On April 6, 1968, with very little fanfare, a trio of Air Force Reservists made history when Maj. Ronald D. Blalock, Capt. Woodrow T. Fail and Capt. Anthony Colange flew a C-141 Starlifter owned by the active-duty Air Force’s 63rd Military Airlift Wing on a mission from Norton Air Force Base in California to Tinker AFB, Okla.
The Reservists were assigned to the newly established 944th Military Airlift Group at Norton, the first Air Force Reserve associate unit, and they were selected to fly the first Air Force Reserve/Air Mobility Command associate airlift program flight.
The Reserve was not a major command in ’68, and AMC was called Military Airlift Command at the time, but the associate airlift program that came to life on that spring day just a couple of miles east of downtown San Bernardino would grow into a robust partnership between AFRC and AMC that has paid huge dividends for the Air Force over the last 48 years.
Just four months after that historic flight, on Aug. 14, the first all-Reserve C-141 associate crew left Norton on a mission to Southeast Asia in support of the Vietnam War. Capt. William Maxey served as aircraft commander, and the 944th MAG commander, Col. Richard P. McFarland, who had promised such a flight within six months of the unit’s activation, was aboard as an additional crewmember.
Between Maxey’s first flight in August 1968 and the last flight out of Saigon almost seven years later, Reservists assigned to associate units contributed greatly to airlift operations into and out of Southeast Asia. The associate program was off and running.
The idea behind the associate program was pretty simple: The active duty would own the aircraft, and the Reserve would provide aircrews, maintenance personnel and aerial porters to augment the active duty to get the most use out of the massive C-141s that were just coming into the Air Force inventory.
The associate setup at Norton was just a couple of months old when the Air Force decided to expand the program by establishing a second associate airlift group on the West Coast and two on the East Coast. On July 25, 1969, the Air Force reorganized and redesignated the 939th Tactical Airlift Group and its 313th Tactical Airlift Squadron as associate military airlift units and moved them from Portland International Airport in Oregon to the MAC port at McChord AFB, Wash.
On the East Coast, early C-141 associate airlift units were organized at McGuire AFB, N.J., and Dover AFB, Del.
MAC and AFRES expanded the associate program with an additional seven C-141 units in 1969.
In the early 1970s, the two organizations established C-5 associate airlift squadrons to support the Air Force’s newest cargo plane.
The associate airlift program continued to grow through the 1970s and ’80s and overcame a host of challenges, from the distribution of air reserve technicians and their duties in the maintenance complexes to the dichotomy between the Reserve requirement for training and MAC’s operational needs. By 1988, there were six associate airlift wings that were operationally ready and contributing half of MAC’s strategic airlift crews.
The Reserve associate airlift program also included a maintenance element that performed 40 percent of MAC’s daily maintenance needs.
The associate airlift program has grown and changed over the years to include the active associate unit program, where the Reserve or Air National Guard owns the aircraft and the active duty embeds a squadron, group or wing that provides aircrews, aircraft maintenance and support personnel who share the responsibility of flying and maintaining the AFRC or ANG aircraft.
From its early history in the C-141 and C-5 worlds, the associate program has expanded to include C-17s, C-130s, KC-10s, KC-135s and other airframes. It has also expanded to fighter; space; cyberspace; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and remotely piloted aircraft organizations.
Currently, the Air Force has about 120 associate locations under the total force integration umbrella, more than two-thirds of which involve relationships between the Reserve and the active duty.
The wildly successful Air Force associate partnership program can trace its roots back to the relationship AFRC and AMC began more than 40 years ago.
“Our associations with AMC have worked great over the years,” said Col. Gerard Malloy, deputy director of the Air, Space and Information Operations Directorate at AFRC headquarters, Robins AFB, Ga.
“Whether it’s us flying or working on active-duty iron (in a traditional associate partnership) or a reverse associate (partnership) where the active duty works on and flies Reserve iron, the name of the game is still the same: We need to ensure our members are current and qualified so that we can provide combat capability to the combatant commanders.”
Malloy said the commands have had to work through some difficulties from time to time, but the associations between AFRC and AMC over the years have been extremely successful.
“When you work with any partner over time, you’re going to have your ups and downs,” he said.
“But I think AMC values us as a strategic partner and relies on us to provide steady-state support as an operational command. We leverage our strength by building an experience base from folks leaving active duty who are still looking for a venue to serve. It takes years to build that experience and expertise, so we try to do all we can to capture it when it leaves active duty.”
AMC is proud of the way it has integrated and organized its active and Reserve forces to leverage the unique strengths and perspectives of each to execute the mobility mission and is committed to growing this partnership in the future.
“With more than half of all mobility aircraft assigned to Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command units, we lead the Air Force in operating as a single force,” according to the recently released AMC Rapid Global Mobility Vision document. “The classic and active association mix construct provides a flexible template to meet operational requirements in both surge and steady-state periods while retaining a viable strategic reserve for emergencies. For nearly 50 years, this concept has worked well.
“To ensure readiness and access to resources, especially when high operations tempo becomes steady-state for a lengthy period, it is essential to optimize the composition and development of our associate programs. We will continually evaluate our association partnerships for potential adjustments while exploring the integrated staff and wing constructs.”
Dover AFB in Delaware, where the Reserve and active duty have been teaming up to move troops and cargo around the globe since the early 1970s, is just one example of a base where an active-duty and Reserve association has paid dividends.
Since the first all-Reserve aircrew flew an active-duty owned C-5 out of Dover in November 1973, the active-duty 436th Airlift Wing and the Reserve 512th AW have built a tremendous working relationship.
Working seamlessly with the 436th, more than 1,300 Citizen Airmen from the 512th were called to active duty during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Fliers, maintenance specialists, aerial porters, medical personnel and security forces were deployed around the world as well as stateside for more than a year.
The wings began a new era in associate airlift when the 436th received its first C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in May of 2007, and the associate relationship was expanded to include the Air Force’s newest cargo plane. Whether flying C-5s or C-17s, the 436th and 512th are proof of how effective a classic associate partnership can be.
“The relationship between the 436th and 512th is as strong as ever,” said Col. Ethan Griffin, 436th AW commander. “Our strong legacy of teamwork doesn’t happen by chance. It requires the commitment and respect of each and every Airman, supervisor and leader at Team Dover.
“Col. Bull Durham and I, former colleagues in the C-17 at Charleston (Joint Base Charleston, S.C.), are committed to continuing and building upon the strong legacy of the active-duty and Reserve partnership in the coming years. Our commitment, and that of our Airmen, makes Team Dover a shining example of an installation whose people always accomplish the mission together.”
Col. Scott “Bull” Durham, 512th AW commander, agreed that the association between the Reserve and active-duty units at Dover works well—thanks in large part to excellent communication between the two organizations.
“Communication is the key to making these associations work,” he said. “We each have to work to understand the constraints and objectives the other component faces and aspires to accomplish. In that understanding, we are able to capitalize on the strengths each brings to the fight.”
That’s what the associate program is all about—capitalizing on the unique strengths of each component.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on the close working relationship Air Force Reserve Command and Air Mobility Command have enjoyed since 1968. Future stories will focus on current successful AFRC/AMC partnerships and how the commands are planning to maintain and expand their relationship into the future.