The Alabama National Guard on Friday showed off what officials called the world’s most technologically advanced combat aircraft at a ceremony and flight show in Montgomery, a celebration that signaled an important role in national military preparedness and a chance to carry on the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Alabama’s 187th Fighter Wing was picked by the Air Force as a home base for the F-35A Lighting II stealth fighter jets in 2017. The Air Force affirmed that decision after an environmental analysis in 2020. After what officials said was much preparation and planning, the first three jets arrived in Alabama in December. The 187th Fighter Wing is the third Air National Guard unit to receive the new fifth-generation jets, which will replace the F-16.
At Friday’s ceremony, Col. Brian Vaughn, commander of the 187th Fighter Wing, told hundreds of soldiers, airmen, officers, public officials and others that 187th would be ready to use the F-35s in the same spirit that the Tuskegee Airmen, known as the Red Tails, protected American bombers in the skies over Europe.
“This has been years coming,” Vaughn said. “Lots of sweat and tears. Lots of hard work. Lots of conversations. Lots of long hours. But today it’s here.
“We’re excited to celebrate this day as we take the traditions, the excellence, the dedication, the selfless sacrifice of the Tuskegee Airmen into the next decade and hopefully the next century.”
Gov. Kay Ivey and other officials spoke during the hour-long ceremony. That was followed by a flight show featuring two of the new F-35 jets, an F-16, and a P-51 Mustang, a plane the Tuskegee Airmen flew.
Lt. Col. Richard Peace, a member of the Alabama Air National Guard since 2003, talked to reporters after flying one of the F-35s on Friday. Peace said the F-16 was an amazing plane but said the F-35 has new technology that will make a difference in combat.
“The ability to see adversaries and see threats at long-distance ranges, the ability to not only see those threats but not have those threats see us, is a really big advantage for us,” Peace said. “The jet is still relatively new. It’s continuing to grow and the capabilities are being expanded. So we’re constantly learning how to use those capabilities to our advantage. And it’s really a game-changer when it comes to aerial combat.”
Peace said he grew up in an Air Force family and said a neighbor and friend of his parents was an original Tuskegee Airman. He encouraged Peace to pursue his dream to fly fighter jets. Peace said he appreciates the importance of carrying on the Red Tails legacy.
“Being a part of that is an honor but it’s also a big responsibility,” Peace said. “I feel like we need to uphold the values of the Tuskegee Airmen and make sure we’re carrying that forward into the next generation.”
The F-35 is a single-engine, single seat-jet. Alabama’s F-35 will have the Red Tails to connect with the Tuskegee Airmen history.
The effort to bring the F-35s to the 187th Fighter Unit started about 2007, Peace said. It finally succeeded because of the efforts of military leaders, Alabama’s congressional delegation and senators, state and local officials, and private citizens, Peace said.
“It was a massive collaborative effort between the military and civilian population, even the local citizens of Montgomery all coming together, working together to make this happen,” Peace said. “It was a big challenge. There were times we had the F-35, then we didn’t have the F-35, then we did have the F-35. It was just all those people staying engaged continuing to push the narrative to make this happen.”
Col. Casey Hall, operations group commander for the 187th Fighter Wing, said the unit is expected to eventually receive 20 F-35s. It has three now, plus two on loan from an Air Guard unit in Vermont.
“Our next 17 airplanes are all coming off the factory floor brand new,” Hall said.
The planes are expected to arrive over the next five years. Construction to prepare for the operations will cost about $112 million, according to the Alabama National Guard. The unit is expected to be fully operational by 2026.”
Hall said the Air Force’s decision to make the 187th Fighter Wing a home base for F-35s will have a lasting impact.
“The significance of this program for the Alabama Air National Guard is longevity for us and relevance in the next generation of warfare,” Hall said. “When a Guard unit is awarded new fighter aircraft and when they spend so much money to build up the base and the personnel behind the airframe, it implies decades of not only military jobs but also civilian contractor jobs as well.”
“For the Air National Guard, we’re a Tuskegee legacy,” Hall said. “And so we’re keeping fighters in the Tuskegee Airmen fighter squadron, which is something we’re very proud of as a wing. We’re getting the most technologically advanced aircraft that are out there right now, which makes us more relevant to a peer adversary fight than we have been in the past. So it’s a big change. It’s a big change in mission. And it’s a big change in our relevance to the global operations.”