Article originally appeared in Air Force Magazine, December 1992, pg 48-55. Reprinted here with the permission of the Air and Space Forces Association.

Which unit designations and names will
survive the defense drawdown? It isn’t
an easy decision.


By George W. Cully

ON THE day it is created, every unit in the Air Force begins to accumulate a lineage—a kind of military pedigree based on the unit’s historical origins, length of service, places of assignment, campaigns in which it has served, and honors it has received for valor in battle and achievement in peace.

Lineage rules turn on strict, near legalistic definitions. A unit’s Iineage, once established, cannot be awarded to a different unit. As a result, each approved lineage becomes a unique expression of collective bravery, service, and sacrifice. Put another way, unit lineages are the stuff of authenticated legend.

Not surprisingly, long-established Air Force units have a strong interest in their heritage, and they zealously guard the prestige that accompanies a famous ancestry. At present, there are in service fifty-one Air Force and Air National Guard flying squadrons that can trace their lineages to World War I or earlier [see p. 54]. Boasts of pioneering exploits can be made by each, beginning with the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, the oldest, which saw service on the US-Mexican border during 1913-14. At the time, it was called the 1st Provisional Aero Squadron, one of the first of its kind in the world.

The oldest continuously active flying squadron in the Air Force is the 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron. Currently flying the Lockheed U-2R, it began as the 1st Provisional Aero Squadron in March 1913, flying Curtiss JN-3 Jennies on the US Mexican border.

Like much of the Air Force, uniform patches are changing. Opposite, clockwise from top left: The 91st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron’s insignia dates to World War I. The 91st last flew RF-4Cs at Bergstrom AFB, Tex., and was inactivated in August 1991. The 19th Fighter Squadron is still part of the 363d Fighter Wing at Shaw AFB, S. C. The 8th Special Operations Squadron has seen its eagle become stylized since it began as the 8th Aero Squadron in 1917. Tactical Air Command’s patch has changed also as wings and squadrons changed.

Some of these units continue to carry emblems originally devised in World War I. Two well-known examples are the 94th Fighter Squadron’s ”Hat in the Ring” and the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron’s “Kicking Mules.” Units claim famous “Great War” crewmen, like the 94th’s Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker. America’s leading World War I ace, or 2d Lt. Frank Luke, who scored more than fifteen victories in seventeen days while serving on the Western Front with the 27th Fighter Squadron’s original ancestor, the 27th Aero Squadron. Some of these senior units had relatively inauspicious beginnings but went on to greater things. The 30th Aero Squadron, for example, spent World War I in France repairing and overhauling aircraft engines. Most readers will more readily recognize the 30th in its present form as the world-famous USAF Air Demonstration Squadron—the Thunderbirds.

Whatever designations they now carry-fighter squadrons, bombardment squadrons, missile squadrons, and so on—these fifty-one units are direct heirs to some of the longest unbroken histories of group achievement in flight.

The 27th Fighter Squadron still has the same Insignia that adorned this World War I Nieuport 28, photographed somewhere in France. The 27th’s sister squadron Is the famous 94th “Hat in the Ring” Fighter Squadron, best known as the squadron of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker. Both belong to the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB, Va.

Vanishing Organizations

With the Air Force expected to shrink from 200 to 150 active-duty, Reserve, and Air National Guard flying and nonflying wings, many organizations will be redesignated, consolidated, or reassigned. Others will simply disappear. The big drawdown has already brought about inactivation of some long-serving units. One is the 48th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Langley AFB, Va., organized as the 48th Aero Squadron on August 4. 1917, at Kelly Field, Tex. Others are the 12th and 91st Reconnaissance Squadrons, Bergstrom AFB. Tex. They were organized, respectively, as the 12th Aero Squadron on June 2, 1917, at San Antonio, Tex., and the 91st Aero Squadron on August 21, 1917, at Kelly Field. These units may someday be reactivated, but for now they exist only as entries on the inactive list.

Every organization in the Air Force fits into one of two categories: unit or establishment. Units are the junior of the two, since they are generally assigned to establishments. Units come in three types: headquarters, squadrons, and miscellaneous. Headquarters units contain the command staff personnel of an establishment; squadrons are the basic working components of all establishments: and miscellaneous units include such organizations as hospitals, bands, and so on.

