The 171st Air Refueling Wing (ARW) is accustomed to change. In its more than 50-year history, this unit has flown sixteen different aircraft and eight different missions. In 1947, an Air National Guard unit was formed at Pittsburgh Airport with the 146th and 147th Fighter Squadrons flying P-47 aircraft.
The 1960's were a very busy time for the unit. In the fall of 1960, the 146th began to convert to the F-102 Delta Dart, or Deuce. The mission was to guard the nation's skies by intercepting the bad guys before they got to us. Around that same time the 147th was converted from the fighter interceptor mission to an aeromedical transport mission for Military Air Transport Command in 1961. They were now designated the 147th Aeromedical Transport Squadron. The unit converted to twin engine C-119J aircraft and began training for its new mission. In this new mission the aircraft used was the C-119J. After two short years with the C-119J Flying Boxcar, the 147th converted to the sleek and exciting C-121G Super Constellation. Now, the primary mission of the 147th was to perform military airlift, with a secondary mission of aeromedical evacuation.
In 1968, the unit was redesignated as the 171st Aeromedical Airlift Group, the first of its kind in the Air National Guard (ANG). Later that year, the 171st was called to active duty to augment the airlift capability of the 375th Aeromedical Airlift Wing. Their mission was to move patients from casualty staging bases and military installations in Vietnam to destination treatment hospitals. Our Wing flew 35% of these missions, flying 510 sorties and airlifting 11,947 patients. The unit was finally released from active duty in December of 1968.
During this same time frame, the 112th Fighter Interceptor Group flew the F-102A for the Air Defense Command. In 1975 the 112th received its first A-7D aircraft and was reassigned to the Tactical Air Command.
Conforming to the new policy of the Department of Defense, the Air National Guard began to play an even greater role in fulfilling total U.S. force requirements. An extensive reorganization of the National Guard system was accomplished. As a result of these actions, the 171st Aeromedical Airlift Wing was redesignated as the 171st Air Refueling Wing (ARW) in October of 1972, transitioning from the C-121G to the KC-97L. On July 1, 1976, the Wing received notice of reassignment to the Strategic Air Command (SAC). A year later, the Wing transitioned to the KC-135A, a four-engine jet aircraft. This was a significant upgrade, increasing our air refueling capacity and expanding our global mission capability. In 1982, the ANG increased its mission capability through an interim program by retrofitting commercial Boeing 707 engines to their tankers redesignating the aircraft to the KC-135E. Just last year, the wing converted to the KC-135R enabling us even greater global reach and continuity in the Total Force.
Members of the 171 ARW volunteered for duty in Saudi Arabia in order to participate in air refueling missions for Operation Desert Shield. These operations were upgraded to a full federal activation in December 1990 through May 1991. During this period over 300 members of the unit were deployed throughout the world in numerous functions supporting both Desert Shield and Desert Storm. During this period the 171st ARW refueled nearly 3,000 allied aircraft while stationed near the Iraqi border in support of Operation Desert Storm. Maintaining a remarkable 100% mission effectiveness rate, the 171st flew 556 combat missions and offloaded 4.6 million gallons of fuel during the Gulf War. Beginning in 1991, the 112th Tactical Fighter Group became the 112th Air Refueling Group (ARG). The Strategic Air Command was deactivated in June of 1992 and the 171st ARW and the 112th ARG became a part of the Air Mobility Command (AMC).
On October 1, 1993, the 112th ARG was deactivated resulting in the loss of 305 military and 65 civilian positions. This resulted in the 146th once again reuniting with the 147th under the same flag. The 171st presently has 16 aircraft assigned making it one of only three Super Tanker Wings within the Air National Guard. This wing structure provides the resources for the 171st ARW to maintain its Global Air Refueling Mission well into the 21st century.
In May 1999, the 171st activated over 500 members and fourteen aircraft to Budapest, Hungary and Frankfurt, Germany, in support of Operation Allied Force deterring ethnic aggressions in Yugoslavia. The 171st became part of the 171st Expeditionary Operations Group that flew 411 sorties and refueled 2,157 receivers. All members returned home by the beginning of July 1999.
In November of 2000, the 171st deployed 228 personnel to Istres, France in support of Operation Joint Forge, a NATO-led stabilization mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During this deployment the crews flew 51 sorties in seven of our KC-135s, and offloaded 1.4 million pounds of fuel.
The 171st Air Refueling Wing continues in its mission of supporting U.S. and Allied forces around the globe. In addition to participating in numerous deployments and exercises, the 171st found itself among the first units called to duty almost immediately after the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington D.C. and in our own backyard here in southwestern Pennsylvania on September 11th, 2001. The Wing was in a stand-down mode, while nearly all of its assigned aircraft were being converted to with the new Pacer-Crag cockpit and navigation upgrade. Suddenly, all the rules changed.
Within minutes of the first aircraft crashes, the 171st Air Refueling Wing was airborne with its only flyable KC-135E. Its mission was to provide aerial refueling to the fuel-thirsty jet fighter aircraft that were providing Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) over the skies of the eastern United States. On the ground back in Pittsburgh, the maintainers and aircrews of the 171st shifted gears from the learning and conversion mode to what they know and do best; making their aircraft airworthy and then keeping them flying. Almost seamlessly, the 171st went into a wartime footing. Within 24 hours after the first attacks, the 171st was flying round-the-clock CAPs support sorties with eight Fully Mission Capable KC-135s. Before the continuous CAP missions were ended in early 2002, more than 13,000 combat missions were flown over U.S. soil.
In fact, we have been busier than ever in our history since 9-11. We have been involved in supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Iraqi Freedom, deployed to Guam, participated in the Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort, supported numerous Raven assignments, supported our AEF cycles, and much, much more.
In an effort to support the international response to the unrest in Libya and enforcement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 of a no-fly zone over Libya, the 313th Air Expeditionary Wing, with the 171st as the lead unit, was stood up in March of 2011 by a blend of active duty, guard and reserve airmen. A total of 1500 sorties, 11000 flying hours, and 70 million pounds of fuel transferred aircraft from more than ten countries was accomplished by this all-volunteer force. Initially, the operation for the no-fly zone was called Operation Odyssey Dawn. As it transitioned to a full-fledged, NATO-led effort, it became Operation Unified Protector. OUP officially ended Oct. 31, 2011.
We have done more than just these operational missions; while all of these operations and assignments have been going on, we have also been steadfastly preparing for and excelling at numerous inspections at the same time; not to mention our normal day-to-day operations. Our members are knowledgeable, professional and capable of the tasks that lie ahead.
Air National Guard: A Short Story
The Air National Guard as we know it today -- a separate reserve component of the United States Air Force -- was a product of the politics of postwar planning and interservice rivalry during World War II. The men who planned and maneuvered for an independent postwar Air Force during World War II didn't place much faith in the reserves, especially the state-dominated National Guard.