Flying Top Cover for America






Photo courtesy of Charles Heifner, Firebird Pilot, December 1972




Throughout the history of the Air Force there has been a "friendly" yet adversarial relationship between the fighter and airlift squadrons. This ongoing rivalry results in improved esprit de corps and unit cohesiveness. When Col. Jim Larkins, who was attached to the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron for all flying activities, was the 21st Wing Vice Commander he encouraged us to play a game of "one-upmanship" with the troops in the 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron which had arrived in June of 1970 from MacDill AFB, Florida and flew F-4's. Col. Larkins, a superb pilot, was the Alaskan Air Command Inspector General at the time of the "Top Cover" episode and was still flying with the 17th.

In the Fall of 1972, Second Lt. Jake Dustin came into my office--I was the Operations Officer--and said, "Do you really want to play one-upmanship? If so, here is my plan. We'll use the squadron's blue panel truck (bread truck), throw in a ladder that will stick out the back so it will look like a Civil Engineering truck, wear white coveralls, take the F-4 down from the full size billboard at the main gate to Elmendorf AFB, and replace it with a C-130D that Jim Banas and I will make from plywood, complete with the exact paint and color scheme of the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron aircraft. We will make this exchange in broad daylight. Anyone who sees us working on the sign will think we are Civil Engineering workers. The C-130 will be the same size as the sheet metal F-4. When we replace the bolts that hold the C-130, we'll hammer them on so it will not be a simple job to take the C-130 off. It will even be difficult to cut off."

I agreed and suggested that the job be done on the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, since the level of activity on base would be at a fairly low level, thereby reducing the risk of being caught. Then we would have at least a day or so during the Thanksgiving holidays to marvel at the wonderful Herky bird as it streaked over those wondrous and majestic snow cover mountains, totem-poles, etc., keeping the world safe from Communism. Jake and his crew proceeded to do what he said he would done, and no one who drove in or out the main gate was alerted to the clever exchange that was going on.

Lt. Col. John Hedges, the 17th TAS squadron commander at that time, other Firebirds, wives, and I went out several times to admire the handiwork of Jake and his crew. As your informant correctly stated, the new 21st Wing Vice Commander and his wife came by on their cross country skis but never noticed the change or wondered why we were all gathered in front of the large bill board at the main gate. To our surprise, it was about three weeks before those "wussies" in the 43rd even noticed the sign's "improvement" and brought the exchange job to the attention of Colonel David Stockman.

This story is told by Charles Heifner, with additions by Jake Dustin and John Hedges. 



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