Fighter mission vital part of EAFB history

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Hrair H. Palyan
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
While most recognize Ellsworth as being home to the Air Force's Fairchild Trophy winning bomb wing, many may not realize it was also home to a squadron of F-86D Sabre Dog fighters in 1954.

After World War II, the base briefly trained weather reconnaissance and combat squadrons using P-61 Black Widow, P-38 Lightning, P-51 Mustang and B-25 Mitchell aircraft. In the 1950s, the F-86 fighters assigned to the 54th Fighter Interceptor Squadron shared the spotlight with B-36 Peacemakers assigned to the 28th Bombardment Wing and later B-52 Stratofortresses.

The mission of the 54th FIS was to protect the U.S. against any sudden attack during the Cold War. The Airmen in the squadron maintained an around-the-clock alert plan designed to have pilots respond to unidentified aircraft within two minutes.

"The 54th FIS was a tenant unit at Ellsworth, which was part of the Strategic Air Command," said retired 1st Lt. Charlie Piper, 54th FIS pilot, assigned to Ellsworth in 1954. "We flew F-86Ds which were single seat, all weather aircraft, equipped with radar, fire control and armed rockets."

The fighters, the most modern fighter at the time, were flown to Ellsworth from California, and replaced the F-84 Thunderstreak being flown by the squadron at the time. The F-86D, although similar to the F-84 in many ways, had more sophisticated electronic equipment, rocket tubes, and could reach a maximum speed of 715 miles per hour - additions designed to increase the air defense capabilities of Ellsworth.

"We were on 24-hour alert and if one of the radar sites picked up an unknown aircraft, we were scrambled to intercept it and identify whether or not it was a threat," Piper said.

Although he wouldn't elaborate on any of his missions and the number of interceptions made, Piper said that most of the interceptions took place over North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

Due mostly to the concern of an attack by Russia, Piper said that there were more fighter interceptor squadrons than there are now.

"What is now the Air and Space Museum, located near the Liberty Gate, used to be the F-86D alert hangars," Piper said. "That's where most of the action took place. My first year in the 54th, I was one of the alert pilots. Near my second year, I switched to a day alert or night alert - a normal day involved flight and ground training."

During a recent visit to Ellsworth, Piper said the base has changed significantly since his time as a fighter interceptor from 1954 through 1956.

"Things were much stricter then than they are now," said the 81-year-old who now lives in Hill City, S.D. "Back then, we couldn't wear flight clothes off the flightline, and everyone had to not only show identification to enter the base, but to exit the base as well."

After nearly eight years of service from 1952 through 1960, the 54th FIS mission was discontinued at Ellsworth. Recognizing the vital role played by the squadron, the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee issued the following statement to the 54th FIS: 'On behalf of the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce, the Military Affairs Committee wishes you and your men continued success in future assignments. The 54th FIS was a real credit to Ellsworth, as well as the Rapid City area. We know your people have been an integral part of our community for a number of years. Those of your men that are to be reassigned will create a loss to numerous organizations within our community. We hope that future years will find opportunities for many of you to return to our area. Again, our best wishes to you and the men of the 54th FIS."

With the 54th mission ending at Ellsworth in 1960, all F-86Ds were reassigned to various Air Defense Command installations. Eventually all F-86Ds were replaced by the F-106 Delta Dart.

"Even though I was just doing my job, it was truly an honor to be part of the 54th," Piper said.

As the vital mission being accomplished at Ellsworth continues to evolve to meet the needs of our nation, the commitment to excellence and steadfast resolve by all those assigned remains as stoic as that provided by past generations - be it a bomber or fighter pilot.