The 111th Attack Wing history begins with the establishment of the 103rd Observation Squadron, in June 1924. The 103rd was founded and first commanded by Maj. Charles Biddle, who had flown in WWI 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 and operated from the sod fields of Philadelphia Airport as a unit in the 28th Division [Army]. The 103rd has operated continually since its federal recognition in 1924 and today is known as the 103rd Attack Squadron; which is the flying element of the 111th Attack Wing.
From 1924 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-6H 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, L-1A, O-52, L-2B and P-43A-1. The squadron also flew liaison type aircraft such as the L-4 and L-1B.
In Feb. 1941, as the war in Europe raged, the unit was ordered to active service, performing antisubmarine patrols and target towing 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. In 1944, the unit was designated the 40th Photo-Recon. 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 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 remained in that theater until the end of the war.
The 111th Attack Wing lineage comes from the 391st Bomb Group (Medium) which was constituted in 1943, with four flying squadrons of which two were the 103rd and 117th. It first trained at MacDill Field, FL, in the Martin B-26 Marauder, a twin-engine bomber. A year later, they were flying ground attack missions 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 and attacked enemy defenses along the beaches before the 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, V-1 launch sites and armored vehicles. For its actions in WWII, the wing was decorated with the Distinguished Unit Citation.
The Air National Guard (ANG) was organized in 1950 while the Korean War progressed and the wing was designated as the 111th Composite Wing. 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. 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 FW'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 in 1993 that relatives learned the truth. It is unknown as to whether any of the pilots or crew of this aircraft were captured by the Soviet's 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 1953-54 years saw the wing make the significant leap from propeller to jet aircraft. First the pilots and maintenance personnel were given the T-33 Shooting Star to fly and train on. That set up the arrival of the unit's newest aircraft, the F-84 Thunder Streak, which arrived in 1954. In 1955, the unit was redesignated the 111th Fighter Interceptor Group; which meant a change in mission from tactical fighter operations to that of air defense. In that era, many of the aircraft of the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard were engaged in the 'Cold War' with the Soviet Union. Air defense aircraft were used to protect the U.S. against Soviet bombers which could have attacked American cities with nuclear weapons. As part of that effort, in 1956 the 103rd began training with a different aircraft: the F-94 A, B and rocket-firing C models. The C model was named the Star Fire. The last jet fighter aircraft of this time was introduced to the unit in May 1959: the F-89H and J Scorpion, an all-weather rocket and missile firing interceptor. Pilots operated air defense alert duty starting in 1960.
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 around 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 missions 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 Cessna Super Skymaster. The O-2 was a two propeller aircraft used early in the Vietnam War for coordination between ground forces and fighter aircraft.
The AFAC mission was picked up with the unit's switch to the Cessna OA-37 Dragonfly in 1981. The OA-37, had been developed specifically for the Vietnam conflict. The unit made several deployments to Central America in the 1980s training with allies also flying the OA-37.
The 111th finally received a current line aircraft with the transition to the Fairchild OA-10A Thunderbolt II or Warthog in 1988. Pilots continued their previous mission of providing AFAC and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), 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.
The wing volunteered for a 90-day deployment to Kuwait in 1995 in support of Operation Southern Watch. Twelve aircraft were deployed to Al Jaber AB - a joint-use base used by U.S. and Kuwait Air Forces. From there the 103rd Fighter Squadron flew missions enforcing the "No Fly" sanctions put in place by the United Nations following Desert Storm. The 111th was the first Air Guard fighter unit deployed to Al Jaber and first Air Guard unit to volunteer for a solo 3-month Operation Southern Watch deployment. This deployment became the cover story of the National Guard Magazine in September 1996 honoring the 111th's accomplishments in the pre-AEF era.
The 111th returned for a third time to Al Jaber in support of Operation Southern Watch in Nov. after the attacks of 9/11. While deployed to Kuwait, Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off in Afghanistan. While the pilots of the 103rd continued providing Combat Search and Rescue alert and joint training mission over Kuwait, the 111th Weapons personnel were assisted in the loading of combat ordnance for some of the first sorties into Afghanistan in November, 2001.
Just one year after returning from Kuwait, 250 111th personnel deployed as the 103rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (103 EFS) for an "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 the civil war afterwards. The 103 EFS flew combat missions, day and night supporting US Army, Special Forces, and coalition ground forces in Afghanistan. Living and working conditions (tents and abandoned Russian buildings) were primitive yet the 103 EFS flew nearly 100% of the assigned tasking for their entire deployment - at four times the normal sortie rate of home. These results were produced in spite of the austere conditions, enemy rocket attacks to the base, constant threat of unexploded ordnance and extreme winter weather.
