The 188th Fighter Wing flew its last training mission with its A-10 aircraft Friday (May 16) before the planes leave Fort Smith for the final time as the fighter wing transitions to a new remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), targeting, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission.
According to Maj. Heath Allen, the final training mission of the aircraft — known officially as the A-10 Thunderbolt II "Warthog" — moves Fort Smith's Air National Guard base one step closer to fully implementing its new mission, first starting with re-training of the base's nearly 1,000 personnel.
"We're looking to get initially operationally capable somewhere around 2016," he said. "That's basically where we get enough folks through the training pipeline that we can actually start manning a mission. A cap is what they call it, an orbit."
The training, he said, has already begun as the base has transitioned A-10 aircraft to other Air Force bases. As of Friday, only three of the aircraft remained on site from a maximum of 20 prior to the announcement February 2012 that the 188th would lose the A-10 mission.
One of the three remaining planes is scheduled to depart Fort Smith for its new home at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Ga., on May 29, with the final two scheduled to depart Fort smith on June 7, leaving the Air National Guard base with no planes.
One of two pilots to fly Friday's final mission described the experience as "bittersweet."
Lt. Col. Marty Dahlem, an operations support squadron commander at the 188th and a Dallas/Fort Worth-based pilot for American Airlines, started his Air Force career as an enlisted airman at the 188th in 1988.
"It's bittersweet. I had a career out here. I've been flying out here since 1995 is when I got back from pilot training, been in the unit since '88. So putting the gear down for the last time and making a full stop, it was definitely a bittersweet feeling knowing this is my last sortie in a technical airplane. But you know, (I'm) excited about moving on and getting the next mission started."
It was a sentiment echoed by Col. Mark W. Anderson, commander of the 188th Fighter Wing.
“This is another historical milestone in the rigorous process of a mission conversion. While we’re certainly excited about our future, it’s the moments like these that make the reality of it all set in. We’ve made some astounding accomplishments in this aircraft in a very short period of time, including our wing’s two largest-ever combat deployments. This is certainly a bittersweet day. We’re going to miss flying over the best military community in the world.”
Dahlem — who has flown not only 900 hours in A-10s, but also 1,200 hours in F-16s, and has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — described his time at the 188th Fighter Wing as having been much more than a career, but also a continuation of the legacy his father, Lt. Col. Mike Dahlem, started at the 188th in 1961 when he was a pilot.
With the combined service of both men, the 188th has been sending a Dahlem into the skies over Fort Smith and across the world for 53 years. It was something the younger Dahlem thought about Friday as he flew his last sortie and contemplated the generations of airmen who have continued their family's service at the 188th and will continue to do so under the new unmanned mission.
And while there was uncertainty about the future of the 188th following the announcement of the loss of the A-10 mission, Dahlem said what helped him and the men and women of the 188th most was a unified community that wrapped its collective arms around the members of the unit.
"I really want to thank the community, mostly, for all the support that they've given us through this whole thing, from the F-16s through the A-10s to now transitioning to the MQ-9. I couldn't have asked for better support from the community and the people that come with that. It's been outstanding."
As the transition continues at the 188th, Allen said some minor shifts in personnel could take place as firefighters stationed at the 188th could possibly be moving to Fort Chaffee, though he said nothing was official at this time.
"As far as the maintainers and all of that stuff, we're not losing anybody," he said, adding that in many cases salaries would increase for base personnel as part of the new unmanned mission.