FAS Centennial News!


Dateline: Sacramento, California, March 9, 2013

By Ric Lambart, VP First Aero Squadron Foundation – Special Report to the FASF

Columbus, New Mexico, the birthplace of American Airpower, once again made international news this past month as the U. S. Department of Defense announced the celebration of the end of the first century of American deployment of its earliest primitive military aircraft.

This past week the United States Air Force (USAF) celebrated this colorful historic event by holding a series of symposiums and presentations relating our aviation history to over 100 invited guests and aviation industry leaders, among which were six of the now retired active duty officers who piloted the famous U2 and SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance military jets, the same Blackbird which set the all time coast to coast speed record of about one hour, a record that still stands.  The event was staged at both Beale Air Force Base (BAFB) North of Sacramento, CA, with the final Banquet with over 400 guests held at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in California’s capital city.

Because of its dedication to preserving the historical significance of the First Aero Squadron’s initial combat deployment to SW New Mexico (in response to the infamous raid by Pancho Villa, which killed 10 innocent townspeople, 8 Army soldiers, and wounded another eight), the Columbus based First Aero Squadron Foundation was requested to send a representative to Beale Air Force Base’s special Centennial Celebration in commemoration of that unique small handful of brave young airmen, who had first organized back on March 5, 1913 as our nation’s earliest Army Air group.  Ric Lambart, himself a former USAF Pilot, represented the FASF at the celebration.

Amazingly, that same military aviator group still exists in our modern USAF, and even more surprisingly, continues to pursue the identical mission as did those intrepid young pilots back in 1916 out of Columbus: Strategic Intelligence and Reconnaissance.  Over the ensuing years since first organized, the First Aero Squadron pilots have flown 47 different aircraft and have been stationed at 52 locations around the globe, including four times at sea.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Lt. Col. Stephen “Chi Chi” Rodriguez, the current First Aero (Reconnaissance) Squadron commander.  “There have been a lot of great people who have been members of the 1st over the past 100 years.”  While at Beale, Ric arranged a video interview with this present commander of the First Aero Squadron, and also with the Squadron’s Wing Commander, Colonel Phil Stewart.  Both of these interviews will should be posted on the FASF website – and also on YouTube sometime in May .

One of Ric’s informal video interviews with two former U-2 Spy Plane pilots, who are now present day contract civilian U-2 instructors, John “Cabi”  Cabigas and Bill Williams, has already been up for viewing on the Internet.  This video starts out with the landing of a “Dragon Lady” U-2 on BAFB’s runway, as seen through the windshield of a chase car, in which another U-2 pilot talks to a safe landing the otherwise “blind” U-2 pilot in the ship’s cockpit.  The nose of this spy plane is so long and must be held so high during landings, that it blocks the forward view altogether. The base keeps a fleet of these stock “muscle cars” on hand because of its heavy U-2 training traffic.  You can click here to see the video.

The invited guests toured the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron’s facilities and talked with air crew members about the U-2 “Dragon Lady,” RQ-4 Global Hawk, T-38 Talon and the MC-12, all of which aircraft are presently flown at Beale and which were on display.  Ric was given a special private tour of the U-2 training facilities, including the aircraft’s procedures training flight simulator.  He also made a video recording, for later website posting, of the Physiological and Altitude training facilities, which were explained by their commanding Officer, Captain Jenny Middlebrooks.  One of the FASF’s favorite professional historians, Dr. Roger Miller of Washington, DC, was a presenter at the Centennial, so Ric had an opportunity to bring him up to date on our current accomplishments in Columbus since his last visit with us some three years ago, when the USAF flew him out to Columbus to be our official keynote guest Lecturer.

Personnel with Captain Middlebrooks‘ 9th Physiological Support Squadron demonstrated how a U-2 pilot gears up in a $250,000 full-pressure astronaut suit.  They also demonstrated how they instruct the pilots in the proper way to fly safely during their dangerous extreme high altitude operations, by training in the base’s specially equipped hyperbaric, or high altitude simulation chambers.  Ric’s video clip also shows how the space suit is completey airtight, when one of the Physiolocal team inflates it like a Macy’s parade balloon.

“Everything we do is so highly classified that a chance to show off my airmen is a real treat,” Colonel Phillip Stewart, Wing Commander of the First Aero Said.

Interestingly, pilots in the 1st Aero Squadron’s early days in Columbus trained in and flew rickety and not truly airworthy linen fabric-covered single-engine biplanes – with wooden propellers – called “Jennys” –  now, fast forward one century later, and the unbroken record of aviation combat surveillance and reconnaissance service continues,  but the present day First Aero’s U-2 reconnaissance pilots soar to the edge of space (at over 80,000 feet), while those early “Jenny” aircraft were lucky if they could climb to only 6,000 feet of altitude, or barely 2,000 feet above Columbus’ average 4,000 foot terrain.  One of the the early Jenny’s most serious problems was that it was too often unable to successfully fly high enough to get over some of the local mountains in SW New Mexico and in Northern Chihuahua, Mexico, during that first combat expedition in search of the notorious Mexican folk hero and rebel, Pancho Villa.

Below are depicted the early days’ “Jenny” at the left, while center, the record speed holding First Aero’s SR-71 “Blackbird” and then the famous “Dragon Lady” spy plane.  The U-2 has actually been in continuous service with the USAF for over half a century.  The latest model of the “Dragon Lady” U-2 has longer wings and a more powerful engine, but remains the same basic airplane whose super secret existence was first exposed when one was shot down (in 1960) while spying over the former Soviet Union during the Eisenhower administration.  That shoot-down,  forced the U.S. to embarassingly reverse it’s long standing denial of such an airplane’s existence, and to admit we had such a highly classified secret spy plane.

Jenny+Blackbird+U2 composit panoramic Photo

– – – – – “Jenny” in Flight – – – – – – – – – – – – SR-71 “Blackbird”   – – – – – – – – U-2 “Dragon Lady” – –

Ric was greatly impressed by the general high quality and outstanding demeanor of the current USAF personnel that he was privileged to meet and with whom he had numerous informative exchanges during this eventful week at BAFB.  Both the current FAS Commander, Lt. Colonel Chi Chi Rodriguez, and its Wing Commander, Colonel Phil Stewart, used the celebratory occasion to become regular paid members of the FASF!

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