Establishments differ from units in that no personnel are directly assigned to them. Instead, the staff personnel of, say, Air Combat Command (an establishment) are assigned to Headquarters, ACC (a unit). A group is generally the lowest-level establishment. Lower-level establishments are assigned to higher-level ones—for example, groups to wings, wings to numbered air forces, numbered air forces to commands, commands to Headquarters, USAF. This arrangement—units reporting to establishments, subordinate establishments to superior ones—constitutes the chain of command, through which all control and accountability flow.

At any given time, hundreds of organizations are in active service, while many more paper organizations exist only in inactive status. Each unit must be identified in a unique fashion to avoid confusion and preserve historical continuity. This is done through a system of rules and definitions called lineage.

A Complicated Task

Determining a given organization’s lineage requires systematic tracing of all actions that have affected the organization’s status through its entire service, including those times it has been inactive, disbanded, or disestablished. These actions are defined in ways that may seem arcane to the nonspecialist, but each term has a specific meaning [see box at left].

The insignia of the 37th Bomb Squadron (28th Wing, Ellsworth AFB, S.D.) depicts a growling Bengal tiger. It too has changed little since the squadron began as the 37th Aero Squadron in June 1917.

What’s in a Name?

Activate. To bring into physical existence by assigning personnel (from 1922 to 1959, and again after 1968). During 1959-68, “activate” meant to place on the active list, thereby making the unit or establishment available to be organized.

Active list. USAF-controlled and Major Command-controlled units currently in active status, along with all Majcom-controlled units awaiting activation.

Assign. To place a unit in a military organization as a permanent subordinate element or component of that organization. A unit is customarily assigned to an establishment, never to another unit.

Attach. To place one military organization with another temporarily for operational control or other purposes, such as administrative or logistical support.

Consolidate. To combine two units, merging their lineage and histories into those of a single unit.

Constitute. To create a unit and place it on the inactive list, thus making it available for activation.

Designate. To give an official name, or name and number, to an organization. Differently named organizations on the active list may bear the same designation number, e.g., 1st ACCS and 1st RS.

Disband. To remove an inactive USAF-controlled unit from the inactive list, thereby ending its existence.

Disestablish. To terminate an establishment concurrent with disbandment of its headquarters unit, whereupon the establishment returns to the inactive list until such time as it may be reconstituted (see “constitute”).

Establish. To assign a designation to an establishment concurrent with the designation (1947-48) or the constitution (1922-47 and 1948-present) of the headquarters unit.

Establishment. A military organization at group or higher echelon, composed of a headquarters unit and any other elements that might be assigned. Personnel are assigned to an establishment’s elements, rather than directly to the establishment itself.

Inactivate. To withdraw all personnel from the headquarters unit and place the establishment and its headquarters unit on the inactive list. From 1959 to 1968, however, to be inactivated meant to be transferred from the active list to the inactive list.

Inactive list. Those organizations that have been constituted but are not in active status.

Organize. In the early Air Force, to designate and activate a unit; later, to bring a previously designated, nonconstituted unit into physical existence by assigning personnel.

Provisional organizations. Units or establishments to which subordinate organizations may be attached but not assigned. Provisional organizations are intended to be temporary and thus are not ordinarily entitled to a lineage of their own.

Redesignate. To change the designation (number or number and name) of both the establishment and its headquarters unit, or of a unit.

Reestablish. To return a previously existing establishment from disestablished status to the active list so it can be activated.

Relieve from active duty. To return a Reserve unit to its original status on completion of an extended active-duty period with the Air Force.

Unit. An Air Force numbered flight, squadron, miscellaneous unit (such as a hospital, band, etc.), or the headquarters of a group or higher organization. Detachments and provisional units are not ordinarily entitled to a separate lineage or battle honors.

This task can be complicated because definitions have changed over time and because units and establishments have different lineage terminologies. Units are created, or “constituted,” by Headquarters, USAF, and assigned to commands or operating agency establishments for activation. Thereafter, a unit’s existence continues until it is disbanded, even if it is redesignated (given a new number or functional name) or inactivated in the meantime. A disbanded unit may be reconstituted, meaning that it resumes existence with its previous lineage restored intact, or it may be consolidated with another unit, in which case its lineage merges with the receiving unit’s lineage to combine the accomplishments of both.

