This Week In AFLCMC History - December 18 - 31, 2023

  • Published
  • By Air Force Life Cycle Management Center History Office
18 Dec 1972 (Bombers Directorate/Enlisted History)
On this date, 30-year-old Atlanta native SSgt Samuel O. Turner became the first B-52 Stratofortress tail gunner to shoot down an enemy aircraft. His B-52 was one of around 200 taking part in Operation LINEBACKER II—an intensive 11-day strategic bombing effort against North Vietnam, during which 15 Stratofortresses were lost to enemy action. When his B-52D came under attack by enemy fighters, SSgt Turner, the “Fire Control Operator,” took down a North Vietnamese MiG-21 using the four .50 caliber machine guns in the tail, earning the Silver Star. Another B-52 gunner took down a MiG a few days later, which was the last such “kill” for the bomber type. In the 1990s, the Air Force eliminated the B-52’s gunner positions and deactivated its tail guns.
19 Dec 1977 (Mobility & Training Aircraft Directorate)
Today in 1977, the Air Force announced that it had selected McDonnell Douglas, over Boeing and Lockheed, for its Advanced Tanker Cargo Aircraft (ATCA) program, contracting the company to build 20 of its commercial DC10 airliners as Air Force tankers. President Jimmy Carter had paused the program earlier that year, before reauthorizing it in July. The Air Force ultimately procured 60 of the resulting KC-10 Extenders, which entered service in 1981. These were nearly identical to the DC-10, but with Air Force refueling equipment and operator station, as well as military avionics and communications systems. The Extender had longer range and significantly more refueling and cargo/ passenger capacity than the complementary KC-135s. The KC-10 fleet remains in use, but is now being retired.
20 Dec 1967 (Business & Enterprise Sys. Directorate/Maxwell-Gunter AFB)
On 20 Dec 1967, the Air Force awarded the Burroughs Corporation a contract for 135 B3500 computer systems for use in Phase II of the USAF Base Level Data Automation Standardization Program. It was estimated to cost between $60-80 million, making it then one of the largest single acquisitions of commercially available computers ever made. Burroughs had also supplied computers for Phase I of the project—which, ultimately, was intended to support management at B3500-equipped bases by processing data for offices like Supply, Maintenance, Personnel, Accounting, Finance, and others that worked with a lot of data points. At the time, the company’s president, Ray W. MacDonald, indicated that the “new Air Force base level automation program incorporates some of the most imaginative thinking in management information systems for both industry and government.”
21 Dec 2002 (Mobility & Training Aircraft Directorate)
The C-5 Galaxy has been operational since 1970, but by the turn of the 21st century it was in need of several upgrades if it was going to remain mission relevant. After confirming that the Galaxy still had a lot of life ahead of it, the Air Force began a modernization effort in 1998. The first phase was the C-5 Avionics Modernization Program (AMP) that included a “glass cockpit,” which replaced individual instruments with consolidated digital displays, a new mission computer, and upgraded navigation and communications systems. On today’s date in 2002, the first AMP-upgraded C-5 (no. 85-0004) made its maiden flight out of Dobbins AFB—a full two months ahead of schedule. Phase II, the C-5 Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program (RERP), resulted in the C-5M Super Galaxy.
22 Dec 1962 (Armament Directorate/Eglin AFB)
Today in 1962, a B-52G out of Eglin AFB successfully fired a rocket-propelled, hypersonic GAM-87 Skybolt air launched ballistic missile (ALBM) for the first time, following five unsuccessful attempts. It proved to be too little, too late: one day earlier, President Kennedy had canceled the program. Skybolt suffered myriad technical problems and was nearly obsolete, but the cancellation was politically sensitive because the UK had signed onto the program as the basis for its own nuclear forces in 1960. To assuage their protests, the Anglo-American “Nassau agreement” provided the UK with the US Navy’s Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles, for use on its own subs, using British nuclear warheads.
23 Dec 1953 (Hill AFB/Robins AFB/Bombers Directorate)
Seventy years ago, the Air Force activated the 461st Bombardment Wing, Light, at Hill AFB, with official ceremonies conducted by base commander Col H. J. Kieling. Attached to Tactical Air Command’s Ninth Air Force, the wing was put together in part to answer a call for more air interdiction and low-level support of ground forces, a need that was identified during the Korean War. Although originally intended to operate B-57s, not enough were ready at time of activation, and so for a short while (until 1956) they flew B-26s out of Hill instead. Today they are the 461st Air Control Wing at Robins AFB.
