The History of the 126th Air Refueling Wing

The History of the 126th Air Refueling Wing
Illinois Air National Guard

Throughout much of the 20th century, military aviation units have been formed in response to national emergencies. Often, a unit would undergo a change in mission or numerical designation as a result of a post-war reorganization. Others might disband altogether. New units and missions have also grown out of the fantastic developments in aviation, changing the face of a unit by order of modernization. A unit's historical lineage then, has many birth dates and places. The 126th Air Refueling Wing is no different, as many units have been designated and deactivated through the years, many different kinds of aircraft have been assigned, and the unit has moved - across town and across the state! All of this makes for a wonderful and rich history that each member takes pride in.

The Chicago Years 1927 - 1999
World War II
We find our beginnings in Chicago, at an armory on Michigan Avenue and 16th Street in 1927. This was the first home of the 108th Observation Squadron (the predecessor of the present day 108th Air Refueling Squadron), the oldest unit in the Illinois Air National Guard. The original 16 officers and 74 enlisted men were mostly World War I veterans from Chicago, flying PT-1 aircraft. From this small contingent grew a major operation that moved to Midway Municipal Airport. The unit distinguished itself in World War II, performing anti-submarine patrols in O-47 aircraft from a base in the Panama Canal. In September 1943, the unit was deactivated, enabling most of its members to fortify active duty units for the remainder of the war.

Following World War II, the Army Air Forces were significantly reorganized, as was the National Guard in Illinois. The 56th Fighter Wing was assigned to Orchard Place Airport in Park Ridge in 1946. The 66th Fighter Wing succeeded the 56th FW in 1947. In June of that year, the 66 FW gained the 344th Bombardment Group (L), a highly decorated World War II unit that was redesignated the 126th Bombardment Group (L). This was the first time the 126th numerical designation was used in Illinois but this is not the predecessor of the present day 126th Air Refueling Wing. The 66 FW also gains the 168th Bombardment Squadron (L) in 1947.

On 1 November 1950, the 66 FW is redesignated the 126th Composite Wing at Midway Municipal Airport. The 126 CW is the predecessor of the 126th Air Refueling Wing. Just six months later, the 126 CW is redesignated the 126th Bombardment Wing (L). The 126 BW is headquartered at O'Hare Airport with the 126 BG and the 168 BS. All of the units now fly the B-26 Invader. The former 108 OS becomes the 108th Bombardment Squadron (L). It is the only unit remaining at Midway. It too, flies the B-26.

Korean Conflict
In April of 1951, the 126 BW, 126 BG and 108 BS are all activated for the Korean Conflict, coming together at Langley Field in Virginia to prepare for overseas deployment. The units are in France by December of that year, beefing up United States Air Forces in Europe, as America is closely monitoring China and Russia during the conflict. These units overcame tremendous obstacles in accomplishing their mission: severe weather, poor living conditions, and a mid-air collision. When they returned from duty in January of 1953, the 126 BW, 126 BG, and 108 BS all returned to Midway. A series of new aircraft and missions were assigned from 1953 to 1961 (F-51s, F-84s and F-86s).
Move to O'Hare and the Assignment of Geographically Separated Units
In the spring of 1954, the 126 BG, the 108 BS and support units moved to O'Hare, leaving the 126 BW behind at Midway. Also in 1954, the 33rd Infantry Band of the Illinois National Guard was redesignated the 566th Air Force Band and assigned to the Wing at Midway. This was the first Geographically Separated Unit to be assigned to the Wing. They often drilled at O'Hare.

Both the 217th Electronics Installation Squadron (now the 217th Engineering and Installation Squadron) and the 264th Communications Squadron (now the 264th Combat Communications Squadron) were assigned to the Wing at various times and eventually moved to O'Hare with the other units. In 1958, the 168 BS was deactivated and most of the members joined units in the Wing and GSU's. The headquarters finally moved to O'Hare in 1959.

The Air Refueling Era Begins - First in the Air National Guard
In 1961, the unit received the first air refueling mission in the Air National Guard. Hangar 19 was completed just in time to receive the first KC-97 flying tanker in July and the unit was designated the 126th Air Refueling Wing.
The KC-97 would take the Wing back to Europe, refueling USAFE aircraft under operation CREEK PARTY from 1967 to 1976. Some 600 trans-Atlantic flights were flown and 150 million pounds of fuel off-loaded to USAFE and NATO aircraft. It was the first time the Air National Guard had performed a continuous operation without activation. It was also during this period that the Wing lost its flying Group, by federal deactivation.

SAC Alert
In July of 1976, the unit received the first KC-135 Stratotanker, the aircraft we are still flying today. These tankers ushered in the Strategic Air Command years and in 1979, the unit went on 24-hour alert status with SAC. The alert would be maintained until the command stood down in 1991.

