First JSTARS aircraft flies final mission

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The Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing, in cooperation with the 461st Air Control Wing, officially retired the first E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft here Feb. 10.

“The first retirement of a JSTARS aircraft gives us an opportunity to celebrate the operational accomplishments and the pivotal role the aircraft has played since the first one came to Robins in 1996,” said Col. Amy Holbeck, 116th ACW commander.

In 2018, then Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson announced the airframe was not to be recapitalized. In late 2021, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., the chief of staff of the Air Force, signed an official memorandum to begin the divestment of JSTARS in fiscal year 2022.

The 96th Test Wing’s geographically separated unit, the 46th Test Squadron Operating Location Alpha at Patrick AFB, Florida, took part in preparing the aircraft for retirement.

Greg Amig, an E-8C test pilot and the unit’s director of operations, performed preflight planning of the mission to include flight route development, preparation of mission planning materials and aircraft mission data cards.  Amig was slated to fly the Aircraft 92-3289’s final flight, but delays forced him out of the pilot seat.

“Being able to participate in this aircraft’s retirement meant a lot,” said Amig, a 12-year E-8C pilot, who flew 92-3289 during his first-ever JSTARS mission.

Aircraft 92-3289 didn’t begin as an Air Force E-8C. It started as a passenger airline with Qantas Airways in 1968. After a conversion, it was officially delivered here in March 1996.  It was the first production aircraft delivered to the Air Force and has been in service the longest aside from the trainer aircraft which was the original test bed aircraft.

“The E-8C JSTARS have been invaluable to the joint force by using cutting-edge technology throughout their 20 years of service,” said Col. Michelle Carns, 461st ACW commander. “Our Airmen will continue to provide that same level of support to the mid- 2020s.”

The 96th TW unit has been around as long as there have been JSTARS.  The organization was originally established in 1987 as the JSTARS Test Force under the 751st Electronic Support Group at Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts.  The test force was embedded with industry, Army, and Air Combat Command personnel at a Northrop Grumman facility in Florida.  In 2011, the JFT moved into the Air Force Test Center as a detachment to the 46th Operations Group.  Subsequently, the unit was reorganized into the 46th Test Squadron, under the 96th TW, supporting JSTARS and other C4ISR systems testing.

Although the unit doesn’t have its own aircraft, it has agreements with the JSTARS units to use their aircraft for testing.

The Airmen and civilians of the JSTARS units, including OL-A, will be able to embrace the new missions knowing they are a special part of a legacy that began with this aircraft and will carry on into the transformed future.

“The retirement of aircraft 92-3289 is bittersweet as it represents the beginning of the divestment of the E-8C fleet but it also is an opportunity to reflect on the great good that can come from a military and industry team focused on delivering what is needed in the defense of our nation,” said retired Col. Henry Cyr, former 461st ACW commander.