FARGO, N.D. - The North Dakota Air National Guard's last C-21A Learjet aircraft has left the base. The last of eight C-21s flown by the 119th Wing-better known as the Happy Hooligans- took off just after 11:30 a.m. Tuesday ending 66 years of flying history.
The North Dakota Air National Guard was organized in January 1947 and its first aircraft - the P-51 Mustang - flew into Fargo the following month. In the decades that followed, the Airmen flew and maintained aircraft and racked up numerous national and international awards.
"We stand here today at the end of an era and the beginning of a new life for the (North Dakota) Air National Guard," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Alexander Macdonald, former adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard, during the event, stressing the high standards that unit members always reached for.
"Whenever the goal was set, and then reached, the men and women of the organization set loftier ones, and time and time again these goals were achieved," he said, adding that the unit received numerous air defense readiness and maintenance awards over the years.
He went on to share recollections and list some of the many high points from throughout the past 66 years, such as the first air-to-air rocket firing over Lake Superior.
"We had the first deployed alert to Seymour Johnson (Air Force Base in North Carolina)," Macdonald. "We were the first to go on nuclear alert. The first to reach 100 percent strength. The first deployment overseas for an active NATO air-defense mission. The first air defense aerial refueling and the list of awards and firsts goes on and on."
When the fighter mission ended in 2007, the Hooligans transitioned to the C-21A, which was intended to serve as a "bridge" mission to keep pilots and maintainers of the unit active and relevant until the anticipated new flying mission of the C-27J Spartan arrived. The final decision to divest that mission from the Air Force was made earlier this year, prompting the North Dakota Air National Guard to begin a transition to an intelligence mission, a mission that does not include aircraft.
Many details of that new intelligence group mission are still uncertain. In the meantime, North Dakota is now the only state in the nation without an Air National Guard manned flying mission.
"USA Today once called the Happy Hooligans the 'godfathers of air superiority,' noting that they are the 'best air-to-air combat fighters in the world,'" said Army Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard. "I'd rather say that, quite simply, they're the best in the world. It's not about the mission. It's not about the aircraft. It's about the people behind the mission. That's what has made the Hooligans the very best for all of these years, and what will continue to make them the best for years to come."
Air Force Col. Kent Olson, commander of the 119th Wing, and Air Force Col. Brad Derrig, vice commander of the wing, along with Air Force Lt. Col. Jerrad Krapp, commander of the 177th Airlift Squadron, flew the wing's last C-21A, to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. It will become the first C-21A added to the collection at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force there.
The Happy Hooligans experienced success with C-21 during the past six-and-a-half years. Olson spoke of that achievement and the hard work that went into creating such a success.
When the C-21s arrived in Fargo in January 2007, "they were about two dozen years old and had just been saved from a final trip to the boneyard," Olson told the audience. "Let's think about that for the moment: Eight aircraft that the Air Force was going to send to the boneyard, they sent to us. So we received them, and what did we do? We did what our maintenance group does the best: They got the jets in such good condition that they are still, by the way, the best maintained C-21s in the Air Force inventory."
Prior to receiving the C-21s, which were manufactured in 1983, only contracted civilian maintenance personnel had worked on the planes. The North Dakota Guardsmen worked to develop a maintenance program that incorporated Federal Aviation Administration guidance with Air Force procedures and training. That program was put to the test during an overseas mission that brought the Happy Hooligan's C-21s to Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti and other areas. Despite the intense heat and dust, the C-21's never missed a take-off.
Later that year, the 177th Airlift Squadron earned the title of Joint Operational Support Airlift Center Squadron of the Year.
With the departure of the last aircraft, the North Dakota Air National Guard has achieved more than 175,340 Class A mishap-free flying hours. More than 17,000 of those hours were in a C-21.