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Maryland Interceptors Helped Guard Nation During Cold War

Baltimore -- At the height of the Cold War, major American metropolitan areas were ringed with anti-aircraft missiles - some armed with nuclear warheads - and guarded by air defense fighters.

As the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., was a prime target for possible Soviet attack, with nearby Baltimore also considered a likely target. Accordingly, the Maryland National Guard played a significant role in defense planning for the national capital area.

While much of the air defense effort in Maryland centered on Army National Guard ground-based anti-aircraft missile systems, the Air National Guard also shouldered its share of the load.

As Soviet-American relations cooled, National Guard fighter units, including Maryland's 104th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, began shifting focus towards air defense. One of the unit's first Cold War alerts occurred on Jan. 16, 1953, at 7:21 a.m. Almost immediately, maintenance troops and pilots began reporting for duty, and the squadron had F-51s in the air 36 minutes later.

During a nationwide alert called in April 1955, the 104th was able to get 16 out of 20 aircraft in commission within 20 minutes and 90 percent of the unit had reported for duty within 50 minutes of the alert going out.

In June of 1955, the 104th Fighter-Bomber Squadron received welcome news: it was being reorganized as a fighter-interceptor squadron. Interceptor duty was considered very desirable, as it enabled pilots to earn additional income by performing alert duty.

There had initially been some reluctance to assign an air defense mission to the Maryland Guard because it was equipped with propeller-driven F-51 Mustangs and its home base, Harbor Field, did not have runways long enough to support jet operations.

In the end, Maryland got the mission - and the F-86 fighters to perform it - by guaranteeing the National Guard Bureau that it would be able to find new home. In the interim, the unit operated from three locations, with its F-86s based at Andrews Air Force Base, its T-33s based at Friendship Airport (now Thurgood Marshall BWI Airport), and its remaining F-51s based at Harbor Field (now the Dundalk Marine Terminal).

In July, the unit was offered space at the Martin Company Airport northeast of Baltimore, and facility construction began shortly thereafter. Two years later, in July 1957, the unit relocated.

One of the larger exercises involving the Maryland Air Guard occurred on Oct. 25, 1955, when Air Defense Command initiated a nationwide practice alert dubbed Operation Stopwatch. The alert involved 73 squadrons at 60 bases, including the 104th.

The goal of Stopwatch was to see how fast fighters could get airborne once an air defense alert was declared. Under the Stopwatch plan, 50 percent of aircraft were expected to be available within two hours, and the remainder within 24 hours.

The alert came from Air Defense Command headquarters in Colorado Springs at 8:28 a.m. and involved eight of the squadron's F-86s and seven of its F-51s. Within 10 minutes all of the aircraft were ready, and all F-86s were airborne within an hour and 15 minutes.

The 104th also got experience in actually intercepting "enemy" bombers. During their annual summer camp at Travis Field, Ga., in June 1956, squadron F-86s were scrambled to intercept approaching Strategic Air Command B-47 bombers conducting a mock attack.

The unit stayed in the air defense business until November 1958, when it was reorganized as a tactical fighter squadron and transferred to Tactical Air Command. Although they would continue to fly the F-86 for another 12 years, the mission changed from that of intercepting Soviet bombers to more traditional bombing and ground attack.