24 Dec 1944 (Bombers Directorate/Medal of Honor)
On today’s date, Brig Gen Frederick W. Castle—for whom Castle AFB was named before it was closed in 1995—sacrificed his life so that others might live. He was leading more than 2,000 heavy bombers on a Christmas Eve raid targeting German airfields, when one of his B-17’s engines failed, forcing the plane to slow down and pull out of formation. This made them a sitting duck for enemy fighters, but Castle refused to jettison his bombs for increased speed and maneuverability, as they were still flying over friendly forces. As the unescorted bomber came under repeated attack, and eventually caught on fire, Castle gave the order to bailout while he took the controls himself. Seven of the nine crew were able to parachute out, with five of them surviving. Castle and one other crewmember died when an explosion sent the plane plummeting to the earth below. For his valor, Castle was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
26 Dec 1951 (Armament Directorate)
As the Air Force faced recapitalizing and modernizing its equipment in the age of jets and electronics following WWII, it established a new Air Research & Development Command (ARDC) in 1950, with subordinate product-specific acquisition centers, like the Wright Air Development Center (WADC) for aircraft. WADC’s portfolio included armament, but a series of high-level studies chastised the Air Force for paying comparatively scant attention to that field. As a result, ARDC considered consolidating weapons acquisition with testing and evaluation (T&E) in 1951 for a more effective organization. After debating where to locate a more robust T&E complex, ARDC opted to build on the existing competency of Eglin’s Armament Test Center. As of 26 December 1951, this new Air Force Armament Center (reporting to ARDC) was tasked “to accomplish tests of material in the armament field,” though program management remained with WADC in Dayton.
27 Dec 1935 (Bombers Directorate)
On this date, five bombers from the Army Air Corps 23d Bombardment Squadron dropped twenty bombs on the slopes of the erupting Mauna Loa volcano, on the Big Island of Hawaii. As the lava headed for the town of Hilo, a local geologist proposed to divert the flow by using aerial bombs to block the surface channels and collapse the subterranean lava tubes. Army Col George Patton (later famed for his WWII exploits) arranged for Air Corps B-3A and B-6A “Keystone Bombers” at Ford Field on Oahu to complete the mission. The five planes dropped four 600-pound bombs apiece, with pilots reporting direct hits on the flow. The eruption ceased a few days later, saving Hilo, but leaving the effectiveness of the bombing up for debate. The 23rd Bomb Squadron currently flies B-52s at Minot AFB and uses a graphic of the volcano bombing as its official emblem.
28 Dec 1923 (88ABW/WPAFB)
On the evening of December 27, 1923, Army Air Service Col Frank Lahm sent a succinct telegram to a select committee of Dayton businessmen: “Nineteen hundred and twenty-four Pulitzer races awarded to Dayton.” The next day, official word went out of this prize for which community leaders had lobbied for months. The International Air Races, named for the Pulitzer publishers who were its prime sponsors, were the “Olympics of aviation” at a time when these competitions made headlines around the world and their top pilots were household names. Dayton’s Frederick Patterson, head of the National Cash Register Company, was an unabashed aviation enthusiast who had spearheaded the campaign for the races—and was president of the National Aeronautic Association that made the site award. He also drove the effort to purchase the land for the future Wright-Patterson AFB. The Races would be held in October at Wilbur Wright Field (WPAFB Area A).
29 Dec 1939 (Bombers Directorate)
Consolidated Aircraft’s chief test pilot Bill Wheatley took the XB-24 bomber prototype on its first flight from Lindbergh Field in San Diego, beating the company’s contractual deadline with the US Army Air Corps by just 2 days. The Air Corps, via Wright Field, had asked Consolidated to produce the Boeing B-17 under license, but company head Reuben Fleet proposed instead to build a better aircraft from scratch. Winning the contract in March 1939, Consolidated had until the end of the year—just 9 months—to design, build, and fly a prototype. Consolidated’s chief engineer, Isaac “Mac” Laddon was a veteran of Dayton’s McCook Field Engineering Division in the 1920s, as was Reuben Fleet, and had extensive experience designing large aircraft. The resulting B-24 Liberator was first sold to Allies (including the one Maj Gen Clarence Tinker perished in), but became a mainstay of the US Army Air Forces in WWII and still holds the record as the most produced American military aircraft in history.
30 Dec 1945 (ISR&SOF Directorate)
With permission of the War Department, Republic Aviation revealed its formerly secret XF-12 Rainbow photo-reconnaissance airplane. The program had its origins in 1940 when President Franklin Roosevelt’s son, Elliott, was assigned to Wright Field. There, he encountered aerial photography pioneer Maj George Goddard, who zealously lobbied for the value of that mission and the need for a dedicated aircraft to conduct it; previous reconnaissance planes had been converted from other types. The younger Roosevelt went on to serve in aerial recon units in WWII, agreed with Goddard, and advocated to his father for just such a platform. In 1943-44 the Army Air Forces let contracts to Hughes and Republic for 400mph, 40,000-foot ceiling, 4000-mile range spyplanes. The XF-12 first flew in Feb 1946, while Howard Hughes infamously wrecked his XF-11 that July. However, the advent of faster jet aircraft and the end of the war led the Air Force to cancel both contracts after just two prototypes each.
