This Week In AFLCMC History – May 13 - 19, 2024

  • Published
  • By Air Force Life Cycle Management Center History Office
13 May 1924 (Wright-Patterson AFB)
One hundred years ago today, Robert Anderson, a civilian observer at McCook Field, was killed when he was thrown from an airplane piloted by Lt Eugene H. Barksdale. The pair was flight testing a DH-4M, a new Boeing-built version of the ubiquitous DH-4 with a welded steel fuselage, when their aircraft suddenly went into a nose dive at 2,000 feet, flinging both pilot and observer from the plane. Lieutenant Barksdale managed to survive thanks to his parachute, though two years later he too would lose his life to an airplane accident when his O-2 observation plane also crashed at McCook Field. Barksdale AFB in Louisiana was named in his honor.
14 May 1969 (Mobility & Training Aircraft Dir.)
When a major encephalitis outbreak began impacting tens of thousands of Ecuadorans in early 1969, the Republic of Ecuador requested U.S. assistance in controlling the mosquitoes that were spreading the pathogen that caused the condition (a swelling of the brain). U.S. Air Force Southern Command responded with “Operation COMBAT MOSQUITO,” airlifting more than 50 tons of insecticide to Ecuador. The operation, which also involved the State Department and public health officials, started 55 years ago on 14 May 1969, and lasted until the end of the month. Two C-141s airlifted the malathion insecticide to Guayaquil, Ecuador, from where two UC-123 Providers then sprayed it across 250,000 acres of marshland. The spray flight was commanded by Lt Col Garrett S. Runey of the 438th Military Airlift Wing, and successfully eradicated about 95 percent of the area’s mosquitoes, ending the outbreak (which had claimed around 500 lives).
15 May 1971 (Hill AFB/Robins AFB)
On this date, Hill AFB’s Brig Gen Wesley L. Pendergraft, then serving as the Ogden Air Material Area’s vice commander, died of a heart attack. General Pendergraft was born in Drumright, Oklahoma, and graduated from the College of Idaho before commissioning with the Army Air Forces in 1944. He trained in the B-17 Flying Fortress and spent a year in the Pacific as a command pilot and an operations officer. After the war, and beginning in 1947, he spent 12 years with Strategic Air Command’s 7th Bomb Wing at Carswell AFB, Texas, where he flew the B-36 Peacemaker. He also saw service at Castle AFB in California (closed in 1995), Offutt AFB in Nebraska, Robins AFB in Georgia (where he commanded the 465th Bomb Wing), and Plattsburgh AFB in New York (also closed in 1995), before ending up at Hill AFB in March 1970. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on 20 May 1971. General Pendergraft was 46 years old, and was survived by his wife and three children.
16 May 1968 (Digital Directorate/Hanscom AFB)
On this date, Headquarters Air Force Systems Command approved the Back-Up Interceptor Control III (BUIC III) System Transition Agreement. The transition from the BUIC II system to the upgraded BUIC III system roughly doubled the system’s performance capabilities. The system being “backed up” by the BUIC system was the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment or SAGE system, which helped to provide for continental air defense by equipping the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD)—today the North American Aerospace Defense Command—with a unified picture of North American airspace using data from various radar stations.
17 May 1964 (Mobility & Training Aircraft Dir./AFSAC Dir.)
During the Laotian Civil War (1959-1975), the U.S. secretly provided assistance to the Royal Lao Government in their fight against the Pathet Lao (Laotian communists). Part of this assistance came in the form of “Operation WATER PUMP,” started in 1964. For WATER PUMP, the U.S. Air Force moved T-28 Trojan trainers to Thailand, where USAF Air Commandos trained Royal Lao Air Force (RLAF), Thai, and CIA pilots to fly armed T-28s and C-47 cargo planes. Later, the program was expanded to include maintenance, reconnaissance, and other missions. On 17 May 1964, the first of the RLAF’s WATER PUMP-trained pilots began operations against the Pathet Lao.
