TUCSON, Ariz. — On any given day, F-16 Fighting Falcons zip through the southern Arizona skies – their pilots perfecting their skills – showcasing military readiness thousands of feet above the desert.
It’s a reoccurring scene similar to what an observer might have experienced in 1956 – the birth year of what is now the 162nd Wing – when the F-86A Sabre and the F-100 Super Sabre epitomized air power for Arizona and America.
But today, some of the Fighting Falcons are now manned by student-pilots of allied nations, eager to showcase their abilities under the expert guidance of instructor pilots. The seemingly never-ending demand for global intelligence and surveillance initiatives that only a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) can provide keep the 214th Reconnaissance Group busy. And ten miles to the east, the 162nd Wing keeps a detachment at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, providing support for visiting pilots while fulfilling the traditional “Minuteman” role to state and country by means of an alert detachment.
“While the missions and platforms change over the years, the one constant is the outstanding professionalism and unmatched technical abilities of our subject matter experts,” said Maj. Gen. Michael T. McGuire, the Adjutant General for the Arizona National Guard, adding that his time as the wing’s 11th commander “taught me many of the critical pieces of how we build a great Air Force.”
Rare is it that modern-day organizations can have ties to its past, or even its very beginnings. The 162nd Wing, however, can make that claim as its founding commander, retired Maj. Gen. Donald E. Morris, still calls Tucson home.
Morris was a 31-year-old major based at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz., when he, along with 29 Airmen, made their way south to a dirt field near the Tucson Airport Authority to form the 152nd Interceptor Squadron. He would go on to serve as the unit’s commander for 15 years, later earning his first star as the commanding general for the Arizona National Guard, culminating with high-level positions within the Air Force Southern Command and Europe Command before his retirement in 1983.
In a recent interview, Morris explained his decision to return to the town that embraced his military legacy: “It’s the love of the people who started their military careers at the unit. It’s the camaraderie.”
While military bloodlines are common in the armed forces, the natural stability and security of an Air National Guard wing attracts generations of Old Pueblo “locals.”
“This wing is really our very own family business,” said Airman 1st Class Christian Ferreira, a maintenance planning and scheduling specialist, referring to how he currently serves with his brother, Greg, his sister, Vanessa, his father Joseph and his uncle Daniel.
The more permanent nature of Air National Guard personnel allows for greater knowledge of all things specific to the wing, especially in the maintenance field.
Senior Master Sgt. Shawn Billow, a production superintendent at the 148th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, landed gainful, full-time employment with the wing nearly 30 years ago, describing it as “hitting the jackpot.”
“I was lucky to be on the ground floor when the Fighting Falcons got here. As a group, we learned the technical orders and the job guides associated with the aircraft, getting to know everything unique about its airframe – inside and out,” Billow said. “As we progressed, we were able to pass on a wealth of experience to that next group of young maintainers.”
As 2016 will be a year of recognition and reflection at the wing, its Guard Airmen will proceed forth with a “Fly, Fight and Win” mentality – supporting each other, upholding their oaths, maintaining assets and resources and employing military hardware.
“The Air National Guard in Tucson has always been on the cutting edge of military technology,” said Lt. Col. Brian J. Grasky, commander of the 214th Reconnaissance Group, pointing to how the “MQ-1 Predator is providing new capabilities that truly add value to the fight, just as the F-100 Super Sabre was an impressive offering during the ‘Jet Age.'”
“We understand our heritage, and take great pride in it. Over the past 60 years, Arizona Guardsmen have built the 162nd into the biggest and best Air National Guard fighter and RPA wing in the nation,” said Brig. Gen. Phil Purcell, wing commander for the 162nd Wing. “Our Airmen here are proud to be a part of that legacy, and they are absolutely critical to shaping our future and continued success.”