Establishments, on the other hand, are established by Headquarters, USAF, and they continue to exist until they are disestablished. They may also be redesignated or inactivated; once disestablished, they may be reestablished with a restored lineage. Establishments may be consolidated with other establishments. In such cases, the new organization inherits the combined lineages of the respective headquarters units.

Finally, there is the matter of provisional organizations. These are temporary units or establishments. Though they have many administrative characteristics of permanent organizations, they are intended to exist only so long as a given operation requires. Unit detachments or rotating temporary duty personnel normally are attached, rather than assigned, to provisional establishments, and there is no lineal relationship between a provisional organization and its regular replacement, even if no actual change of personnel or location takes place during the turnover.

When he became Air Force Chief of Staff in October 1990, Gen. Merrill A. McPeak applied his long-standing personal interest in unit history and heraldry to the task of maintaining esprit de corps in the face of major organizational change. General McPeak initiated a revitalization of the unit heraldry program. He renewed the emphasis on unit lineage to underscore his desire that Air Force members see themselves as warriors rather than as technical specialists. By regulation, responsibility for both unit history and heraldry falls to the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) at Air University, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

Experts at AFHRA deal with a wide variety of lineage issues. They use a sixty million-page collection of unit histories and other source documents to generate and maintain unit lineage and honors statements-official determinations of the lineage and awards to which each USAF unit is entitled. (ANG lineage issues are resolved by the Air National Guard Bureau.) When a new unit is constituted, or when an inactive unit is reactivated, AFHRA advises the unit of its entitlements. AFHRA also coordinates its lineage determinations with the Air Force Military Personnel Center at Randolph AFB, Tex. AFMPC ensures that units receive formal authorization to display the battle honors and campaign awards they have earned.

The Rules Bend-Sometimes

As the arbiters of USAF lineage matters, AFHRA experts occasionally find themselves at odds with commanders seeking to improve the standing of their organizations by misapplying lineage definitions or by seeking exemptions from certain rules. However, the definitions have become well settled, and most commanders eventually agree that consistent application is vital.

Even so, Air Force officials on occasion have set aside the rules because of policy. In the late 1940s, for example, the Air Force examined various arrangements for restructuring its operations. That reorganization was subject to a mix of politics and economics that, in some ways, resembles today’s circumstances.

The 334th Fighter Squadron can trace its beginnings to the Royal Air Force Eagle Squadrons; compare the eagle on the side of this RAF Hurricane fighter to the 334th’s patch. This was one of many squadron insignia designed by the Disney Studios during World War II.

The key question was whether the wing or the combat group would be the primary building block of the postwar Air Force. After considerable experimentation (and a few false starts), the existing wings were restructured and redesignated as divisions. These divisions were assigned to the active numbered air forces, and new wings were established and activated to replace them. Gradually, combat squadrons were assigned directly to the new wings. This arrangement was viewed as an efficiency measure. It made combat groups redundant, and USAF began to inactivate them in 1952.

It soon dawned on many, however, that this process had inadvertently created a lineage problem: Strictly speaking, the new wings were not entitled to claim the lineages (and, more important, the accompanying battle honors and campaign streamers) or the famous World War II combat groups they had previously owned. This was unacceptable and USAF’s leadership resolved the matter by decreeing that the honors of combat groups would be assigned to like-numbered wings, regardless of customary practice.

The 25th Flying Tactics Training Squadron’s executioner (far left, in his Strategic Training Squadron guise) is the same pleasant fellow who was painted on the unit’s SE-5 biplanes in 1917 when it was the 20th Aero Squadron. Along with the searchlights that spell out the Roman numeral IX, the 9th Bomb Squadron’s patch originally showed a small town’s skyline and the biplane the lights were looking for.

The missions of some squadrons have changed greatly over the years. The Compass Call EC-130H aircraft flown by the 41st Electronic Combat Squadron (355th Fighter Wing, Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.) are a far cry from the observation balloons it flew as the 4th Balloon Squadron in 1917, though its insignia has changed very little. The 43d ECS, another 355th FW squadron, also dates from 1917, when it was the 86th Aero Squadron.

