The 81st Fighter Squadron — the Panthers — boasts a proud record of more than 50 years of distinguished flying in defense of America\’s interests abroad.
The squadron flies the A/OA-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, informally referred to as the Warthog. The A-10 is built around its 30mm 7-barrel Gatling gun which carries 1,150 rounds and fires at 70 rounds per second. The aircraft can carry up to 16,000 pounds of free-fall and precision-guided munitions, including MK-82 and MK-84 general-purpose and laser-guided bombs, a variety of cluster bombs, AGM-65 Maverick missiles, AIM-9 air-to-air infrared missiles, illumination flares, 2.75-inch rockets, and a full compliment of self-protection chaff and flares.
The 81st FS was activated Jan. 15, 1942, at Key Field, Miss., flying the P-40 Warhawk. The squadron was assigned to the 50th Fighter Group and in October 1942 the 81st moved to Orlando Army Air Field (AAF) Florida, forming part of the Army Air Forces School of Applied Tactics. The 81st helped test procedures and equipment, seeking better ways to manage the huge efforts required to supply troops and maintain aircraft fighting overseas. Hinting at the conditions under which the squadron would fly when it entered combat, pilots often flew from airfields with little or no infrastructure. In 1943 the 81st moved to Cross City AAF, Florida, while the 50th Fighter Group remained headquartered at Orlando AAF. Each of the 50th Fighter Group\’s detached squadrons (including the 81st) returned to Orlando AAF in January 1944. The squadron continued to train and teach at Orlando AAF while preparing to ship out to England.
In March 1944, the 81st FS received a new aircraft, the P-47 Thunderbolt, and a new home in England with the 9th Air Force. Between April 1944 and the Armistice in May 1945, the unit flew hundreds of fighter escort, close air support and interdiction missions, taking part in the D-Day invasion and operating from numerous advanced landing bases in while covering the US Army\’s advance. The squadron received two Distinguished Unit Citations for combat, was credited with 47 aerial victories and produced the 50th Fighter Group\’s only ace, Major Robert D. Johnston.
The unit was inactivated Nov. 7, 1945 at La Junta Army Airfield, Colorado. It was reactivated at McChord Field, Washington in July 1947, where the 81st FS tested a number of different aircraft. On Jan. 1, 1953 the 81st was established at Clovis AFB, New Mexico where it briefly flew the F-51 Mustang before transitioning to the F-86 Sabre in the spring of 1953. In August 1953, the squadron relocated to Hahn Air Base, Germany.
In July 1956, the 81st FS moved to Toul Rosieres Air Base, France, converting to the F-100 Super Sabre in July 1958. One year later, it returned to Hahn AB and in December 1966, re-equipped with the F-4C Phantom II. The Panthers took their Phantoms to Zweibrucken Air Base, Germany, in June 1971 to fill the vacancy left by the Canadian armed forces\’ departure.
In 1973, the 81st FS moved to the 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, where it took on the Wild Weasel mission of defense suppression. As NATO\’s only defense suppression squadron, the squadron received the first 24 F-4G advanced Wild Weasels equipped with the APR-38 Radar Attack and Warning System. In 1984, the 81st FS transitioned to a mixed F-4G and F-4E hunter/killer team, using the AGM-88 HARM and AGM-45 SHRIKE, as the 52nd TFW became the only defense suppression wing in NATO.
The 81st converted its F-4E aircraft to the F-16C Fighting Falcon in January 1988, becoming a member of the only wing in the U.S. Air Force to fly two different aircraft in the same combat element. In June 1988 the squadron upgraded its F-4G with the APR-47. The 81st FS crews flew the F-4G and F-16C in the hunter/killer role until December 1990, when the unit again became an all-F-4G squadron. It served until Dec. 31, 1993, where they racked up 113 radar kills, flew more than 12,000 combat sorties and 25,000 hours over Iraq.
The last F-4G left Spangdahlem AB Feb. 18, 1994. The 81st FS then became an A/OA-10 squadron and replaced the 510th FS at Spangdahlem AB. During this period, the squadron continuously deployed to Aviano Air Base, Italy in support of Operation Deny Flight, enforcing a no-fly zone over Bosnia. In September 1997, it became the first U.S. Air Forces Europe squadron to participate in Operation Southern Watch, enforcing the United Nations imposed no-fly zone in southern Iraq.
Members of the 81st FS again deployed to Aviano AB in October 1998, supporting NATO air presence during the crisis in Kosovo, Yugoslavia. The 81st FS returned to Aviano AB in January 1999 for a regular contingency rotation, but then stayed to support Operation Allied Force. The squadron supported air operations from Aviano AB until April 11, 1999, when it moved to Gioia del Colle, Italy. From there, the unit flew more than 1,400 combat missions throughout Operation Allied Force and led the first large force packages in A-10 history. The 81st FS also led the first two successful combat search and rescue task force missions, which involved coordinating all rescue assets resulting in the rescue of downed F-117 and F-16 pilots.
In September 2000, the 81st FS deployed 12 aircraft to Southwest Asia for Operation Southern Watch, accumulating more than 700 combat and training sorties. Immediately following the deployment, the 81st FS was additionally tasked to participate in Croatian Phiblex 2000. The Panthers generated and deployed their remaining 6 A/OA-10s and 183 people to Split, Croatia, to aid U.S. Marine and Navy forces in a joint amphibious landing exercise with Croatian military forces and support another real-world contingency.
The squadron deployed several times to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan to provide close-air support to coalition ground forces during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in June 2003, September 2004, and most recently May 2006. During the 2006 deployment the Panthers performed an intensive regimen of combat patrols to find, fix and destroy elusive, guerilla-type enemy combatants in support of ground forces, flying in excess of 2,000 combat sorties and 7,600 combat hours. The Panthers employed over 109,000 rounds of 30mm, dropped 350 guided and conventional bombs, and fired over 325 rockets in support of 260 Coalition force operations. As a direct result of the combat action in the 2006 deployment two pilots in the Panthers won the prestigious Mackay Trophy and the Daedalian Exceptional Pilot Awards.
As USAFE’s only A/OA-10 squadron, the Panthers provided the Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe and USAFE commanders with dedicated close air support, air strike control, and combat search and rescue capability. The 81st continues to distinguished itself as a premier unit earning the 1991, 1996, and 2006 USAFE Commander’s Trophy.
The 81st FS has been redesignated as the first A-29 Light Attack Training Squadron, at Moody AFB, Georgia.
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