The second youngest branch of the U.S. military is about to celebrate a huge birthday.
Sept. 18 will mark 75 years since W. Stuart Symington was appointed the first Secretary of the Air Force following the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 under President Harry S. Truman. Symington’s appointment officially made the Air Force an independent branch after being part of the Army for nearly 40 years.
Today, the Air Force has grown to become the largest air service defense force in the world. More than 5,500 aircraft and nearly 678,000 service members make up the Air Force across active duty, civilian, reserve and guard roles as of 2020.
Pittsburgh International Airport is home to the Air National Guard’s 171st Air Refueling and the Air Force Reserve’s 911th Airlift wings. Approximately 1,200 guardsmen are employed by the 171st while nearly 1,600 reservists and civilian workers are based at the 911th.
Pittsburgh’s history with the Air Force dates back almost to its inception.
The 171st was established in 1947 by the National Guard Bureau and was equipped with World War II-era Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft; it would later gain an additional airlift role. The 911th, meanwhile, was formed in early 1963 as a troop carrier wing located at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport.
Both units played key roles for the Air Force during the Vietnam War. The 171st performed aeromedical evacuation missions, flying more than 500 sorties and rescuing over 11,000 patients with Lockheed C-121 Super Constellation aircraft. The 911th flew troops and vital cargo between the U.S. and Vietnam during much of the war, using Douglas C-124 Globemaster II transports.
The post-Vietnam period would bring more change to both Pittsburgh units. The 171st upgraded its fighter aircraft and transitioned to its present-day aerial refueling mission, bringing A-7 Corsair attack planes and Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers to the unit. The 911th would adopt Fairchild C-123 Provider airlifters for U.S. missions in Panama.
A C-130 Hercules from the 911th Airlift Wing sits on the apron at the Wings over Pittsburgh airshow in September 2011. The 911th upgraded to the C-130 Hercules in 1980 and would fly the type from PIT for nearly 40 years. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)
In 1980, the 911th Airlift Wing transitioned to the Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport, an aircraft type it would operate for nearly 40 years. The C-130s enhanced the unit’s capabilities for missions in Central and South America and allowed the 911th to participate in major exercises farther away from home, including in Alaska and Europe.
Nearly 300 members from the 171st Air Refueling Wing volunteered and deployed in the 1990s during the Gulf War. With its KC-135s, the unit transferred 4.6 million gallons of fuel to more than 3,000 allied aircraft while achieving a 100 percent mission effectiveness rate.
Additionally, 400 volunteers from the 911th Airlift Wing mobilized to the Middle East to assist with airlift operations in the region.
The decade also saw the 171st and 911th provide support for NATO peacekeeping operations in Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The 171st offloaded over 1.4 million pounds of fuel to receiver aircraft, while the 911th conducted airdrops of vital supplies to allied forces.
Pittsburgh guard members were also one of the first to respond to the September 11th attacks in 2001. The 171st scrambled a KC-135 on that day to refuel fighter jets protecting the skies from hijacked aircraft and would continue to do so for several months.
U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq stemming from the attacks would involve the Pittsburgh units through regular deployments to the region. Other operations in the 2000s supported by Pittsburgh airmen included Hurricane Katrina relief and operations in Libya.
Airmen assigned to the 911th Airlift Wing work to tow a C-17 aircraft into a newly opened hangar located on base in June 2020. The hangar was completed to accommodate the larger C-17. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)
The 21st century would bring new aircraft to both units. The 171st enhanced its aerial refueling mission with upgraded KC-135T tankers in 2004, while the 911th transitioned to the larger Boeing C-17 Globemaster III in 2018. Currently, the 171st flies 16 KC-135Ts and the 911th flies 8 C-17s from PIT.
Most recently, members of the 171st and 911th have provided relief for the COVID-19 pandemic. In August 2021, both units participated in the mass evacuation of Afghanistan with the 911th’s C-17s assisting in the airlift of more than 120,000 evacuees by coalition forces.
In February of this year, the 171st was awarded the Air Force’s prestigious Outstanding Unit Award for meritorious service from 2019-2020. It was the 11th time the unit earned the award from the Air Force.
The 171st Air Refueling Wing currently flies 16 KC-135T Stratotankers from PIT. (Photo by Evan Dougherty)