One month after returning from Afghanistan, the 111th FW again volunteered to participate in another Southwest Asia deployment for their fourth deployment to Al Jaber AB, Kuwait from February 2003 - May 2003. This time the 103 EFS saw the coalition forces' population at Al Jaber swell from about 1500 to 8000 personnel and from approximately 40 fighter aircraft to more than 150 aircraft including A-10s F-15Es, F-16s, F/A-18s AV-8s, AH-1s and C-130s. The 103 EFS provided CAS to U.S. and British Army & Marine forces fighting the first battles of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And just ten days after the war began, a small number of 103 EFS pilots, maintainers and weapons loaders forward deployed to Tallil Airbase, Iraq, a large military airbase near An Nasiriyah abandoned by the Iraqis during Desert Storm. 111th owned aircraft were the first A-10s to fire the AGM-65 K model Maverick missile. Missions flown from Tallil were the first flights from that base in more than ten years and afforded the pilots more "on-station" time for ground troops since they were 150-miles closer to Baghdad than if they'd operated from Al Jaber. The 103 EFS along with personnel, equipment and A-10s from the 74th, 110th and 190th Expeditionary Fighter Squadrons returned to Al Jaber AB when the 303rd EFS from Whiteman AFB, MO deployed to Tallil. The 103rd EFS continued to provide direct support for coalition armor forces during the entire invasion from the Kuwait border, through Basra and Baghdad and as far north as Kirkuk until "major combat operations" were terminated in May '03.
After several planning conferences and weeks of work, the 111th learned it would again deploy the 103rd EFS, but instead of Afghanistan it would deploy to Iraq and operate from Al Asad Airbase in a joint effort with the 190th EFS from Boise, Id. as part of the 2007 "Summer Surge". This was the first time A-10s would deploy to Al Asad and in the end, only one of three squadrons that would operate A-10s to this vast, abandoned Iraqi Air Force base in the Anbar Province of western Iraq. In June of 2007, the first members of the 103rd EFS would leave for Al Asad and later be joined by 248 members of the 111th. The 103rd EFS was organized under the 438th Expeditionary Operations Group and the 111th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron became the 438th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron under the 438 EOG. In just two months the 103rd EFS flew more than 625 missions over Iraq totaling over 2500 hours compared to the usual 3800 hours the unit would fly in one year at home. Maintenance teams generated aircraft to meet 100% of the tasked sorties and accomplished five phase inspections while Ops and Maintenance conducted 24 hour operations for 60 consecutive days. While deployed to Al Asad, the unit volunteered for yet another "out of cycle" AEF deployment.
In July of 2008 the first members of the 103rd EFS arrived at Bagram AB and by the beginning of Aug 246 members of the 111th had taken over A-10A+ operations there. While deployed the 103rd EFS flew 628 combat missions over Afghanistan totaling over 2400 hours. A-10 pilots supported coalition forces both day and night primarily in the rugged terrain and often poor weather conditions of northeastern Afghanistan with more than 25,000 rounds of 30MM, 33 LGBs, 48 Mk-82s and over 110 rockets. On one mission, 103rd pilots saved the lives of 12 French soldiers who had been ambushed by approximately 150 enemy fighters in the mountains near the Taqab Valley. In Sept. of 2008 the last four A-10s left Bagram for what would likely be the final combat deployment of the 111th in the A-10.
In Sept. of 2010, the BRAC actions of 2005 seemingly sealed the end of the flying history for the wing as the final four A-10s departed Willow Grove.
Reinventing itself during the final days of transition, the unit took on a diverse group of missions including a rapid base construction and infrastructure installation unit and an Air Force operational planning unit to develop strategies, manning requirements and mission sustainment in support of wartime or peacetime contingencies.
In April of 2013, the 111th received confirmation of their selection to a new and exciting mission. Breathing life back into the wing's aviation history, the unit will stand-up a flight operations center to fly remotely piloted aircraft, namely the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, starting in Oct. 2014.
Although no aircraft will physically be stationed on the base, a sophisticated command center will house operators and pilots for the technically advanced aircraft. Flying over territory thousands of miles away, the aircraft will provide instantaneous information to combatant commanders, provide extended surveillance capabilities, battlefield reconnaissance and precision air strikes when needed. Set to officially commence in October of 2014, renovation to existing facilities will house the new project.
On June 7, 2014, during the Pa. ANG's annual Flight of Freedom event, the wing was ceremonially redesignated from the 111th Fighter Wing to the 111th Attack Wing and the 103rd Fighter Squadron to the 103rd Attack Squadron.
For more than 90 years, generations of 111th guardsmen and women have shown a deep commitment to their nation. From September 11, 2001 to September 11, 2008 this unit deployed five times to fight the Global War on Terror. They embody the Air Force core values of integrity, service and excellence!