By Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith
National Guard Bureau
NEW CASTLE, Del. (6/20/2007) â€“ Airmen from the Delaware Air National Guard's 166th Airlift Wing celebrated 44 years without a flight mishap here on Flag Day, June 14 with a ceremonial training flight that honored those who helped them achieve it.
The flight marked 160,000 accident-free flight hours, operating two different aircraft: the retired C-97 Stratofighter and the currently assigned C-130 Hercules. The wing also maintained the record despite 16 years of combat airlift operations in Southwest Asia and despite an operations tempo that currently logs an average 1 million miles a year between its eight assigned aircraft.
"This is our ceremonial day of reaching that milestone," said Col. Jon Groff, air commander. Groff said the wing will determine later the exact flight and date it surpassed 160,000 hours, which he believes may be with its aircrew and one aircraft currently deployed to Afghanistan. "They are flying daily and are putting in all kinds of hours," he said.Â
For the ceremonial flight, Airmen from the wing's 142nd Airlift Squadron departed the base at New Castle County Airport with a group of special guests including community leaders and alumni. They flew toward the coastline and followed it south, crossing the state's three counties. They returned one hour later, landed, taxied through a fire truck's water-spray and parked the aircraft in front of the base Operations building.
Army Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, state adjutant general, greeted the aircrew and special guests on the flight line, and a host of Guard members applauded them. Vavala said the wing's accomplishment underscored its professionalism.
"This is our heritage," said Col. Carol Timmons, operations group commander. "To look at our [safety] numbers and be able to go back to 1964 without a flight mishap is just an awesome thing."
The wing paid special mention of its special guests that day, and it praised the support it receives from the community and from its retirees and founding members including retired Tech. Sgt. John Hite and retired Brig. Gen. William W. Spruance.
Hite, who is 93, sat behind the pilots on the C-130's flight deck with his son-in-law during the special flight. In 1946, he joined the wing as one of the Air Guard's first recruits. He left the unit in 1950 as a P-47 crew chief and went on to develop programs and aircraft systems for the Federal Aviation Administration and the Flight Safety Foundation, he said.
The wing had its last flight mishap in 1963 where a C-97 crew member was injured on take off. In an infamous mishap, the wing's squadron commander was killed here in 1961 when his T-33 Shooting Star training aircraft crashed on take off. His passenger, General Spruance, was severely injured.
Spruance, who could not attend the event, is in many ways reflective of the wing's safety heritage. He is a 1946 founding member of the wing who recovered from his injuries to become a national advocate and speaker of flying safety, among many other achievements.
Groff said years of team effort set a culture of safety. Much of that culture comes from past members, who, like Spruance and Hite, return to share their knowledge and hear news of the wing's new missions and accomplishments.
"You can't just take a snapshot, it takes years and years of safety culture to get this far," Groff said.
The Department of Defense defines flight mishaps in three classifications based on personal injury and property damage. For its least severe â€“ Class-C â€“ there must be more than $20,000 in property damage.
The wing's mishap-free record also follows the Air National Guard's safest flying year in its history. Officials said mishap costs for the entire Air Guard were reduced in 2006 by nearly $23 million, and there were no aviation fatalities, all the while the Guard maintained and operated an ageing fleet of aircraft.
The Air Guard's safety numbers foretell of other wings celebrating their own flight safety achievements, but Delaware's Airmen say they are not comparing or competing.
"Everybody's different in their particular missions and aircraft," said Groff. "This is our milestone, were proud of it."