From single-engine propeller fighters to the KC-135 Stratotanker, the Air National Guard has had a presence at Pittsburgh International Airport since 1948.
The unit, part of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, has gone through many changes – and missions – in its more than seven decades and continues to be a key partner of the airport. Earlier this month, the base celebrated its 75th anniversary.
“Our military partners are incredibly important to the airport and our region, and we are proud to recognize their anniversary,” said Vince Gastgeb, senior vice president of Corporate & Government Relations at Pittsburgh International Airport. “We work closely on a variety of initiatives, and we look forward to another 75 years of partnership.”
In 1964, what began as the 146th and 147th Fighter Squadrons were formed into the 171st Air Transport Group at Greater Pittsburgh Airport. A few years later, the unit was redesignated as the 171st Aeromedical Airlift Group and was called to active duty. Its mission was to move patients from casualty staging bases and military installations in Vietnam to destination treatment hospitals.
The Pennsylvania Air National Guard first came to Pittsburgh in 1948 with the 146th and 147th Fighter Squadrons operating Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft. (Image courtesy of 171st Air Refueling Wing)
In the 1970s, the Department of Defense called for the Air National Guard to play an even greater role in fulfilling total U.S. force requirements. As a result, in October 1972, the 171st Aeromedical Airlift Wing was redesignated as the 171st Air Refueling Wing, or ARW.
In that role, the 171st has provided critical aerial refueling to protect the skies at home and abroad. Its go-to aircraft has been the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, able to pump more than 700 gallons of fuel per minute and powered by four turbofan engines. The Stratotanker can carry about 200,000 pounds – or 33,000 gallons – of fuel when fully loaded.
The unit rapidly deployed during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and had a KC-135 airborne within minutes of the first aircraft crashes. It provided aerial refueling to jet fighter aircraft that were on Combat Air Patrols over the eastern United States. Meanwhile, on the base, maintainers and aircrews of the 171st ensured their aircraft were airworthy and ready for immediate deployment.
A KC-135E Stratotanker aircraft from the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Pennsylvania Air National Guard, prepares to refuel an A-7D Corsair II aircraft, also from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, during Exercise KEYSTONE BADGER on May 25, 1987. (Photo by SSgt. David McLeod/U.S. National Archives)
The U.S. Air Force has recognized the unit many times with its Outstanding Unit Award. The award goes to units that have distinguished themselves through meritorious service or outstanding achievements, which can include actions of national or international significance and combat operations involving conflict or hostile fire.
At one such celebration earlier this month, guests viewed historic base memorabilia, toured a KC-135 aircraft, and witnessed a Pennsylvania Air National Guard Hall of Fame Posthumous Induction Ceremony.
The 171st ARW provides an annual economic impact of more than $56 million through employment, purchases and construction, and employs about 400 full-time employees and 1,000 traditional guard members.
Pittsburgh International Airport is also home to the 911th Airlift Wing, operating C-17 Globemaster aircraft for aeromedical evacuation, strategic airlift and agile combat support.
KC-135 aircraft assigned to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 171st Air Refueling wing located near Pittsburgh are parked on the flight line on May 19, 2020. (Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Shawn Monk/171st Air Refueling Wing)