TOP STORY >>Historic squadron deactivated
Leader staff writer
Little Rock Air Force Base’s 53rd Airlift Squadron is preparing to stand-down as a training squadron and will be reactivated next year as an operations squadron.
The Blackjacks, part of the base’s Air Education and Training Command (AETC) under the 314th Operations Group, will deactivate in January when the squadron closes.
As directed by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), they will be reborn in the spring as the newest member of the 463rd Airlift Group, performing worldwide airlift missions and direct support to war fighters.
“After Jan. 11 this chapter of the Blackjacks’ epic saga comes to a close,” squadron commander Lt. Col. Tom Gilster said.
“The 53rd AS will officially furl its flag under Air Education and Training Command and reconstitute under Air Mobility Command sometime in the spring, giving the Air Force one more active-duty, combat-ready, tactical airlift squadron.”
As a C-130E formal training unit, the 53rd has trained combat airlifters in the finer arts of C-130 tactical employment since October 1993.
“Through our proud AETC history, more than 7,387 student warriors from the U.S. Air Force, our four sister services and 31 partner nations have passed through our doors,” Gilster said. “Second-to-none aviators, maintenance, life support, squadron aviation resource management, administrators and support staff professionals have kept our aircraft aloft for more than 121,000 flying hours,” he said.
Once a full house operating 20 C-130Es, the squadron’s few remaining pilots, co-pilots, flight engineers and loadmasters continue to produce qualified Department of Defense and international C-130 crew members.
Some Blackjacks have moved to the 62nd AS, the sole remaining C-130E formal training unit (FTU), to continue their role in the FTU mission while others have moved on to other squadrons on base.
Gilster said 13 of the Blackjacks’ flight engineers and loadmasters moved to the 62nd on Oct. 12.
The majority of the squadron’s remaining instructors will also don the 62nd’s Blue Baron patch.
“In fact, this transfer of expertise has been underway since July; squadron leadership decided a phased migration of personnel, training, aircraft and support would be the best course of action,” Gilster said.
For the next month, the 53rd AS will be flying only four training lines a day compared to at least 10 lines, the minimum normally flown.
They will have their final formation flight as an AETC squadron in December just before the base’s Christmas break.
“Though soon an AETC memory, our Blackjack legacy will live on in our graduates, alumni and proud heritage. Under AMC, our Blackjack traditions of integrity, service and excellence will march ever onward, reaching new heights and setting new standards answering our nation’s call,” the commander said. “Under any command, executing any mission, our Blackjack motto will always remain: “Primus cum Plurimi … First with the Most.”
This is the third deactivation in the long history of the 53rd, having last been deactivated in 1993 before moving to LRAFB and absorbing the assets of the inactivated 16th AS, which flew and conducted initial upgrade training in the C-130A and E models.
The 53rd traces its origins to the 53rd Transport Squadron activated in May 1942 at Pope Field, Fort Bragg, N.C. flying brand new C-47 Skytrains. A month later the squadron received a new primary mission of transporting airborne infantry and paratroopers into combat and was redesignated as the 53rd Troop Carrier Squadron.
After “the war to end all wars,” the 53rd was located at Orly Field, France as part of the European Air Transport Service.
In April of 1948 the squadron was transferred to Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany, converted to flying the C-54 Skymaster aircraft, and participated in the Berlin Airlift.
The C-54 was a four-engine transport aircraft used by the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II and was one of the most commonly used long-range transports of the U.S. armed forces during World War II.
At the outbreak of the Korean War, the 53rd was sent on temporary duty to McChord AFB, Wash., to participate in airlift operations to Japan.
They returned to Washington in November 1952, stationed at Larson AFB, flying the C-124 Globemaster.
For the next 14 years, until being deactivated in July of 1966, the 53rd flew the Globemaster all over the world providing needed airlift in support of contingencies and humanitarian aid missions.
From 1972 to 1993, the 53rd flew the C-141 Starlifter at Norton AFB, Calif., with the 63rd Military Airlift Wing.
The C-141 was a military strategic airlifter introduced to replace slower, piston-engined cargo planes such as the C-124 Globemaster II; it was in service for almost 40 years until the Air Force withdrew them from service on May 5, 2006, replacing it with the C-17 Globemaster III.
During Vietnam, 53rd aircrews airlifted hundreds of Vietnamese refugees out of Pleiku, a town in central Vietnam.
The aircrews averaged only 20 minutes on the ground per aircraft between lifts; one crew was credited with carrying 388 refugees on one mission.
The 53rd is credited with flying the first C-141 into Hanoi on March 3, 1973 to pick up returning POWs during Operation Homecoming.
History was made yet again when in April of 1973 a Blackjack crew flew the first USAF aircraft to enter China in more than 30 years when it airlifted passengers and equipment to Peking, China, where the office of the first U.S. representative to the People’s Republic of China was being established.
For the next 10 years Blackjacks deployed all over the world.
In 1982 and 1985, the 53rd was selected as the Military Airlift Command’s Outstanding Strategic Airlift Squadron of the Year.
One crew, on the first C-141’s flight into Hanoi since Operation Homecoming, made national headlines when they airlifted the remains of six servicemen who had been missing in action since the war in Southeast Asia.
In December 1989, they operated six of the 17 C-141s to air drop and six of the seven aircraft to air land U.S. forces into Panama during Operation Just Cause.
While supporting Operation Desert Shield, the Blackjacks launched the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade from El Toro, Calif., and flew F-117 support missions from Tonopah, NV.
When Desert Shield escalated to Operation Desert Storm, the 53rd airlifted the first shipment of patriot missiles to Tel Aviv, Israel to aid in their protection from impending SCUD attacks.
The end of the Gulf War marked the beginning of a long line of humanitarian relief missions performed by the Blackjacks.
In April 1993, as the Air Force began its force-wide reorganization, the squadron was deactivated at Norton AFB, and in October 1993 was reactivated at Little Rock flying the C-130 Hercules, changing their mission from worldwide deployment to training all Air Force, DOD and selected foreign national personnel in the operation of the C-130.