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Post subject: Been awful quite here.  PostPosted: Aug 07, 2009 - 09:57 AM

Sergeant Major
Fighter jets bid farewell to Lambert

By Phillip O'Connor

BRIDGETON For decades, they roared across the St. Louis sky, inspiring awe and, on occasion, rattling windows.

But come Sunday, the last Air National Guard fighter jets stationed at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport are scheduled to make their final departure, the result of a 2005 plan that called for the twin-tailed F-15 Eagles to be redeployed to guard units in Hawaii and Montana.

The flights mark the end of an era for St. Louis and the 131st Fighter Wing, a highly-decorated unit that can trace its roots in the city back 86 years and whose members included Charles Lindbergh.

"St. Louis has such a rich history of flying," said Col. Robert Leeker, the wing commander and a 37-year veteran of the unit. The loss of such history will be missed, he said.

Leeker spoke Monday while sitting in a barren conference room overlooking the rain-soaked flight line. Outside, engines roared to life as pilots prepared for a test flight.

"That's a sound I will miss," said Leeker as he strode toward a wall of windows and watched as crews scrambled around the last two F-15s remaining from a squadron that once was home to 21 jets. "It's tough," he said. "To walk the ramp and not see airplanes, it's a little sad."

For many in the unit, the wing's departure from St. Louis is like losing a loved one. Generations of some families served in the wing. For many, working with the jets was a dream job.

"We were part of something that gave the city bragging rights," said Chief Master Sgt. Stanley Goodman, who joined the unit in 1977. "Yeah, I'm going to miss it."

It was 1923 when a group of aviation enthusiasts headquartered the Missouri National Guard's first air unit in a filling station on Manchester Road. They initially trained in a World War I surplus biplane. In 1931, the squadron consolidated its operations at Lambert. In the coming years, the unit grew into an economic powerhouse that employed more than 1,200 Guard members, indirectly supported another 1,500 jobs and generated $130 million in annual local spending.

Members saw action in every major conflict since World War II, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the decades, the unit's pilots flew some of the Air Force's most high-tech weapons, including F-84 Thunderstreaks, F-100 Super Sabres, F-4 Phantoms and, most recently, F-15 Eagles. The Phantoms and Eagles rolled off production lines just across the runways at Lambert, in the complex that used to house McDonnell Aircraft, later McDonnell Douglas Corp. and now Boeing Co.

The Air Force frequently recognized the unit as one of its best.

Many, including Leeker, who grew up in south St. Louis and now lives near Defiance, shed tears over the base closure commission's decision to take away the planes. He called it the worst day of his command.

"There's been so much turmoil, uncertainty and grief, it's hard to deal with," Leeker said. "But you have to move on. That's what the military is all about."

More than half of the more than 1,000 Guard members assigned to the wing are transferring to the new 131st Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, where they will maintain and fly the B-2 stealth bomber. About 400 Guard members who work in support units such as supply, medical and human resources will remain at Lambert.

Of the 30 F-15 pilots who flew out of Lambert, about 20 will retire. It's a blow for what was the most experienced F-15 unit in the world. Of three Air Force pilots to accumulate more than 4,000 hours in an F-15, two serve in the 131st.

Col. Robert Mohr, the operations group commander, said he would have stayed another four years. Instead, he will fly one of the two remaining planes on the nearly nine hour flight to Hawaii Sunday, fly a few more times in Montana at the end of the month and call it a career after 26 years.

"It's pretty sad," he said. "But most of us are fortunate we flew the F-15 this long."

Chad Kohler lives about a mile from the airport and grew up fascinated by the fighters. For the past year and a half, the 16-year-old Pattonville High School student has built a webpage detailing the unit's final days at Lambert. He posts video of takeoffs and landings and whatever other information he is able to glean about the 131st.

He's disappointed he no longer will see four fighters scream overhead in a diamond formation or see an F-15 leap nearly vertical from the runway in a combat climb.

"It's going to be hard," Kohler said from his home in Bridgeton. "I actually hear them flying right now."

It's a sound he will miss. Even when they hit the afterburners and shake the house.

"Once they're gone, it's going to be quiet around here," he said. "Real quiet."

This was print under picture- June 8, 2009 -- A pilot and ground crew with the 131st Fighter Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard prepare one of the last two F-15 Eagles at Lambert International for a test flight. A 2005 base closure and redeployment plan will move the fighters from Lambert to different units throughout the country. (Christian Gooden/P-D)

1991 Unit converts to another St. Louis-made fighter, the F-15 Eagle. Lt. Col J.B. Kelk, 41, of Town and Country, becomes the first American in Desert Storm to shoot down an Iraqi warplane, a MiG-29.

1996, 1997, 1998 and 2000 Deployed to patrol no-fly zones over Iraq.

2001 Mobilized in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, members of the wing have since made numerous deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It really is pretty quite, around 10:30 a.m. and through the night, you could always here the Phantoms F-15, 18'S and Harriers. Kind of bizzare, a sense of having your guard down.

Cry Cheers Cheese


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Cook, or be cooked. Have a nice day. Smile
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