The members of the Joint Military Affairs Committee have been invited, by the North Dakota Air National Guard and Col. Mike Haugen, to attend a Change of Command Ceremony at March AFB in Riverside, CA. On August 11th, Detachment One of the NDANG will be taking over responsibility from the Fresno Air National Guard to provide full-time alert for the SW region.
David was on the Joint Military Affairs Committee (JMAC) of the Fargo Chamber of Commerce. He was also my employee. David knew in my interest in the North Dakota Air National Guard (NDANG) and all things aviation. Guard units were being mobilized to provide intercept duty around the country. The ‘Happy Hooligans’ of the 119 ANG unit from Fargo would be taking over from the 144 ANG unit (Fresno, CA) at March Air Force Base; intercept duty for the Southwest Air Defense Sector (SWADS).
There is a close relationship between the JMAC and the NDANG. The JMAC was invited along on a field trip to view the facilities. The Fargo Guard saved 20 seats for the Chamber. Kind words on David’s behalf got me a seat. Nagging on my behalf got Bob Nelson listed as 5th alternate. Luck got Bob on the tanker. Four armed F-l6 ‘Falcons’ flew in tandem with our aircraft. Each jet fighter refueled once during the 3-hour flight. I had an opportunity to view the maneuvers.
A KC–135E ‘Stratotanker’ from the 163rd Refueling Group picked up our group in Fargo on Wednesday, 10 August, at 5 pm., and returned us to Fargo on Friday, 12 August, at 3 pm. The Change of Command Ceremony took place on Thursday along with tours to view the Alert Facilities, the 163rd Air Refueling Group, the SW Sector Air Defense Headquarters, the Wing Commander’s Headquarters, and the March Field Air Museum. The NDANG arranged: billeting, a buffet dinner, and breakfast on both Thursday and Friday mornings. As a secondary bonus, my cousin who lives in Riverside met me at the museum.
The total cost for meals was $40 per person. The rooms were $8 per night. I doubt I spent $20 on incidentals as our hosts at the March AFB seemed to take great pride in hosting us. This was the best trip I’ve ever been on. It was also the cheapest!
David, Bob, and I find ourselves in a dimly lit metal tube. The temperature climbs, the heat is stifling. The noise from the engines grows, the shaking and vibrating seem to launch us into the air. Only the heat diminishes. The vibration gave no hint of our change in space.
The Cargo Specialist informed Bob and I, “Air Refueling Exercises are beginning.” We left our seats, carrying Emergency Oxygen Bottles around our necks. We crawl around the cargo box that contains our luggage and step down the pool-like steps into the boom operator’s nest. From the relative darkness of our KC–135E ‘Stratotanker,’ the earth spreads out under us like a cotton ball covered carpet. The escorting F–16 fighter jets pull up to the boom one at a time. The boom operator flies the winged fuel boom into a slot on the fighter’s back. Laying on our stomachs, flanking the operator, Bob and I photograph the aerial ballet. One minute we were sardines baking in a can on the tarmac, the next we are flying with the Falcons.
The ceremony recognized the NDANG 119th Fighter Group as it took over the alert missions from Detachment 1 of the 144th Fighter Group. The Happy Hooligans and JMAC members flew to March AFB via a KC–135 refueling plane from the 163rd ARG. The flight was escorted by four F-16 Falcon fighter jets piloted by Captain Dave Hill; 2nd Lieutenant Mike Depree, Colonel Mike Haugen and Lt. Colonel Tom Larson. The F–16s went through refueling maneuvers during the flight to March AFB, which provided a spectacular sight to the civilians on board. -David Samson
I watched each fighter peal away from the boom and the next jet take his spot. As I crawled out of the observation nest, Sgt. Anderson waved me over to the wing door port-hole. The F–16s are flying off our wing tips. The sun glistens on the F–16s; contrasting against the thin blue sky. I give the pilots a thumbs up and they salute back.
Windowless, we see nothing until we land. The plane comes to a stop. The cargo door takes up three rows; it opens to a panoramic vista of mountains, palm trees and desert brown landscape. We aren’t in North Dakota anymore. After straddled a garbage can and water jug for three hours, it feels good to get down the stairs. A dozen assorted members from the base greet us as important dignitaries. We’re pre-registered in $8.00 rooms. I have visions of a folding cot in a quonset hut. The rooms are large and roomy with Queen-size beds, fully equipped bathroom, a fully stocked kitchen and bar. Bob stopped by to see if I had a ‘suite’ too. A USAF Captain delivered my luggage.