By contrast, the Air Force has often rigorously enforced the rules despite the existence of a good argument that they should be bent. During the Vietnam War, for example, Strategic Air Command’s bomb and refueling wings were required to send large contingents and numerous aircraft overseas to provisional wings controlled by Pacific Air Forces. These contingents conducted Arc Light air strikes over South Vietnam and, later, Operation Linebacker II raids over North Vietnam. It has been said that the numbers involved were such that, in an earlier time, they would have been considered unit deployments. Only a handful of officers and enlisted troops stayed behind to maintain the fiction that the units were still in the United States.

Unfortunately, battle honors that might accrue to a provisional wing cannot be transferred to the permanent units that support it. As a result, SAC’s “heavies” received no battle honors for their participation in the Vietnam War. Given the losses and the scale of effort involved, many believed that an exception to the rules was in order.

Operation Desert Storm also saw some use or in-theater provisional wings. AFMPC has not announced what battle honors wiII be awarded or how they might be apportioned among the organizations that participated. It remains to be seen whether there will be a repeat of the Vietnam War battle honor experience.

Given the likelihood that longstanding units will be caught in the force drawdown, discussions of lineage seniority and ownership have intensified, especially within the fighter community, and various officers have studied ways to quantify a unit’s standing. One concept envisions a seniority value based on factors of varying weight. Included in the calculation would be length of service, battle honors and campaign awards, aerial victory credits, and the like. The idea is, unless overriding factors intervene, to inactivate those wings with the least illustrious histories first, thereby preserving the fame and prestige of the longer-serving outfits. Officers of Tactical Air Command (before it was merged into Air Combat Command on June 1) and US Air Forces in Europe drew up their own seniority lists, but no consensus has emerged on how points or credits should be assigned, especially with regard to comparisons between units with very different backgrounds.

Many Air Force organizations—more than 300 tactical units alone by a recent count—have already been redesignated or realigned, and this process. will continue as more bases close and US forces arc brought home from overseas. The composite wing concept is also affecting the kinds of designations being given to units. The bottom line is that virtually every organization in the Air Force is going to change the way it operates, and most wiII change their name, to reflect that process. ♦

George W. Cully is a recently retired Air Force captain. He is now Senior Research Associate of Aerohistory Associates, based in Montgomery. Ala. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.

The Oldest Squadrons

This list is limited to continuously active flying units, each of which can trace its lineage to a forerunner unit organized before or during World War I. Information is current as of July 31, 1992.

