Elephant walk: A historic first for an old tradition
By Gary Boyd, 305th Air Mobility Wing Historian
/ Published July 05, 2006
McGUIRE AIR FORCE BASE, N.J. -- The 305th Air Mobility Wing "Elephant Walk" June 30 represented the first time C-17s and KC-10s partnered for such a public effort in Air Force and McGuire Air Force Base history, as five C-17s and 11 KC-10s got a chance to surge, nose-to-tail, as had their predecessors in World War II and the Cold War -- a stirring sight and an important first.
"Elephant walk" is a uniquely Air Force term that grew out of World War II and became institutional memory in the new Air Force. The Army Air Forces had the luxury of large amounts of bombers by 1944, and would regularly generate attacks in excess of 1,000 aircraft from its Numbered Air Forces. Observers commented that the nose-to-tail, single-file taxi movements of the heavily-laden bombers paralleled the nose-to-tail trail of lumbering elephants on their way to the next watering hole. The term stuck and was even used to define maximum sortie surge operations in Air Force regulations. The 305th AMW is no stranger to the concept of an elephant walk. The Can Do wing started as a B-17 bomber group in World War II and actually had more B-17s assigned to it during its history than any other Air Force unit.
The Can Do 305th Bomb Group of World War II would often generate as many as 36 bombers for its missions over Europe in World War II -- each combat group had four squadrons of aircraft from which to draw. Elephant walks were a part of daily operations and focused everyone from maintainers to support personnel on achieving near-miraculous turn-around on battle scarred aircraft. Combat flying aged aircraft incredibly, and it was no mean feat to meet daily aircraft generation requirements. The Can Do Wing, has always been an "elephant walking" Air Force organization -- along with the historic 514th AMW reserve associate wing, itself dedicated for its almost 60 years of service to air mobility.
In modern times, the "elephant walk" came to mean a maximum sortie generation in Strategic Air Command. Elephant walks also became a part of Inspector General Exercises, and sometimes were only a taxi exercise without actual departures and landings. It was a terrific way to inspect all aspects of a wing's readiness to meet its wartime mission. Every flyable, tasked aircraft and crew was required to meet its war plan departure window. For example, as many as 120 F-111s once lifted off in less than an hour as part of a United States Air Forces Europe surge exercise in the early 1980s. The tradition was often just a way to celebrate the great teamwork and dedication of maintainers. After Operation Desert Storm, the 23/354 Tactical Fighter Wing (Provisional) celebrated the end of combat operations with an elephant walk of 144 A-10s form seven squadrons.
At McGuire Air Force Base, the business of air mobility has always been so brisk that, in practical measure, elephant walks were often relegated to real world operations. Support for the Big Lift/Reforger exercises from the 1960s through 1989, meant than as many as 40 to 50 aircraft could take part in maximum generation sorties -- an elephant walk of the sort we will likely never see again. Supporting the Nickel Grass re-supply of Israel in 1973 required McGuire Air Force Base to launch some 228 C-141 and three C-5 dedicated sorties in just a little more than three weeks, all while conducting other operations and maintenance around the clock.
The splendid show of mission readiness last week was a rare occasion to showcase the capabilities of Team McGuire. Such power in line, awaiting take-off, conveys a majesty and power that even a busy flightline cannot duplicate. While it was a tremendous boost in morale for all concerned, it was better training for all involved. The next operational surge is always just around the corner in Air Mobility Command, from weather evacuation to humanitarian relief operations. So, practicing for the inevitable is an opportunity not to be missed and a great way to recognize the maintainers, logisticians and crews who have always made it possible. Can Do has never been an idle boast, nor have elephant walks ever been a hollow procession.