Annual Training at Gowen Field, 1954: Part 1 - Flight Operations

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Terrence G. Popravak, Jr, USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
Note: This is the first of a two-part series of articles about the OreANG's annual training of 1954. Part 1 covers flight operations, and Part 2 will discuss the ground echelon's role.

It was a time of firsts at the Oregon Air National Guard's (OreANG) annual training, held from 13 to 27 June 1954 at Gowen Field, Idaho.

The summer encampment of 1954 was the first time for the OreANG to hold annual training with a jet fighter aircraft as its primary aircraft authorized: the North American F-86A Sabre jet fighter.

It was also the first time since World War II that the OreANG used railroad transportation as the primary means of conveyance for the preponderance of unit members to participate in an operational/training event away from home station.

In the late 1940s and the 1950s, Oregon's Citizen Airmen typically assembled for two weeks of annual training in the summer of the year, in additional to regularly scheduled monthly drill. And in the 1950s, this annual training became a rather grand and elaborate matter, which involved a combination of ANG units from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

In fact, the units were organized for annual training under what was known in the early 1950s as the 142nd Fighter-Interceptor Wing (142FIW), a multi-state Air National Guard formation commanded by Col. Frank W. Frost, with headquarters at Geiger Field, near Spokane, Washington. Although the 142FIW was the senior element of the operation, the heart of the wing was the 142nd Fighter-Interceptor Group (142FIG) of the OreANG, commanded by Lt. Col. Staryl C. Austin, Jr.

The 142FIG provided the leadership and members of most of the squadrons in the 142FIW's three groups and medical unit (see organizational chart). Although there has been some confusion over the years about the difference between the 142FIW and the 142FIG, they were two separate ANG organizations, though related during times such as the Korean War mobilization and in the annual training in the 1950s.

When the whole 142FIW was drawn together for summer training in 1954, it included an impressive number of personnel, some 250 officers and 1,523 Airmen on the flying side of the encampment. For the 142FIW it was the largest unit assembly to date.

Oregon's main body, several hundred Air Guardsmen, departed Portland via rail at 0245 hours on Sunday, 13 June, with train crew changes about every hundred miles along the way, and arrived at Gowen at 1530. The aircrews left Portland in the tactical and training aircraft between 0730 and 0815, arriving at Gowen by 1100. The first two days were spent in setting up living quarters and the working spaces to be used.

In the 1954 summer training, the OreANG's 142d Fighter Interceptor Group provided the command and staff supervision over the assigned combat squadrons, directing and controlling them through the training program with standardized procedures. "The mission of the fighter interceptor squadron is to achieve and maintain that level of operational efficiency which will enable the unit to intercept and destroy enemy airborne weapons," wrote Major Dave Johnson in The Sabrejet Times issue of June 22, 1954.

To that end, during this training a record number of gunnery, air defense and training sorties were flown by the four F-86 squadrons assigned.

The Oregon ANG brought 15 aircraft to Gowen, including 10 F-86A fighters, two T-33A jet trainers, one VC-47A transport and two T-6G trainers. The Air Force Reserve helped with a C-46 transport that brought some men and equipment.

Back in that day, each of the fighter squadrons in the wing had a color which marked their squadron's jets. Oregon's 123nd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, commanded by Maj. Richard J. Schmidt, had green; Washington's 116FIS used red. Montana's 186FIS had blue and Idaho's 190FIS wore yellow.

During the first week at Gowen intercept training was the focus, as aircraft and pilots accomplished alert, scrambles, direction according to Air Defense Command procedures by ground controllers, and actual intercepts of aircraft. Aircraft recovery, turn-around and intelligence debriefing procedures were also practiced. Additionally there were some scheduled instrument and transition missions, as well as some camera gunnery in preparation for the second week of training.

Week two at Gowen was primarily air-to-air gunnery training. T-33 aircraft flew 36 tow target sorties for the Sabre jets, towing an aerial target at 20,000 feet. The 123FIS flew 114 F-86 sorties, fired 12,396 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition, and obtained 739 confirmed hits.

During the two weeks of training, OreANG aircraft flew 418 sorties for a total of over 426 flying hours. The ten thirsty Sabre jets, kept at nearly a 90% in-commission rate, consumed over 95,000 gallons of aviation fuel, as compared to the 1,250 gallons the pair of propeller-driven T-6 trainers did.

While the air echelon was put through its paces, members of the ground echelon did their part to make airpower happen. That story will be detailed in Part 2 of this account in the near future.

One distinguished visitor to the training was US Sixth Army Deputy Commander, Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, US Army, of Korean War fame, who inspected the training of the 882d Aviation Engineers and the Nevada Army Guardsmen. He was an advocate of the ready reserve, and remarked that his three years in a communist POW camp gave him a lot of time to think, and one thing he dwelt on was the need for a ready and capable reserve force.

Governor Len Jordan of Idaho echoed that sentiment: "We cannot hope to match, man for man, the strength of Russia and her satellites," he said. "But we can train our men to the point where their individual skills, and their ability to use equipment, can meet the weight of sheer manpower offered by Communist forces."

A feature of the final week of training was the Governor's Day Review, held on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 23, as the chief executives of Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Montana, as well as many invited guests, observed the 142FIW's troop review and witnessed the wing's air review, comprised of 32 F-86 fighters, with eight from each squadron.

After pay call on June 26 , the wing turned to preparations for departure. The main body of the OreANG Airmen departed Gowen by train at 0015 hours on June 27, and arrived at Portland's Union Station at 1345. Aircrews returned with the aircraft to Portland by 0930.

The annual training of 1954 provided great value for the Air Guardsmen of the Pacific Northwest. At the pointy end, where the jets flew, the training goals set were attained as each squadron demonstrated proficiency in Ground Control Intercept (GCI) procedures essential to Air Defense Command capabilities, air-to-air gunnery, instruments and navigation. The four squadrons assigned to the 142FIG flew 1,684 flying hours with an average in-commission rate of 92.5% for the 55 aircraft present.

Several useful training recommendations emerged from the 1954 Gowen experience. One is found in the NGB Form 52 generated by the 142FIG Commander, Lt. Col. Austin, the "Report of Completed Field Training for Units of the Air National Guard," which in a call for flexibility stated the following: "It is recommended that the training requirement for each squadron for the next field training period be determined at Group level based on the facilities available to the squadron at the home station during the training year. For example, the 190th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron has a gunnery range immediately available during the greater part of the year, but no GCI facilities.

The 186th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron had GCI facilities and uses them constantly, but has no gunnery range available. A training program requiring a certain amount of gunnery per squadron actually prevents each of these squadrons from completing the total requirement of Continental Air Command Training Directive 10-13 during the year while requiring them to complete other missions above those required by 10-13."

Oregon's 142FIG would use Gowen Field several more times for annual training, and played a vital role in making the 142FIW an efficient, well-trained, combat capable organization, ready to meet its M-Day requirement. This impact by the group on the other Pacific Northwest ANG units diminished over time as the other ANG units increased in size and capability, and as the ANG turned away from the use of such consolidated multi-unit annual training in favor of a more flexible system of accomplishing annual training requirements at home station throughout the year. But in a way, the Redhawk imprint is on them all, thanks to the role played by the 142FIG in the annual training held at Gowen Field.