A Unit History of "The Copperheads"

The Air National Guard was created as a separate and distinct organization to fill the need to retain combat experienced pilots and aircraft maintenance personnel. The 412th Fighter Squadron, a unit that had earned extensive combat flying honors in Europe was redesigned the 197th Fighter Squadron and on December 12, 1946 became the first unit of the Arizona Air National Guard. 

The Korean Conflict Era 

Nicknamed the "Copperheads," the 197th and their F-51 "Mustang Fighters" soon became a familiar sight in the sky over Arizona. On February 1, 1951, the Copperheads were ordered into active Air Force service. Some Arizona fighter pilots went to Korea to fly combat missions. The majority of the unit's personnel, because of their experience, were sent to bases in the U.S. and Japan to train new people entering the Air Force. 

The federal government authorized the construction of a new base at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix for the Arizona unit. The prop-driven Mustangs were replaced by the new combat-tested F-86A "Saberjet" fighter. In early 1960, the Air Force selected three Air Guard units across the country to equip with the supersonic Lockheed F-104A "Starfighter." The Copperheads, as a result of the national recognition as one of the best air defense units in the nation, were chosen to fly the new high performance jet fighter. 

The Berlin Conflict 

The Phoenix Air Guard was once again called into active service in November 1961 as the construction of the infamous "Berlin Wall" pushed the world to the brink of war. Within a month after mobilization, 750 personnel and 22 F-104 aircraft were in place in Germany as the unit took up flying daily patrol at the edge of the Iron Curtain. 

With world tension easing, the Phoenix Air Guard returned home in August 1962. Military requirements resulted in an immediate change in mission the first time the massive bomber command integrated part-time units into its forces and mission. SAC also announced that Air Guard refueling units would begin to integrate a new craft into their inventories: a military version of the Boeing 707 airliner named the KC-135. 

Supporting Operation Desert Storm 

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Air National Guard tanker units were quickly called into action. An around-the-clock airlift began to support the build up to the conflict, Operation Desert Shield.

Refueling was critical during the massive aircraft movement, the largest since World War II. Tankers and crews from the 161st were some of the first to arrive in Saudi Arabia. From the start and for the duration, tankers servicing the conflict left Phoenix weekly, loaded with maintenance and support technicians who worked in the Saudi Arabian desert up to 45 days, and in some cases more. 

As the allies prepared to move against Iraq, Phoenix Air Guard crews, maintenance personnel, medics, fire fighters, security forces and food service technicians were dispatched to bases in Europe and the United States. Before the war in the Gulf was concluded more than two-thirds of the force assigned to the 161st Air Refueling Group had served on active duty in some capacity to support the Middle East effort. 

The Present-day 161st 

In 1994, 1995 and 1997 the unit deployed to Pisa, Italy where our tankers supported NATO operations in Bosnia. 1997 also saw the 161st facing challenges in the United Arab Emirates. The unit was vital to the success of Operation Deny Flight and Operation Southern Watch. October 1, 1995 marked another key change in the unit's long history. The 161st Air Refueling Group was redesignated as the 161st Air Refueling Wing under the USAF Air Mobility Command (AMC). 

1996 saw the Copperheads turn 50 years old. The unit celebrated with year round contests and a 50th Anniversary Celebration in December. Due to the expansion of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, plans were approved for construction on a new base in 1995. 

Today, the new Phoenix Air Guard base is complete. The $60 Million project includes 275,000 square feet of facilities, pavement, infrastructure and aircraft runway surfacing. 

The 161st sent about 130 personnel to Operation Northern Watch early in 1999. Based at Incirlik Airbase, Turkey, the unit supported flight operations within the northern no-fly zone over Iraq. Early in the second quarter of 1999, 161st Copperheads were quickly pressed into service over Kosovo for Operation Allied Force. Nearly 200 unit airmen served on active duty for about two months, flying 125 missions to offload almost 2.5 million gallons of fuel. The airmen returned to Phoenix in late June 1999. 

Although not directly called as a unit the "Copperheads" played a vital role in support units during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003. Many Security Forces saw duty overseas directly supporting bases while maintenance and operations personnel were called to support the ongoing operations. 

The USAF contracted with Boeing to place Pratt & Whitney JT-3D jet engines, enhancing the power and efficiency of the craft in early 1982, and re-dubbed the tanker the KC-135E. The engine modification is still the current standard and should last beyond the year 2000--making it one of the longest used airplanes in the history of military aviation. A Phoenix Air Guard tanker set a new fuel off-load record for the KC-135. Flying out of Edwards AFB, Calif. in late 1982, 161st KC-135E #1495 took off with a gross weight of 299,000 pounds, then refueled a B-1 bomber with a record 160,000 pounds of fuel. The refueling surpassed an earlier KC-135 record of 120,000 pounds.

In the ever-changing role of the Air National Guard, the 161st has positioned itself well to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. With the constant threat from around the world, the unit is prepared to go wherever needed, whenever called upon. Meeting the challenges of today with the technology of tomorrow, the 161st Air Refueling Wing will continue to operate with the high standards set in its rich history.