Colo. Air National Guard commemorates 95 years of service

  • Published
  • By Janelle Darnell
  • 140th Wing Public Affairs
The Colorado Air National Guard has a proud history that can be traced back to June 27, 1923, when the 120th Aero Observation Squadron, 45th Division, Aviation, was mustered into service as part of the Colorado Army National Guard. Initially composed of eight officers and 50 enlisted members, the unit flew the Curtis JN-4e – better known as the Jenny – an aircraft which proved to be unsuitable for flying at Denver elevations.

Nonetheless, the men of the 120th persevered flying the Jennies just before sunrise and after sunset, when the air was less turbulent.

Theo Colorado Air National Guard’s early years were reflective of the early history of aviation itself. Pilots struggled with crude and underpowered planes, pioneering the coming role of aviation. Dedicated ground crews kelp them in the air, literally. The obstacles were many: lack of equipment, lack of funds … at one time the parent command for Colorado’s first Airmen was the Army Cavalry.

In 1934, Col Henry “Hap” Arnold ordered the Colorado Guard planes into the Airmail Service, with maintenance crews on full-time status.

In later years, they would transition through a variety of more powerful observation aircraft such as the Douglas 0-2, Consolidated 0-17, and Douglas 0-38.

The unit eventually started flying the 0-47 – a three-seat, all metal, single-engine aircraft – that took the unit into World War II.

Mobilization for the "Big One" took place on January 6, 1941, 11 months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The unit, then 19 officers and 116 enlisted members, moved to Biggs Field, Texas. It remained intact until the outbreak of World War II, when the 120th was disbanded and its members dispersed to share their knowledge and experience with their comrades in the nation's rapidly growing Army Air Force.

Following the war in 1946, the Colorado Air National Guard was formed as a separate air arm of the state's National Guard. Its first unit, the newly reorganized 120th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) flying the P-51 Mustangs, was the first Air National Guard unit to obtain federal recognition nationally – a year ahead of the U.S. Air Force. Also formed was the 140th Fighter Group, which would later become the 140th Wing.

The next decade saw the Guard grow to a powerful force equipped with F-52 Mustang fighters. When Communists struck Korea in 1950, The Colorado Guard was ready to answer the call. Following the Korean War, the Airmen of the Colorado Air National Guard returned home, and within a year, they had their first jets.

The 120th Tactical Fighter Squadron also organized an aerial demonstration team called the "Minutemen." This team was federally recognition in 1956, making it the first and only Air National Guard precision aerial demonstration team. Headed by Col. Walt Williams, the team performed in more than 100 air shows for more than three million people in 47 states and five foreign countries before being disbanded in favor of a fledgling team of Air Force pilots, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

In June of 1959, the Colorado Air National Guard assumed command of Buckley Field. This was the first time an Air National Guard organization became a base command during peacetime. The COANG acted as the parent base to the construction of the then-Titan I missile complex east of Denver.

The Colorado Air National Guard was called to federal active duty several times throughout the Cold War.
• April and May 1951 the pilots of the 120th were called into service in Korea
• 1961 Berlin Crisis
• 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis
• 1968 Pueblo Crisis – the 120th was the first Air National Guard unit ever to be called to combat

This highly decorated unit mobilized for service in Operation Desert Storm, Operations Northern and Southern Watch, Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, in addition to many domestic efforts.

Hours after the planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, dedicated aircrews had jets patrolling Colorado skies ready to challenge any who would threaten freedom. That mission became the Air Sovereignty Alert mission and continues today.

Despite being on alert 24/7, the 140th has become the combat commander unit of choice for sustained combat operations.

For the first time in its history, the 140th Wing was activated and sent to an austere base in 2003 to help secure western Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The organization performed flawlessly while hunting for SCUD missiles, destroying enemy offensive capabilities, and protecting ground forces as the invasion progressed. Over a period of just 2 months, the 120th Fighter Squadron flew more than 500 sorties and dropped over 200 tons of weapons, including the very first GPS-guided weapon dropped in combat by a Block 30 F-16. This activation was just the first in a series of combat deployments that would continue for over a decade.

The tradition of firsts continued in 2004 as the unit deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq, as the first ever F-16 squadron to operate from this former Iraqi Air Force base. The wing returned to Balad in 2007 and again in 2009.

While the Wing continued to support these continuous combat deployments, it was simultaneously creating and growing a strong relationship with Jordan under the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. This relationship has grown to historic levels and has become a model for this program throughout the world.

In the 15 years following 9/11, the 140th Wing has supported combatant commanders on four different continents and is slated to continue this arduous schedule for years to come.

The 140th Wing is currently preparing for its next combat deployment in early 2019.