This Week In AFLCMC History - November 20 - 26, 2023

  • Published
  • By Air Force Life Cycle Management Center History Office
20 Nov 1980 (Agile Combat Support Directorate)
On today’s date, the first Pave Tack-equipped F-111 Aardvark arrived at RAF Lakenheath, England, where it was assigned to the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing (48 TFW). The Ford Aerospace AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack was a system utilized by select aircraft—including the F-111—-to enhance the crew’s ability to navigate and target enemies. It consisted of a pod, mounted in the weapons bay and weighing in at around 1300 pounds, containing an infrared (IR) thermal detector and a laser designator: The former allowed crews to see targets better in certain poor weather conditions or at night, and the latter allowed the aircraft to direct laser-guided bombs. The first aircraft to use Pave Tack in combat was actually the 48 TFW’s F-111s out of Lakenheath a few years later during a 1986 raid (Operation EL DORADO CANYON) against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
22 Nov 1972 (Bombers Directorate)
On this date in 1972, the first B-52 Stratofortress to be lost to enemy action was struck by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) over North Vietnam. It was the first such loss after more than 180,000 Southeast Asia combat sorties, over which time B-52s had been attacked on more than 80 occasions (with nearly 300 missiles fired upon them). The struck B-52 (a B52D) was on a mission to bomb a rail transportation station at Vinh, which it completed successfully. After being hit by the SAM on its post-target turn (PTT), the crippled airplane flew nearly 100 miles back to friendly territory (its right wing on fire) before the crew were forced to bail out. The aircraft exploded in the air into three sections after the crew parachuted free from it, but all six airmen survived and were recovered. Ten more B52s were shot down over the next month.
23 Nov 1985 (Hill AFB)
Today in 1985, Utah’s governor, Norman Bangerter visited Hill AFB. While there, he met with the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, and learned all about the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The visit’s highlight was when the governor got to fly in an F-16 piloted by Lt Col Robert G. Jones, an operations officer for the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Lt Col Jones noted, before the flight, that Governor Bangerter was “apprehensive, and a bit shook up,” before confidently adding “but he’ll have a good time.” And indeed he did, with the governor describing the experience as a dream come true, and with his press secretary later noting that “he thoroughly enjoyed it” and would do it again if given the chance. The first operational F-16A arrived at Hill AFB in Jan 1979, and by the time of the governor’s visit, the 388th had four operational F-16 squadrons. Today, the 388th remains at Hill, though they now fly the F-35 Lightning II.
24 Nov 1969 (Propulsion Directorate/Mobility & Training Aircraft Directorate)
Today in 1969, the Air Force announced that tests to qualify the nation’s largest military jet engine—the General Electric TF39 turbofan engine (which was the first high bypass turbofan engine)—had been completed by the Arnold Engineering and Development Center (AEDC) in Tennessee. Testing of the engine had begun in Dec 1967, and had required 280 hours of operation from two 41,000 lbs-thrust TF39s. The engine would go into the C-5A Galaxy aircraft, where it would operate for more than 40 years before being replaced. In the mid-2010s, the gradual conversion of the C-5A/B fleet into C-5M Super Galaxies meant that the TF39s were replaced by more modern, GE CF6 commercial engines.
25 Nov 1956 (Agile Combat Support Directorate)
On this date, TSgt Richard J. Patton became the first person to parachute over the South Pole during Operation DEEPFREEZE. This operation was part of an effort begun in 1955 to establish an International Geophysical Year Station at the South Pole for scientific research (which is today known as the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station). In Nov 1956, however, several C-124s air-dropping building materials to the site ran into problems when the parachutes failed to open, or separated from the bundles after the parachutes deployed, damaging or destroying equipment. Nobody could figure out why it was happening, so TSgt Patton—an aerial port specialist with 31 prior jumps—volunteered to jump himself. He did so from his C124 at about 2,000 feet, and within a few hours after landing he’d realized what was wrong: a release mechanism failure. He suggested corrective measures, which worked, allowing the mission to continue without significant delay. For his daring feat, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

 26 Nov 1968 (ISR & Special Operations Forces Directorate)
Fifty-five years ago today, then-1st Lt James P. Fleming was called out to rescue a seven-man team of Army Green Berets in danger of being killed or captured by North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. Climbing aboard his UH-1F Iroquis (“Huey”) helicopter, he went to the aid of this reconnaissance patrol. On arriving in the area, he watched another chopper get taken down by heavy enemy fire, but ignored the danger and went low beside a river to attempt a rescue. The special forces couldn’t get to him, so he circled around, despite his being extremely low on fuel by this point, and tried again. In a highly-exposed position, with enemy bullets crashing through his windscreen, Fleming patiently waited for all seven soldiers to board before flying off. For his selfless actions this day, he was later (May 1970) awarded the Medal of Honor. He retired from the Air Force in 1996 as a colonel.
AFLCMC History Highlight: JFK’s Last Public Speech (21 Nov 1963)
Sixty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy stopped at Brooks AFB in San Antonio to give a speech for the dedication of the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine’s (USAFSAM) new facilities. It was his last. In 1917, the Army established its Air Medical Service, followed by the Air Service Medical Research Laboratory, and then the School of Aviation Medicine in 1922. Research to adapt airplanes to human performance stagnated until Capt Harry Armstrong founded the Physiological Research Unit at Wright Field in 1935. He had an immediate impact with vacuum chambers and the first centrifuge in North America, and contributed to the first pressurized aircraft.
The two organizations helped to enable higher and faster flight through World War II, into the Cold War-era “jet age,” and to the cusp of the “Space Age” in the late 1950s. Following Sputnik in 1957, and then the first people in space in 1961, the Air Force remade its research and development and systems acquisition organizations. That effort included establishing the Aerospace Medical Division (AMD) to combine all the aeromedical establishments under a single parent unit. AMD’s growth and support to the new human spaceflight program necessitated new facilities, which were built in waves at Brooks AFB.

In 1963, President Kennedy went on a multi-state swing to stump for local Democrats, boost waning enthusiasm for the Apollo moon landing program that he initiated in 1961, and bolster his own bid for reelection. The completion of the AMD’s Aero-Space Medical Health Center at Brooks gave JFK an opportunity to visit the key state of Texas, home to Vice President Lyndon Johnson. On 21 November 1963, JFK stood on a podium, flanked by models of two Wright Air Development Center (AFLCMC’s predecessor) aerospace programs: the X-20 Dyna-Soar and the X-15. He spoke to the 10,000 people gathered there of the value of aeromedical research for both military and civilian life, and reiterated the importance of the space program. He famously used a story of a pair of wandering Irish boys who, when encountering a daunting wall, would throw their hats over it so that they’d be forced to find a way past the obstacle in order to retrieve them. Space was the wall America had thrown her hat over and we had no choice but to follow. LBJ, Texas Governor John Connally, SECAF Eugene Zuckert, astronaut Gordon Cooper, and the AMD commander, were among the VIPs in attendance. The president took a quick tour of the research facilities before departing for Houston just 40 minutes after his arrival. His stops there, at Ft. Worth, and finally in Dallas were for small groups, making the Brooks appearance his very last public speech before taking his motorcade through downtown Dallas on November 23rd, ending near a book repository where he met his fate at the hands of an assassin’s bullets.