Arizona's Grand Canyon Guards by GRAHAM ROBSON
In this age of decreased world-wide tensions and ever shrinking defence budgets most major air forces are having to 'cut their cloth' accordingly and reduce numbers to a more financially manageable level. The mighty US Air Force is no exception and changes here have seen quite dramatic alterations in the roles and equipment of many units. Throughout, the Air National Guard has remained a vital component of the modern day United States Air Force and has adapted to the increasing duties and more varied tasks now asked of it. Operating to support the active-duty USAF, the 1990s Air National Guardsmen are every bit as well equipped as their front line colleagues and, having shown to the world their real worth during Desert Shield and later Desert Storm, are now an integral part of the 'post Gulf War' policing situation within the Gulf region.
The USAF Air National Guard has a proud history dating back to the very earliest days of flight and most units possess a rich lineage of combat and honours. To many in this country, however, the force is recognised more for its periodic deployments of fighter aircraft to Europe or, more commonly, the presence of their immaculately turned out KC-135 Stratotankers on regular TDY at Mildenhall. The Copperheads, Arizona Air National Guard's 161st Air Refuelling Wing, are presently one of nineteen ANG units operating the ubiquitous tanker.
Like many of their fellow units, the Copperheads started out in the fighter business. The unit's flying component, presently the 197th Air Refuelling Squadron, came into being on 12 December, 1946 as the 197th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS). A re-designation of the wartime 412th Fighter Squadron which had seen combat in Europe during 1944 and '45 operating P-47Ds, it became the first unit of the newly formed Arizona ANG. The Copperheads name derived from a 1947 state wide contest to find a 'nickname' for Arizona's new unit and the winning entrant, 18 year-old art student Dave Manning from Arizona State College, received a course of free introductory flying lessons. In later years, as Lieutenant Colonel David Manning, eventually became the unit's Commanding Officer. Originally equipped with the F-51D Mustang, the squadron soon transitioned onto jets when, in late 1950, it began operating Republic F-84Bs at Luke Field.
Called to active duty on February 1, 1951 as part of the Korean War the squadron remained at Luke, however, where it served as the training unit for F-84 squadrons deploying to the war zone. Almost two years later, in November 1952, the 197th was returned to state control and re-organised at Phoenix-Sky Harbor airport, their present home, where they briefly returned to the Mustang before acquiring the new 'combat tested' F-86A Sabre to take up air-defence duties for the south-western borders of the USA. In early 1960 the Air Force selected the Copperheads as one of three ANG units to re-equip with the F-104A Starfighter and were expanded to group status, thus becoming the 161st Fighter Group (FG) and were called to active duty once again when, in November 1961, they deployed 22 F-104s to Germany and flew daily patrols along the recently drawn 'iron curtain' from their base at Ramstein.
With world tensions easing so came another change of role for the Copperheads, trading in their jets for Boeing C-97 Stratofreighters, the unit was re-designated the 161st Air Transport Group (ATG) with resultant Squadron level change to the 197th Air Transport Squadron (ATS) on October 1, 1962, coming under control of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) command. As part of the world-wide MATS service, the 'Strats' roamed far and wide and were eventually drawn into yet another theatre of war, to operate passenger airlift missions from and to combat bases in Vietnam and Thailand between March 1966 and September '67. Yet another designation change followed in August 1968 when they became the 161st Aeromedical Airlift Group/197th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, whilst continuing to fly the C-97, their new duties involved aeromedical evacuation from overseas bases to hospitals in the US. This role continued until August 1972 when the unit's present task came about, taking the title 161st Air Refuelling Group (ARG)/197th Air Refuelling Squadron (AFRES) and placed under the control of Tactical Air Command, they exchanged their cargo configured C-97s for the jet augmented refuelling version, the KC-97L. For the next six years the unit operated their tanker 'Strats' in support of USAF units throughout the western United States as well as moving operations four times each year to Germany as part of the regular ANG 'Creek Party' deployments, flying re-fuelling missions for both US and NATO aircraft from their temporary base at Rhein-Main AB. The 197th finally re-joined the jet world in October 1977 when they began replacing their ageing KC-97Ls for the faster, though almost as elderly, KC-135A Stratotankers and later becoming the first unit to receive the new 'E' model, in July of 1982. This variant was fitted with more 'environmentally-friendly' TF-33 fan engines, taken from former commercial Boeing 707s, as part of a conversion programme instigated specifically for the ANG, due to most Guard KC-135 units being home based at civilian airports and therefore subject to more stringent noise regulations.
