Being the first aero squadron in the Air Guard and nowadays stationed at Buckley Space Force Base, Colorado, the 120th Fighter Squadron still plays an important role within the US Air Force. Frank Visser recently visited this unit, also known as Mile High Militia and spoke with its current commander.
The origin of the 120th Fighter Squadron (FS) goes back to World War I. In August 1917 the 120th Aero Squadron was activated at Kelly Field in Texas. After moving to Ellington Field, near Houston, Texas its main task was training pilots. In the early years the squadron operated the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny”, which at that time formed the backbone of American aviation. Over a decade later the name “Jenny” is still used by the squadron. Every new pilot within the 120th FS receives his nickname after completing the Mission Qualification Training (MQT). Before becoming an operational pilot, they are called “Jenny 1, 2 or 3”. In February 1918 the squadron was send to Europe and joint the Royal Flying Corps No. 1 Observer’s School of Aerial Gunnery at New Romney, Kent. After completing their training, they were ready for duty and were send to France. Like many other squadrons the 120th returned home after the war and was demobilised. In 1923 the 120th Aero Observation Squadron was reactivated as part of the Colorado Army National Guard, flying the Curtiss JN-4Es “Jenny” from Lowry Field near Denver, Colorado. During World War II the squadron supported ground units in training, until it was disbanded in November 1943. Just one and a half years later it was re-designated 120th FS and the year after allotted to the Colorado Air National Guard. As part of the 140th Fighter Group it operating the P-51D “Mustang” from Buckley Field, just East from Denver. They became the first unit to obtain federal recognition, which gave them the name “First in the Air Guard”. In the fifties many 120th FS pilots served in the Korean war. After the war the squadron became the 120th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS), flying the F-80C “Shooting Star”, followed by the F-86E “Sabre”.
North American F-86F Sabre, serial 51-2884
In 1961 the 120th FIS became a Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) and was the first guard unit to be deployed to southeast Asia, to take part in the Vietnam War in a ground support role.
At that time the squadron had transferred to the F-100C “Super Sabre” and later switched to the D-model. The next aircraft type for the 120th TFS was the LTV A-7D “Corsair II”, which entered service in 1974 and was operated until 1992.
With the arrival of the first F-16C the 120th TFS was re-designated as 120th FS, which until this day has not changed.
The 120th FS is part of the 140th Wing, also based on Buckley Space Force Base (SFB). July 1995 the 140th Fighter Wing was redesignated as a Wing. Nowadays the Wing has embedded the 140th Operation Group, some Space attachments from Buckley SFB and Peterson SFB, near Colorado Springs and the 120th FS, with their F-16C Block 30H aircraft. Embedded with the 120th FS is the 383rd FS, which is part of the 495th Fighter Group, stationed at Shaw AFB, South Carolina.
The new young pilots are part of the 383rd FS, which are called Total Force Integration (TFI). At the moment three of these pilots are flying the F-16 from Buckley SFB. They will leave the squadron after a period of time. For example, one of them, a Lieutenant will soon move to Misawa, South Korea to join the 35thFighter Wing and become a F-16 instructor pilot. Another one is a Captain and he will soon leave for Luke AFB, Arizona to become an instructor on the F-35. New pilots for the TFI enter the 383th FS to keep the level at around four pilots. Besides these TFI’s the 120th FS also recruits ground personnel to become pilots within the same squadron. This group of pilots are called street hires and after completing their pilot training they stay for the rest of their career within the 120th FS. LtCol Dustin W. “Yogi” Brown, the current commander of the 120th FS: “We encourage this and it is a good recruiting tool, because the people out there know they have a chance to fly these jets if they work hard.”
A handful pilots within the squadron who were enlisted, for example in maintenance, have become a F-16 pilot. LtCol Brown continues: “We also encourage our pilots to get off base and go do something for broadening purposes and to learn the ways of the bigger air and joint community partner Air Forces.
We really value that.” LtCol Brown himself is a good example as his last assignment was a post at the National Guard Bureau, the Air National Guard/ Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC) at Tucson IAP, Arizona. Here he was the director of the F-16 Division for four years. LtCol Brown: “It is unique about the ANG and specifically in Colorado that you can choose a path to do things that are not just here and we are really supporting everyone in that.”
The 120th FS has roughly 40 very experienced pilots and 25 F-16C Block 30H aircraft. The only F-16D, within the squadron will be given to the 162nd Wing at Tucson soon.
The total personnel number within the squadron is less than 100. When the F-16 entered service with the 120th FS in 1992 the squadron role changed from air-to-ground to a dual role. Besides this air-to-ground role the F-16 is also a great aircraft for the air-to-air role. With this dual role the amount of mission types increased.
With the Colorado Rockies in the background this F-16C of the 120th FS takes off from Buckley SFB.
Lt Col Brown: “In the air-to-air role we focus on specific activities that can occur in this role.” For this pilots are trained in the Basic Fighter Manoeuvres (BFM). Lt Col Brown continues: “For example if you get to a visual encounter, we learn our pilots what to do to win this fight. They know if you lose sight, you lose the fight.” If you zoom out, the air-to-air role can be Defence Counter Air (DCA), normally executed with a flight of four aircraft. The other role is Offensive Counter Air (OCA). For homeland defence two F-16s are on alert 24/7 to perform Air Space Control, also know as Quick Reaction Alert. Most of the US homeland defence is situated near the coast.
