“Wings of Freedom”

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
For many Americans, Jan. 21 is traditionally remembered as the day, 50 years ago, when President John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural speech where he challenged the nation to, "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

However, for the Air Force, Jan. 21 holds another significance.

It is the date, 24 years ago, when the B-1B Lancer was first delivered to Ellsworth Air Force Base. The first B-1, called "The Wings of Freedom," was delivered by Gen. John T. Chain, Jr., Strategic Air Command commander. Today, the speech he gave carries an element of prophecy to it.

"Too often, people think of SAC bombers... only as carriers of nuclear weapons," General Chain said. "We have to change that perception. The B-52 and B-1 have an enormous capability to contribute to this nation's conventional capability... their firepower is awesome. They could strike a terrorist-type target anywhere in the world flying nonstop from the United States and return with air refueling."

Since its delivery, the B-1 has evolved into a versatile platform, capable of providing close air support to ground forces in the current field of operation - quite a change from its original mission.

"The object, in those days, was to train for alerts with nuclear weapons," said retired Col. Tom Vitamvas, former deputy commander of maintenance on Ellsworth Air Force Base at the time the B-1 arrived. "Since then, the B-1 has gone from the nuclear business to carrying conventional, smart weapons."

Colonel Vitamvas said a lot of hard work and training went into preparing the base for the arrival of the aircraft. New hangars and facilities had to be constructed at the same time updates and renovations to existing buildings went on.

"We were all very excited to get a brand new airplane," he said. "Everything had to be perfect before the B-1 arrived."

Marian Tolley, 28th Bomb Wing secretary, remembers the excitement around the wing after the aircraft was delivered.

"After the B-1 arrived, the wing commander would call us every time there was a takeoff and ask if we had heard it," she said.

Despite the initial excitement, the B-1 was not without its naysayers. Many people were not convinced a supersonic, nuclear bomber was what the nation needed. Colonel Vitamvas said there were operational difficulties that caused people to question its value. However, after the crews flew in the aircraft, they were all, "very pleased with it."

Looking back, Colonel Vitamvas said the B-1 has been a truly incredible aircraft, in multiple theaters of operation. He valued the time he was able to spend with it.

"If you look back on what the B-1 has done, it is truly a great platform," he said. "It makes a lot of us old timers, who were there and heard all the initial negative press, feel good to see the B-1 still being used decades later."