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K.I. Sawyer AFB: 473d Fighter Group

K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base

The 473d Fighter Group, which called K.I. Sawyer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula home from early 1956 until late 1959, has been active during the World War II and was even an important part of the Cold War. Throughout its commission, it has also been based at Grand Central Air Terminal in California as well as the Ephrata Army Air Base in Washington. While at K.I. Sawyer, the 473d Fighter Group provided a vital service in protecting the northern United States boarder and protecting the Air Force’s fleet of B-52 bombers.

P-38 Training Facility

The 473d Fighter Group was founded on October 12, 1943 as a host group. A host group is comprised of multiple military groups. It was activated on November 1, 1943 and was located at the infamous Grand Central Air Terminal (GCAT), which is commonly associated with the likes of Emelia Earhart as well as numerous Hollywood films, in California [11][4].  While the 473d was activated during World War II, it was never initially directly involved with a battle. It served as a training facility for P-38 aircraft pilots before their deployment [4].

World War II played out in conjunction with many war-related technological advancements. More powerful weapons and improved tactics was the name of the game. A major player in this advancement was the use of aircraft such as bombers, fighters, and other units for transportation of soldiers and logistics. To keep up with the advancts and need for aircraft pilots, schools were created to train soldiers in the art of operating the various aircraft.

P-38 Aircraft (

This was important, as the P-38 was commissioned as a bomber-interceptor and later a fighter plane, meaning the pilots had to be skilled in its operation, especially its high speed [8]. These aircraft provided a means of defending against enemy bombers, which potentially could deliver a very large payload and even nuclear missiles during the Cold War. These training facilities focused less on how to fly a plane, as they assumed that the pilots attending the training knew the basics of flight, and more on how to operate the P-38 specifically, with its relatively unique two prop engines extending to two tails connected by a stabilizer in the rear [2].

The P-38 played a vital role in the Pacific Theater of WWII, such as the attack on Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was the flagship commander behind the Pearl Harbor attack. The P-38s had to fly a round trip of 1,000 miles, demonstrating the skill and experience needed to operate the aircraft for such a mission [8].

While the 473d spent most of its initial existence based in California, it moved to Ephrata Army Air Base, Washington for a very short stint in late March 1944 before it disbanded that same March [4].

K.I. Sawyer AFB

On January 8, 1956, the 473d Fighter Group was reinstated as the 473d Fighter Group (Air Defense) and was moved to the newly founded K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base (AFB), just south of Marquette, Michigan on April 8 [7]. Previously, K.I. Sawyer AFB was a commercial air strip used by Nationwide Airlines. The 473d, under the command of Lt Col Robert L Brocklehurst, was the first group assigned to the newly founded K.I. Sawyer AFB and consisted mostly of F-101 Voodoo aircraft, a supersonic fighter jet mostly used for long-range bomber escorts [9]. Upon its reactivation it was placed under the 4710th Air Defense Wing [5].

McDonnell F-101A (S/N 53-2425) from Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo)
McDonnell F-101 “”

The Cold War called for America to strengthen its defense, especially along country borders so while located at K.I. Sawyer AFB, the 473d was assigned to protect the Great Lakes and the northern United States border during the Cold War. Canada initially worked closely with the United States to defend North America. However, tensions grew between the two countries due to the logistics of the United States having nuclear weapons on Canadian soil [10]. Having aircraft along the northern border of the United States allowed for protection of North America in conjunction with Canada as well as a line of defense if anything was to happen between the U.S. and Canada.

In 1958, the 473d Fighter Group became host to the 4042 strategic wing, part of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). SAC was responsible for control of the nuclear weapons, including the intercontinental missiles, acted as a governor of foreign affairs, and lived the saying, “peace through absolute strength” [12]. K.I. Sawyer become home to some of the SAC’s B-52 bombers as part of a strategy to spread out the B-52 aircraft across the country, making it exponentially more difficult for the Soviet Union to destroy all of the B-52s with a single surprise attack [1]. This preventative measure was in order to avoid another tragedy like that of Pearl Harbor.

August 1958 introduced the 62d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron to K.I. Sawyer, which became a sector of the 473d Fighter Group Wing. While stationed at K.I. Sawyer, the 62nd stayed very wary and aware of the ever increasing threat to North America from the Soviet Union as well as the northern border of the United States as a result form the tensions with Canada. The 62nd Fighter-Intercepter Squadron would also be involved in the Cuban Missile crisis where they were equipped with nuclear weapons. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the aircraft carrying the nuclear weapons returned to K.I. Sawyer AFB [3].

On April 1, 1959 the 473d Fighter Group (Air Defense) was transferred to the 37th air division [5]. During this time, the 484th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, which also originated at Grand Central Air Terminal, was assigned to the 473d and consisted of Northrop F-89 Scorpion aircraft. However, due to the construction of K.I. Sawyer’s runway, the 484th did not become operational and disbanded before the aircraft even arrived [6].

In late September 1959, the 56th Fighter Group was transferred to K.I. Sawyer from O’Hare Airport. The 56th was the original host for the 62d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron.Upon its arrival, the 56th Fighter Group absorbed the personal and the equipment of the 473d Fighter Group, therefore taking over its duties and missions. On September 30, 1959 the 473d was disbanded for a final time [3].

While the 473d Fighter Group (Air Defense) isn’t as well known as the 410th Bomber Wing (read more hereor the 484th interceptor (read more here), it is crucial to recognize this group and its importance both in its time outside of K.I. Sawyer AFB as a training group and its time at K.I. Sawyer as a means of defending North America and the United States’ northern border resulting from tension with Canada during the Cold War.

Primary Sources

  1. Paul, A. W. “IRISNUM= 01056917.” Air Force History Index, 23 Aug. 1985.
  2. P-38 Flight Characteristics. Dir. S.C. Burden. 1943. Film.
  3. McMullen, Richard F. (1964) “The Fighter Interceptor Force 1962-1964” ADC Historical Study No. 27, Air Defense Command, Ent Air Force Base, CO. 22 March 2000

Secondary Sources

  1. Maurer  (1983), Air Force Combat Units Of World War II, p. 345-346
  2. Cornett, Lloyd H and Johnson, Mildred W (1980). A Handbook of Aerospace Defense Organization, 1946–1980 (PDF). Peterson AFB, CO: Office of History, Aerospace Defense Center.
  3. Maurer (1982), Combat Squadrons of the Air Force , p. 582
  4. “K.I. Sawyer History.” History Timeline.  9 Oct. 2015.
  5. Dwyer, Larry; “Lockheed P-38 Lightning.” Aviation History Online Museum (1997). 15 May 2014.
  6. Writer, Staff. “McDonnell F-101 Voodoo – Development and Operational History, Performance Specifications and Picture Gallery.” McDonnell F-101 Voodoo. 29 May 2015.
  7. Hayden, Peter T. (1993). The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis:Canadian Involvement Reconsidered. Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Institution of Strategic Studies. p. 117.
  8. Eberhardt, Tom. “Historical Timeline – 1920s.” Historical Timeline – 1920s. PCR Services Corporation (PCR).
  9. History Channel. “Strategic Air Command.” YouTube. 17 Feb. 2015.
  10. Robertson, Patsy (2009). “Factsheet 56 Operations Group (AETC)”. Air Force Historical Research Agency