Anniversary for air wing won’t be a happy one

John Reynolds

It’s going to be a bittersweet September for the 183rd Fighter Wing at Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport.

Sept. 30 marks the Illinois Air National Guard unit’s 60th anniversary, but September is also the month when the last of the unit’s F-16C Falcon jet fighters are scheduled to be reassigned. As current and former members of the 183rd look toward the future, they are forced to envision new missions that don’t involve fighters soaring over the capital city.

“I hate to see them without a flying mission,” said Harry Holesinger, a former commander of the 183rd who went on to become Illinois’ adjutant general, the highest ranking national guard official in the state. “I just think a flying mission is the basis of the whole Air Force and Air National Guard.”

Holesinger, 78, joined the 183rd during the mid-1950s as a pilot. At the time, the unit was known as the 170th Fighter Squadron, and it flew the F-84 Thunderstreak.

The unit became part of the 183rd Tactical Fighter Wing in October of 1962, and a little less than 10 years later, in January of 1972, the unit made history when it became the first Air National Guard unit to receive the supersonic F-4 Phantom II.

“That was a quantum leap in technology,” Holesinger said. “The F-84 was a pretty old technology airplane, where the Phantom was a more modern, more capable airplane.”

The twin-seat Phantoms had two engines. They also had the capability to break the sound barrier, although pilots rarely opened up the throttles.

“Even though they called the F-4 a supersonic airplane, you rarely went supersonic,” Holesinger said. “We used to go about Mach 1.2 on test flights to make sure everything functioned properly. Most of our flying was subsonic.”

The Phantoms also marked a shift in U.S. Air Force thinking. Instead of flying older airplanes, Guard units now were flying up-to-date aircraft, planes that also were being used by regular Air Force units.

“Back in the early days, we didn’t have modern, front-line aircraft,” Holesinger said.

Athens resident Donald Ferricks remembers the Phantoms well. He retired from the Air Guard in 1998 as a master sergeant, and one of his jobs was inspecting parachutes. The Phantoms kept him busy, because the big planes had to use drag chutes to help them slow down when they landed.

In 1989, Ferricks played a role in one of the unit’s milestones when the 183rd was issued the F-16.

Air Force protocol required that personnel from the 183rd inspect the new planes before they could be sent to Springfield. Ferricks was part of the 183rd team that traveled to an American air base in Japan to check out the new fighters.

“I went over there to do inspections on the parachutes. I was over there for about a month,” Ferricks said. “That was pretty exciting.”

Ferricks’ section was also responsible for making the University of Illinois-inspired “Fly’n Illini” decals that decorated the tails of the F-16s at one point.

The decals gave the planes a bit of local flavor, but the Air Force later put an end to the practice to have a more uniform fleet.

Both Ferricks and Holesinger are sad to see the F-16s leave Springfield. Some of the planes already have left, and all are expected to be gone by Sept. 30.

Last week, the Air Guard announced that the 183rd would be getting two new, non-flying missions. One mission will be an engine repair facility, and the other would be an operations group, which will help plan air missions around the world.

To help carry over the unit’s identity to its new jobs, the new planning group will be called the 183rd Air Operations Group.

Whatever their duties, Holesinger said he has no doubt that current and future members of the 183rd will continue to do a good job.

“It’s a good unit. It’s always been a good unit,” Holesinger said.

Ferricks has similar feelings.

“I think Springfield has a lot to be proud of with what the 183rd has contributed over all the years.

“The 183rd is still going to be there (after the jets leave). They will just have a different mission.”

John Reynolds can be reached at (217) 788-1524 or