7 of 8, including one Joint Direct Attack Munition no-guide failure).
This tour of duty marked the end of an era for the 147th Fighter Wing. The unit’s Block 25 F-16Cs will be retired to the Arizona desert beginning in Spring 2008.
The Future is Unmanned…
The 2005 BRAC Committee had tough decisions to make. They had to retire a large number of older F-16s, many of them equipping ANG units. There was no manned fighter replacement, so other missions and weapons systems were sought in order for these valuable State-owned units, with their hugely experienced and knowledgeable personnel, to remain a strong resource for the nation.
A small number of ANG units were chosen to take on the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) mission flying the MQ-1 Predator. The 147th is one of the Air National Guard’s first units to take on the Predator mission and will lead the way in the unmanned aerospace vehicle (UAV) era that lies ahead. The unit is at this time writing the rulebook on ANG UAV operations. Obviously there is sadness at the departure of the F-16 and a number of the pilots have already sought new assignments with Guard and Air Force Reserve Command F-16 units at Kelly Field or Fort Worth. But there are a number of pilots who want to remain in Houston and convert to the Predator. For the unit’s people in general, the Predator is seen as a positive step – it hopefully will provide a much more stable life without constant ramping-up for the next deployment, as much of the Predator mission can be conducted remotely from Ellington Field.
"Ace-In-The-Hole" 90th Anniversary Viper
To mark the squadron’s 90th anniversary, one of the unit’s F-16Cs, 84-1393, was painted to represent the history of the 111th Fighter Squadron. All the colors and markings have specific meanings, reflecting the unit's nine-decade history.
The rudder is painted like a JN-4 Jenny, which the squadron flew in the 1920s. The schemes for the wings and flaps recall paint schemes of the pre-World War Two era. The blue fuselage represents the Korean War, in which the squadron earned credit for two aerial victories. The grey underside represents the jet age. The "N5 A" fuselage codes are the same as those worn by the squadron's P-51 Mustangs during World War Two, in which the squadron claimed 44 kills. The star on the fuselage also represents World War Two, while the star on the wing represents the prewar era. The "Ace in the Hole" legend and the star on the tail replicate the markings of the squadron's F-84s during the Korean War. The ventral fin reads "Est. 1917." This Viper will keep these markings and remain on display in Houston after its retirement next year.
The star in the unit’s badge is representative of Texas, "The Lone Star State." The "Ace-In-The-Hole" is the card held back for "strength in reserve" during a card game – a very apt symbol for an Air National Guard unit! The black and white in the border surrounding the insignia signify oil and cotton, two of Texas’ chief natural resources. The squadron’s insignia was officially adopted in 1936.
During Fence Check’s visit to the 147th FW, we were fortunate to join a couple of tanker flights participating in an Air Force program entitled "Boss Lift." Boss Lift enables the part-time men and women of the unit to invite their civilian employers to get a taste of life in the military and witness just what their employees do during their regular absences serving their country. It is also a way for the 147th to say "Thank you" to local businesses and others who help with projects around the base – most recently, those who helped organise and fund the 90th anniversary gathering.
To give the local community a real sense of a fighter unit at the sharp end, the Tennessee ANG’s 134th Air Refueling Wing provided a KC-135R for local flights refuelling F-16Cs over the Gulf of Mexico. Around 35 people had the unique thrill of watching air-to-air refuelling first-hand, with unit personnel from both Tennessee and Ellington on-hand to explain the missions both aircraft types perform. There was no doubt that all the visitors finished the day with newfound appreciation of the professionalism and dedication of both the 147th Fighter Wing and the 134th ARW.
We would like to express our gratitude to the following people for their help and hospitality during our time in Houston:
147th FW: Maj. Roland Dansereau, Maj. Shaunte Cooper, "OJ," "Mongo," Col. McNeely, MSgt. Washington, and A1C Liverage.
134th ARW: Jim Saulpaw, Jason Reed, and Boomers Brian Thomas, Greg Waters and Blue Price.