123rd Airlift Wing History

The Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Airlift Wing is one of the most decorated units in the United States Air Force, with a proud history of global engagement and unsurpassed achievement. The wing’s honors include 19 Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards, five Curtis N. “Rusty” Metcalf Trophies, three 15th Air Force Solano Trophies, three Spaatz Trophies and 10 Distinguished Flying Unit Plaques.

The wing traces its roots to the 123rd Fighter Group and 165th Fighter Squadron, which were created on May 24, 1946, as part of a nationwide redesignation of World War II Army Air Corps units. Under War Department orders, the insignia, World War II battle credits and honors of the 359th Fighter Group and 368th Fighter Squadron were transferred to the Kentucky National Guard, and the new unit subsequently received federal recognition on Feb. 16, 1947. The "123rd" designation itself dates to the 123rd Cavalry Regiment, which can trace its lineage to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a unit that fought in the Civil War.

Based in Louisville, Ky., the Kentucky Air National Guard was assigned 25 P-51 Mustangs in May 1947. The unit's aircrews rapidly attained a high level of combat readiness, and just two years later, the wing earned its first Spaatz Trophy, an award given each year to the premier Air Guard flying unit.

On Oct. 10, 1950, during the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman placed the 123rd Fighter Group on active duty and moved the unit from Standiford Field in Louisville to Godman Field at Fort Knox, Ky. The unit's P-51 Mustangs were ferried to the Far East, and several of the unit's pilots volunteered for combat duty over Korea. Five were lost in action, including Capt. John W. Shewmaker, for whom the Kentucky Air Guard base was once named.

In November 1951, the wing was ordered to replace the Strategic Air Command's 12th Fighter Escort Wing at Manston R.A.F., England. The 123rd was equipped with F-84 Thunderjets. Aircrews participated in joint NATO deployments through June 1952. Deactivation and a return to peacetime status came in July 1952.

From 1956 through 1957, the unit flew the F-86 Sabre Jet, but the following year, the unit's mission was changed from air defense to reconnaissance with a conversion to the RB-57 Canberra aircraft. In 1965, the unit switched airplanes again, receiving the RB-101 Voodoo supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. Just prior to the arrival of the new airframes, the 165th was awarded its second Spaatz Trophy for superior combat readiness and flight training.

On Jan. 26, 1968, the Pueblo Crisis precipitated the 123rd's recall to federal service. Now officially known as the 123rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, the unit flew just under 20,000 tactical flying hours and delivered nearly 320,000 reconnaissance prints to requesting agencies. Assigned personnel served on active duty for 16 months, returning to state service on June 8, 1969. The wing earned its first Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for its exceptional performance during this period.

During 1976, a no-notice conversion announced by the National Guard Bureau brought the two-seat RF-4C Phantom II reconnaissance jet to the KyANG. The unit attained combat-ready status within seven months — a record time.

The Phantom years were marked by many overseas deployments, participation in international photo reconnaissance competitions and a remarkable flight safety record. In 1981, the unit placed first in the Air National Guard Photo Finish Competition and earned an unprecedented third Spaatz Trophy.

In May 1983 the unit reached another historic milestone when it earned the highest possible rating from Tactical Air Command during an Operational Readiness Inspection. This was the first time a TAC unit had received an outstanding rating.

Airlift became the primary mission of the Kentucky Air National Guard in 1989 when C-130B Hercules transports were assigned. The unit was re-designated the 123rd Tactical Airlift Wing (later, simply 123rd Airlift Wing), and its flying component became the 165th Tactical Airlift Squadron (later re-named the 165th Airlift Squadron).

Although not federally mobilized for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, 165th TAS volunteers stepped forward to support the war effort. From August 1990 to March 1991, they flew 1,240 airlift sorties worldwide in direct support of the Gulf War, the most for any Air National Guard unit. An additional 88 wing members were activated in support of Desert Shield/Storm.

The 123rd received the 2000th C-130 straight off the assembly line in May 1992 as it began conversion to the C-130H model aircraft. Eight months later, the 123rd deployed to Mombasa, Kenya, to fly relief missions into Somalia for Operations Restore Hope and Provide Relief. Citizen-soldiers from the 123rd flew 150 sorties and transported 720 tons of relief supplies and 1,444 passengers into some of the hardest-hit areas in Somalia.

When the world’s attention shifted to Eastern Europe in February 1993, the 123rd responded again, deploying in support of Operation Provide Promise. The unit’s all-volunteer force flew 1,082 airdrop and airland sorties and delivered 2,215 tons of food and supplies into war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. The unit would continue to support this mission with numerous deployments until the end of the decade.

In July 1994, the 123rd answered another call for help and deployed within 72 hours of notification to fly relief missions into Rwanda and Zaire for Operation Support Hope. Operating out of Mombasa, Kenya, unit personnel flew 147 sorties over 300 hours, transporting 652.5 tons of relief supplies to beleaguered Rwandan refugees. Personnel from the unit’s 205th Combat Communications Squadron also deployed to Haiti that year as part of Operation Uphold Democracy, providing satellite communications links for the theater commander.

In 1995, the base moved to a new 88-acre facility on the northeast side of Louisville International Airport, providing the unit with state-of-the-art facilities and room to grow.

By April of 2000, the 123rd Airlift Wing had received its 10th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, and global deployments continued to mark the wing’s activities. More than 580 Kentucky Air Guard members deployed overseas from December 2000 to March 2001 as part of Air Expeditionary Forces based in Germany and Southwest Asia. Other unit members were sent to South America to participate in drug interdiction efforts. The largest contingent of Kentucky Airmen — nearly 470 aircrew, maintenance and support personnel—operated from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in support of Operation Joint Forge, the multinational peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While there, unit members transported approximately 2,500 passengers and 410 tons of cargo to locations like Sarajevo and Tuzla, Bosnia; and Taszar, Hungary.

