Maryland Air Commandos Blazed Special Ops Trail

  • Published
  • By Capt. Wayde Minami
  • 175th Wing Public Affairs
The Maryland Air National Guard's introduction to the world of special operations began when Air Force leaders decided to phase out active duty air commando units in 1954.

Despite the decision, there was still a need to maintain a limited number of crews and aircraft to support unconventional warfare missions. After lengthy deliberations, the Air Force decided in 1955 to establish four special air warfare units within the Air National Guard: the 129th Air Resupply Group in California, the 130th in West Virginia, the 143rd in Rhode Island, and the 135th in Maryland.

The Guard squadrons were equipped with a variety of aircraft. Maryland initially flew C-46 Commandos, supplemented by SA-16 Albatross amphibious aircraft beginning in 1956. The SA-16 (later redesignated HU-16) completely replaced the C-46s in late 1958. In 1963, the 135th added U-10 Super Couriers to its inventory. The U-10s were used for infiltration, extraction and psychological operations. These aircraft were temporarily replaced by U-6 Beavers from 1965 to 1967 due to a need for U-10s in Vietnam.

"It didn't take a genius to figure out that the SA-16 Albatross wasn't an ordinary type of troop carrier," retired Brig. Gen. Victor Kilkowski, the 135th Air Resupply Squadron's original commander, explained in an interview for a 2000 history of the Maryland Air Guard. "It was extremely slow and small to load anything other than a team of passengers. To top it off, the Albatross was an amphibian, specifically suited for inserting or extracting people stealthily by water from hostile environments."

Training for water landings with the albatross was extremely hazardous. To make matters worse, doctrine required pilots to land their aircraft on water at night, with no landing lights.

Night water landings were practiced at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in southern Maryland.

"The Navy operations office there provided a crash boat and the friendly advice...that landing on water in the dark was a really bad idea," retired Col. Donald C. Utermahlen, former 135th operations officer, recalled in an interview for the 2000 history.

Three crewmen were killed when their plane crashed while attempting a water landing in May 1956.

Ultimately, the 135th's mission included counterinsurgency, military civic action, psychological operations, tactical air operations, and unconventional warfare. In addition to blacked-out water landings, the SA-16 crews practiced pulling personnel from the ground by means of the Fulton Recovery System, which retired Col. Richard T. Lynch, a former 135th commander, described as being "like bungee jumping in reverse."

Exercise Swamp Rat followed a fairly typical training scenario. In October 1959, nine Maryland SA-16s flew to Fort Bragg, N.C., to work with soldiers of the 77th Special Forces Group. The paratroopers and their equipment were loaded aboard the SA-16s and dropped near the swamps of Fort Stewart, Ga. 135th crews then flew resupply missions for the troops and extracted them when their mission was complete.

In 1963, the 135th participated in Exercise Swift Strike III, one of the largest military maneuvers since World War II. During the exercise, the unit not only flew a variety of special air warfare missions, but received an operational readiness inspectionĀ from Tactical Air Command to boot.

The unit's loudspeaker-equipped U-10s were used to broadcast orders to student protesters at the University of Maryland during demonstrations in 1971, their only actual operational use by the 135th.

The 135th also worked with U.S. intelligence agencies. A common mission was to pick up agents in training, fly a zig-zag course to make sure they didn't know where they were headed, then have them parachute out over western Maryland. The trainees then had to make their way to Patuxent with only the resources they carried -- sometimes taking as much as six weeks to do so. The 135th would then fly down to "extract" the trainees and bring them home.

The four Guard special air warfare units were redesignated as air commando groups in 1963, following the revival of an active duty air commando unit at Hurlburt Field, Fla. In 1968, these units were again redesignated as special operations groups.

The 135th remained in the special air warfare business until 1971, when it was reorganized as a tactical air support unit.