The Duluth Air National Guard Base is currently home to the 148th Fighter Wing. The 148th Fighter Wing is one of the most decorated Air National Guard fighter units in the country, winning many awards for outstanding performances, such as: The Winston P. Wilson award in 1957, The Ricks Trophy for excellence in 1967 and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award in 1979, 1988, 1999, 2008, and 2009. The most prestigious award was the Raytheon Trophy (Formerly the Hughes Trophy) also in 2009 which is given to the best fighter units in the U.S. Air Force, becoming the only fourth National Guard unit ever to win the award, and the second F-16 unit to receive the honor. The 148th Fighter Wing contains a flying squadron named the 179th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron
or “Bulldogs” which was the first Air National Guard Unit in the area (2). The unit was formed in 1948 with most of the original 50 men came from the 393rd Fighter Squadron that was deactivated at the end of World War II. The new squadron took on the history, honors and colors of the 393rd. Until 1960, when the 148th Fighter Wing was formed, the 179th Fighter Squadron was under the command of the 133rd Fighter Wing located in the Twin Cities Area(2). The facility contains over 35 buildings, and employs about one-thousand people, making it one of the largest employers in the area.(TC)
The Cold War Era – 133rd Fighter Wing
After World War II, the United States saw how useless the defenses of Great Britain was against the Germans, and did not want to have that happen in the event of a similar situation. So the U.S. felt the need to strengthen the Air Force and air defense, especially due to the Soviet Union threat during the Cold War. At this time, the Soviet Union had reverse engineered United States’ B-29 bombers from WWII and created versions of this aircraft that could successfully take off and reach the northern part of the United States from Siberia. The Soviet Union also had their first nuclear weapon as of September 1949, making the threat that much more serious.This spurred the accelerated construction of permanent Air Force and air defense facilities all across the country. The Duluth
International Airport (named the Williamson-Johnson Municipal Airport at that time) became one of the locations that a base that was built in 1951 (9). This facility was an upgrade from the semi-permanent Air National Guard facilities that couldn’t accommodate heavy aircraft(1). The U.S. Air Force ran the majority of the facility, while the Minnesota Air National Guard maintained some facilities on the east end of the field. This has served as an important air defense base in the area, as it serves the major inland port area of Duluth and the rest of the country, protecting the people and the valuable iron ore as it is shipped to the east coast for usage(3).
The formation of the 179th Fighter Squadron due to this threat from the Soviets. The unit was given the mission of air defense of the State of Minnesota, and the surrounding areas(1). Throughout the 1950’s and the early 1960’s this unit stayed on an active 24 hour alert status with the 109th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of Minneapolis. (3) From the time the unit was created until 1954, the Bulldogs flew the F-51D Mustang which it used during the activation in the Korean War. The 179th was called to active-duty on 1 March 1951, but remained in Duluth throughout the extent of the war. After the unit was returned to the control of the State of Minnesota, it continued its peace time mission of air defense of Minnesota.
Over the next few years, the 179th Fighter Squadron grew and upgraded aircraft, beginning in 1954, when the unit received it’s first jet, the F-94A Starfire all-weather interceptor. This new aircraft helped the Bulldogs become a day and night all-weather unit. In 1957, and 1959, the 179th again upgraded to the F-89C Scorpion and the F-89J Scorpion respectively. With the F-89J, came the first presence of nuclear weapons in the Duluth Area, as they were armed with Air-2A Genie atomic rockets, as well as the first data link, permitting better ground control for the pilots and aircraft (10).
Cold War Era – 148th Fighter Wing
On 1 July 1960, the 148th Fighter Group was established by the National Guard Bureau, with the 179th becoming the groups flying squadron. The 148th Fighter Group was assigned the 148th Headquarters, 148th Material Squadron (Maintenance), 148th Combat Support Squadron, and the 148th USAF Dispensary. At the time of establishment, the 148th Fighter Wing overtook the 24-hour alert status for the Air Defense Command mission of Duluth (5). After this transition, bunkers were built to house and store 140 Air-2A Genie missiles, only eight of which did not have active nuclear warheads for training weapons. Combined, those missiles contained 220 kilotons of nuclear explosive material, equivalent to approximately fourteen times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima(1).