Other KyANG members deployed to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in support of operations Joint Forge, Southern Watch and Northern Watch. The latter two missions were responsible for enforcing no-fly zones imposed upon Iraq after the Gulf War.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 637 members of the Kentucky Air Guard were placed on active duty for varying lengths of time in support of real-world missions around the world. These deployments included missions to support homeland defense (Operation Noble Eagle), the war on terrorism abroad (Operation Enduring Freedom) and the war in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom). Of these 637 Kentucky Airmen, 454 deployed overseas for U.S. military operations in dozens of countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Bosnia, Croatia, Romania, Senegal, Serbia and the Ukraine.

Most of these federalized troops were taken off active duty in early 2004, but the wing continually deploys troops around the world as needed to meet operational requirements. In 2006, for example, 560 Kentucky Air Guard troops deployed to such location as Afghanistan, Iraq, Curaçao, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan and Antarctica.

In 2007, more than 210 wing members deployed to Afghanistan to fly airlift missions that delivered thousands of tons of equipment and supplies to forward-deployed troops who were engaged with the enemy. And nearly 300 Kentucky Air Guardsmen returned to Afghanistan in 2009 for the same mission, transporting 20,000 troops and 6,000 tons of cargo across the theater of operations during a two-month deployment.

From October 2010 to January 2011, about 160 Kentucky Airmen broke airlift records when they airdropped or transported a record amount of cargo and personnel in support of Operation Enduring Freedom while deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The unit set records again in 2012 when 100 Airmen deployed to the Persian Gulf, flying 1,400 missions in four months to airlift 5,300 tons of cargo and 15,000 passengers. It returned to the region in 2015, flying 625 combat airlift sorties in support of Operations Inherent Resolve and Freedom’s Sentinel.

In 2018, a full third of the wing was deployed around the world to support combat operations from multiple theaters. Two years later, the wing again completed another deployment to the Persian Gulf region, where Kentucky Air Guardsmen flew 4,948 combat sorties to deliver 15,000 passengers and 10,158 tons of supplies and equipment to locations across the theater in support of Operations Inherent Resolve and Freedom’s Sentinel.

The wing also has been heavily engaged in disaster-relief efforts, deploying special tactics troops to New Orleans in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina, where they established and operated a helicopter landing zone on a highway overpass to evacuate nearly 12,000 citizens. In early 2010, the wing deployed members of its 123rd Contingency Response Group to the Dominican Republic to establish and operate one of the primary airlift hubs responsible for bringing relief supplies into earthquake-stricken Haiti. And in 2014, members of the same unit answered the call for humanitarian aid in west Africa in support of Operation United Assistance, the multi-agency effort to fight the largest Ebola outbreak in history. The  unit deployed to Senegal to establish and operate an Aerial Port of Debarkation/Intermediate Staging Base, processing 193 aircraft and 1,200 short tons of cargo, including blood, plasma and tactical vehicles during the two-month deployment.

Back home, in 2017, the wing provided unprecedented support to domestic disaster-response operations, deploying more than 180 personnel to Texas, Florida and the Caribbean in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Airmen from the wing’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron rescued 336 civilians stranded by flood waters in Texas and con- trolled 636 military aircraft in the Virgin Islands, facilitating the evacuation of 1,286 U.S. citizens. Meanwhile, the wing’s 123rd Contingency Response Group established an aeromedical evacuation hub in Texas and an Intermediate Staging Base in Puerto Rico that supported 268 aircraft, processed 3887 passengers and distributed more than 7 million pounds of food, water and humanitarian aid. The wing’s aircrews also were heavily engaged in relief operations, airlifting hundreds of evacuees from St. Maarten and flying 152 sorties to transport humanitarian aid from Georgia to the Caribbean.

More recently, the wing deployed personnel in 2021 for recovery efforts following devastating tornados in Western Kentucky, and led the way in statewide response to the COVID pandemic, staffing multiple drive-thru testing sites and vaccine clinics, backfilling area hospitals and health-care facilities, and constructing an 1,200-bed field hospital at the state fairgrounds.

The 123rd Airlift Wing, located at what is now known as Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, is one of the most decorated units in U.S. Air Force history, with 19 Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards (most recently in 2021) and 10 National Guard Distinguished Flying Unit Plaques (most recently in 2018).

The wing also has earned five Curtis N. “Rusty” Metcalf Trophies (most recently in 2020), three 15th Air Force Solano Trophies and three General Carl A. Spaatz Trophies.

The Metcalf Trophy is awarded annually to the top airlift unit in the Air National Guard, the Solano Trophy was given each year to the best Air Guard unit in the 15th Air Force, and the Spaatz Trophy is bestowed annually on the country’s premier Air Guard flying unit. In 2004, the Air Force Association honored the 123rd Airlift Wing with its Air National Guard Outstanding Airmanship Award, in part for the wing’s exceptional performance in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terror. In 2015, the 123 AW earned the prestigious Major General Stanley F.H. Newman Award from the Tanker/Airlift Association, presented annually to the outstanding ANG Air Mobility Wing.


Distinguished Flying Unit Plaques: 1960, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1993, 1998, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2020


Spaatz Trophies: 1950, 1965, 1981


Metcalf Trophies: 1994, 2002, 2007, 2014, 2020


Newman Award: 2015



Current as of 10 Jan 2022