With the change of mission assigned to the North Dakota Air National Guard – the “Happy Hooligans” of the 119th Fighter Wing – some regrets might not be surprising. However, it would take a strenuous search to find strong disappointment among the crews at their Hector Field base in Fargo.
It’s business as usual, although the nature of the business has changed.
North Dakota’s “Air Force” has been home to fighter pilots for its entire existence. The Happy Hooligans were created before 1947 when the U.S. Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force. They’ve been flying fighter missions for nearly 60 years. During much of their career, the Happy Hooligans have also had cargo planes on duty. That part of their mission ended in 1998.
Along with the cadre of jet jockeys and cargo pilots is the entire unit of support personnel, which is more than 95 percent of the North Dakota Air National Guard. The pilots are the headliners – the public image – but they wouldn’t fly much without the entire crew working as a team. Many of those support crews have served tours in Iraq or other places.
An overall reduction of the role of fighters in the American plan for air defense, however, has put the best fighter unit in the U. S. Air Force out of business. But, it introduces a new role for the Hooligans.
For the present, the Hooligans will operate the C-21. This is the military application of the Lear 35-A – a corporate business jet. The C-21 is a shiny bird, while the military gray finish of the F-16 is less flashy.
Designated as transportation for North Dakota’s governor, other state or Air National Guard business, light cargo, and possibly some Air Force officials, the job will be mostly an opportunity for the 119th to continue to recruit pilots in North Dakota and neighboring states.
Colonel Robert Becklund, commander of the 119th, is confident that the Hooligans will meet the challenge of a change in mission. With the change, the challenge will include choices, says Becklund.
The Hooligans have this “bridge” mission for now, which changes their daily tasks of maintaining air security with fighters, says Becklund, who grew up in West Fargo.
Lt. Colonel Rick Gibney, a Rolla native, agrees with Becklund’s optimism, and both emphasize that while the “glamour” role of fighter pilots will disappear, their role in the new assignment will put them on the leading edge of U.S. air power. The Hooligans will be one of the first Air National Guard units serving with a mission showing the way, rather than trailing behind.
The C-21 mission will end when the Hooligans take over a combination assignment of operating Predator (unmanned drone) aircraft, and also handling maintenance for the joint air cargo (JCA) assignments, using both Air Force and Army aircraft.
One major plus in the job change is that virtually all the equipment will be new. No more hand-me-downs from whichever unit gets the newest and fanciest ordinance. ”It will be nice to have new aircraft,” says Becklund of the anticipated JCA planes, “with paint still on the rudder pedals.”
That has been the history of most any National Guard unit – take what’s left over, or obsolete, or outdated. The F-16s at Hector Field are all approximately 25 years old – none of the fancy, new spaceship-looking Stealth technology gear for them.
That particular situation never seemed to bother the Hooligans, however. They have long been considered the best fighter unit the Air Force. And, the Happy Hooligans have won numerous awards and competition events using this “old” equipment. Another indicator of the Hooligans expertise is the fact that a unit is stationed on alert near Washington, D.C. In fact, Happy Hooligans pilots were the first responders of the White House after the Pentagon was attacked on September 11, 2001.
This “old planes outperforming newer ones” would seem to be an aberration. The results could be due to the experience and maturity of the 119th pilots. The best “regular” pilots in air force fighters have about five years of experience. The best pilots flying for the Happy Hooligans may have four or five times that in duty time at the controls. The advantage is obvious. More experience often means more efficiency and doing a better job.
With the changing mission, however, is the consideration that some F-16 pilots will want to keep on flying these mini-rockets.
Becklund says if some pilots choose to continue to fly the F-16, they will have to move elsewhere to keep that job. Others will convert to the C-21 or to the Predator.
So what exactly is the Predator? Officially known as the MQ-1, it’s a drone built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego, California, which can stay aloft for up to 24 hours. It is equipped with various reconnaissance gear including optical, television, infrared or night vision, radar and more. Communication gear can use satellite systems and radios. It can also deliver Hellfire missiles or other ordinance for air-to-ground troop support.
Flying the Predator is deadly serious business, unlike the generation who grew up with video games. Crews today fly continuously over locations in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing ground commanders to make life and death decisions based on what is captured with full motion video streamed back to Earth by Predator crews.
Each and every mission has the potential to coordinate or distribute destruction, where and when it may be needed.
Pilots agree the psychological nature of this type of job will take some adjustment. Go to work, do the job, and an hour after duty in a potential war zone ends, watch the kids at a soccer game. This seems a bit like science fiction – or a reversal of the natural order of things.
