By Randy Saunders
50th Space Wing Historian
As the Air Force prepares to celebrate its 67th anniversary, the 50th Space Wing celebrates its 65th birthday. In its six- plus decades of service to the United States, the 50th has distinguished itself on many occasions, and continues to demonstrate that it is the “Master of Space.”
The wing was originally activated in the Air Force Reserve 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 Air Force Base, Massachusetts, the 50th Fighter Wing conducted crew training and participated in various exercises in the North Atlantic region, operating the F-51, F-84, F-86 and T-6 aircraft. The U.S. Air Force ordered the wing to active service June 1, 1951. However, the wing did not deploy to augment combat forces in Korea. Instead, the Air Force inactivated the 50th Fighter Wing on June 2, 1951.
Tactical Air Command next activated the wing as the 50th Fighter-Bomber Wing on Jan. 1, 1953, for initial air crew training prior to movement to Europe. Stationed at Clovis Air Force Base, New Mexico, the crews of the 50th Fighter-Bomber Group trained in the F-51 and F-86 aircraft. By July 1953, the wing had completed its training requirements. In response to increasing concerns about Soviet military buildups in Eastern Europe, the Air Force ordered the movement of the 50th Fighter-Bomber Wing to Hahn Air Base, Germany. The wing arrived at Hahn on 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 wing converted its older aircraft for newer designs. From the F-86, the wing’s crews converted to the F-100, the F-104 and F-4. The wing’s air crews also flew, for brief periods of time, the F‑102 and the F-106. The 50th Fighter-Bomber Wing’s inventory even included the Matador missile for a brief time. In 1981, the 50th Tactical Fighter Wing began the U.S. Air Forces in Europe’s conversion to the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Chosen to field test the aircraft a few years earlier, USAFE named the 50th Tactical Fighter Wing 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. Through 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 Tactical Fighter Wing had competed in much the same way they had won competitions at gunnery ranges in Libya years earlier with pilots such as Brig. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Yeager and Brig. Gen. Robinson Risner, among others.
Changes in U.S. defense priorities following the fall of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact resulted in a drawdown of U.S. Forces in Europe that included the closure of Hahn Air Base and the inactivation of the 50th TFW. Before those actions could be completed, the 50th was called upon to provide an F-16 squadron to support Operation Desert Shield.
On Jan. 1, 1991, crews of the wing’s 10th Tactical Fighter Squadron arrived in the United Arab Emirates to fill out the combat strength of the Air Force 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 fragged 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. On Sept. 30, 1991, the 50th Tactical Fighter Wing inactivated for the second time. The wing’s period of rest, however, did not last long. Planning for the activation of the 50th was underway before the closure of Hahn AB and the Air Force assigned the wing to Air Force Space Command for activation. Air Force Space Command ordered the activation of the 50th Tactical Fighter Wing as the 50th Space Wing at Falcon Air Force Base, Colorado, effective Jan. 30, 1992. The 50th absorbed the personnel, functions, and facilities of the 2nd Space Wing, which inactivated on the same date. Since that time, the wing’s functions have continued to expand. To support increased operational requirements, the wing activated additional squadrons, such as the 4th Space Operations Squadron April 30, 1992. The wing also activated the 50th Contracting Squadron in 1995 and the 50th Comptroller Squadron in 2003. In 2013, the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron joined the wing.
Today, the 50th Space Wing consists of squadrons and detachments at 14 operating locations around the world. The wing is responsible for the operation of satellites providing positioning, navigation, and timing, weather, communications, and other combat effects. The wing also operates and manages the Air Force Satellite Control Network of communications links that make command and control of more than 150 satellite systems possible.
The 50th Space Wing — 65 years as “Masters of Space.”