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The Early Years
The 111th Fighter Wing history begins with the establishment of the 103rd Observation Squadron in June 1924. The 103rd was founded and eventually commanded by Major Charles Biddle, who had flown in World War I as part of the famous Lafayette Escadrilles (a volunteer group of American pilots flying French aircraft before our country's entry into WWI). This new National Guard squadron was based on the sod fields of Philadelphia Airport as a unit in the Army 28th Division. The 103rd has operated continually since its federal recognition in 1924, evolving over the years to become the 103rd Fighter Squadron; which is the current flying element of the 111th Fighter Wing.
The pilots of the 103rd flew a wide variety of observation aircraft for the next 18 years. The most well-known of these aircraft was the JN-4 Jenny. The Jenny was an open-cockpit bi-plane; but was replaced in the '30s and early '40s with metal-skinned, prop-driven observation monoplanes. The list is long but shows the steady improvement in aircraft: PT-1, BT-1, O-1, O-2H, O-11, O-38, O-46,-47A, O-47B, O-49, O-52, O-57 and P434-1. The squadron also flew liaison type aircraft such as the L-4 and L-1B.
In February 1941, as the war in Europe raged, the unit was ordered to active service, performing antisubmarine patrols off the coast of New England. In 1943, the 103rd finally moved into the latest combat aircraft. First, the pilots and maintenance personnel were given steady upgrades in equipment beginning with the P-39 Aeracobras, P-40 Warhawks, and then the B-25 Mitchell. Eventually this culminated in training on the P-38 Lightning, or to be more specific, the photo-reconnaissance version called the F-5C. The twin-engine F-5C had all the [P-38] guns replaced by cameras.
After a year's worth of training, the 103rd ended up in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of war in 1944 where it operated out of various fields in India and Burma. It was heavily involved in photo reconnaissance activities over Burma, supporting the US Army forces fighting the Japanese in the jungles there. The 103rd personnel stayed in that theater until the end of the war.
The 111th Fighter Wing lineage comes from the 391st Bomb Group (Medium) which was constituted in 1943, with four flying squadrons. It first trained at Mac Dill Field, FL, in the Martin B-26 Marauder, a twin-engine bomber. A year later, they were flying ground attack mission all over Western Europe. The wing initially started operations from England, bombing targets such as airfields, marshalling yards, and bridges in France and the Low Countries to help prepare for the invasion of Normandy. It attacked enemy defenses along the beaches before that invasion. The wing moved to France and Belgium in fall of 1944, extending its area of operations into Germany and contributing vital assistance to ground forces during the Battle of the Bulge. Very late in the war the pilots transitioned to the A-26 Invader aircraft, for combat missions against German railroads, highways, bridges and armor vehicles. For its actions in WW II, the wing was decorated with the Distinguished Unit Citation.
In 1946, the 391st was redesignated the 111th Bombardment Group (Light) and returned back to the Pennsylvania National Guard. That same year, the 103rd Bomb Squadron (Light) was absorbed into its current parent unit. For the rest of the decade the unit flew the B-26 light bomber in its' new mission of Air Defense and Tactical Ground Support.
The Air National Guard (ANG) was reorganized in 1950 and the wing was redesignated as the 111th Composite Wing, as the war in Korea progressed. Training intensified and the wing was activated in April, 1951. Interestingly, many of the pilots and maintenance personnel were split off from their parent squadrons and sent for duty overseas as individuals assigned to other combat units there. Some saw action in the B-26 in Korea. Late in 1951, the 111th was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, obtained an upgrade from the B-26 to the heavier, four-engine, B-29 Superfortress, and was relocated to Fairchild AFB, WA. Other 111th personnel transitioned to the reconnaissance version called the RB-29. These RB-29s were used like the spy satellites of today, except they required actual over flight of the [communist] countries to be photographed.
Late in the Korean conflict, one of the most fascinating incidents in the 111th Fighter Wing's long history occurred. On June 13, 1952, two 111th pilots were flying an RB-29 over the Soviet Union [communist Russia] when they were shot down by a pair of MIG-15s. The RB-29 was never recovered, having crashed in the waters off of Vladivosostok, Russia. The Pennsylvanian families of the Air Guard pilots were told they had simply "vanished" in a weather-reconnaissance flight near Japan. It wasn't until the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of communist archives that the relatives found out the truth in 1993. It is unknown as to whether any of the pilots or crew of this aircraft were captured by the Soviets at that time.
In 1952, the unit was removed from active duty status and personnel were returned to the Air National Guard to be part of the redesignated 111th Fighter Bomber Group. This time, the unit was given one of the best performing aircraft of WWII, the F-51 Mustang.
The new decade brought some big changes to the 111th. In 1962, the unit made the 'large' transition from the F-89J to the lumbering heavy transport, the Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter, a double-decked, four-engine airplane. One year later, the 111th ended its' 39-year history at Philadelphia airport and moved to brand new facilities on the north end of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station. The new mission moved the wing into the Military Air Transport Service (MATS); the C-97 was used to transport troops and cargo all over the world. The unit's flying personnel were used heavily during the Vietnam War and over two hundred members earned Vietnam Service medals for their flights into that war zone.
In 1969, the unit changed mission yet again - returning to its original roots as an observation unit. The new 111th Tactical Air Support Group initially flew the U-3A Blue Canoe, a Cessna-310, as an intermediate aircraft until it received the aircraft it needed for Airborne Forward Air Control (AFAC): the O-2 Skymaster. The O-2 was a two propeller aircraft used early in the Vietnam War for coordination between ground forces and fighter aircraft (the "O" stands for observation).
