Happy 75th Birthday, 86th Airlift Wing

  • Published
  • By Shannon Murphy
  • 86th Airlift Wing historian

This is the first in a series of five stories celebrating the 75th anniversary of the 86th Airlift Wing.

The 86th Airlift Wing has always been a U.S. Air Forces in Europe wing, and always stationed in various locations throughout Germany.

On July 1, 1948, the 86th Fighter Wing was activated by the newly formed U.S. Air Force at Neubiberg AB, nine kilometers south of Munich – a mere six days after the start of the Berlin Airlift. Initially, the 86th FW’s mission was to provide general air defense for the American Occupation Zone, which included Bavaria, Bremen, Hesse, and Wurttemberg-Baden. When the Berlin Airlift quickly increased in size, scope, and resources, the 86th FW was tasked to provide air defense for the Berlin Airlift cargo flights.

In January 1950, the 86th FW was re-designated as the 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing, and continued its air defense mission throughout West Germany.

In 1952, the 86th FBW physically moved aircraft and personnel from Neubiberg AB to the newly constructed Landstuhl AB in Ramstein, Germany, and was later combined with Ramstein AB, which was a separate air base at the time.  

In August 1954, the unit was re-designated again as the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Wing.

During the early 1960s, the 86th FIW provided control of airways via various aircraft control and warning units in addition to their fighter interceptor squadrons. With this mission expansion, the wing was re-designated as the 86th Air Division on Nov. 18, 1960.

In 1966, France withdrew from NATO, forcing USAFE to move units. The 26th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, relocated from Toul-Rosières AB to Ramstein AB and assumed base operations. The 86th returned to its previous designation as the 86th Fighter Interceptor Wing and was inactivated on Nov. 14, 1968. Shortly after, the Canadians left Zweibrücken AB; USAFE claimed the base, and redesignated and activated the 86 FIW as the 86th Tactical Fighter Wing Nov. 1, 1969.

From 1969-1971, the 86th TFW mission was primarily tactical reconnaissance. Later in 1971, tactical fighter operations were added to the mission. In 1973, under “Creek Action,” the same plan that relocated USAFE headquarters from Lindsey Air Station in Wiesbaden, Germany to Ramstein AB, the 26th TRW and the 86th TFW swapped locations and missions, without moving personnel or equipment.

The 86th AW hosted the F-16 Fighting Falcon mission from 1985-1994; on May 1, 1991, the wing was re-designed as the 86th Fighter Wing. In 1992, The 86th AW added an airlift mission with a variety of aircraft in addition to their fighter aircraft; June 1, 1992, the wing was re-designated as the 86th Wing, encompassing all its mission sub-sets. In 1993, the 86th AW added an aeromedical evacuation mission.

In 1994, the 86th AW fully transitioned from a fighter wing to an airlift wing, with the arrival of C-130 Hercules aircraft. The new transport/airlift mission launched the 86th AW to support humanitarian operations worldwide. The 86th AW participated in numerous humanitarian operations by providing relief, aid, support, transporting troops, cargo, equipment and personnel to locations in Bosnia, Liberia, Kenya, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Turkey, Mozambique, Yemen and Iraq in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. During 1994s Operation DENY FLIGHT, two F-16s from the 86th WG shot down four Serbian attack aircraft over Bosnia; it was the first aerial combat action in NATO history.

When Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia was bombed by terrorists on June 26, 1996, the 86th AW deployed aeromedical personnel to evacuate 59 casualties for treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

The 86th AW evacuated 28 survivors of a terrorist attack on the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, when the Navy warship was attacked in a Yemeni port. The 75th Airlift Squadron and 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron received the prestigious 2000 Mackay Trophy for the evacuation.

After 9/11, the wing supported various operations in support of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Syria.

In July 2006, the 86th AW directly supported the Lebanon Non-Combatant Evacuation with airlift missions evacuating personnel.

In August 2008, the 86th AW sent communications support and humanitarian supplies to the country of Georgia after Russia invaded.

From 2014-2016, the 86th AW responded to the West African Ebola outbreak and completed the initial airlift of humanitarian and medical supplies to the area.

In 2021, the 86th AW was a primary location in support of Operation ALLIES REFUGE by supplying housing, food, entertainment, medical treatment and more to more than 35,000 Afghan refugees who transitioned through the base on their way to the U.S. in the largest non-combatant evacuation operation in U.S. military history.

The 86th AW has a storied and rich past, activated in a post-war Europe, still reeling from the effects and long-term infrastructure, social, economic, political, and cultural damage throughout the continent. While initially a Cold War deterrent wing, the 86th pivoted to a primarily humanitarian role in the last 30 years, delivering people, equipment, supplies, and hope to stressed locations throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and other locations.