Over the years the 197th have been at the fore-front of ANG tanker unit awards and developments, including the awarding of the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award five times, Citations for combat airlift missions to South East Asia for the years 1966-7 and outstanding unit awards for air refuelling missions in Europe on three occasions. Most coveted, however, came from the National Guard Association, who's prestigious Spaatz Trophy, given to the nation's outstanding flying unit, was awarded to the Copperheads in both 1976 and '77. 'Firsts' for the unit have also included development of the concept of low-altitude air refuelling for the Air Force, when during May 1987, in co-operation with sister unit the 162nd TFG at Tucson, four missions with A-7D and F-16As were flown as low as 1,000'. The first woman in the ANG to be selected for pilot training, Lt. Marilyn Koon, served with the 197th and the unit also made history on June 28, 1984, when "Copper 6" became the first tanker to fly on a refuelling mission with an all female crew.
In more recent times the Copperheads have taken their turn to extend the boundaries of ANG operation with regular overseas deployments. During operation Desert Shield they were amongst the first tanker units to be called up for duty in the Gulf, where they remained throughout the hostilities operating from bases in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates as well as Moron AB in Spain. For the duration of the war, tankers bound for the Gulf departed Phoenix on a weekly schedule with maintenance and support personnel from all trades within the unit, for periods of duty up to 45 days or more. During this time many of the aircraft acquired suitable and distinctive nose art, in keeping with their forebears from earlier conflicts, their mission 'tallies' were worn with pride and remained long after the unit returned to more peaceful surroundings. In 1999 approximately 300 Guardmembers, both aircrew and support personnel, and six aircraft from the 161st Air Refueling Wing were activated for deployment in response to the Kosovo situation.
The unit's aircraft are still regularly deployed overseas, though without the danger of conflict, as since early 1993 the Air National Guard has been tasked with the air refuelling support of the NATO AEW E-3 Sentry force at their Geilenkirchen base in Germany. This duty sees multiple aircraft detachments on a 'rolling rotation' deployment at the German base for periods of up to six weeks at a time, the Copperheads taking their turn with all the other ANG tanker squadrons. Major changes implemented within the USAF in the post Gulf-War era have also seen the duties of the KC-135 expanded to include troop transport and intra-theatre support in addition to its more traditional air-refuelling tasking. Consequently, Air National Guard KC-135E's now regularly rub shoulders with the more conventional airlifters of the Air Force, the C-130, C-141 and C-5 at air bases throughout the world.
That said, the principal role for the Arizona Air National Guard's 197th remains that of air-refuelling and its eleven aircraft are routinely tasked to provide Air-to-Air refuelling (AAR) support for the numerous F-16 units operating from nearby Luke AFB. As the major F-16 training base in the US, with well over 200 examples in residence, the locally based tankers' services are naturally in great demand, with most missions incorporating an element of AAR training involving aircraft from Luke. Indeed, F-16s provide the majority of work for the tankers with aircraft from Tucson based 162nd Fighter Wing, Colorado ANG's 140th FW and the 150th FW New Mexico ANG regularly acting as 'receivers', and though probably the most numerous type encountered by 197th 'boomers', the unit regularly exercises with one of the Air Force's most interesting.
Being the only refuelling unit in the south-western USA between Texas and California, the Copperheads are frequently called upon by the 49th FW at Holloman AFB to provide tanker support for their F-117A Night Hawks, who's routine operations area closely coincides with that of the KC-135s. Re-fuelling tracks on the Arizona/New Mexico border are used to receive the 'black jets' as part of their routine training missions, where air-refuelling is regularly practised as a very important necessity. With a significantly shorter un-refuelled range than other combat types in the Air Force inventory, the need to be proficient in the exacting skills of receiving fuel in-flight, often in radio silence, both day and night, is vitally important to the F-117 pilots. The combination of F-117A and KC-135E provides a perfect illustration of the very professional co-operation between active duty and Guardsmen in the modern day US Air Force, as well as an interesting comparison of the extremes of aircraft age and technology presently operating within the USAF.
8 April 2000 was a big day for the 161st Air Refueling Wing. After nine years of planning, the Wing finally moved into its new home on the other side of the airport. With the growing population in the Phoenix area, Sky Harbor Airport has moved up to the fifth busiest airport in the country. To ease the traffic that this increase has caused, the guard base was moved to create another runway.