With the advent of man taking flight, it was just a matter of time before the United States would create its own air force. After serving as part of the Army through the first two major wars of the 20th century, the Army Air Force finally broke away and became the United States Air Force on Sept. 18, 1947.
I had the privilege and honor of serving 8 ½ years in the Air Force. It was a great place for a young, naïve kid from Nebraska to start his adult life. I enjoyed my time in the military; I toyed with it being a career, but wanted my daughters to grow up in one place. Who knew that they’d always look for a way out of Nebraska?
As the Air Force begins its eighth decade, I have great memories to reflect upon. Military recruiting provided some stark lessons. First, the recruiter is super nice, almost friend-like. Once you sign on the dotted line and head off to basic training, reality seeps in. As soon as we got off the bus at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonito – and for the next six weeks – we were told what to do every minute of the day. Pick up your suitcase. Drop your suitcase. Pick it up. Put it down. Oh, the fun we had that first night.
The next day, after a lovely military cafeteria breakfast, we marched over the barbershop and I bade farewell to my “Chachi” hair. Looking around, none of us had hair. Ugh!
Anyway, I survived basic training and then the security police academy, also at Lackland. My first duty assignment was Spangdahlem Air Base, West (yes, I said West) Germany. Spangdahlem was part of USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe). A three-year tour there taught me a lot about the military and being on the edge of war with the then-Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. People say the Cold War wasn’t a “real” war because we didn’t see battle, but I’m sure thousands of military veterans would debate that with you. Guarding the old F-4 Phantom fighter provided some fun memories (none that I can go into due to national security. I kid. Maybe.).
Getting to visit places such as Paris, Luxembourg, Munich, as well as other European cities provided an opportunity to see places I had only heard or read about beforehand. I will always appreciate the Air Force sending me overseas. Plus, my eldest daughter was born there.
‘Dreaming’ of North Dakota?
Every airman fills out an assignment request form – aka “Dream Sheet.” This was a list of eight bases, states or areas where you’d like to be stationed. So, when it came time to decide where to go after my assignment to Germany, I listed seven bases or areas in the southwest United States – Arizona, southern California, Nevada and New Mexico. The eighth spot? Offutt AFB in Omaha. We thought maybe we would luck out and get to finish our time near home.
I had three close friends that I’d gone through basic training, cop school and Germany with. Our families each had kids around the same time. Assignments came out – one got his wish to go to southern California; the second had his pick of Whiteman AFB in Missouri selected; and the third, he really wanted Grand Forks, North Dakota. All three had their wishes granted. Me? My assignment came in later than theirs did. When I saw it – Grand Forks??!! How? Why? Well, that little entry I made for Offutt? Apparently, it turns out that Offutt and Grand Forks were part of the Strategic Air Command. So, if I was interested in one SAC base, I’d probably like any SAC base, right?
I spent the next 5 ½ years in the “Great White North.” Turns out, Grand Forks and North Dakota are not bad places to be assigned. Well, I am glad I didn’t get assigned to Minot. No offense to the city, because we’ve visited and it’s a great area, but Grand Forks was closer to “civilization,” the Twin Cities, Winnipeg and Fargo. Yep, Fargo. It’s the largest city in North Dakota and had a lot of restaurants and stores Grand Forks didn’t during the time we lived there.
My time at Grand Forks consisted of working in the missile field as a security controller/team lead, aircraft security supervisor and (most of my time there) as a security quality control evaluator. I enjoyed my time in North Dakota. I learned to love ice hockey (Go UND!) and my youngest daughter was born there. In fact, the entire family still enjoys a love affair with North Dakota.
I enjoyed my time in the Air Force. Since most of my time was spent at Grand Forks, I have an affection for the SAC memories. SAC was the country’s primary strategic defense, with missiles scattered around the northern tier of the United States and alert-ready aircraft that could be launched within minutes of an enemy attack.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies in 1989 – highlighted by people destroying the Berlin Wall – SAC’s role drastically changed. Some former enemies became allies and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO was the western countries’ coalition to combat the Eastern Bloc.
American leaders determined SAC completed its mission and the world’s new structure warranted a change in the nation’s defense planning. Thus, in 1992, the Strategic Command (StratCom) replaced the Strategic Air Command (and other groups).
SAC’s memory lives on near Omaha at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum. The museum highlights the nation’s air power history dating back to World War II, when Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led a group of B-25B bombers in a raid over Tokyo following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.
The SAC Museum is one of my favorite places to visit. My favorite spot is looking at the Security Policeman dressed in his winter gear (I’m quite familiar with the uniform) as he stands in front of a B-52 bomber. The BUFF ( description is not suitable for family reading) was an interesting plane. It debuted in 1955 and played a major role during the Vietnam Conflict. The B-52’s survival through the decades remains an impressive record. Replacements have come and gone, but the B-52 continues to persevere. The Air Force plans to keep the bird flying for at least another 30 years.
My all-time favorite airplane greets visitors to the SAC Museum. The SR-71 was a spy plane that could exceed speeds of Mach 3.2, making it the fastest plane in the world. Pilots wore astronaut gear during missions. The sleek build of the plane earned it the nickname “Blackbird.”
Following its retirement in the 1990s, my affection for planes evolved to the B-2 Stealth bomber and the F-117 Stealth fighter. The “Nighthawk,” the nickname given the F-117, was retired in 2008. The B-2 remains a piece of the American strategic inventory.
SAC enjoyed its time in the spotlight, but as times change, the military needs to evolve. Military leaders continue to develop new aircraft and missions to meet the demands facing the Air Force (such as uniting USAFE and Air Forces Africa (AFAFRICA) as part of the European Command). As the USAF moves into its eighth decade, I look forward to seeing the changes and growth awaiting today’s airmen.