NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — As Airmen gear up for the start of Red Flag 13-3, they arrive at the 414th Combat Training Squadron Red Flag building here and shuffle into the main auditorium for a commander’s briefing about their involvement in the three-week exercise.
They are stopped dead in their tracks upon entering the mass briefing hall their eyes wide and their jaws dropped.
One Airman utters “Wow, now that’s a history lesson.”
What the Airmen see is an array of plaques and framed photos from units that have participated in previous Red Flag exercises. The commemorations cover a majority of the auditorium’s walls from the ceiling down to the floor.
As the historical Red Flag exercise hits the 38-year anniversary, it’s safe to say most everyone in and around a military community is familiar with the story — fast planes, pilots and high performance aircraft engaging in different combat training roles, explained a local Nellis, Nev., resident.
For those who don’t know about Red Flag, it was developed to help the U.S. Air Force “train like they fight.” It’s a simulated combat training exercise that pulls in multiple air force assets from all four U.S. military services from around the globe and allies of the United States.
The exercise is conducted over the Nevada Test and Training Range and is managed by the Air Warfare Center through the 414th Combat Training Squadron.
But what are some of the untold stories?
For the 79th Fighter Squadron “Tigers” from Shaw AFB, S.C., the writing for one of their untold Red Flag stories is on the wall.
It is here you can find a piece of the “Tigers’” story, and their preserved spot in Red Flag history.
“I took it upon myself to take on this project,” said Fred Whitehead, 414th CTS database management. “I’ve touched every plaque on this wall at one point or another.”
“What I’ve done is taken the plaques and photos given to us by units that have participated in Red Flag, organized them and hung them up for all to see.”
Whitehead, who served in the U.S. Air Force for 26 years as an F-111 Aardvark crew chief and retired as a master sergeant, explained how the tradition of passing on what would become historical relics came to be.
“This is literally a display of 30-plus years of history we have managed to preserve,” the retired master sergeant said. “It’s taken five years of sorting and organizing to reach this point.”
While giving mementos wasn’t popular when Red Flag first started back in the mid-1970s, the idea of leaving something to the unit that makes Red Flag happen began to evolve over time.
“After each Red Flag exercise, some of the commanders from the units that participated presented the Red Flag staff with some sort of memento ranging from unit patches, squadron photos and plaques,” the retired crew chief continued.
Among these mementos are 79th FS plaques dating back to the early 1990s. The plaques, which are shaped like the tail of an F-16 Fighting Falcon and painted gray with a tiger stripe across the top, display quotes from the commander of the unit at the time.
One plaque reads, “Magnum rifle fox three, bombs away. See ya! Thanks, from the 79th FS Tigers.”
It’s plaques with special sayings that mark time and reserve a unit’s spot in history, Whitehead explained.
As Whitehead began talking about a few of the individual units displayed on the auditorium walls, the importance of maintaining such history became increasingly clear.
“A good percentage of these units have been deactivated,” Whitehead said. “Not to mention, the amount of aircraft displayed here that have since been retired and replaced with newer air frames.”
As the former crew chief squinted his eyes to read quotes from the different plaques, he stumbled across an old photo of himself in front of an F-111 Aardvark, “Ah hey,” Whitehead said. “That’s me a good while ago.”
It was at this moment the dedication to the mission of preserving history that Whitehead had taken on was validated.
As Airmen made their way out of the auditorium one Airman expressed his thoughts on the array of mementos displayed on the auditorium walls.
“I was really impressed with all the different types of plaques and photos from each unit as I made my way into the briefing hall,” said Senior Airman Mike Green, 20th Logistics Readiness Squadron. “It’s pretty cool knowing the ‘Tigers’ are amongst those who are featured on the wall.”
While members of the 79th FS move forward with mission planning in anticipation of the official kickoff of Red Flag 13-3 Feb. 25, they do so knowing they not only have a spot on the auditorium wall but also a reserved place in history.