40 years of combat airpower

40 years of combat airpower

(Editor’s notes: This is the first of a two-part series. Lt. Col. Engberg and Lt. Col. Meyer are the 388th Fighter Wing’s last F-16 squadron commanders.)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — Forty years ago, the United States Air Force announced that the 388th Fighter Wing would be the first unit to transition to the F-16 Fighting Falcon, now more commonly known as the Viper. Thirty-eight years ago, the first operational F-16A took to the skies here and the Viper has been slipping the surly bonds of earth over Utah ever since.

As the 388th Fighter Wing prepares to repeat history with the F-35A Lightning II and before the last combat coded F-16 departs later this year, it is only fitting to pay homage to the men and women here who flew, maintained and supported the venerable Viper. Without their extraordinary professionalism and commitment, the F-16’s incredible combat-proven service record and perennial success of the 388th FW would not have been possible. The Air Force, Team Hill and the 388th FW owe a debt of gratitude for the contributions and sacrifices they made to secure the United States and protect the American way of life.

Reflecting on the Viper’s history in Utah is the best way to recognize and thank those whose innovation and dedication made the F-16 the cornerstone of the United States Air Force’s combat capabilities over the past four decades. This first article of a two-part series will cover initial F-16A delivery through the 388th FW’s involvement in Operation Desert storm. The second article will encompass Operations Northern and Southern Watch through the last deployments by Hill AFB-assigned F-16s to Afghanistan.

The first operational F-16A arrived here Jan. 23, 1979, igniting a service history marked by 40 years of tactical and logistical innovation and nearly constant worldwide deployments in support of training exercises and contingency operations. The 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron received its first F-16A Sept. 23, 1979. By Nov. 18, 1980, all three combat squadrons here—34th TFS, 4th TFS and 421th TFS—were fully equipped with F-16As. Four months after receiving its 24th aircraft, the ‘Fuujins’ of the 4th TFS declared Full Operational Capability (FOC), becoming the Air Force’s first fully combat ready F-16 squadron.

Four months after declaring FOC, the 4th TFS executed the first F-16 deployment, taking a dozen F-16s and 200 maintainers to Flesland Air Station, Norway, for Exercise Cornet Falcon. The men and women of the 4th TFS demonstrated the ability to rabidly deploy the F-16A and began immediate combat sortie generation without significant maintenance issues. The 388th TFW followed Cornet Falcon success by competing in the Royal Air Force Tactical Bombing Competition at Lossiemouth, Scotland. Approximately 18 months after receiving its first combat coded F-16A, the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing team, comprised of seven aircraft, six pilots, six operations support personnel and 70 maintainers, won the overall bombing competition and took home the Sir John Mogg Trophy along with the British Aircraft Corporation and Hunting Tactical Weapons trophies for individual achievement.

The 388th TFW achieved monumental success standing-up F-16 operations in the early 1980s, but also coped with the heartbreak of loss on the road to FOC and beyond. The wing experienced five successful ejections with no significant injuries, until 1981. On Aug. 5 of that year, Capt. J.E. Moats of the 4th TFS was killed when his F-16A crashed on the Utah Test and Training Range during a training exercise. While assigned to the 388th FW, Capt. Michael Chinburg in 1991, 1st Lt. Jorma Huhtala in 2002, and Capt. George Houghton in 2009 also paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country when their F-16s crashed during training missions. Their dedication and sacrifice will never be forgotten.

All three squadrons of the 388th TFW played key roles during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. On Aug. 28, 1990, 26 days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, 24 F-16Cs from the 4th TFS departed Hill AFB for Al Minhad AB in the United Arab Emirates. Two days later, on Aug. 30, they were joined by 24 F-16Cs from the 421th TFS. Both deployments required 16 hours of non-stop flight time and involved 10 in-flight refuelings. By Sept. 1, 4th TFS and 421th TFS, along with 800 other U.S. aircraft and their aircrews, maintainers and support personnel, were in theater and ready for combat and combat support operations. The 34th TFS deployed to Torrejon, Spain, ready to provide attrition reserves.

On the third day of the war in January 1991, 56 of the 388th TFW’s F-16s loaded with two Mark-84 2000-pound bombs each, participated in ‘Package Q,’ the largest mission of the air campaign, to strike targets in Baghdad. Though engaged by heavy surface-to-air defenses, 388th TFW aircraft struck the research center at Tuwaitha, the center of the Iraqi nuclear program, a target it would revisit more than once over the course of the war. In addition to participating in large-scale surface attack missions, the 4th TFS developed ‘Killer Scout’ tactics that increased targeting accuracy and effectiveness during the air campaign’s second and third phases, the attrition of the Republican Guard in southern Iraq. Adapting, and improving upon Vietnam-era tactics, F-16s of the 388th TFW were able to remain over target zones and kill boxes up to eight hours and identified and relayed changes in Iraqi positions in near real-time. The impact was immediate: 4th TFS Killer Scouts and their innovative tactics doubled F-16 battle damage per 24-hour period.

When the dust settled, the 388th TFW flew 4,472 sorties over Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield. Between Jan. 17 and Feb. 28, 1991, the men and women of the 388th TFW generated and flew 3,944 combat sorties in support of Desert Storm with an extraordinary 91.4% Fully Mission Capable rate.

From initial aircraft delivery to exemplary performance as Killer Scouts in Desert Storm, the men and women of the 388th TFW instilled an organizational culture marked by professionalism, precision and innovation. While an Air Force reorganization dropped “Tactical” from unit nomenclature, the innovative culture of the 388th FW’s subordinate fighter squadrons endured. Next week’s article will reflect on the remarkable performance of 388th FW’s operators, operations support personnel and maintainers in the 25 years following Desert Storm.

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