A KC–141 ‘Starlifter,’ loaded with Marines, departs over the moon. They are headed to Oregon to fight the wild fires. March AFB was our country’s first air base (1918) and Sally’s Alley is a testament to that history. The walls of this small bar are covered with graffiti from every pilot who has flown through. There are framed photographs of the aircraft that have seen service at March Field. It’s a great way to unwind after a long flight. I shared drinks with members of The Air National Guard, March AFB, David and his friends. The reception was sponsored by the Moreno Valley Military Affairs Committee. Beer flowed, as were smiles and laughter. I chat with Marshal of the MVMAC. I manage to turn in at 11:30, but with the time change, it made for a long day.
My head was spinning when the clock radio went off. The radio came with the room, the hangover didn’t. Two Advil put it to rest. The sky was clear. For the first time in weeks you could see the mountains through the smog. A bus brought us to the Moulin Rouge NCO club for a bacon, sausage, and egg breakfast. Bob and I sat at a table populated with Colonels and a State Senator. Bob made friends with Lt. Col. Tom Larson. Tom was a NDSU football fan. Bob is the NDSU photographer. Tom asked for better seats. Bob joked, “I’ll let you down in my office if you let me up in yours!”
We toured the Southwest Air Defense Sector (SWADS). Colonel Everts invited ND Brigadier General Bjerke to sit in front with the other officers. Gen. Bjerke took one look at Bob and I sitting on the other side and said, “I better sit with these two guys. They look like trouble.” Col. Everts outlined the mission our NDANG 178th FS will adopt. They will intercept un-identifiable airplanes entering US airspace. Col. Everts introduced the SWADS intelligence officer Captain Vasques. She explained most intercepts would be drug traffickers. Their prime military concern is submarine launched cruise missiles. Both drug runners and cruise missile intercepts are hard to track. The targets fly very low and very slow.
We toured the tracking facilities and watched every airborne airplane on the west coast. The radar operator zoomed in on various regions and could track individual aircraft. The equipment was old. The buttons were in unmarked rows and the 24-inch round CTR display looked like it came out of a 1950’s science fiction movie. The Hughes computer equipment was equally old; it took up a room the size of a movie theater. To power all this were two 900 hp diesel generators, a room containing the switching gear, and a room full of lead-acid batteries. The radar had feeds from the FFA from various airports and various military ground, air, and sea radars. Captain Vasquez hopes the FFA will upgrade its radar soon, which will upgrade SWADS.
We toured the Alert Detachment building next. The building was isolated at the end of the runaway; surrounded by dual barbed wire fences, patrolled by guards on foot and in a tower. Access required security IDs. The intercept group had to stand down for us to get in. Another fighter wing took over intercept duties while we had our tour.
We witnessed the changing of the guard. Members from the 144th Fresno ANG unit were somber. After the changing of the flag and speeches from Colonel Everts Commander of SWADS, Colonel Dennis the 144th ANG Vice Commander and General Bjerke Adjutant General of the ND National Guard, we filed out for a lunch reception. We toured the facilities where the pilots live, sleep, relax and work while on alert. It’s small facility but comfortable. It has a swimming pool, tennis court, and handball court - all left-over from when March Field was a SAC (Strategic Air Command, B–52 bomber) base.
Outside, security patrols chased each other in pickup trucks. They must be training. I climbed the ladder to view the cockpit of the NDANG F–16. I pointed out the controls and weapon systems to the pilot. I managed to name them all correctly, “Are you a pilot?”
“No, just well informed.”
Our JMAC group was photograph with the F–16. The photo later made the cover of our local paper.
The sun was hot; it was 108-degrees when we boarded the buses for the air conditioned briefing room of the 163rd ARW (Air Refueling Wing). Colonel Richards, second in command of the 163rd ARW, briefed us on the history of their wing and of their current role. They provide refueling and cargo services. Their KC–135E picked us up in Fargo, refueled our jets on the way and will bring us home.
After a quick cold shower, it was back on the bus to the March AFB Field Museum. My cousin Jeff was able to join us. We were met by a living manikin dressed in World War II pilot gear. Sharon didn’t think he was real. She was about to touch his face to find out: he moved; she screamed. Jeff, Bob and I examine the museum displays inside; then walk outside to view the flight line. Many old aircraft are stored outside in the desert. They range from WW-II bombers to the SR–71 spy plane; from commercial aircraft to one-of-a-kind test planes. We cracked jokes and take photos, but no sooner had we started outside than an announcement was made to get back on the bus.
Back in my room I was fading away on the Lazy-Boy recliner. Bob banged on my door, “We’re going to Sally’s Alley.” Bob examined the B–25 ‘Mitchell’ (a WW-II medium bomber his dad flew) on a pylon out side the officers club. We were ushered us into the banquet room: the Hap Arnold Officers Club. I had a pleasant conversation with Sharon, Steven, and David from the JMAC. From the MVMAC: Marshal and his friend. Marshal is retired Army. He’s been everywhere and has a million stories to tell.