Active Duty, Air Force Reserve

Squadron Establishment Organized Origin
1st Reconnaissance Squadron 9th Wing, Beale AFB, Calif. 1st Provisional Aero Squadron, Texas City, Tex. March 5, 1913
2d Air Refueling Squadron 480th Air Refueling Group 458th Operations Group, Barksdale AFB, La. 1st Company, 2d Aero Squadron, Rockwell Field, San Diego, Calif. December 1, 1915
3d Fighter Training Squadron 343d Wing, Eielson AFB, Alaska 3d Aero Squadron, Fort Sam Houston, Tex. November 1, 1916
911th Air Refueling Squadron 4th Wing, Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C. 16th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. May 15, 1917
33d Fighter Squadron 363d Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, S. C. 33d Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 12, 1917
35th Fighter Squadron 8th Fighter Wing, Kunsan AB, South Korea 35th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 12, 1917
36th Fighter Squadron 51st Wing, Osan AB, South Korea 36th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 12, 1917
25th Flying Tactics Training Squadron 99th Tactics & Training Wing, Ellsworth AFB, S.D. 20th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 13, 1917
USAF Air Demonstration Squadron 57th Fighter Wing, Nellis AFB, Nev. 30th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June13,1917
31st Test and Evaluation Squadron USAF Air Warfare Center, assigned to Edwards AFB, Calif. 31st Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 13, 1917
32d Air Refueling Squadron 22d Air Refueling Wing 458th Operations Group, Barksdale AFB, La. 32d Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 13, 1917
37th Bomb Squadron 28th Wing, Ellsworth AFB, S.D. 37th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 13, 1917
43d Fighter Squadron 3d Wing, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska 43d Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 13, 1917
9th Bomb Squadron 7th Wing, Carswell AFB, Tex. 9th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 14, 1917
19th Fighter Squadron 363d Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, S.C. 14th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 14, 1917
27th Fighter Squadron 1st Fighter Wing, Langley AFB, Va. 21st Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex.
(Redesignated 27th Aero Squadron June 23. 1917.)
June 15, 1917
17th Fighter Squadron 363d Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, S.C. 29th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June16,1917
23d Bomb Squadron 5th Wing, Minot AFB, N.D. 18th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 16, 1917
8th Special Operations Squadron 1st Special Operations Wing, Hurlburt Field, Fla. 8th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June21,1917
28th Bomb Squadron 384th Wing, McConnell AFB, Kan. 28th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 22, 1917
11th Missile Squadron 341st Missile Wing, Malmstrom AFB, Mont. 11th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 26, 1917
20th Bomb Squadron 7th Wing, Carswell AFB, Tex 20th Aero Squadron, Camp Kelly, Tex. June 26, 1917
49th Test and Evaluation USAF Air Warfare Center, assigned to Squadron Barksdale AFB, La. 49th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 6, 1917
55th Fighter Squadron 20th Fighter Wing, RAF Upper Heyford, UK 55th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 9, 1917
43d Electronic Combat Squadron 355th Fighter Wing, Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. 86th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 17, 1917
87th Flying Training Squadron 47th Flying Training Wing, Laughlin AFB, Tex. 87th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 18, 1917
436th Training Squadron Hq. Air Combat Command, stationed at Carswell AFB, Tex. 88th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 18, 1917
90th Fighter Squadron 3d Wing, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska 90th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 20, 1917
94th Fighter Squadron 1st Fighter Wing, Langley AFB, Va. 94th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 20, 1917
95th Reconnaissance Squadron 9th Wing, stationed at RAF Alconbury, UK 95th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 20, 1917
99th Reconnaissance Squadron 9th Wing, Beale AFB, Calif. 99th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 21, 1917
1st Airborne Command and Control Squadron 55th Wing, Offutt AFB, Neb. Company A, 2d Balloon Squadron, Fort Omaha, Neb. September 25, 1917
41st Electronic Combat Squadron 355th Fighter Wing, Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. Company A, 4th Balloon Squadron, Fort Omaha, Neb. November 13, 1917
77th Fighter Squadron 20th Fighter Wing, RAF Upper Heyford, UK 77th Aero Squadron, Waco, Tex. February 20, 1918
79th Fighter Squadron 20th Fighter Wing, RAF Upper Heyford, UK 79th Aero Squadron, Waco, Tex. February 22, 1918

Air National Guard

Squadron Assigned to Organized Origin
119th Fighter Squadron 177th Fighter Group, Atlantic City, N.J. 5th Aviation School Squadron, Langley Field, Hampton, Va. June 5, 1917
110th Fighter Squadron 131st Fighter Wing, St. Louis, Mo. 110th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 14, 1917
111th Fighter Squadron 147th Fighter Group, Ellington ANGB, Tex. 11th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 14, 1917
112th Fighter Squadron 180th Fighter Group, Swanton, Ohio 112th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 18, 1917
101st Fighter Squadron 102d Fighter Wing, Otis ANGB, Mass. 101st Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 22, 1917
102d Rescue Squadron 106th Rescue Group, Suffolk, N.Y. 102d Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 23, 1917
113th Fighter Squadron 181st Fighter Group, Terre Haute, Ind. 113th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 26, 1917
105th Airlift Squadron 118th Airlift Wing, Nashville, Tenn. 105th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 27, 1917
106th Reconnaissance Squadron 117th Reconnaissance Wing, Birmingham, Ala. 106th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 27, 1917
107th Fighter Squadron 127th Fighter Wing, Selfridge ANGB, Mich. 107th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 27, 1917
108th Air Refueling Squadron 126th Air Refueling Wing, Chicago, Ill. 108th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 27, 1917
109th Airlift Squadron 133d Airlift Wing, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. 109th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 27, 1917
115th Airlift Squadron 146th Airlift Wing, Channel Island ANGB, Calif. 115th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 28, 1917
120th Fighter Squadron 140th Fighter Wing, Buckley ANGB, Colo. 120th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 28, 1917
116th Air Refueling Squadron 141st Air Refueling Wing, Fairchild AFB, Wash. 116th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 29, 1917
118th Fighter Squadron 103d Fighter Group, Windsor Locks, Conn. 118th Aero Squadron, Kelly Field, Tex. August 31, 1917