Commentary by Randy Saunders
50th Space Wing historian
The 50th Space Wing celebrates its 60th anniversary June 1. In its six decades of service to the United States, the 50th has distinguished itself on many occasions, and continues to demonstrate that “excellence is a journey, not a destination.”
The 50th Space Wing first activated in the Air Force Reserve on June 1, 1949, as the 50th Fighter Wing. At the time of its activation, the wing received a temporary bestowal of the honors earned by the 50th Fighter Group (now the 50th Operations Group) during World War II. Attached to the 33rd Fighter Wing as an associate unit and stationed at Otis AFB, Mass., the 50th Fighter Wing conducted crew training and participated in various exercises in the North Atlantic region, operating the F-51, F-86 and T-6 aircraft. Headquarters, U.S. Air Force ordered the wing to active service on June 1, 1951. However, the wing didn’t deploy to augment combat forces in Korea. Instead, on June 2, 1951, Air Force Headquarters inactivated the 50th Fighter Wing.
Tactical Air Command next activated the wing as the 50th Fighter-Bomber Wing on Jan. 1, 1953. Stationed at Clovis AFB, N.M., for initial air crew training, the crews of the 50th Fighter-Bomber Group again trained in the F-51 aircraft. By July 1953, the wing had completed its training requirements. In response to increasing concerns about the Soviet military buildup in Eastern Europe, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force ordered the movement of the 50th Fighter-Bomber Wing to Hahn Air Base, Germany. Quickly converting to the F-86, aircrews, maintenance teams, and support personnel prepared for shipment overseas. The wing arrived at Hahn Aug. 10, 1953, and immediately set about to complete construction of the installation. With the exception of a three-year tour at Toul-Rosieres Air Base, France, the wing served as the host unit at Hahn AB for the next 38 years.
During that period, the wing underwent many changes. As technology advanced, the 50th converted its older aircraft for newer designs. From the F-86, the wing’s crews converted to the F-100, the F-104 and the F-4. The wing’s air crews also flew, for brief periods of time, the F-102 and the F-106. The 50th FBW’s inventory even included the Matador missile for a brief time. In 1981, the 50th Tactical Fighter Wing began United States Air Forces in Europe’s conversion to the F-16 “Fighting Falcon.” Chosen to field test the aircraft a few years earlier, U.S. Air Forces in Europe named the 50th TFW to be the first unit in its command to receive the advanced fighter.
While at Hahn, the wing earned a large number of unit and individual awards and special honors, including seven Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards from 1970 through 1991. Maintenance and supply organizations each won the Air Force Daedalian Award, at least once, and the maintenance community also earned the Department of Defense Phoenix Award. Over the years, the wing’s air crews and maintenance teams were routinely named the best at command and Air Force combat competitions. Air crews won the overall competition at GUNSMOKE ‘83, the first year the 50th TFW had competed in much the same way they had won competitions at gunnery ranges in Libya years earlier.
Changes in the threats to the United States and its Western European allies in the late 1980s, which were characterized by the declining influence of the Soviet Bloc, ultimately led to dramatic changes in the composition of USAFE and the inactivation of the 50th TFW. Still, the 50th survived draw downs long enough to give a final demonstration of its capabilities.
Crews of the wing’s 10th Tactical Fighter Squadron arrived in the United Arab Emirates Jan. 1, 1991, to fill out the combat strength of the USAF wing deployed there in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. When Desert Shield became Desert Storm in the early morning hours of Jan. 17, 1991, the wing’s air crews were prepared and began taking the offensive to Baghdad, Iraq. Although the offensive phase of Desert Storm was very short in historical perspective, the wing’s air crews flew thousands of missions and delivered thousands of tons of ordnance against communications and command centers, scud missile sites and Iraqi Republican Guard positions in only six weeks. Maintenance and weapons teams were crucial to the crews’ ability to comply with mission requirements by keeping the jets and their weapons systems in mission ready status.
Following the war, the wing’s personnel returned to Hahn to find the base preparing for inactivation. The 50th TFW inactivated for the second time Sept. 30, 1991. The wing’s period of rest, however, didn’t last long. Air Force Space Command ordered the activation of the 50th TFW as the 50th Space Wing at Falcon AFB, effective Jan. 30, 1992. The 50th absorbed the personnel, functions and facilities of the 2nd Space Wing which inactivated on that date. Since that time, the wing’s functions have continued to expand.
In 17 years of service at Schriever AFB, the 50th SW has gone from flying the Air Force’s most advanced fighters to flying the most advanced satellite systems of the time. The Global Positioning System achieved full operational capability under the 50th Space Wing, as did the Milstar system. With responsibility for two installations in addition to Schriever AFB, the 50th supports squadrons, detachments, and operating locations around the world. These forces comprise the Air Force Satellite Control Network and are responsible for supporting more than 170 Department of Defense satellites.
From the F-51 to the Wideband Global SATCOM, the 50th has earned a place among the distinguished wings of the Air Force. Its countless achievements are reflected in the many streamers and awards decorating the wing flag. Most recently the wing earned distinction as the best wing and best space wing in Air Force Space Command. This achievement highlights the excellence and professionalism of the wing’s most important system – its people.
Happy birthday 50th Space Wing!