Colonel Lorenz, Command of March AFB, spoke about the history of the base and the men serving here. He had some unkind words about the current defense cut-backs. Hardin ‘Ed’ Morken said grace in Norwegian. The meal was equal to the conversation: filet mignon, stuff shrimp, twice baked potato, broccoli in cheese sauce, cheese cake, sherry, and a toast with good California wine.
Friday morning Bob and I laughed as everyone piled into the wrong bus. Col. Larson made a joke about photographers. Bob waved his large 300mm lens case at Tom’s head. The NCO club served omelets for breakfast. I sat with the enlisted personnel and asked about cross training.
“There is a new management system in place (Total Quality Management) which allows personnel to ask questions and make suggestions.” Sergeant Lowell said his job was previously done by an officer, “The guard is moving responsibility down where it is most effective.”
Back at the briefing room, Col. Richards was there to greeted us. “We know you can fly any airline, so it really means a lot to us that you’ve chosen ‘Grizzlies Air’.” (a reference to the American Airlines advertisement). The logo for the 163rd ARG is a Grizzly Bear. Today’s Cargo Specialist mispronounced every Norwegian name, “Bee-Jerky?”
She turned red when Col. Richards told her, “That’s General Bjerke. You’re lucky, he’s in my office.”
We all laugh.
“I’m much better with Hispanic names, though my mom was Norwegian too.”, she said.
My name was misspelled and mispronounce on this trip, but she got it right today.
There is no air conditioning on the tanker so they keep us in the bus, on the flight line. The crew is ready to close up the airplane. We take our seats. The temperature quickly passes 100-degrees. I would guess over 120-degrees. The air was still. It was hard to breathe. The crew members where sponging themselves. Once the KC–135E takes off; the temperature drops. John and Bob fight over the last parachute. ha ha. Bob went to the rear. He photographed out the boom window which was still open. We landed in Boise to let the General out. We bounced half way back into the sky on the landing. The boom was now up, so when I went back to take photos, I was stuck photographing out the left side windwo. Idaho was as gray and lifeless as the moon. I stayed on my stomach for half an hour as farms, lakes, and plains went by. We arrived back in Fargo at 4:00 pm.
Falcon RefuelingOur JMAC flight was escorted by four F-16 'Falcon' fighter of NDANG, the Happy Hooligans. This jet was piloted by Capt. Dave Hill, as he refuels from our KC-135 'Stratotanker' of the 163rd ARG. Photo by Bob Nelson on Wednesday, August 10, 1994 on the way to the March Air Force Base, Riverside, CA
See the Full Gallery or the Gallery Slideshow for more photos from my trip to the March Air Force Base: 64 images in total with detailed photo/airplane descriptions. Bob Nelson’s photos (Black & White BW1400, Color Print CN118–119) are copyright 1994, 2018; used with permission. My photos are color print film. ©1993, 2019.
Wednesday, August 10th
1780 KC–135 Departs Fargo for March AFB, CA
1880 KC–135 from Fargo arrives in front of Base Operations (Building 1220)
1815 Visitors receive room assignments and board bus for Billeting
1838 Bus trip to Billeting (Buildings 100, 2418, 2419 and 2420)
1938 Meet at Sally’s Alley (Officer’s Club) for drinks & hors d’oeuvres hosted by the Moreno Valley Military Affairs Committee
Thursday, August 11th
0715 Bus to NCO club for Breakfast (Building 2706, Moulin Rouge)
0815 Bus to Southwest Air Defense Sector Operations Command Center (Building 682)
0838 SWADS Mission Brief and Tour of SOCC (Col Everts, SWADS/CC)
1000 Bus to Alert Detachment (Building 1305)
1030 Change of Command Ceremony
1100 Reception/Lunch, Alert Dining Facility
1200 Tour Alert Facility
1230 Bus to 163rd Air Refueling Group (Building 2271)
1245 Briefing and Tour (Col Richards, 163rd ARG OG/CC)
1330 Bus to Billeting (Buildings 100, 2418, 2419, 2420]
1430 Bus to March AFB Field Museum (optional tour for real aircraft buffs)
1630 Bus from Museum back to Billeting
1730 Drinks and hors d’oeuvres at Sally’s Alley
1900 Dinner at officer’s club
Friday, August 12th
0730 Baggage pick-up in front of Billeting [Building 2419)
0745 Bus to Billeting Office; Check out (Building 100)
0800 Bus from Billeting Office to NCO Club; Breakfast (Building 2706)
0915 Bus to 163 ABG Operations Building (Building 2271)
0930 Passenger Briefing, Board aircraft, Take-off for Fargo