Our heritage is alive

  • Published
  • By Col. Joseph E. Zeis Jr.
  • 46th Test Wing Commander
I was reading a book on a long flight recently, entitled "Masters of the Air." It was about the daylight bombing offensive over Europe from 1943 to 1945. It describes the brutal environment the Airmen dealt with, while combating the German war machine and proving the concept of strategic bombardment.

Frostbite, hypoxia, mid-air collisions were all deadly hazards, before even coming in contact with the enemy. Then came the fighters, usually in head-on attacks. Following that came the anti-aircraft artillery, or flak, with its deadly whiffs of smoke and shrapnel. Finally came the bomb run with the Bombardiers aiming through their Norden sights to hit their aimpoints as accurately as 1,000-plane formations can.

All this took place in the daylight, at great risk to the planes and crews, and before 1944, without long-range escorts ... all to prove the benefit of precision strategic weapons delivery. Costs were high, hovering around 10 percent on most missions. Imagine that...with a requirement of 25 missions to complete a combat tour, the life expectancy for the pilot was less than half a tour, only 10 missions. But they persevered despite great losses to prove an infant concept of precision bombardment.

In many ways, we continue that drive to pioneer advances in precision bombardment today. The only difference is in our definition of "precision." During those brutal days of the daylight bomber offensive in Europe, it meant striking a railyard-sized target, while trying not to destroy the entire city. Now, we talk of sub-meter accuracies, hitting a door, while trying not to destroy the adjacent building. The efforts of our organizations here at Eglin go directly into the technology and capability to redefine precision and enhance the Airman's ability to hold at risk any target, without fear of collateral damage. From the acquisition wings come air-to-air weapons to sweep the skies, allowing the precision strikers to lay powerful air-to-ground weaponry on targets either strategic or closein. Our Air Force Research Laboratory partners develop the new technology to penetrate and strike with lightning speed. And our 46th Test Wing touches the hardware and software for the first time, ensuring that it not only works as it should, but that there are never any surprises to a warfighter employing the armament for the first time. These dedicated folks prove out the safety, integration, command and control, and weapons effectivity that turn airplanes into the most accurate warplanes the world has ever seen.

The people of this center, here and at our groups and detachments around the country, carry on this magnificent heritage of our Air Force...the most powerful military force in the world. It has been built on the shoulders of aerospace pioneers, but you carry the legacy now, and that heritage is in great hands. At this time of the year, we honor Veterans Day, but we should always continue to honor that heritage on a regular basis.

I had an opportunity to see our heritage first hand about 10 years ago. I was escorting two elderly gentlemen on their last B-24 squadron reunion, at the Air Force Museum. The director opened up the museum's B-24 for them to go into if they desired. One gentleman I was with, "Mick," needed a scamp scooter just to get back there to the aircraft display. But he was determined to go into the aircraft. You enter the B-24 through a bottom hatch with a ladder at the rear of the aircraft, about five steps. With each step, I saw a decade erased from his age. By the time he entered the bomber, he was a twenty-year-old again. As he walked through the bomb bay to get to the front, each hand and each footstep was automatic, walking the catwalk just like he did 50-some years before. He took up his old position in the bombardier's seat in the plexiglass nose, while his other friend took his in the tail gunner's spot. Absolute silence prevailed ... who could imagine what images of their air war, in this case over the Pacific, flashed through their mind's eye. While I couldn't, I'm sure they most certainly heard the four engines come alive, and the rush of the wind over the fuselage. I was looking at youths at their combat stations, flying again into battle half a century before.

With each step back down the ladders, they became old men again. But for those few minutes, I glimpsed the heritage that made us great ... and a legacy we must carry on with pride. Please take any opportunity you have to thank our veterans and thank those of our past for handing down a great Air Force heritage to all of us, one that is alive as long as we choose to remember and honor it.