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Published August 26 2013

'Happy Hooligans' flying mission to end after 66 years

FARGO - Nearly 60 years ago, Alexander Macdonald returned to Fargo after a tour of duty during the Korean War and piloted the P-51 Mustang, the first fighter plane to fly under the umbrella of the newly formed North Dakota Air National Guard.

Today, he’ll watch with sadness as the lone airplane remaining at the 119th Wing’s Fargo base takes off and disappears into the midday sky, leaving the “Happy Hooligans” without a manned flying mission for the first time in their distinguished 66-year history.

“It just almost seems incomprehensible that it could happen,” said Macdonald, who went on to fly more than 10,000 hours in the unit’s various fighters over the years.

“Taking the best unit in the Air National Guard and saying, ‘No, you can’t fly airplanes anymore,’ is like taking Muhammad Ali after his first win and saying, ‘No ,you can’t fight anymore,’ ” he said.

Since February 1947, a month after the Air National Guard was established in North Dakota, the Happy Hooligans have always had an active flying mission.

Today, North Dakota becomes the only state in the nation without a manned Air Guard flying mission.

Officials will mark the milestone this morning during a news conference. Then, at 11:30 a.m., Col. Kent Olson, who commands the North Dakota Air Guard, and his vice commander, Col. Brad Derrig, will pilot the C-21A Learjet off the Fargo base and point its nose toward Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

There, the Learjet – the oldest of its kind in the country – will be accepted Wednesday as the first C-21A in the National Museum of the Air Force.

Olson, Macdonald and Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota’s adjutant general, all said Monday they remain hopeful the base will eventually land another manned flying mission.

“Is there anything in the near term? There doesn’t appear to be,” Sprynczynatyk said. “But we’re going to continue to look at the future. We’re going to continue to look at every opportunity.”

In the meantime, the unit’s roughly 1,000 airmen will continue their current mission of flying Predator drones and start prepping for their new mission as an intelligence targeting group.

“They’re a unit with a proud heritage and have done well over the last 66 years, and we’re going to continue to demonstrate that no matter what the mission is, they’ll do well,” Sprynczynatyk. “But we look forward to the day when we might once again have another manned flying mission.”

Aircraft evolve

Like other Air National Guard units that formed from 1947 to 1949, the Fargo-based wing descended from a deactivated World War II flying unit – the 392nd Fighter Squadron, one of three squadrons in the 367th Fighter Group known as “The Dynamite Gang,” according to the Happy Hooligans’ official history.

The group’s top ace was Capt. Larry “Scrapper” Blumer from Kindred, N.D., dubbed the “Fastest Ace in the West” after he downed five German fighter planes in 15 minutes on Aug. 25, 1944.

The North Dakota Air National Guard’s 178th Fighter Squadron formed in 1947 and flew the P-51 Mustang until 1954. The unit was activated in April 1951 for the Korean War, first serving in a bomber escort role out of Georgia and then in air-to-ground and air-to-air roles out of California.

Having left Fargo as the 178th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, the unit returned in January 1953 and was given an air defense mission, becoming the 178th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.

Macdonald returned from his tour in 1954 and flew the P-51 a couple of times before the unit upgraded to jet technology with the F-94, which it flew until 1958.

The larger F-89 Scorpion, flown from 1958 to 1966, carried air-intercept rockets tipped with a small nuclear warhead for bringing down enemy bombers.

“We kept them out here, and we had pretty heavy security on them, and people were instructed not to talk about them,” Macdonald said about the nuclear warheads. “But I imagine there were people that knew they were out there.”

Awards pile up

Over the next 41 years, the unit that would become the 119th Wing flew four different fighters: the F-102 Delta Dagger, its first supersonic jet, from 1966 to 1969; the F-101 Voodoo, equipped with missiles and nuclear rockets, from 1969 to 1977; the F-4 Phantom from 1977 to 1990; and the F-16 Fighting Falcon from 1990 to 2007.

While flying the two-seater Voodoo in 1970, the Hooligans won their first William Tell Meet, a fighter aircraft competition conducted by the Air Force every other year. The Hooligans captured the title twice more, in 1972 and 1994, and would have won it in 1974 if not for a radio failure, Macdonald said.