In hostile actions before this time, the snapshots, letters, tape recordings and videos have given way to internet chats in real time. Now, the “live video” part of their lives will be the working part, and the “real time” experiences will be at home, with their families and friends.
Master Sergeant David Somdahl believes that this concept – putting machinery on the line to scout and defend people – without risking a pilot – is a sign of the future in aviation. This is where science and technology have taken the Air Force capabilities. Training for the conversion to the C-21, the Predator, and later for the cargo aircraft will be varied.
The cargo planes are still being selected. The final decision will be made later, and the pilots will then be certified in their new machines. Whether learning to drive a C-21 or an F-16, the first year is learning how to fly. After that, added training takes about eight months for the F-16, while the C-21 course lasts about six weeks. The C-21 also has two pilots. Lt. Col. Gibney says that operating the C-21 is more procedural, while the F-16 utilizes more technique – the “art” of being a fighter pilot.
The conversion to Predator is different. Control of these from the Fargo base will become operational in the springTraining will essentially be “live” and “on mission.” There are basically no instructional Predators available or on duty in the United States. They are currently in use, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Training will be “on-the-job” and those who convert to this aircraft will be working close to home.
Somdahl and some two dozen more Hooligans are training either as “sensor” operators or as Predator pilots, in Nevada at Creech Air Force Base and later at Nellis Air Force Base at Las Vegas. He says there are Air National Guard units from four other states also training for the Predator mission. They will be finished some time in January 2007. The Predator itself will eventually be based at Grand Forks Air Base.
Somdahl is learning to use the sensor gear, which looks at everything and gathers information. He then passes the data to the pilot, mission coordinator, and possibly to ground forces. “We’re part of a crew that looks for things to keep us safe,” Somdahl says of the job.
A pilot who converts from the F-16 to the C-21 may also train for the Predator, although a “dual” piloting role is unlikely. Their wish to stay with fighters is the main reason why some F-16 pilots will move to other units.
The Predator has an 115-horsepower engine. This is a far cry from the 27,500 pounds of thrust available in the F-16. The Predator moves through the air at high altitude. The F-16 can go vertical from “wheels up” and keep on accelerating.
The entire changeover from fighters, to the “bridge” mission of the C-21, to the combined mission of Predator operations in the spring of 2007, and the Joint Cargo Aircraft Mission of USAF and Army planes at the Hooligans’ home base in Fargo, is set for full operational status in 2010.
North Dakota still has its “Air Force.” The mission may have changed, but the state can be proud that the 119th will still lead the way, doing its job for the U.S. Air Force.
Happy Hooligans have won many awards
The Happy Hooligans have won numerous awards and competition events over the years. Proof of their “Top Gun” capabilities include winning the William Tell competition three times, and topping all other F-4 Phantom units another time. The William Tell competition matches top fighter units in mock battle conditions, along with the support crews, and overall operational skills.
They have also captured the Hughes Achievement Award twice, the only Air National Guard unit to do so, and it is the only F-16 unit to ever win the Hughes, which is given to the top Air Defense fighter unit in the Air Force. Both awards are a comparison of the Best of the Best.
Also notable is the fact that the 119th has flown more than 150,000 hours without an accident since it moved into the F-101. It also is the only unit in all the Air Force branches that has never had a major accident with the F-16.
That amount of flight time translates to about 17 accident-free years in the air. Chalk up another series of awards for the 119th. In March 2006, it was recognized for flying the F-16s for a total of 70,000 hours without mishap.
The Happy Hooligans are the only F-16 unit in the US Air Force, Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve to never have a major accident with their aircraft.
Other awards include 10 outstanding unit awards; four US Air Force Flying Safety plaques; a US Air Force Nuclear Safety Plaque; nine US Air Force Missile Safety Plaques, nine US Air Force Explosive Safety Awards, four Aerospace Defense Command “A” Awards; four Tactical Air Command Safety Awards; three Air Combat Command Safety Awards; the Air National Guard Distinguished Unit Award; three Air National Guard Distinguished Flying Unit Plaques; the Daedalian Maintenance Award; the Daedalian Logistics Effectiveness Award; two Winston P. Wilson Trophies, three National Guard Association Flying Unit Awards, the William Spruance Safety Award; three John J. Pesch Flight Safety Awards; and three National Guard Association Safety Awards;
Jamie Bradley is a former teacher, coach, weekly newspaperman and a lifelong farmer. He has lived in Beulah the past eight years after spending most of his life in Rock Lake.