18 May 1964 (Fighters and Advanced Aircraft Directorate)
Sixty years ago today, the first production McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II made its first flight. This was the tactical reconnaissance version of the Air Force’s first variant (the C model) of the Navy’s F-4 fighter. The RF-4C program started in 1962 and was intended to augment the Air Force’s existing fleet of RF-101 Voodoo aircraft. This version of the Phantom included forward and side-looking radar, high- and low-altitude cameras, and flash flares for night photography. Though initially unarmed, some later versions also carried AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
19 May 2004 (Wright-Patterson AFB/Mobility & Training Aircraft Dir.)
On this date twenty years ago, the 434th Air Refueling Wing temporarily relocated its mission from Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana to Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. With the mission came twelve KC-135R Stratotankers and 150 personnel. The much-needed repair of Grissom’s 12,500-foot runway prompted this temporary move, with WPAFB hosting the 434th until 30 Sep 2004. Almost exactly ten years later, in May 2014, Grissom’s units again moved to Wright-Patt for the summer for a second, $3.2 million air-field repair project; and they used their experience from the 2004 event to help benchmark the new one.
Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Highlight:
Hazel Ying Lee
Hazel Ying Lee was born in Portland, Oregon in 1912. Her parents, immigrants from China, ran a restaurant and she grew up alongside seven siblings. Lee enjoyed sports and learned to drive as soon as she could. Following her high school graduation, she developed a love of flying, and received free flying lessons courtesy of the Portland Chinese Benevolent Society’s sponsorship. After she earned her pilot’s license in 1932, Lee moved to China, hoping to join the many Chinese-American pilots (including her future husband) who volunteered for the Chinese Air Force fighting against the Empire of Japan that had invaded Manchuria in 1931. However, Lee was turned down because they, like the US Army Air Corps, did not allow women pilots. Instead, she worked in an office for the Chinese military and occasionally flew as a commercial pilot.
In 1938, Lee returned to the US, where she worked in New York helping to contract war materiel for the Chinese government. She finally got her chance at military aviation in the fall of 1942 when she applied to the new Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), one of the first two official organizations to train women pilots, mostly for stateside transport and ferrying roles.
In Aug 1943, the WFTD merged with the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron to form the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). Lee and Margaret Gee (who joined a year later) were the only two Chinese-Americans in the program. Both felt welcomed among the WASPs, but were not immune from other discrimination. Many towns still had anti-Chinese statutes in place, similar to “Jim Crow” laws, but unlike with African Americans (who were excluded from the WASPs), the US government was actively  combatting that discrimination to promote China as our ally against Japan and to recruit Chinese-Americans for the war. However, Lee’s biggest risk associated with her ethnicity was being mistaken for being Japanese. Wartime propaganda and the federal internment policies stoked prejudice against anyone of Japanese descent—or anyone who might be confused for that. Lee recalled staring down the pointy end of a pitchfork after an emergency landing in a rural area until she convinced the farmer she was actually Chinese.
In the Fall of 1944, the government announced that the WASPs would be disbanded. Lee quickly decided to return to China to serve in a similar role, and encouraged her colleagues to join her. In the meantime, she continued her job as one of only about 30 WASPs chosen to ferry pursuit (fighter) aircraft from their factories. On 23 November 1944, she and dozens of other pilots were flying Bell P-63 Kingcobras to Great Falls, Montana, for eventual delivery to the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease program. Bad weather, the P-63’s poor cockpit visibility, and spotty air traffic control comms resulted in tragedy. Another P-63—flown by a male pilot—attempted to land at the same time as Lee and collided with her from above. Lee crashed and ground crews heroically dragged her from the burning plane, but she succumbed to her injuries two days later. She was the 38th, and last, WASP to die in the line of duty.
Even then Lee faced one final discrimination: a West Coast funeral home and cemetery contacted by her parents refused to accept her body — “whites only.”