The year of 1962 nearly spelled disaster for the United States, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as a nuclear war nearly broke out. The nuclear war that nearly broke out, had it’s origins right in the Duluth Air National Guard BaseDuring the crisis, the Air Force was put on DEFCON 3, and dispersed 161 interceptors carrying nuclear weapons to small airfields across the country. On 25 October 1962, a guard at the Duluth Air National Guard Base noticed a shadowy figure climbing the fence. Due to high tensions, the guard assumed something may have been sabotaged, and shot at the intruder before sounding the sabotage alarm. The alarm system was wired to any nearby airfields that had the nuclear weapon interceptors. At Volk Field, located in Alpena, Michigan, the alarm was received, however, the wrong alarm went off. Pilots scrambled to their fighters, and readied for takeoff to search for Russian bombers coming from Siberia. A few interceptors with armed nuclear warheads were in line to be scrambled as well. Luckily, the planes were grounded, and the pilots notified of the incorrect alarm. The intruder that the guard saw at the Duluth Air National Guard Base, turned out to be a black bear (7).
From 1967 to 1983, the 148th Fighter Wing and it’s technology improved, beginning with the F-102A Delta Dagger replacing the F-89J. The F-102A was upgraded to the F-101B in 1971, and remained in use until 1976. This is when the 148th Fighter Group underwent a new re designation to the 148th Tactical Reconnaissance Group after the assigning of the 4C Phantom II Mach-2 reconnaissance aircraft. The old mission of air defense was changed to a new mission included all weather and conditions reconnaissance. This was short lived, however, because in October 1983, the 148th found itself back in air defense, and was renamed the 148th Fighter Interceptor group, which continued the original mission of air defense. During this change, the 148th received new aircraft from the Vietnam War, the F-4D Phantom II, tactical fighter (5). These fighters were used until the Cold War ended, and the nuclear threat was diminished, however, the unit stood by idly on the defense.
Post Cold War Era
When the 1990’s rolled around, the 148th received their first F-16’s, the F-16A’s, bringing the unit into the modern age with highly technologically advanced aircraft. This enabled a whole new outlook on what the 148th was able to do in terms of air defense and peace keeping. The unit had to undergo a two-year training program to be able to use the After this, the United Air Force changed it’s policy, and the 148th and the 179th once again underwent a name change, to the 148th Fighter Group and the 179th Fighter Squadron. The same year, the first deployment since the Korean Conflict happened to the 148th Fighter Wing, when a unit of Fire Fighters and Security Forces personnel were called to duty in Desert Storm.
In 1995, the 148th Fighter Group received it’s wing status with the addition of a detachment on alert status in Florida, becoming what it is now, the 148th Fighter Wing. In 1999, the 148th underwent its most recent mission conversion from Aie superiority to a General Purpose mission, where the unit trained in air-to-ground tactics and the delivery of bombs, both guided and unguided alike. This was the final transition of mission, as after this training, the unit was said to be able to complete any mission asked of it (2). This lead to the need for the Duluth Air National Guard base to be renovated to meet the new roles of the 148th.
The tragedy of 11 September 2001 is a day that not many American’s will forget. The 148th are definitely in that company, as they were called to help protect Protect George W. Bush, who was in Florida at the time, and was brought to Air Force One for his safety. Jets took off from the Duluth Air National Guard base, as well as from the attachment in Florida. The detachment from Florida handled protecting the President, while the jets scrambled from Duluth were 1,500 miles away from the President at this time, so the mission for them was to provide defense at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport, providing Combat Air Patrols over the impacted areas on the east coast (2).