The 120th FS is more centrally placed to secure the air space in an asymmetric threat, or if a threat breaks through the first line of defence. For this role the two F-16s are equipped with two AIM-9X Sidewinder (Block 1 and 2) and two AIM-120 AMRAAM (C3 and 5 versions) missiles. The F-16s are upgraded to use all the variants of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, like the C7 and the D variant, but they are not used by the 120th FS. The alert aircraft also carry the Lightning Digital Pod (LDP) variant and live bullets for its 20mm gun. The air-to-ground role can be Air Interdiction (AI), Close Air Support (CAS), Strike Coordination And Reconnaissance (SCARE), Forward Air Control Airborne (FACA) missions. Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) and Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) missions are not trained and executed by the 120th FS, although half the pilots within the 120th FS have the experience to execute SEAD missions. For the air-to-ground role a number of weapons can be used such as the GBU-12, GBU-24, GBU-31, -32, -35 and 38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) and different versions of Cluster Bombs like the CBU-87.
High above the Colorado Rockies F-16Cs of the 120th FS join up with a KC-135T of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing from McConnell AFB, Kansas.
As the 120th FS has operated the same F-16Cs now for over 30 years the limitation is the amount of flying hours each airframe still has. Lt Col Brown: “We are facing that now and so we are replacing some of our aircraft with F-16s from Wisconsin ANG, which are transferring to F-35 soon.” That’s why airframes with less flying hours are interesting, although the upgrade status of these ‘new’ F-16s are also taken into account.
Air-to-Air tactics are trained almost daily. By popping flares F-16 pilots try to avoid being hit by incoming heatseeking missiles.
Fully upgraded, a Block 30 F-16 will have a lifespan of around 10,800 flying hours. This is important because the 120th FS is focused on operating the F-16 for the next ten years. During his two years as a commander, he has set the following goals. Lt Col Brown: “I would sustain and provide the capability to the commander we are tasked to and execute it forwardlesly. All the while maintaining a high level of readiness. By gaining the knowledge we can keep up at the tip of the spear.” He continues: “We are on the top of the list, due a mass of talent within the squadron and I am here to keep it that way.”
Lt Col Dustin W. “ Yogi’ Brown
As a native Texan, Lt Col Dustin W. “ Yogi’ Brown, was born and raised in Dallas. Lt Col Brown: “I was very fortuned as my parents were both aviators and so me and my two brothers grew up around aviation.” The three sons all went to the Air Force Academy and became pilots. After graduation in 2002 Lt Col Brown went to Euro NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) at Sheppard AFB, Texas flying the T-6 and the T-38. He continued his F-16 training at Luke AFB, Arizona. His first assignment was with the 27th FW at Cannon AFB, New Mexico.
In 2007 he joined the 35th FS “Pantons” at Kunsan AB, South Korea and after a two year tour returned to the US to fly for two years with the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) “Skulls” at Eglin, AFB, Florida, executing operational test programs on the F-16. Here a shot his first AIM-120 AMRAAM at a F-4. This period gave Lt Col Brown the taste for flight testing. He went for six months in 2010 to the Weapons School (WPS) at Nellis AFB, Nevada, to become a Weapons Instructor with the 10B Class. In 2011 he went to Aviano AB in Italy to join the 510th FS “Buzzard” as a Wing Weapons Officer. Here a set a up a program with his buddy from the WPS, who was also transferred to Aviano AB that time, to assure that 31st FW would have enough weapons instructors within the FW. In 2015 he joined the Air National Guard and was assigned to the 120th FS “Cougars” at Buckley, Colorado. At that time, he started as a parttime pilot for South West Airlines, flying the Boeing 737 from Denver IAP. At this time, he still is still employed by South West, but hasn’t flown the Boeing 737 since 2017. In 2018, with his experience on flight testing, he went to the AATC at Tucson IAP, Arizona as a director of the F-16 Division. Lt Col Brown: “I loved this assignment, because it is a small unit, very effective and fully focused on getting the new capability to the units.” After four and a half years at Tucson, in July of this year he returned to Buckley SFB to take over the command of the 120th FS.
For homeland defense two Colorado ANG F-16Cs are on a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) status 24/7.
Seen here equipped with live AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles, these 120th FS F-16Cs roar over the Colorado Rockies.
This particular aircraft was delivered to the USAF in November 1988. The first unit to receive this F-16C Block 30H in January 1989 was the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany and part of the US Air Force Europe (USAFE). Its presence at Spangdahlem was short lived. In June 1990 it was handed over to 613th TFS at Torrejón, Spain. This unit was part of the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing. Due to the closure of this base the airframes of the 613th TFS were sent to Air National Guard squadrons in the US in 1992 and 87-0284 was transferred to the 120th FS. The aircraft bears the names of pilot James “RAGS” Edwards and Crew Chief John Guardiano.
This F-16C received the new Have Glass 5 colour scheme and was recently decorated with the 140th Wing markings and the emblem of the 120th FS, a Colorado Cougar.
With downtown Denver in the background, this formation of three F-16s is heading back to Buckley SFB, which is situated east the city of Denver near Aurora.
A full report on the 120th Fighter Squadron was published in Combat Aircraft Journal January 2023.