If you’re turning a wrench on an AC-130U Spooky gunship in Florida or teaching an Afghan pilot to fly in Kandahar, you’re probably too preoccupied conducting the business of the 1st Special Operations Wing (SOW) to notice the significance of a date coming up later this year – Dec.1.
The 1st SOW is one of three combat wings in Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). The wing, the host unit at Hurlburt Field, Fla., with its diversity of special operations aircraft, has earned honors for flying and fighting in America’s engagements around the world – but even airmen with deep roots in the wing may not have noticed that their origins date to Dec. 1, 1932, and their 80th anniversary is upon us.
“We have dedicated people who are fulfilling commitments here and around the world,” said Col. James C. “Jim” Slife, the former MH-53J Enhanced Pave Low III helicopter instructor who commands the 1st SOW. A spokesman for Slife said there are no current plans to commemorate the 1932 activation at Albrook Field in the Panama Canal Zone of the 16th Pursuit Group, which is considered the linear predecessor of the wing. The group flew P-36 Mohawk, P-40 Warhawk and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters during World War II.
The 1st SOW has had a half-dozen names and has been a squadron, a group and a wing at various times in its history. Initially a fighter outfit, it got its modern identity on March 29, 1944, when it was activated in the China Burma India Theater as the 1st Air Commando Group under Col. Philip G. Cochran – the inspiration for a character in the “Terry and the Pirates” comic strip – and Col. John R. Alison.
After a night training accident when a C-47 Skytrain was towing two gliders and four British and three American soldiers were killed, a commander working for Britain’s Col. Orde C. Wingate — the legendary special operator whose name is synonymous with fighting in Burma — assured the American special ops pioneers that, “we will go with your boys ‘any place, any time, any where.’” This phrase was adopted by the predecessor unit of the 1st SOW and has been used by special operations airmen ever since.
Deactivated in 1945 and resurrected in 1961, the future 1st SOW became the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (later, Group) that provided advisers and aircraft to South Vietnam, including C-47s, T-28s, and B-26 Invaders. It became the 1st Special Operations Wing on July 8, 1968, and kept that name intermittently until the name became permanent on Nov. 26, 2006.
This was the outfit that participated in the attempt in April 1980 to rescue U.S. hostages in Tehran, Iran – the debacle that prompted creation of the modern special operations community. Airmen of the 1st SOW fought in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. They came of age with the emphasis on special operations that followed the 9/11 attackon the United States and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The 1st SOW is described in official literature as “a pivotal component of AFSOC’s ability to provide and conduct special operations missions ranging from precision application of firepower to infiltration, exfiltration, resupply and refueling of special operations force operational elements.” Col. Jim Cardoso, a 1st SOW veteran who currently trains new aircrews and maintainers, says the wing handles “just about everybody and just about everything.” Cardoso was the on-scene commander during the night combat rescue in the Balkans of Vega 31, the F-117 Nighthawk piloted by Lt. Col. Dale Zelko that was downed by a Serbian missile on March 27, 1999.
Combat search and rescue (CSAR) is no longer an AFSOC mission. The 1st SOW today describes itself as focused on “unconventional warfare: counter-terrorism, psychological operations, aviation assistance to developing nations, ‘deep battlefield’ resupply, interdiction and close support.”
Not every mission is an obvious one. When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, elements of the 1st SOW scrambled to respond. The wing’s MC-130P Combat Shadows supported combat operations in Libya in spring 2011. The wing’s airmen stay ready for just about any climate or culture and are accustomed to moving on short notice.
Today, the mix of aircraft that come and go from Hurlburt includes the AC-130U Spooky gunship, MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, MQ-1B Predator remotely piloted aircraft, MC-130H Combat Talon II and U-28A transports, and MC-130P Combat Shadow tankers. The wing’s 6th Special Operations Squadron, which supports small air forces in friendly nations, operates the turboprop version of the C-47 (useful in Latin America), Mil Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters (for which Afghan forces are being trained), an Antonov An-26 twin-turboprop transport, and other miscellaneous aircraft.
Special operations airmen often refer to themselves as “the quiet professionals.” Reaching an 80th birthday is an unforgettable moment, but it appears it will happen without pomp and circumstance. That is the way in AFSOC and in the 1st Special Operations Wing.