By Capt. Bridget Zorn, 131st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 16, 2009
ST. LOUIS -- The Missouri Air National Guard commemorated the culmination of 86 years of flying operations in St. Louis in an End of Era ceremony coinciding with the closure of the base fire house and the 131st Fighter Wing's final F-15C Eagle departure from Lambert International Airport Saturday June 13.
An estimated crowd of 2000 Guardsmen, retirees, family and community leaders attended the End of Era event. Former members traveled from other states, including Florida, Tennessee and Ohio to participate in what was one of the wing's more significant milestones since it was established in 1923.
The final F-15 flight was especially important for those who flew or maintained the fighter jets from St. Louis, which is also home of the former McDonnell Douglas, known today as Boeing, the manufacturer of all the world's F-15s were produced.
"Flying the F-15 is a thrill. Think of the funnest [sic] thing you ever did and multiply that by 10," said Colonel Robert Mohr, 131st Operations Group Commander.
Col. Jon Kelk, flew F-15 air superiority fighters in the Missouri ANG for more than 17 years. "While it's difficult to see our eagles leaving the 131st, I could not be prouder of the many accomplishments of the fine men and women who truly set the standard for F-15 employment," he said.
In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission spared Lambert Air National Guard Base, but called for the transfer of the wing's F-15s. The 131st Fighter Wing's F-15s were realigned to the 120th Fighter Wing in Great Falls, Mont. and the 154th Fighter Wing in Hawaii.
"I'm confident that the units receiving these aircraft will find them in extraordinary condition and I wish them safe flying and much success," said Col. Kelk, who flew his final F-15 sortie in March.
BRAC law allowed for the manpower associated with the F-15s to be used for Total Force Integration initiatives. In 2006, Missouri and Air Force leaders took advantage of the newly available maintenance and operations manpower when they announced a new ANG B-2 classic associate unit. With a new mission, more than 550 of the 131st Fighter Wing's personnel would fly and operate the B-2 Stealth Bomber at Whiteman AFB.
Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond, a proponent of the Missouri National Guard commented, "I am pleased that the U.S. Air Force found a way to preserve the 131st, one of the most experienced and proven Air Guard units in the country. To be chosen from Air Guard units across the country, this announcement is a real honor for the 131st."
"As things change, there are new beginnings and with this change our new beginning is at Whiteman in the B-2 bomber," Col. Leeker said.
For the past three years, the unit has prepared for the transition from the F-15 to the B-2 on two fronts; at Lambert ANGB in St. Louis and about 200 miles away at Whiteman AFB in Knob Noster, Mo. Establishing a new ANG B-2 mission at Whiteman AFB and the drawdown of the F-15 mission at Lambert ANGB not only required unit leaders to split time between two locations, but also required that the unit's manpower be divided between the two locations.
The extensive planning and coordination with Air Combat Command, National Guard Bureau and within the unit ensured that the unit's transition was seamless despite the limited manpower and two operating locations.
"Today, we are merely turning the page in our history book. The 131st [FW] and the 110th [FS] lives on," Col. Leeker said.
Although the decision to put Guardsmen into the B-2 preserved most of the jobs put at risk by the BRAC decisions, firefighter positions were not spared.
"An Air Force's fighter fighting capability is directly related to its aircraft," explained Senior Master Sgt. David Maupin, base Fire Chief.
The closure of the base fire house was made official when Sgt. Maupin handed the fire axe back to commander for its final retirement as 131st FW firefighters, past and present, presented their final salute. The ceremony, which was just one aspect of the End of Era, followed traditional fire house protocol with bag pipes played Amazing Grace; a bell rang to honor those who have served and those who have fallen, and the fire house's large bay doors rolled down for the final time. Within the hour, Col. Mohr and Lt. Col. Reed Drake climbed into the cockpits of the two remaining jets and prepared for their final departure.
"Today also marks our Mission Complete...the mission to comply with BRAC law," Col. Leeker said. "There is no doubt that what we started in 2005 with the final BRAC announcement, and now just short of four years later has been the most difficult part of our unit history, the most painful for the members of the 131st and their families."
The final Missouri ANG F-15 departure from St. Louis allows for the transition process to move towards the final stages. Remaining personnel will finish the draw down process of turning in equipment and clearing out already sparse hangar and office space.
By the end of the year, the transition will be complete with more than half of the 131st Fighter Wing's personnel reassigned and entering to the 131st's next era--as a Bomb Wing headquartered at Whiteman AFB. The rest of the wing's manpower, which primarily includes base operating support specialties such as human resources, security forces, civil engineering, financial management, medical, supply etc., will remain in St. Louis where they will continue to support the 131st Bomb Wing's operations at Whiteman AFB and other Missouri ANG units: three tenant units at Lambert ANGB; the 157th Air Operations Group at Jefferson Barracks ANGS; Cannon Range aerial bombing and gunnery range near Fort Leonard Wood; and headquarters Missouri ANG at Jefferson City.
The leader of the Missouri National Guard acknowledged the loss of the F-15s. "The spirit of the 131st is not represented by the iron, but by those who are here--past and present," said Brig. Gen. Stephen Danner, the adjutant general.
In his comments, Colonel Leeker referenced a quote from Charles Lindbergh, a former member of the unit. "Life is a culmination of the past, an awareness of the present, an indication of the future beyond knowledge, the quality that gives a touch of divinity to matter," he said. "Thank you for being here today. End of an Era...Mission Complete".