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Answering the call: The birth of a 'Calico' wing

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Roy E. Uptegraff III
  • 171st Air Refueling Wing Commander
The most amazing things sometimes have the humblest beginnings. For me, that adage is especially true when I consider the history of the "Calico" wing -- an outstanding team I recently had the privilege to lead and which had its origin in a single, late-night phone call.

I was at home with my family when my cell phone rang. It was Thursday, March 18. Less than two days later, I was flying a KC-135 Stratotanker to Western Europe to stand up the 313th Air Expeditionary Wing. Like most Americans (and especially mobility Airmen), I had been paying close attention to the events unfolding in Libya. So I have to confess I wasn't entirely surprised at the question that came from the other end of the phone line: was I ready to deploy to an undisclosed location with a contingency package from my wing to support the newly-initiated Operation Odyssey Dawn. The answer was simple for someone who had seen the TV images showing the suffering of the Libyan people at the hands of a brutal dictator: "Sure. Just say the word and we're on our way."

The next day I gathered our wing leadership and shared the news. There was a mix of nervous anticipation and excitement to be part of the international response to the situation in Libya, particularly the enforcement of a no-fly zone that could help save innocent lives. Throughout the day I worked with Col. Rick Evans, commander of Nebraska's155th Air Refueling Wing as well as Air Mobility Command and 18th Air Force leadership at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., to develop the requirements for what I thought we would need to get the mission done. But at the end of the day, I went home not knowing when or if we would be leaving anytime soon.

Early on a Saturday morning, we gathered the senior staff to finalize the plan on who to deploy and what equipment to take when and if the tasking came down. A few hours later, another call came, this one directing us to deploy as soon as possible to a location in Western Europe. By 10 p.m. that evening, my command team and I were airborne.

We landed in a dead sprint, standing up the 313th Air Expeditionary Wing to provide aerial refueling support to coalition forces within 72 hours of Operation Odyssey Dawn's start. As lead unit, my own 171st Air Refueling Wing out of Pittsburgh deployed approximately 250 Airmen and four aircraft to the deployed area of responsibility. But when I had first stepped off the plane early Saturday morning and looked around a bare base, I immediately knew we needed to call in support from back in the United States. Before long, other units quickly joined us, providing the Airmen and equipment that transformed the 313th into a full-up AEW.

By the end of the month, the operation transitioned to a NATO-led mission called Unified Protector, but despite the change our mission remained clear to every Airman in the wing:
support enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. In short, our fuel allowed NATO aircraft to help save lives. It was this understanding that inspired our Airmen to quickly form a cohesive team despite their diverse origins.

On any given day, our air crews and maintainers were flying and maintaining aircraft that did not belong to their home units and quite often were from an entirely different Air Force component. But whether active duty, Guard, or Reserve, these total force Airmen seamlessly worked together to ensure our KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders were always ready to carry out their important mission.

For example, the crew who flew our 1,000th sortie on May 22 was a truly "blended" mix of active duty and air reserve component Airmen: aircraft commander Capt. Jeff Lascurain, an active duty officer from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.; 1st Lt. Spencer Liedl, an active duty officer from Scott Air Force Base, Ill.; and Tech. Sgt. Christopher Slater from the Illinois Air National Guard. In addition, the crew chiefs who recovered the aircraft upon landing also reflected our diversity: Tech. Sgt. Andrew Nelson and Staff Sgt. Matthew Jackson, Guardsmen from Bangor, Maine, and Senior Airman Stephen Vanderhorst, an Ohio Guardsman.

It was precisely our diversity that led to the 313th's nickname: the "Calico" wing. As I looked around the ramp at the multitude of tail flashes representing the different units and components supporting our mission, I realized that it reminded me of a "calico cat." It was half-humorous observation, but it stuck, and our Airmen soon adopted the moniker with pride.

While most of the members of the initial team that stood up the Calico wing have since returned to our home units, the wing itself continues to perform superbly in its mission. Ultimately, the fuel the 313th delivers represents the delivery of hope to a people that dream of the same freedom many Americans take for granted.

Like all of the Airmen who have served and continue to serve with the 313th, I am very proud of the Calico wing and what it has accomplished: more than 2,200 sorties and nearly 20,000 hours flown and more than 110 million pounds of fuel offloaded. These are great accomplishments that represent the greatness of our global mobility enterprise and its ability to project power rapidly, anywhere in the world.

But like many great accomplishments, it all began simply ... with a phone call I won't ever forget.