The 56th Fighter Wing, one of the most highly decorated aviation units in history, traces its heritage to the 56th Pursuit Group, which first activated on Jan. 15, 1941, at Savannah Air Base, Georgia. Redesignated a fighter group, the unit was equipped with the P-47 Thunderbolt and then reassigned to England. On April 13, 1943, the 56th flew its first combat mission of World War II. During its two-year involvement in the air war in Europe, the group shot down 667 enemy aircraft, more than any other group in the theater. It damaged or destroyed a total of 1,598.5 enemy aircraft. In the process, the 56th lost only 25 pilots in aerial combat while producing 40 fighter aces.
After World War II, the 56th Fighter Group was assigned to Selfridge Field, Michigan. On Aug. 15, 1947, the 56th Fighter Wing was activated with the group as a subordinate unit. The wing’s mission was air defense. The unit wrote another chapter in aviation history when on July 14, 1948, its F-80 Shooting Stars made the first-ever west-to-east crossing of the Atlantic by military jet fighters. That flight was a month after the Soviets set up their blockade of Berlin and put the Soviets on notice that the United States was capable of deploying a large package of modern military aircraft across the Atlantic in minimum time. The wing inactivated Jan. 1, 1964.
The wing reactivated March 16, 1967, as the 56th Air Commando Wing at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. It was redesignated as the 56th Special Operations Wing on Aug. 1, 1968. The 56th trained Laotian and Thai air force personnel, and supported and conducted combat operations against opposing armed enemy forces. It played a major part in trying to win the hearts and minds of the population with its Civic Action Section. It took part in search and rescue, and suppression of enemy defenses missions. As such, it took part in the battles for Khe San and Lima Site 85, as well as the rescue raid on Son Tay prisoner-of-war camp, and the attempt to rescue the crew of the United States merchant container ship SS Mayaguez.
Redesignated on June 30, 1975, and reassigned to MacDill AFB, Florida, the 56th Tactical Fighter Wing conducted combat aircrew training in F-4s and later fighter training in F-16s. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Air Force downsized which removed fighter aircraft from MacDill. The redesignated 56th Fighter Wing remained in the active fighter force and was reassigned to Luke AFB on April 1, 1994, flying F-16s and the F-15E Strike Eagle. A year later the F-15E training mission moved to Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina. The wing received its first F-35 Lightning II on March 10, 2014.
Today, the 56th Fighter Wing, a unit which historically has trained some of the world’s greatest fighter pilots, has evolved to the mission that Luke AFB has been identified with since 1941: “Train the world’s greatest F-35 and F-16 fighter pilots.”