Photo Recon

In April 1958, the first of the new aircraft arrived. It was a B model, released by the Air Forces 38 Bomb Squadron in Lyon , France. Ultimately, the Squadron was scheduled to receive 12 B models and one C. The Bs were designed for one pilot and a navigator, and the Cs were the dual-control pilot training modifications.

The new airplanes brought a new name and a new assignment, the first, being with the Louisville Wing. It became a part of the 127th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing along with the 107 and 171 TRS (Detroit) and the 172 (Battle Creek for less than a year and then returned to the Louisville Wing. The 117th, now assigned to the Continental Air Command, was the 117th Photo-Reconnaissance Squadron. The primary mission was now bomb damage survey and photoreconnaissance in event of enemy attack. The unit also had a secondary mission of photo mapping and was capable of an additional peacetime mission of radar calibration.

The new mission meant other changes were necessary. The authorized strength was raised, and a recruiting drive aimed at raising the unit strength by 300 men was begun. Specifically, a massive drive had to be started for the navigators required for the new aircraft. All the existing ground maintenance personnel would have to be retrained as well. Nonetheless, by summer 1958, the program was well under way.

In July 1958, the unit had its first accident. Lt. "Bill" Miller was flying in the front seat of a B-57 for the first time, making touch-and-go landings for practices. Major Boggs was in Operations at the time, and as he recalled it, "the first thing I heard was a hellacious loud noise." As he looked out, he saw that he had trouble. Just as Lt. Miller was giving his engines power after touching the runway, the left engine virtually exploded into flames. It very nearly cartwheeled, and only the expertise of Lt. Miller's instructor, an old Air Force type, kept it from doing so. "It was an outstanding piece of airmanship," said Major Boggs, years afterward. In the meantime, the crash crew was already responding. It was Major Boggs' order that a crash fire truck be out by the runway with its engine running any time such training was in process, and this time it paid off. They were on the scene within about 20 seconds, saving the lives of both crewmen and most of the plane. The wing itself, though, was beyond hope. For more than half a year, the bird would remain at Hutchinson with one wing, a reminder that while it might all be practice, it wasn't all fun and games.

The B-57s with which they were training, though, were just temporary. The first arrival in April, and in July word came down that the 117th would be receiving the RB-57As, a special photoreconnaissance modification. The first of them would arrive in August 1958, while the 117th was on its first summer camp as a Tac Recon Squadron.

Summer camp for the 117th that year ran from the 3rd to the 17th of August, and it was the first of a number of visits of Gulfport , Mississippi , where the 117th trained with three other ANG Photo-Reconnaissance Squadrons. For many of the men, it was the first summer camp and the first airplane trip, since the unit flew down in three c-119s. It was the first time a guard unit went to camp in military transport.

Gulfport sits right on the Gulf of Mexico, sandwiched between resort hotels packed, in August, with people who paid money to go where the Air Guard was being paid to stay. Next door was a Seabee base, and as a matter of professional courtesy, Air Guardsmen could be out all day on a fishing boat for five dollars, everything included. Nighttime meant hunting fish with spears by lamplight. In between times quite a bit of work was done, and the 117th began to settle down to its new mission. While the unit was at Gulfport , Major Joe Kerch, Air Force Advisor, flew in the first RB-57A. They would remain with the 117th for 14 years.

Somewhere about this time the unit insignia, symbolizing the 117ths role as a photoreconnaissance unit, came into use. To some extent, the 117th inherited this first unit insignia. The 117th in Pennsylvania used an owl motif, and the unit in Kansas kept this. There were changes, though, to reflect both the individuality of the unit, and the reconnaissance mission. The owl was redrawn by Sgt. Zerger of maintenance, and he now plainly bore radio equipment on his back and a camera in his hands.

Another sign of the adaptation of operations "Wheatstalk," undertaken in the summer of 1958 in preparation for the upcoming ORI. "Wheatstalk" was a practice war between "Canaberraland: and "Faginland." The border between those two nations ran along the line Garden City-Wellington-Fort Riley-Omaha-Des Moines. North and west of that line was peaceful and prosperous Canberraland. To the south and east ruled the power-mad Faginlanders, their resources and goals carefully worked out by officers of the 117th. Finally, the big event began. A weekend drill commenced with the words: "Open hostilities erupted along the Canberraland-Faginland border this morning...." Immediately, the full strength of the 117th was committed to the aid of defending Canberralanders. RB-57s sought to determine the strength and disposition of ground forces, rail and vehicular traffic movements, and other signs of enemy strength and intention. They monitored airfields used by Faginland, and checked the build up of hostile air strength. So successful was the 117th in gaining crucial intelligence, that the Faginlander Army was driven back all the way to the uninhabitable wasteland of Texas , and has not been heard of since.

Meanwhile, the search was on for a way to repair the Canberra whose wing had been destroyed in training just the previous July. Replacing a ruined wing on a B-57 is just a little more complicated than most of the repair and maintenance work the ground crews undertook. For one thing, they didn't happen to have a spare wing in stock when they needed it. Neither did anyone else. Besides, in those pre-C-5A days, a bomber wing (19'7" x 29') was just about impossible to transport when it wasn't attached to a bomber.

