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Keith Corliss, Published April 13 2013

Letter: Times change for 119th

Lt. Col. Scott Lysford (“Poacher”) shared his opinion (Forum, March 31) regarding mission and equipment changes that have taken place the past few years at the 119th Wing (“Happy Hooligans”) in Fargo. He fingers Gen. Mike Haugen as the individual responsible for bringing about the loss of the flying mission, saying Haugen “spelled the doom for future generations of Hooligans flying aircraft in the North Dakota Air National Guard.”

I, too, spent time with the Happy Hooligans – some 16 years; some of those years flying support aircraft. And I, like Lysford, have an opinion albeit a different one.

First, it is a simple exercise to pick a winner after all the horses have finished the race. After all the chips have fallen, Lysford looks in the rear-view mirror and takes aim at Haugen’s failed effort to procure F-15 Eagles in lieu of accepting F-16Cs from the Department of Defense. Such an easy target.

The folks who run the show at the 119th are pilots and have been since its inception in the 1950s. Every wing commander and fighter squadron commander has been a pilot, as well as most meaningful leadership positions. Some go so far as to refer to this as the “fighter mafia.” Fair enough; they bring expertise to the table, therefore they should be leading. But realize that when a sea-change takes place in a unit that removes pilots from actual aircraft, there is serious cheese being moved.

The economic impact upon Greater Fargo-Moorhead, as near as anyone can determine, will be virtually unchanged once the C-21s are gone this fall. That is, overall payroll dollars that flow to members of the 119th Wing, then trickle into our community will continue to represent a huge shot in the arm for the local economy.

Additionally, the mission for virtually the entire life of the unit up until recently had been air defense. This was a vital role played by our pilots in defense of the nation, but one that was born in the Cold War and so had lost most of its meaning in the current age. The idea of Soviet bombers coming over the North Pole and launching cruise missiles in an all-out nuclear scenario is not considered as plausible as it once was. Yet that is exactly what we in the 119th were here to defend against over all those decades. We did it well.

During that time, however, we were never tasked to fire a shot in anger or drop munitions on bad guys. We were essentially a star relief pitcher sitting in the bullpen waiting for our moment to enter the game. We never did. In the grand scheme of things, the 178th Fighter Squadron could nearly be considered a glorified flying club, never truly getting hands dirty, never getting into the fight.

Enter the era of the RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) mission and the 178th Reconnaissance Squadron with their MQ-1 Predators. A plausible argument could be made that, yet again, the Hooligans are carrying out the mission without getting messy. True enough. But one cannot dispute that the men and women of the 119th Wing have never been more relevant, more important, more forward-looking, or their skills more in demand by national command authorities and, especially, soldiers, airmen and sailors fighting wars on the ground overseas. We just don’t hear about it.

Machiavelli wrote, “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.” We still have an active, vibrant and talented group of individuals in the 119th Wing. They are quietly taking the fight to the enemy every hour of every day.

Haugen may have swung and missed at bringing the F-15 Eagles to our ramp, but he can hang his hat on the fact that the Hooligans are here for the long haul thanks to a mission that should take it far into the future of aerial warfare, and provide jobs for qualified men and women for decades.

A new age, a new technology, a new way to fight. It’s a paradigm shift for those longing for the way things used to be, but the new eager warriors are on the leading edge of it all. Changing with the times, indeed.

Corliss retired from the Happy Hooligans in 2006. He is the Forum Communication Co.’s pilot and a member of The Forum Editorial Board. He writes an outdoors column in the West Fargo Pioneer.