The Forward Air Control mission was sustained with the unit's switch to the OA-37 Dragonfly in 1981. The OA-37, was a heavier derivative of the T-37 trainer, and had been developed specifically for the Vietnam conflict. The unit made several deployments to Central America in the 1980s to fly with our allies there, who had the same aircraft.
The 111th finally received a current line aircraft with the transition to the OA-10A Thunderbolt II (although usually called the Warthog) in 1988.
Pilots continued their previous mission of providing AFAC and Combat Search and Rescue, although in a much more combat-worthy fighter. The unit was redesignated as the 111th Fighter Group in 1992 and then as the 111th Fighter Wing in 1995. The A-10 allowed the wing to take part in the new deployments to Southwest Asia following Desert Storm.
Operation Southern Watch
The wing took advantage of this aircraft upgrade by volunteering for a 90-day deployment to Kuwait in 1995, to support joint combat flight operations for Operation Southern Watch over Iraq. Twelve aircraft were deployed to Al Jaber AB - a joint-use base by U.S. and Kuwait Air Forces. The base was fairly austere as it had suffered considerable war-damage from Desert Storm I. Missions included Combat Search and Rescue alert, Kill Box flights over Iraq, Airborne Forward Air Control and joint training missions over Kuwait. This is considered the best of the wing's deployments to Kuwait, because our personnel were free to see the country and meet its people.
September 1996 cover of National Guard magazine featuring 111th Fighter Wing aircraft in flight over Al Jaber, Kuwait.
About 40% of the wing participated in the deployment; another interesting element was a small side deployment to Qatar. The 111th was the first Air Guard fighter unit deployed to Al Jaber and also the first ANG Wing to volunteer for a solo 3-month Operation Southern Watch deployment. The combat flight missions over Iraq were to enforce United Nations resolutions and occurred in the decade between Desert Storm I and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The 111th Fighter Wing's first deployment to Al Jaber, Kuwait, was the subject of the cover story of National Guard Magazine in September 1996. The wing was given the honor of this cover story because it had volunteered for a large-scale deployment to an austere base to support flight operations over Iraq in the pre-AEF era.
In 1996, the 111th FW pilots transitioned from the OA-10 AFAC mission to the universal A-10 "attack" mission. Now our pilots primarily task was to provide Close Air Support (CAS) of our joint service ground forces, as well as performing AFAC and CSAR duties as before. This change to the normal A-10 role aligned us with all the other A-10 units in the active duty and Air Reserve Component (ARC).
The second 111th FW deployment to Al Jaber occurred in 1999, again to support joint combat flight operations for Operation Southern Watch over Iraq. Missions included Combat Search and Rescue alert, Kill Box flights over Iraq, Airborne Forward Air Control and joint training missions over Kuwait. Use of the A-10 was more limited than before, due to the aircraft's relative lack of a precision weapon capability [except the AGM-65 Maverick missile]. Interestingly, this deployment spurred the ANG A-10 Wing Commanders at a conference in 2000, to search for ways to improve the precision performance of this venerable aircraft (which resulted in Targeting Pod integration in 2003).
Operation Enduring Freedom
Immediately following the 9/11 attacks on NYC and Washington, DC, the 111th FW voluntarily deployed on very short notice back to Al Jaber to support joint combat flight operations for Operation Southern Watch over Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom over Afghanistan. Missions included Combat Search and Rescue alert and joint training missions over Kuwait. 111th Weapons personnel assisted in the loading of combat ordnance for the first sorties into Afghanistan in November, 2001.
From October 2002 - January 2003, the wing was the lead unit for a short notice, voluntary, out-of-cycle AEF deployment to Bagram AB, Afghanistan. Bagram had been a massive Soviet base during the decade when they occupied Afghanistan (1979-89), but was almost completely destroyed in that period and civil war afterwards. The 111th aircraft supported joint combat flight operations with US Army, Special Forces, and coalition ground forces in Afghanistan. The A-10s were flown and maintained in the most primitive conditions, yet the 111th personnel flew 100% of the assigned tasking for their entire deployment - at four times the normal sortie rate of home. Other unique aspects of the operation were total 'blacked out' night-time operations (no lights on the field or camp - everything was done by night vision goggles); an extensive number of mines/UXOs around and on the air field; extreme weather conditions and enemy shelling using 107mm rockets.
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Upon returning to the U.S. in January 2003, the 111th FW again volunteered to participate in another SWA deployment to Al Jaber AB, Kuwait [fourth visit] from February 2003 - May 2003. The wing deployed for joint combat flight operations, in support of US Army, Marine and British ground forces as part of the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Wing personnel were initially stationed at Al Jaber before transferring to Tallil AB, Iraq, midway through the initial campaign. Tallil was a former Iraqi air force base, which had not been used in a decade.
During this campaign, which included direct support for coalition armor forces during the entire invasion from the Kuwait border, through Basra and Baghdad, the wing pilots and maintainers successfully operated at a very high sortie rate. Tallil operations set another milestone due to its austere nature and forward location (which was essential to support the armor's thrust toward the capital).
The 111th Fighter Wing's achievement of voluntarily deploying to austere bases in two separate combat operations within a five month period  was part of the reason the unit was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, with Valor, in 2005. It also was awarded the Reserve Family Readiness Award in 2003 and the ANG Distinguished Flying Unit Award in 2004.
Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor
The 111th Fighter Wing converted to the Litening II Targeting pod in 2004; and participated in new DAWG EYE / ROVER training in that same year. The 111th voluntarily donated one of it's airframes in 2004 to be converted to the A-10C, for the year-long testing of that new system. The first A-10C [111th FW tail # 641] was rolled out in January, 2005. Future plans call for a conversion to the A-10C aircraft, which is a major upgrade from the analog to the digital realm, in the 2006-08 timeframe.