As it was eventually handled, a new wing was found at Martin's plant in Baltimore, and shipped to Kansas in a three-vehicle convoy. The vehicles left the factory on 13 January 1959 , one in the lead with a warning sing, one behind likewise, and one in the middle with the 20 foot wide wing, nine feet off the ground. The first day, they traveled seven miles, which took them to the city limits of Baltimore. Baltimore only permitted such traffic from 2 to 6 in the morning. They arrived in Hutchinson ANGB on 19 February - 37 days and 1,750 miles later. The actual "bee-line" distance from the Martin Plant to Hutchinson is about 1,000 miles, but an additional 700 miles were consumed in rerouting to avoid tunnels, underpasses, narrow bridges and unsympathetic highway authorities.

The first day was the worst mileage for a day's efforts. The best, the day before the arrival at Hutchinson , was still only 303 miles. The wing had come through it all only slightly damaged. Somehow, it was a little crumpled somewhere in Ohio during a snowstorm. Save for that it was fine, though, and soon the Canberra was flying again.

(One ought to note somewhere in here that "Canberra," sounding a little strange to American ears, was not by any means the only thing the planes were called. "Cranberry," or "Iron Cranberry" were also used. For decency's sake, we will not trouble the reader with the terms used by maintenance personnel in relation to malfunctioning aircraft.)

Early 1959 saw a prelude of things to come: "Operation Eye-Opener." In this first of many, the RB-57s of the 117th were to attempt to see how effective Aerospace Defense Command's measures really were. As Major Boggs explained at the time, the handling characteristics and the flying performance of the B-57 made it almost ideally suitable for such a task. The results of such missions are known to those who have a need to know. There is no point in telling the Soviet Union 's Manned Bomber Command what their chances are. All that can be said is that the 117th and the 190th do win some of the time, but not often.

Summer Camp in 1959 was in a new location - Alpena , Mich. For most of the unit, this meant a three day journey by train, the last 100 miles of it backward, since there was no way for the trains to turn around closer to the base than that. In fact, nothing's very close to Alpena, which is the only really prominent defect of the base. Men had to catch a bus or ride from the few men who had come up with POVs just to reach the nearest off-base activities. It was, for the most part, though, an enjoyable trip, and it took the 117th to a part of the country most of them had never seen before.

Summer camp for 1960 was something of a rerun of 1959. The unit entrained once more for Alpena. MSgt. Simpson, who had been advance party in 1959, traveled with the main body this time, and in his words, ".. all I got done was feed people." It seemed that by the time he had started the last carload toward the dining cars for lunch, he was only about an hour from starting the first carload on its way to supper. With a three-day train trip, there were of course, no shower facilities, and many of the men did not trouble to shave. Between three days travel each way, and one day spent sidelined in Chicago, half of the summer camp was spent in this fashion. Well, it might not have done a great deal for training, but no doubt it boosted morale, and helped the men of different sections to get to know one another better. Nothing helps you get a firm idea of someone else's character like watching him take your last dime in a poker game.

There was no doubt by now that the Squadron was in good shape. Inspections were being passed handily, and unit strength was quite acceptable. In fact, the 117th was now engaged in training other units. Men of the 192nd Tac Recon Sq., Reno , Nevada, were coming to the 117th for B-57 training.

The unit was also engaging in community activities, of which probably the most long-lasting was the unit basketball team, formed by the air technicians for play in the Commercial League of Hutchinson. It can't be said that the team ever swept aside the opposition, but there was never a year in which it was not a serious competitor.

By the end of the 1960 Summer Training, the unit was thoroughly familiar with the RB-57A, and with the unit mission. It now settled down into a pattern from which it would vary little over the next ten years. In that time the equipment and the unit mission remained unchanged, and while there was some turnover among the lower ranks, enough officers and senior NCOs stayed with the squadron year after year that it could be said without much exaggeration that the squadron just kept getting more experienced in the same mission.

Summer camp of 1961 was spent in Hutchinson ANGB, which was a first for the unit. It was, needless to say, rather more subdued than its predecessors.

In the spring of 1962, six aircrew members and approximately 20 maintenance personnel departed Hutchinson for the South Pacific to participate in Project Blue Straw. Blue Straw was the atmospheric testing of nuclear radiation within the mushroom cloud following a nuclear explosion.

Enroute to the South Pacific, personnel of the 117th arrived first at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico , to receive indoctrination on the mission to receive their aircraft assignments. Two of the aircrafts flown by members of the 117th, 52-1500 and 52-1504, then assigned to the Test Squadron at Kirtland, were to turn up 12 years later, in 1974, assigned to the 190th.

The B-57s were configured with ferry tanks and pylon tanks so they would have sufficient fuel to make the flight from Travis AFB, Calif. to Hickam , Hawaii. Flying time was six hours and all aircraft arrived at Hickam without incident. Aircraft were refueled and preceded on to their operating base on Christmas Island .

Six weeks later, the required tests had been completed and the detachment returned to Kirtland and members of the 117th were released and returned to Hutchinson.

August of 1962 saw the squadron back on its old stomping grounds at Alpena once again. This time the 117th was transported to and from Alpena by air, and so perhaps got more working days in. It was readily conceded, though, that the train trip was much more interesting.

In February 1963, the 117th was informed that it had taken the Bronze (Third Place) Spaatz Trophy for the calendar year 1961. The Spaatz Trophy is awarded to the best Air National Guard flying units on the basis of alert performance, reenlistment rates, airman manning, operational readiness, testing scores, weapons familiarity and safety. The 117th was especially noted for high scores in airman testing and accident -free flying. Of a possible 1000, the 117th had scored 890. It was the first time that a unit of the Kansas Air National Guard had placed.

The unit that accepted the award, though, was not the 117th Tac Recon Squadron, but the 190th Tac Recon Group.