At the end of 2003, the 148th Fighter Wing underwent one more aircraft conversion to the Block 25 F-16C/D and gave up the detachment in Florida. With the new aircraft, and the training that went with it, the 179th Fighter Squadron was now able to undergo combat deployments. These deployments began a few years later when the 179th was one of the first deployed to Balad Ab, Iraq, in April of 2005. This lead to the 148th deploying more than 200 personnel of the 179th Fighter Squadron. While serving overseas, the unit was tasked with air-to-air and air-to-ground combat missions (5).
In 2005, the Department of Defense recommended the retirement of the 148th Fighter Wing’s F-16’s. This was recommended to be done, as they felt the Duluth area is no longer high up on the military value list, and the money that the Department of Defense would save. Many different scenarios were thought out on how the unit could still use aircraft from a different base in a rotational matter. The community of Duluth was lost at the thought of having the base be retired, as there was an ongoing $26 million renovation going into the base at a time that Duluth was in a financial crisis. Also, the Department of Defense miscalculated the end strength of the base, which consistently scored over 100% for more than 20 years prior to that (9).
The years 2007 and 2008 were big years for the 148th. During multiple deployments, the 148th achieved unprecedented levels of mission performance and global participation. The 148th achieved 100% mission success in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in nearly 2,400 combat hours. This came on top of 100% mission effectiveness in covering the Duluth Home Station Air. Later on in 2007, and early 2008, a good portion of the 148th was deployed on short notice in order to protect the Hickam Hawaiian airspace for nearly three months as the F-15’s there were grounded. (8). The biggest accomplishment of the year, by far, was in 2008, when the 148th returned from Hickam, the unit was deployed to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaksa, to perform alert, where the unit was the first F-16 unit to intercept a Russian “Bear” bomber off the coast of Alaksa. These actions are what earned the 148th the Raytheon Trophy (8).
In 2010, the Duluth Air National Guard Base and the 148th Fighter Wing received the first Block 50 F-16’s available to a National Guard unit. Training commenced for two years to acclimate the pilots to the new aircraft. Shortly after the training was completed, the 148th was called to their fourth deployment since the beginning of 2005. This was the first deployment to Afghanistan for the unit, where the 300 airmen were able to achieve 100% mission success again (8). Currently, the 148th Fighter Wing is waiting on a 2016 deployment (6).
Over the years, the men and women who have called the Duluth Air National Guard base their home, have proudly served their country with outstanding success, and will continue to be a huge influence on the military history of the upper Great Lakes area.
1.) Ray Klosowski: SAGE, Duluth and the Cold War. Part One Two and Three Perf. Ray Klosowski. Youtube.com. NRRI Research, 13 May 2014.
2.) “Factsheets : 148th Fighter Wing History.” 148th Fighter Wing History.148fw.ang.af.mil 22 Oct. 2009
3.) Brief History of the Minnesota Air National Guard and the 133rd Airlift Wing. Minnesota National Guard, MinnesotaNationalGuard.org May 2009.
4.)“Duluth Air National Guard Base.” Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia.org 17 Mar. 2015.
5.)“179th Fighter Squadron” Project Gutenberg. Ed. World Heritage Encyclopedia. gutenberg.us , May 2010.
6.) Herrington, Scott G., Tech. Sgt. “The 148th Fighter Wing Announces Afghanistan Deployment.” The 148th Fighter Wing, 148fw.ang.af.mil 28 June 2012.
7.) Hubbich, Chris. “False Alarm: How a Bear Nearly Started a Nuclear War.” La Crosse Tribune, lacrossetribune.com 30 Jan. 2009.
8.)Kiminski, Jodi L., 2nd Lt. “179th Fighter Squadron Proves Air Superiority.” On Five 54.4 (2009): n. pag. Air National Guard. 148th Fighter Wing, Nov.-Dec. 2009.
9.)Pike, John. “Duluth Air National Guard Base.” Global Security. GlobalSecurity.org N.p., 07 May 2011.
10.)Lloyd H. Cornett, Jr And Mildred W. Johnson. “A Handbook of Aerospace Defense Organization.” pag 11-16 (1980): Office of History Aerospace Defense Center.