179th final flight

164th Airlift Squadron members conduct the ceremonial final formation flight of two C-130H Hercules during the 179th Airlift Wing Flying Legacy ceremony at Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport.  (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman First Class Grace Riegel)

MANSFIELD -- The first cyber warfare wing in the country's Air National Guard will call Mansfield home, a bonus to a community that has battled to keep a local military mission over the last two decades.

But the 74-year-old flying mission at Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport will always be remembered by north central Ohio residents -- and the men and women who kept the aircraft flying.

To honor that legacy, which stretches back to 1946 in the days after World War II, the 164th Airlift Squadron, a part of the 179th Airlift Wing, recently conducted a ceremonial final formation flight of two C-130H Hercules as part of their “Flying Legacy” tribute ceremony.

The decision to locate the cyber unit in Mansfield was announced in August 2021 and the aircraft are expected to be gone from Lahm in June.

U.S. Rep. Balderson (R-Zanesville) said in August the cyber wing is expected to bring 175 new jobs for airmen and associated support jobs. An environmental analysis of the base is expected to be completed this fall.

New equipment associated with the new mission is expected to arrive in the fall of 2022. Initial mission readiness is expected by 2024 and full operational capacity by 2027.

Ohio ANG Brig. Gen. Gary McCue, a Bellville resident and prior commander of the 179th, said the unit will lead the way in the cyber warfare effort.

"This wing is going to be the first to do what it’s being tasked to do, it’s going to be the vanguard, a lot of other wings will follow suit.

“For a lot of years, they said they were going to close us. Now we’re going to be the lead in the explosion of how we do things in the future," McCue said.

Col. Darren Hamilton, a Bellville native and the current wing commander, thanked those in attendance. He described an outline of the plan for embarking on the ceremonial final formation flight.

“It’s tradition to have a ‘Fini Flight’ for aviators flying their last time. In this case, it’s a symbolic final flight for our C-130 community, a mission that has been our identity in Mansfield since 1976," Hamilton said.

"We will continue to fly this mission into early June when the last of the iron leaves the ramp.

"But this was our last chance to give it the ceremonial ending it deserves and share that with our past and present members, their families and friends," said Hamilton, who joined the 179th in 1986 while still a student at Clear Fork High School.

Hamilton looked into the crowd and identified prior members who helped him along the way, detailing how he first visited the base as a child.

He later joined as an enlisted C-130 maintainer, took advantage of the Ohio Air National Guard’s state tuition assistance to obtain his degree and commission as an officer, eventually flying the C-130 and becoming the wing commander in December 2021.

“The skull patch that you see on our 164th Airlift Squadron is world-renowned. The heritage goes back to 1942, when it was first flown with the 363rd Fighter Squadron in World War II with Aces like Bud Anderson and Chuck Yeager.” Hamilton said.

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“Then in 1946, they transferred that unit to Mansfield and it was formally recognized by 1948. That’s 74 years, officially, of flying here and if you go back to the World War II lineage, that’s 80 years of flying.”

The 363rd Fighter Squadron was established at Hamilton Field, California, in December 1942. The skull was first painted on a P-39 Airacobra door and followed the unit to World War II, flying the P-51 Mustang.

That wartime 363rd Fighter Squadron was re-designated as the 164th Fighter Squadron and was allotted to the Ohio Air National Guard, on May 24, 1946, bestowing the lineage, history, honors, and colors of the 363rd Fighter Squadron.

Organized at Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport, named in honor of Gen. Frank P. Lahm, a military aviation pioneer born in Mansfield. Lahm is credited for his contributions to bringing flight to the military after flying with the Wright Brothers of Dayton.

Over the years, the squadron has been assigned various aircraft:  the F-51D/H Mustang, B-26 Invader, F-80C Shooting Star, F-84E/F Thunderstreak, F-100D/F Super Saber, C-130B/H Hercules and C-27J Spartan.

During the F-84 fighter era, Fred Haise Jr. flew with the unit before going on to become an astronaut and flew as the lunar module pilot as part of the historic Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

The unit transitioned from a fighter squadron to an airlift squadron in 1976, and has remained an airlift squadron until now.

C-130 overhead

A C-130H Hercules from the 179th Airlift Wing soars above the Kingwood Center Gardens on April 23 during the "Fini Flight" to honor the unit's flying legacy.

Hamilton said transitions from one aircraft to another have always been hard, but the move to a cyber warfare unit may be the hardest yet.

“This unit is historically resilient. Time tested and able to adapt to any mission and get the job done. There have been many mission changes in our past, different air frames and different skillsets needed but the culture has always remained its strength.

"It’s the people who have made this installation a success in whatever the mission has asked of them and it’s the reason they will continue to make history," Hamilton said.

The two aircraft flew in formation, each performing an air drop visible to the crowd and then performed a low altitude pass over the historic hangar 102, finally taxing in where they were greeted by the fire department’s water arches as they parked.

"This is a difficult and challenging time for many of our members, past and present.” Hamilton said, “Today we acknowledge the loss of an aviation based mission in Mansfield as a sad day for many, we honor the accomplishments of all those who have served this unit in its storied history.”

The colonel said the unit can now look to the future -- with its own future secured.

"We recognize the history this unit continues to make. Being selected to become the first Cyber wing in the Air National Guard is another historic milestone in a long tradition of adapting to the call of duty.” Hamilton said.

“In a world of increasing technological advancement, this new mission secures Mansfield’s future as a vital contributor to the defense of Ohio and this great nation for generations to come.”

(Ohio ANG MSgt. Joe Harwood contributed to this report.)

Chuck Hahn, Cleveland Financial Group, invests in this independent reporting through a Newsroom Partnership.

City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"