The Persian Gulf War
The 126 ARW began volunteer operations in support of operation DESERT SHIELD in August of 1990 until the Wing was federally activated on the 20th of December of that year. When DESERT STORM began on the 16th of January 1991, the Wing was in place at Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. They formed up with other units as the 1712th (P) Air Refueling Wing. The 1712th also conducted refueling sorties from Saudi Arabia. From August of 1990 to March of 1991, the Wing offloaded over 31 million pounds of fuel, with over 27 million pounds offloaded in the last three months of the war. The unit returned to a ticker-tape parade down Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

Great Flood of 1993
On July 16, 1993, the Governor of Illinois ordered 270 members of the 126th Air Refueling Wing to State Active Duty to support the Illinois National Guard's flood control mission. Members patrolled levees, sandbagged boils and provided security on a 24 hours basis. Many guardsmen aided in evacuation of residents. Medical personnel aided thousands. The unit had members in Alton, Anna, Carolton, Carbondale, Cahokia, East St. Louis, East Carondelet, Edwardsville, Evansville, Grafton, Granite City, Hartford, Jerseyville, Murpheesboro, Prairie du Rocher, Quincy, Springfield, and Winchester. By the time the crisis was under control in the early fall, over 700 personnel from the 126th Air Refueling Wing and assigned units had pulled duty in the flood ravaged towns.

90's Missions: The Balkans, Southwest Asia, and NATO AWACS
Throughout the 90's, the Wing supported on-going operations in Southwest Asia and NATO operations in Europe, including volunteer support of operation ALLIED FORCE in Kosovo. The unit has also been supporting an ongoing NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) mission in Germany since 1993. Other missions supported in this decade: RESTORE HOPE, (Somalia) and SUPPORT JUSTICE IV (Panama).

Distinguished Visitor Mission
The unit began performing a Distinguished Visitor mission in June of 1997, when the 928th Airlift Wing was disbanded (the host Air Force Reserve unit at O'Hare). This mission called for support of the President of the United States and Air Force One, as well as the aircraft of visiting Heads of State, when landing at O'Hare. The Distinguished Visitor list included the Chancellor of Germany, the President of Mexico, the Prime Minister of Italy, the President of Romania, the Prime Minister of Japan, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the Premier of China.

Close of O'Hare IAP Air Reserve Station
The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission began studying the closure of O'Hare IAP Air Reserve Station, Ill., and realignment of the 126 ARW and attached units to new operating locations in 1993. By 1995, the BRAC was completed and the decision was made to relocate the 126ARW to Scott AFB, in Belleville, Ill., in July of 1999. The 217 EIS relocated to Springfield, Ill., with the 183rd Fighter Wing at Capitol Airport. The 264 CBCS and 566 AF Band relocated to Peoria, Ill., with the 182nd Airlift Wing at Greater Peoria Airport.

The Chicago Air Guard (the 126 ARW, 217 EIS, 264 CBCS, and 566 AF Band) held its final Retirement Ceremony with 1500 members in attendance on the 16th of June and the keynote speaker being the President of the United States. Later in the month, a grand ball was held with over 800 current and former members attending. Finally, the United States flag flying over O'Hare Air Reserve Station was officially lowered before 500 members and their families, and the last KC-135E departed for Scott AFB, Ill., on the 28th of July 1999. The Chicago Air Guard ceased to exist on that day.

A New Era at Scott AFB Begins
Full-time employees of the 126 ARW reported for the first duty day at Scott on the 2nd of August 1999 and the entire Wing fell into formation for the first time in the new maintenance hangar on Saturday of the first Unit Training Assembly at Scott AFB, August 14th, 1999. Less than two weeks after arrival, the 126 ARW began flying out of Scott AFB.

The Air National Guard complex at Scott AFB is considered to be one of the premiere guard bases in the country. The 126 ARW occupies 133 acres on Scott AFB. The maintenance hangar can house two KC-135's positioned nose-to-nose.

In October of 2000, the unit completed a year-long conversion of all of its aircraft to the Pacer CRAG cockpit, an avionics upgrade with significant global positioning enhancements and vertical separation technology.

September 11
In September of 2001, the 126th Air Refueling Wing was called to duty to patrol the skies over major cities of the United States after the attacks of September 11th in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Every member of the unit was recalled and placed on duty for the first few days of this crisis. Operations and Maintenance fell into supporting regular Combat Air Patrols (CAPS) and maintained aircraft alert. The entire 126th Security Forces Squadron was activated in October of 2001, and some members remain activated until this day.
War on Terrorism
On the 21st of February 2003, a mobilization order was received from Air Mobility Command tasking 250 personnel for an initial period of 365 days to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. The mission was to perform tanker air bridge operations from Lajes Air Base in Portugal, Spain. The 151st Air Refueling Wing from Salt Lake City, Utah and the 108th Air Refueling Wing from McGuire AFB, New Jersey joined the 126th ARW to form the 492nd Air Expeditionary Group (492 AEG) commanded by Brigadier General Harold E. Keistler. The 492 AEG flew 200 sorties, totaling 800 hours and offloaded approximately 6 million pounds of fuel to 245 United States and allied receivers.
In September of 2008, the unit completed its transition from KC-135E to KC-135R aircraft. The 126 ARW has eight KC-135R aircraft assigned.

Flood of 2008 (Operation Mississippi Western Response)
On June 16, 2008, the Governor of Illinois ordered members of the 126th Air Refueling Wing to State Active Duty to support the Illinois National Guard's flood control mission. Members patrolled levees, sandbagged boils and provided security on a 24 hours basis. The unit had members in Alton, Jerseyville, Pleasant Hill, and Quincy. By the time the crisis was under control in the early fall, over 330 personnel from the 126th Air Refueling Wing and assigned units had pulled duty in the flood ravaged towns.

1927 PT-1
1930 O-2H
1935 O-38
1940 O-47
1946 B-26
1946 C-47
1953 P-51
1954 T-33
1955 F-84
1957 F-86L
1961 KC-97
1976 KC-135A
1983 KC-135E
2008 KC-135R