SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --
As the Air Force Network Integration Center (AFNIC) celebrates 75 years of history, it is easy to trace many of the organization’s current missions back to those early days. There are some, though, where the connection is less clear. Communications, aircraft as communications platforms and all things flight navigation related were at one point under previous designations of AFNIC. One such undertaking was that of the Department of Defense flight inspection mission.
Flight inspection of procedures, navigational aids and ground-air communications to ensure flying safety began in the United States in the early 1920s when the airway system was created at the behest of the U.S. Airmail Service. Prior to World War II, the Civil Aeronautics Administration inspected Army Air Corps navigation systems, but in 1942, this mission was given to the Army Airways Communications System (AACS). Between October 1942 and October 1987, AACS and its successor organizations, Air Force Communications Service (AFCS) and Air Force Communications Command (AFCC), performed this mission for the Air Force.
In 1962, AFCS transferred part of the mission to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but the command retained 16 aircraft to perform flight inspection in support of emergency mission support requirements and to continue the service evaluation function. To manage this mission, the command established three geographic areas of responsibility and three new units, the 1866th, 1867th and the 1868th Facility Checking Squadrons (FCS) for the US, Pacific and European theaters respectively. The war in Southeast Asia expanded the command’s wartime flight inspection mission because FAA policy precluded deployment of FAA crews into hostile areas. Consequently, the command deployed all but one of its flight inspection aircraft to the Pacific. During the course of the war, these aircraft were damaged by enemy fire 26 times.
In July 1971, the command assumed all flight check responsibility in the Philippines and all maintenance assistance inspections in the US and Europe from the FAA. The phase down of military operations in Southeast Asia enabled the command to reduce the size of its overseas squadrons.
Upon graduation from pilot training in July 1971, my first assignment in AFCS was in a C-47A with the 1867th FCS at Clark Air Base, Philippines. After the normal Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) and Sea Survival training courses, I proceeded to the FAA Flight Inspection certification training, lasting four weeks, and soon after to the Air Traffic Control (ATC) Officers Course. This was another eight weeks. Arriving at Clark AB in early January 1972, I was quickly immersed in my C-47 aircraft training, Flight Inspection mission and my ATC facility training at the Clark AB Radar Approach Control (RAPCON).
The regular schedule had us in country (i.e. South Vietnam, Thailand, sometimes Laos and Cambodia) every other week performing a multitude of navigational aid inspections and ATC evaluations. When we were at home base, our days were usually occupied with training and a few local missions.
One of my more memorable missions was as a part of the first “all-LT” crew responsible for commissioning a TACAN near Da Nang AB, Vietnam. Flying southwest on a coverage check, we observed several explosions in the jungle a couple miles in front of us. Then we noticed the actual naval artillery shells flying into the target. Recognizing we should not have been in the area, we quickly exited and had a rather heated discussion as to who should have been monitoring the HF radio. Due to the transfer of all AF C-47 aircraft to our Asian allies, my tour was cut to ten months and I became on OV-10 Forward Air Controller.
In 1974, I was again assigned to the AFCS with the 1866th Facility Checking Squadron at Richards-Gebaur AFB, Missouri. At that time, AFCS was an Air Force Major Command headquartered at Richards-Gebaur. At that point, the 1866th FCS had several aircraft types, 1 C-135A , 4 C-130As, 4 C-140As and 2 T-39As performing the Flight Inspection and Air Traffic Control Evaluation missions worldwide.
I was checked out and certified in both the C-135A as a co-pilot and the C-140A as an aircraft commander and flight examiner. In addition, I was honored to be a selected as the mission commander for several high priority programs which included evaluations of classified airfields, Joint Tactical Information Distribution System testing, and various evaluations at locations including Camp David, Soto Cano AB, Sondrestrom AB and Thule AB to name a few.
The phase down of military operations in Southeast Asia enabled the command to reduce the size of its overseas operations. Changes to stateside operations continued as well, and starting in 1975, the 1866th divested most its flight inspection aircraft fleet, leaving only four C-140A Jetstar aircraft assigned.
By 1977, the Air Force relocated AFCS from Missouri back to Scott AFB, where the organization has been ever since. As a member of the advanced team, I spent eight weeks working out of the attic of Bldg. P40 all while dodging the nails protruding through the leaky roof. We affectionately named our space the "peanut gallery," a phrase we added when answering the only phone for our office of over 20 people. We located our fleet of aircraft to Scott and AFCS was redesignated Air Force Communications Command. By 1980, I completed my time with the command transferring to Laughlin AFB, Texas, as a T-38 Talon Instructor Pilot and Flight Commander. Though I left the command, the flight inspection mission would remain with AFCC for another seven years.
On October 1, 1987, the Air Staff transferred AFCC’s last six aircraft and the associated flight inspection mission to Military Airlift Command and placed it under the 375th Airlift Wing at Scott AFB. After 45 years, the flight inspection mission would no longer reside in AFCC.
In 2018, the Air Force Network Integration Center celebrates its 75 year as an organization. For better than half of this time, the flight inspection mission was an integral part of its proud past. In my opinion, flight inspection is the by far the best peacetime flying mission with regards to piloting skills and sense of mission accomplishment. Performing the required aerial maneuvers at low altitude in the airport traffic area, while simultaneously coordinating airspace separation with air traffic control authorities and other disparate aircraft was both physically and mentally challenging. Doing it right and doing it well ... provided me with some of my greatest moments of job satisfaction and self-actualization.