The wins were “very, very important,” he said, because they proved the Air Guard pilots and crews were every bit as skilled and well-trained as active-duty airmen.

“Those things had tremendous impact on the system, but unfortunately the system has no corporate memory,” said Macdonald, a retired major general who served as adjutant general from 1984 to 1993.

The Happy Hooligans gained national recognition in 2001 when F-16s from its alert site at Langley (Va.) Air Force Base responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, providing the first damage assessment of the Pentagon. Derrig was among the pilots on that mission.

In 2007, the unit officially retired the F-16A after 60 years of fighter plane missions.

Olson, who flew the F-16A, said that contrary to what some people believe, the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission wasn’t responsible for the 119th Wing losing its fighter mission. In fact, the F-16A was already programmed for retirement. The wing was supposed to receive the C-27J Spartan as a replacement mission, but the transport plane hadn’t been built yet, so the Happy Hooligans received the eight Learjets as a “bridge” mission until late 2012 or early 2013.

But the Air Force informed North Dakota’s congressional delegation in March that it was sticking to its plans to scrap the Spartan, a decision Olson said was “very disappointing” for the Happy Hooligans, who hoped the new airplane would secure a manned flying mission for years to come.

The Learjet mission saw the Happy Hooligans deploy to Qatar in the summer of 2009, providing support for operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom by flying officers and other personnel to and from Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas without missing a takeoff. The Hooligans’ 117th Airlift Squadron received the Joint Operational Support Airlift Center Squadron of the Year award that year.

With the departure of the last C-21 Learjet, the Happy Hooligans end their manned flying missions with more than 175,340 flying hours without a Class A mishap and 15 Outstanding Unit Awards from the Air Force, the latest received last year.

“It’s going to be very sad, you know. I’ve flown here for 25 years,” said Olson, a Fargo native who enlisted in the Guard at age 17. “It’s OK for pilots to retire, but when whole units retire airplanes, that’s a whole different thing. It’s going to be tough for a lot of people.”

The wing wouldn’t have racked up all of its awards without the dedication and expertise of all of its members, from mechanics to supply, Macdonald said.

“Everybody kicked in and worked their cans off to make sure that we were the finest unit in the Air Force, and too often we don’t give them credit,” he said. “We tend to look at the airplanes and the air crews and forget about all the other things, the armament guys, guys who got the airplanes ready when it was 20 below zero out there with the wind blowing.”

Looking ahead

The 119th Wing is assigned 1,082 personnel, and that number isn’t expected to drop with the new mission, Olson said.

However, the wing’s pilots, aircraft mechanics and other support personnel will face a dramatic change in roles in their new intelligence mission, which will at least partly involve analyzing imagery.

The Air Force requires certain skills for the new career fields, and some airmen may not qualify, Olson said. He said the hope is that those who want to pursue the new jobs will leave enough vacancies for those who are unable or don’t wish to do so. Guard officials also hope the transition period is long enough for attrition to ease some of the pressure.

“It’s not an easy thing whatsoever,” Olson said.

Sprynczynatyk said some airmen will be away for more than a year training for the new mission, which he said is “very pertinent” to the Air Force’s overall mission today.

The 119th Wing’s new mission also means the end of its fire department, which has provided fire protection for Hector International Airport since the 1970s. Currently, the Municipal Airport Authority contracts with the Guard for eight firefighters, and airport Executive Director Shawn Dobberstein said he doesn’t expect that to change.

What’s less certain is whether the airport will be able to use the 119th Wing’s new fire station and equipment, Dobberstein said. Airport officials hope the equipment can be transferred to the airport or that equipment can be purchased through a military surplus program, he said.

“If we have to order equipment, it’s going to take about a year to get new equipment … and that’s a real dilemma for us,” he said, estimating the budget for buying fire trucks at about $2 million.

Airport officials still don’t know the exact transition date, though it will likely be sometime next spring, Dobberstein said.

“For us, the longer it takes, the better,” he said. “Until we get a lot of questions answered, we’re all kind of in a wait-and-see mode.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528