The “Eagle era” at Eglin AFB, Florida has come to an end.
Yesterday, the last three F-15s assigned to Eglin’s 33rd Fighter Wing left the base, heading for retirement at the Air Force “boneyard,” located in Arizona.
With the departure of those jets, the wing’s ramp will sit empty until next year, when it begins receiving the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Arrival of the new aircraft will also usher in a new mission for the unit, which will begin training F-35 pilots and crew chiefs. In that role, the 33rd will become part of Air Education and Training Command, ending a long association with Air Combat Command as an operational fighter wing.
While the 33rd was an Eagle unit for more than three decades, it was sometimes overshadowed by the better-know 1st Fighter Wing, stationed at Langley AFB, Virginia. The 1st Wing became the Air Force’s original F-15 Wing in 1976, and was sometimes billed as “America’s First Team.”
But the 33rd was first when it counted. Both the Eglin wing and its counterpart from Langley deployed to the Middle East during Operation Desert Shield in 1990. The 1st, operating from Dhahran AB in eastern Saudi Arabia, which (at times) appeared to be ground zero for the global media. Members of the wing were frequently interviewed by journalists and the wing’s presence became a symbol of U.S. resolve against Iraqi aggression.
The 33rd’s beddown base was at Tabuk, in the northwestern corner of the royal kingdom. Visits from the press were less frequent, leaving the wing to concentrate on combat preparations.
As conflict loomed, arm chair strategists (largely) assumed that the 1st Wing would lead the charge into Baghdad, with the “Nomads” of the 33rd securing airspace in other areas. But according to Air Force legend, the commander of the 1st Fighter Wing requested another assignment for his unit just before the air war began. Stunned, the commander of Allied Air Forces, Lieutenant General Chuck Horner, gave the job to the 33rd.
It proved to be a fortuitous decision. Under the Command of Colonel Rick Parsons, the 33rd proved more that up to the task. They logged a total of 16 confirmed air-to-air kills against the Iraqi Air Force, the most of any allied fighter unit. Among the wing’s other accomplishments during Desert Storm:
-Most combat sorties and hours for any F-15 Squadron (1,182 and 7,000 )
-Greatest number of pilots in one squadron with aerial victories (12)
-Most pilots from one squadron with multiple victories (4)
-Most MiG-29’s destroyed in the air by any unit (5)
-First and only squadron to carry AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile during the war)
-Only Marine MiG Killer ( Capt Magill, USMC Exchange Officer)
Given its impressive accomplishments over Iraq, the 33rd laid claim to the title of the “World’s Largest Distributor of MiG Parts” during the Gulf War. It’s a record that may never be matched again, given our adversaries’ reluctance to engage us in air combat.
The Nomads returned in triumph to Eglin and maintained their reputation for excellence over the next 18 years. Interestingly, the commander of the 1st Wing went on to earn two stars, while Parsons retired as a Colonel. Go figure.
ADDENDUM: While conceding that the 33rd scored the most aerial kills during Desert Storm, the 1st Wing long claimed that one of its pilots scored the first victory of the air war. But a closer examination of the evidence determined that the war’s first air-to-air kill was actually scored by a Nomad.