403rd Wing celebrates 70 years of service

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

“Spectate ad Caelum” is a Latin phrase meaning, “Look to the skies.”

In Biloxi, Mississippi, it is not uncommon on any given day to be relaxing on the beach or catching a ballgame and look to the skies and experience a C-130J Super Hercules flyover courtesy of the Air Force Reserve 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base.

June marked the wing’s 70th year of operation and to commemorate the milestone, the 403rd’s Chief’s group designed a coin that displays the original 1953 shield, complete with that opportunistic Latin phrase on one side and the present shield on the other encompassed by the number 70.

While physically the coin is but a small object, the history it represents is colossal.

When people think of the 403rd Wing in 2019, they think of the world-renowned Hurricane Hunters and Flying Jennies taking off from or touching down on the base’s flightline in the heart of Biloxi.

What may not come to mind is Portland Airport in Portland, Oregon, the birthplace of the 403rd where it was first designated as the 403rd Troop Carrier Wing in June 1949 and they flew Curtiss C-46 Commandos.

Soon after its conception, the 403rd TCW was mobilized to Ashiya Air Base, Japan in support of the Far East Command and United Nations forces during the Korean War. According to Judy G. Endicott’s The USAF in Korea: Campaigns, Units, and Stations 1950-1953, the wing’s 403rd Troop Carrier Group used C-119 Flying Boxcars to fly over 6,300 flights and dropped nearly 10,000 personnel, 18,000 tons of cargo, and 380 tons of supplies and airlifted almost 14,000 medical patients.

A few years after their 1953 return to Oregon from Japan, the Air Force saw fit to move the wing to Selfridge Air Force Base, Michigan where it was designated as the 403rd Tactical Airlift Wing.

During its 26-year residency at Selfridge, the unit experienced its roles change multiple times going from a tactical airlift wing to a composite wing and back to a tactical airlift wing. It then changed directions becoming an aerospace rescue and recovery wing in 1976 and a rescue and weather reconnaissance wing in 1977.

In May and June 1980 the wing’s 303rd, 304th and 305th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery squadrons were involved in search and rescue operations after the catastrophic volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington.

According to a June 1980 Rescue Review article by Staff Sgt. Jim Katzaman, the 304th AARS and seven of their UH-1 Huey helicopters were part of Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service’s Rescue Coordination Center while the 303rd and 305th provided ground support in the realms of communication and first aid. The joint service operation included Coast Guard, Army, and Civil Air Patrol rescue teams, and was one of the largest conducted by the center at the time compiling 101 saves and meticulously covering 600 square miles from May 18 to June 4.

Thirteen years later, the 403rd packed it up in Michigan and settled here at Keesler where it had a few more name changes in store. 

Upon the unit’s arrival here, it housed the 815th Weather Squadron until 1987 when it reverted to a tactical airlift squadron as it had been in the past, and the wing was, for the third time, designated as a tactical airlift wing only to be classified as an airlift wing five years later to highlight the various capabilities the wing and its units possessed.

The 815th AS, responsible for global airlift operations in both combat and humanitarian theaters, supported Operation Provide Promise starting in March 1993, an initiative that provided aid to 2.7 million displaced by civil war in former Yugoslavia and was the longest-running humanitarian airlift in history, surpassing the 1949 efforts of the Berlin Airlift.

The squadron deployed three C-130E Hercules, six crews, and maintenance personnel where they flew daily 14-hour round trip missions in and out of Sarajevo for a year. These drops were round-trip and included a 30-minute time limit to get the medical supplies and food they were providing onto the ground.

By the end of the 403rd’s involvement in Operation Provide Promise, the multitude of airlift capabilities paired with the growing importance and advancement of technology within the wing’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron prompted one more name change. In July 1994 the organization became the 403rd Wing as it is known to this day.

While the title was shortened, it was a testament to a litany of missions the unit provided support for and accomplished. The capabilities of the 403rd could no longer fit in one title.

“It is interesting to see how far we have come as a wing and as an Air Force,” said 403rd Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Amanda Stift. “Where we started to where we have wound up now; it’s just amazing to see the technology that has gone into our ever-changing mission. We started off as a troop carrier wing, and now we are doing tactical airlift, aeromedical evacuation, weather reconnaissance, so essentially we are a blend of all the missions we had before.”

Today, the 403rd and its 1,500 Reserve Citizen Airmen are a culmination of the many roles its names have embodied over its seven decades of service. Completing various weather reconnaissance missions year-round in specially equipped WC-130J  aircraft, supporting combat and humanitarian operations in the 815th AS Flying Jennies, and providing critical aerial medical support, are just some of the ways the wing saves countless lives and contributes an incalculable amount to the Air Force, the nation, and the world.

For information on how to purchase the 70th Anniversary coin, please contact any chief master sergeant within the unit. The cost is $15 and proceeds benefit wing events being held to celebrate the anniversary.