Major Gen Benjamin D. Foulois, Chief of the US Army Air Corps (USAAC), retired on this date. Foulois was the first US military aviator, having piloted the Army’s first airship, and was its third airplane pilot. He spent over a year as the Army’s entire air force, then commanded the first deployment of airplanes, chasing Pancho Villa near the Texas border. In World War I, Foulois coordinated the massive aircraft production effort before commanding the Air Service in France, where he clashed bitterly with Gen Billy Mitchell. From 1929-1930, Foulois headed the Materiel Division (now AFMC) at Wright Field, where he lived in the 19th Century farm house (in Area A) that is now named for him and was most recently home to AFLCMC commander, Gen Morris. Foulois served as Air Corps Chief from 1931-1935, an inauspicious time due to reduced budgets, the Great Depression, political fights, a demoralized force, and the disastrous attempt by the Air Corps to transport the air mail, which laid bare its shortcomings in training, personnel, and equipment. Foulois retired under pressure from Congress “for the good of the Air Service.”
Operation SANTA CLAUS and the “Candy Bomber:” 25 December 1948
Seventy-five years ago, in December 1948, “Operation SANTA CLAUS” made headlines around the world.
In June 1948, the Soviet Union established a blockade of Allied-controlled West Berlin, prohibiting all road, rail, and waterway traffic into the city. The USSR could not deny access to its airspace, however, so to resupply the people of the encircled city, the U.S. and U.K. began the "Berlin Airlift"—flying more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, clothing, and equipment into the still -war-ravaged city from June 1948 to May 1949, after the blockade was finally lifted. The Allied effort was officially named "Operation VITTLES," and in July 1948, a 27-year-old first lieutenant named Gail S. Halvorsen was one of those deployed to support it, flying supply-laden C-54s and C-47s into West Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. On one of his few days off that summer, Halvorsen noticed a group of children watching the planes through the barbed wire fence, and he went over to talk with them. While chatting, he gave them a few sticks of gum he had on his person, and, moved by the conversation and by the way the children politely parceled out his meager offering amongst themselves, he promised he'd bring them more candy the next day. When asked how they'd recognize his plane, he told them that he'd “wiggle his wings” at them. After tying some candy bars to makeshift handkerchief parachutes, Halvorsen made good on his word and "air-dropped" the candy on approach the next day. Repeating this over the next several weeks, the crowd of children outside the gates soon grew, and nicknamed Halvorsen "Uncle Wiggly Wings.” Later, he’d be even more widely known as “the Candy Bomber.”
Initially, Halvorsen's superiors were not happy when they found out that the lieutenant was violating regs in this way; but by that point, local papers had picked up the story, and Air Force senior leadership quickly realized what a powerful PR opportunity it could be—if, instead of quashing the lieutenant’s personal initiative, they supported it. With this in mind, Operation VITTLES's overall commander, Gen William Tunner, approved the continuation of the candy drops under the name "Operation LITTLE VITTLES" in September 1948, and the now-official presents-from-the-sky campaign soon grew to include more personnel.
During December, LITTLE VITTLES was further expanded with "Operation SANTA CLAUS," organized by British and American personnel at Fassberg Air Base.
By this point, school children and candy companies from across the U.S. had already been donating supplies to the candy drops, but as letters poured into the U.S. asking the local communities of various fliers for what could be spared for a West Berlin Christmas, even more packages came in. As one Airman put it, the generosity of America's communities and businesses "[showed] Berliners that Santa Claus isn't the U.S. Government-- it's the big heart of the American people." When asked about the outpouring of generosity from back home, Santa-dressed Lt Konop is said to have drawled, “folks back home just can’t bear to think of kids being unhappy on Christmas, I guess.”
By the end of Operation SANTA CLAUS, 35,000 packages were delivered to Berlin children. The American Women's Welfare agencies of Berlin also assisted with getting gifts to the needy and homeless children of the city’s hospitals and orphanages. All told, Operation LITTLE VITTLES writ large delivered 23 tons of chocolate and other candies to the children of the city over the course of the Berlin Airlift. The originator of it all, Lt Halvorsen, would come to Wright-Patterson AFB after the Berlin Airlift was over, where he'd work on developing cargo aircraft from 1952 to 1957. He'd then play a role in a number of Air Force Systems Command projects, such as the X-20 Dyna-Soar and various space projects, before retiring from the Air Force as a colonel in 1974 out of Hill AFB, Utah, where he was the IG for the Ogden Material Center. Following his Air Force career, Halvorsen would continue serving as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. and the Air Force alike as "the Candy Bomber," speaking around the country and around the world. He was again at Wright-Patterson AFB, this time in 2003, for the centennial of flight celebration. During Wright-Patt’s “Air Power 2003,” he spoke at opening ceremonies and then spent hours showing children how he’d made his candy parachutes—before giving them away to them (treats still attached, naturally). Col Gail Halvorsen died on 16 Feb 2022, aged 101 years old.