RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas —
Two decades have passed since the United States played a pivotal role in driving Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait, but the memories of their missions and their brothers-in-flight were crystal clear for some retired Airmen who recently told their stories and imparted their wisdom to members of Randolph's 435th Fighter Training Squadron.
Members of the 81st Tactical Fighter Squadron between 1985 and 1994, a period that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as the first Gulf War, were aviators involved in the "Wild Weasel" mission of defense suppression. They described the camaraderie that characterized their unit, which would define the 435th FTS students' relationships with each other in the years to come.
"If I can relate one thing that I got out of the whole experience, it was the comradeship, the going to war with your buddies," retired electronic warfare officer Lt. Col. Kenneth "Momar" Spaar said to a roomful of 435th FTS students. "That's something you never forget. There's just something there, a shared experience you carry with you your whole life. You go through something like that, it's something you'll always have."
Another retired lieutenant colonel, Vince "VQ" Quinn, who piloted an F-4G with Mr. Spaar as his EWO throughout Operation Desert Storm, said he cannot recall the names of some of the commercial pilots he has worked with, "but you talk to me about a squadron I was in 25 years ago, and I know exactly who was there.
"Not only that, I know their call signs and I know what absurd, ridiculous thing they did to deserve it, too," he said.
Mr. Spaar, Mr. Quinn and other 81st TFS alumni addressed the student fighter pilots and their instructors during the first day of their former squadron's first-ever reunion June 17-19 in San Antonio.
The Wild Weasels bonded with 435th FTS members, posing for a photo with them in front of an F-4E flown to Randolph for the occasion by Lt. Col. Teek Dorsett, a member of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and sharing more memories with them at the Parr O'Club.
The 81st TFS traces its roots back to World War II, when it was activated as the 81st Pursuit Squadron in January 1942 and redesignated as the 81st Fighter Squadron four months later. Among its missions was supporting the D-Day invasion. After a series of activations and redesignations following the war, the unit was redesignated as the 81st TFS in July 1958 and the 81st Fighter Squadron in October 1991.
The squadron, nicknamed the "Panthers" for much of its existence, has flown an assortment of pursuit and fighter aircraft throughout its history, including the P-40 Warhawk, P-47 Thunderbolt, F-86 Sabre, F-100 Super Sabre, F-4 Phantom II, F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt II.
In 1973, the 81st TFS moved to the 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, serving as NATO's only defense-suppression squadron. After its role in the first Gulf War, the squadron supported operations in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Retired Lt. Col. Harry Daye, an organizer of the reunion, said the death last year of one of their squadron members, retired Lt. Col. William "Skip" Jacoby, provided an impetus for the gathering.
"Skip was really a great guy," he said. "His passing brought us together in a very positive way. It made us realize how important our time was together."
Having the reunion in San Antonio was important because Randolph is home to the 435th FTS, one of the few fighter training squadrons in the Air Force, and some of its instructor pilots belonged to the 81st TFS. Mr. Daye said he contacted the squadron through retired Lt. Col. Greg Keck, a San Antonio resident, 435th FTS alumnus and fellow Southwest Airlines pilot.
"I cannot overstate how important the 435th FTS was to the success of the reunion," Mr. Daye said. "Interacting with them made the reunion special. The commander, Lt. Col. David 'Magnum' Drichta, and, especially, the project officer, Capt. Cale 'Cougar' Marthens, went far and away above the call to make this event happen."
Mr. Daye said the reunion celebrates the 1985-1994 time period, which "includes the introduction of the F-16, the retirement of the F-4E and the first Gulf War."
Retired Lt. Col. John Ustick, another reunion organizer, described that period as an "exciting and very dynamic timeframe within Europe.
"The Warsaw Pact and communism were still strong, Gorbachev the Russian leader was just coming to power, the Berlin Wall still stood and Germany was divided into East and West," he said. "The threat was very real."
Mr. Ustick said the squadron was one of only three in Europe charged with the suppression of air defenses.
"Needless to say, our life expectancy would have been pretty short if something had ever happened," he said. "As it was, we ended up in the Gulf in the summer of 1990 and fought an entirely different war from what we had trained for."
Mr. Ustick said the squadron excelled in its Gulf War mission, flying nearly 12,000 sorties and destroying 116 surface-to-air missile sites.
"We're very proud that no coalition jet was ever lost to a surface-to-air missile while we were there to suppress the air defenses," he said.
Mr. Daye said the time he spent with the 81st TFS at Spangdahlem provided him with the most memorable years of his Air Force career.
"It was a very special time," he said. "Three of the members of the squadron are my lifelong best friends. I've made friends in other squadrons, but none have been as important as these three men and their families."