100 years of the Flying Yankees

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. D Elliotte Draegor
  • 103rd Airlift Wing

The Flying Yankees have a proud history of service to the United States and the State of Connecticut. Our story began on 1 November 1923, when the 118th Observation Squadron was federally recognized as the nation’s 11th National Guard unit. From World War II to the War Against Terror, the Flying Yankees have guarded the skies at home and defended freedom in foreign lands.


Notable Flying Yankees

In 1923 a young man named George P. Kane became the first Flying Yankee. He served as a crew chief and was a dedicated aviator throughout his life. In 1928 Technical Sergeant Kane was commissioned as an officer and his successful military career took him to many places, but at the end of that career he returned to New England and retired on 1 August 1957 as a Brigadier General in the Connecticut Air National Guard.

To earn the title of “flying ace” a pilot must destroy at least five enemy aircraft. It’s not an easy accolade to win but no less than six pilots of the 118th TRS became aces in the skies over China and one of them, Lieutenant Colonel Edward McComas, went above and beyond the required achievements. On 24 December 1944, McComas became the only “ace-in-a-day” in the entire 14th Air Force by shooting down five Japanese fighters in a single day. His commander, Major General Chennault, rewarded him for this rare achievement with the gift of a brand-new P-51D Mustang painted with the black lightning bolt symbol of the 118th and McComas went on to shoot down another nine Japanese planes before the end of the war.


Symbols of the Flying Yankees

The man depicted on this patch is Captain Joseph Wadsworth, a 17th-century officer of Connecticut Colony, and the rolled-up document in his hand is the royal charter that gave Connecticut the right to govern itself while it was still a colony of Great Britain. When King James II tried to revoke that right in 1687 Captain Wadsworth escaped with the charter, preserving the colony’s right to self-governance.

When the 118th Observation Squadron was assigned to Connecticut in 1923 they quickly adopted Captain Wadsworth as the official symbol of the Flying Yankees. For nearly a century he has been painted on planes, embroidered on patches, and accompanied members of the 118th and the 103rd in their missions around the world. The black and white fleur-de-lis below him is in recognition of the 118th’s origins in WWI. As the 118th Aero Squadron the unit was assigned to serve in France in the final years of the war; the fleur-de-lis is a stylized lily often used as a symbol of France.

The white rectangles along the top edge of the Flying Yankees’ symbol represent a phrase in Morse code, a series of dots and dashes. In many versions of the symbol, the code has been simplified to a series of lines or dots but the phrase is “Fidelis Et Alertus”. That is Latin for “Faithful and Alert”, the code of the Connecticut Air National Guard.

Flying Yankee pilots wear patches on their flight suits with a black lightning bolt against a yellow background and that design has been painted on many of our aircraft as well. This distinctive design was created by Lt Col Edward McComas, who intended it as an alternative to the Captain Wadsworth design. In 1944 Lt Col McComas ordered one of his pilots, Lieutenant Phil Dickey, to create a new design to represent the Flying Yankees and the black lightning design was painted on all of the 118th’s P-51 Mustangs.


Flying Yankees and Flying Tigers

In 1943, the 118th Observation Squadron was redesignated as the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron and they were sent to fight on in the China-Burma-India theater of operations in 1944. That summer the 118th TRS flew over the Himalayan mountains to join the Flying Tigers, a group of American aviators founded in 1941 who volunteered to fight the Japanese alongside America’s Chinese allies even before the United States went to war with Japan. The 118th remained in China for the rest of World War II.

While the 118th TRS fought the Japanese as Flying Tigers, the pilots of the 324th Fighter Group made their mark on history in the skies over Europe. Activated on 6 July 1942, the 324th arrived in Europe in 1943, participating in the invasion of Sicily and providing close ground support to Allied troops until the fall of Rome in June 1944. In July 1944, the 324th received a new plane, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, and was sent north to support the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France. The last surviving Flying Tiger of the 118th TRS passed into history in 2022.

When the war ended the 324th returned to the United States in the fall of 1945 and was inactivated in November of that year. Six months later, the 324th was redesignated as the 103d Fighter Group and assigned to the National Guard on 24 May 1946. The new unit based out of Bradley Field in Windsor Locks, Connecticut was also assigned the 118th Fighter Squadron. Their new mission: the air defense of Connecticut.


Cold War Warriors

In September 1947 Congress established the United States Air Force as an independent service branch, ending the Flying Yankees’ long association with the Army. That same year the uneasy alliance between the United States and Soviet Russia collapsed and the Cold War began.

Air defense of the homeland quickly became a high priority for the Air Force when America was faced with the threat of a hostile superpower that had the military capabilities to bring the fight to us.

The constant threat of attack by the Soviet Union drove a rapid pace in the development of aviation technology during the Cold War. The propeller-drive aircraft that helped America win WWII passed into history as the age of the jet fighter began. The 118th received their first jet fighters in January 1953, the F-84D Thunderjets, and jet technology rapidly evolved over the next 18 years, with the Flying Yankees flying five other types of jet fighters that culminated in 1971 with the F-100D Super Sabres.

On 23 April 1979 the Flying Yankees received a new aircraft, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known as the “Warthog”. The unit flew the A-10 for 29 years, earning it the status of the 118th’s longest-serving aircraft with more than 130,000 hours flown. Designed for close air support, the A-10 specialized in attacking tanks and other ground targets. During the A-10 era the Flying Yankees received the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award three times and flew into combat overseas with multiple deployments to the Middle East and Europe.


Flying into the 21st Century

In February of 2003 the Flying Yankees deployed over 300 troops to the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In just four months, the 118th flew more than 890 combat missions with no combat losses. In the last twenty years, more than a thousand Flying Yankees have deployed around the world to support the Global War on Terror. In 2013 the 103d AW transitioned to the legendary C-130 Hercules and continue to provide airlift on missions around the world.  During their most recent deployment to Africa in 2022, the Flying Yankees flew 643 hours on more than 100 combat missions.  These missions delivered in excess of 1,750 personnel, 2.1 million pounds of cargo, and a 150,000 pounds of fuel, which were de-fueled from the unit’s aircraft tanks to combat outposts in austere and often contested areas of Somalia and Kenya.