Leader Blues

Saturday, January 12, 2008

TOP STORY >> Blackjacks stand down

By RAY BENTON
Leader managing editor

The end of 14 years of Arkansas military history took place Friday afternoon at Little Rock Air Force Base when the 53rd Airlift Squadron was officially inactivated during ceremonies in which Lt. Col. Thomas Gilster relinquished command of his squadron — known as the Blackjacks — that had been based to LRAFB since Oct. 1, 1993.

Since that time, the 53rd has operated as an Air Education and Training Command C-130 training squadron under the 314th Operations Group. In four months, it will be reactivated as 463rd Airlift Group, an Air Mobility Command operational C-130 airlift squadron based at LRAFB, providing direct support to war fighters.

Some Blackjacks have already transferred to the 62nd AS, the only remaining C-130E formal training unit, and will continue their training mission there.

Presiding over Friday’s ceremony was Col. Rudolph Byrne, who cited military efficiency, cuts and assignments as the main reasons for the inactivation.

Gilster, who will soon transfer to Stuttgart, Germany, praised those under his command.

“I have never been with a more dedicated and integrated group of commanders,” Gilster said just before giving up command of the 53rd. “You are all absolutely awesome.”

Afterwards, Gilster spoke in more detail about those he mentioned in his speech.

“The makeup of this squadron comes from all over the Air Force throughout the country,” Gilster said. “It’s been amazing how much those different styles and techniques have come together for one mission and been so successful.”

The men and women who have made up the 53 Airlift squadron, have successful since being posted at LRAFB.

The squadron has trained nearly 7,400 military men and women under the squadron, logging 121,000 flying hours. It has participated in every major operation, contingency and relief effort over the past 14 years, and has maintained a 98-percent on-time graduation rate of trainees.

Gilster again credits the supervisors and commanders for that success.

“They’re absolutely fantastic,” Gilster said. “The skill sets and maturity of the supervisors was excellent for the airmen who arrived here ready to train.”

That mission grew more difficult with manpower decreasing since July when the inactivation process actually began.

“The last six months has especially shown the dedication of this squadron,” Gilster said. “The manning has been cut, and those left were willing to put in the longer days and more flying hours to maintain that 98-percent on-time graduation rate.”

The 53rd Airlift Squadron was first activated on June 1, 1942 and has been stationed at 20 different sites in eight different countries. During its long history it has received three Distinguished Unit Citations, nine Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards and was the Military Aircraft Command Outstanding Strategic Airlift Squadron of the Year in 1982 and 1985.