VERMONT AIR NATIONAL GUARD
By Tech. Sgt. Garth Dunkel
The F-16 Fighting Falcon first arrived in Vermont during the latter part of 1985, the mission itself became operational soon after the landmark conversion in early 1986. Throughout the decades, the men and women of the Vermont Air National Guard have visited numerous countries, served in nearly a dozen combat deployments and supported countless state, national and federal missions.
Members of the 158th Fighter Wing reflect on the previous mission which concluded in April, 2019 and apply the same ‘Can-Do’ mentality as they look towards the mission to come with the F-35 Lightning II platform.
Over the course of its tenure with the 158th Fighter Wing, the F-16 has been the primary mission focus for the resident Airmen for the vast majority of their careers.
“I’ve always liked the comradery of the people working on the airplane; particularly going on trips around the world. Difficult is what we do, and when we succeed it’s very gratifying and we do it as a team. (But) my favorite aspect in working on the aircraft has been pride in ownership… we’re accountable for that airplane to fly,” remarks Master Sgt. Glenn Cota, an F-16 crew chief.
The event that took place on Saturday, April 6, 2019, known as ‘Viper Out’ culminated the F-16’s mission in the Green Mountain State. During the brisk and cloudy afternoon, over 1,500 people gathered at the ceremony before walking together to the taxiway where the last four aircraft departed Burlington International Airport with hundreds of onlookers from outside the gates.
During Viper Out, state and unit leadership remarked on the accolades that was the product of teamwork and dedication. The organization’s F-16 taskings included air superiority for drug interdiction, Cold War air support, and as responders to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack which entailed combat air patrols over Ground Zero for 122 consecutive days thereafter. To date, it has been estimated that nearly 5,000 Airmen, past and present, contributed to the successes that have led to the F-35 Lightning II paradigm shift.
Dedication and commitment to service has been an organizational ethos; embodied by every Airman. Over time, the VTANG has earned a reputation of excellence by way of the following:
Surpassed standards of every Unit Readiness Inspection; Quick Reaction Force emergency response support to Vermont; seamless transitions over multiple Block platform conversions; steadfast support for Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve deployments and travels to South Korea, Qatar, Africa, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Japan and many, many more.
“We (aircraft maintainers) have the capability of removing a wing, fixing an issue, and putting it back on. What I have tried to instill in all Airmen that have done that, when the plane flies, they can look at that and say, ‘Wow, I took a wing off, put it back on and now it’s flying.’ That, to me, is something to be proud of,” lamented Senior Master Sgt. Tina Deep, now the weapons element supervisor; and Green Mountain Boy since 1990.
For some, it has been bittersweet and personal since the F-16 has been the focal point of their career. While the arrival of the F-35 is very exciting, saying ‘good-bye’ to the F-16 is a somewhat difficult concept.
“The significance of the F-16 leaving, and I’ve worked on it for over 25-years, it’s like saying good-bye to an old friend that you’re not going to see anymore. So there is an attachment and we’re going to miss it,” noted Cota.
At 1:58 PM, a tribute to the Wing, during the afternoon of Viper Out, a gathering in the hundreds comprised of members, retirees, and family walked out to the flight line and witnessed the last four F-16 taxi and takeoff out of Vermont for the last time.
“The future outlook is promising because everything that we’ve accomplished with the F-16 is the reason why we have this opportunity with the F-35. So it’s kind of exciting to be in a Guard unit and get a brand new plane like this- so it speaks a lot about what we’ve done in the past and what people have entrusted in us with,” said Cota.
As the direct result of teamwork, dedication and merit earned, Vermont has been selected as the first Air National Guard unit to receive the F-35 mission.
“And the next one’s just beginning,” remarks the 158th Fighter Wing Commander Col. David Smith’s as he welcomed his outlook on the future.
“Our best days are ahead.”