Those who peered upward Saturday morning to see five tanker jets swoop over Spokane witnessed a chunk of history. The one-time formation flight for these KC-135s was actually a slightly nostalgic farewell to the airplanes of one of the nation’s oldest air guard units.
The 83-year-old Washington Air National Guard unit, known for its dagger-stabbed ace of spades insignia, is losing its planes. The 141st Air Refueling Wing’s nine KC-135s will slowly be reassigned to Sioux City, Iowa, starting this week with the transfer expected to be complete by the end of summer. The move is a result of the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Law. The 141st will share aircraft with the 92nd active duty unit at Fairchild Air Force Base.
“It’s an esprit de corps moment,” said Col. Gregory Bulkley, the wing commander who has flown these “gas stations in the sky” for 21 years. “It’s the first time we won’t have aircraft to fly.”
But he said all National Guard workers will remain employed, still receive comparable flight time and easily transition to the active duty unit’s 30 KC-135s. “Our mission won’t change, we will just have to figure out a new construct,” he said, looking up at the Ace of Spaces logo that distinguishes the planes’ hangars and touching a similar badge on his right arm.
The refueling planes were some of the first in the air after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990; they flew into wildfires and most recently traveled to Guam – trips that could become more difficult to coordinate. The 141st unit works for the state and reports to the governor, unlike the 92nd unit, which is under Pentagon control and receives federal rather than state funding.
Bulkley admitted officials aren’t certain how to handle availability or scheduling issues that might arise. “That’s where the nuances fit in, but we need to make sure we work under the same framework,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s a shame to the U.S.”
For some in the 900-member unit who baby their planes like 1957 Chevys, Saturday’s formation flight had more to do with emotional attachment than legal concerns.
“You know your airplane like you know your car,” said Senior Master Sgt. Paul Beuter, pointing out the plane he used to repair as it lined up for the farewell flight. “To lose them is very disappointing. To share them, it’s just like lending your car to someone.”
The crew’s close connection to the aircraft has much to do with the unit’s significant history. The 141st started out in 1924 as the 116th Air Observation Squadron when Spokane trumped Seattle and Tacoma to obtain the region’s air guard unit. The town raised the necessary $10,000 requested by the visiting state’s adjutant general before he even left town. The 116th was the first Washington Guard unit reactivated after World War II. It was sent to the Korean War and also to England to bolster NATO forces in Europe. It jumped from Felts to Geiger Airfield before settling at Fairchild and combining with another squadron to become the 141st Air Refueling Wing in the mid-1970s.
“In the guard you take ownership,” said 141st Maintenance Commander Lt. Col. Hal Westbrook, as he stood in front of a gray KC-135. “Now, we are turning that pride in ownership into pride in workmanship. We feel a good deal of pride in sending the finest planes, and we don’t blame (the Iowa Air National Guard) for this.” These refueling planes will replace expiring ones at the Iowa base.
Westbrook hopes the unit will maintain the same dedication with the shared planes and pass on these skills to the active duty unit. The small group on the runway Saturday grew quiet as the planes roared overhead and began their final descent with booms extended. Operations Group Commander Lt. Col Mark Bahosh nodded his head knowingly. “It’s not the Thunderbirds, but it’s still cool,” he said.
For all the formality of military events, Bulkley drew a slow grin as he walked away from the planes which would never again fly together in Spokane. “I’m proud,” he said. “Extremely proud.”
Staff writer Jim Camden contributed to this report.
Jessica Meyers can be reached at (509) 459-5446 or firstname.lastname@example.org