Airlift Units

Airlift Units
There has long been a rivalry between rated Air Force officers (pilots and navigators) and missileers, especially missile launch officers, more so during the earlier years when all non-rated officers were categorized as “support officers,” but that doesn’t lessen the important role some of those with wings on their uniforms have had ever since nukes were mated to missiles. Even before those missiles became a reality, General Curtis E. LeMay was so frustrated with the undependability of the joint service Military Air Transport Service that he created his own fleet of special transport aircraft to move nuclear weapons and related components from where they were to where they needed to be in SAC. These were the 1st, 2d, 3d, and 4th Strategic Support Squadrons. After other commands finally gained SAC’s confidence, this mission was assumed by specialized Logistic Support Squadrons (later renamed Air Transport, and then Military Airlift Squadrons): the 7th, 19th, 28th, and 58th. Regular transport aircraft took Matador crews and their missiles from Europe to North Africa for test launches--the equivalent of today’s Glory Trips from Vandenberg, and when IRBMs were fielded in Europe, it was transport aircraft that got them there and brought them back after ICBMs here made them obsolete. Compared to other “cargo” carried by transport aircraft, those first ICBMs were huge, and in a timely stroke of luck, the C-133 Cargomaster just happened to become operational about the same time as the design of Atlas and Titan I missiles was being finalized. In fact, a C-133A was the only aircraft that could carry the long Titan I. With the C-133B, the rear cargo doors were modified to open to the side (petal doors), making ICBM loading much easier. Air transporting ballistic missiles such as Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman was much less expensive, safer, and faster than road or rail transport--and of course those weren’t even options for missiles deployed overseas. Several hundred Minuteman and other ICBMs were airlifted to and from their operational bases by C-133s assigned to the 1st, 39th, and 84th Air Transport Squadrons, subsequently redesignated Military Airlift Squadrons. Later, C-141s were used, and now the C-141s have been replaced by the C-17 Globemaster III. This aircraft is also used to transport nuclear weapons and related components. Specially trained crews participate in what is called the Prime Nuclear Airlift Force (PNAF) mission. A number of squadrons have been involved in this program over the years, which hit its peak in the early 1990s right after the GLCM was taken out of service, Minuteman II missiles were retired, strategic bombers were removed from nuclear alert, and nearly all of the Navy’s tactical nukes were removed from service. Today, only one squadron performs the PNAF mission, the 4th Airlift Squadron at McChord Field, JB Lewis-McChord, WA. It performs exactly the same mission that the 1st through 4th Strategic Support Squadrons performed back in the beginning, so we have come full circle! Bottom line: maybe it all could have happened without airlift, but airlift sure made--and makes--it a whole lot easier and a whole lot quicker!
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