5 First of the Finest’ graduates visit Columbus 50 years later
Story by A1C Keith Holcomb on 07/12/2019
Five classmates from the first Undergraduate Pilot Training Class toured their old home, Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, July 3.
The members of UPT Class 71-01 stepped onto the base with a sense of familiarity, unanimously saying that although the base looked different, it felt distinctly similar to their time here 50 years ago. The member’s began their journey in UPT on July 17, 1969.
Capt. Jeremy Dunbar, 37th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot, was the event coordinator for the 71-01 50th anniversary.
“Today was an incredible opportunity for Team BLAZE to experience our heritage and hear about what pilot training was like 50 years ago,” Dunbar said.
Two of the class members, Robert Lacey and retired Col. James Donnelly, were able to fly in a T-1A Jayhawk with the 48th Flying Training Squadron. The other three members of 71-01, retired Brig. Gen. Raymond Franck, retired Maj. William Buchanan, and retired Capt. William Hodges, flew T-6 Texan II, T-1 Jayhawk and T-38 Talon simulators to experience Columbus AFB from the virtual skies.
After the flight and simulator experiences they met with Col. Samantha Weeks, 14th Flying Training Wing commander, for a welcome and wing mission brief.
Following their brief, they toured the T-6 Texan II flying training squadrons, and reminisced about their time in the T-37 Tweets. They asked questions about the current flying training atmosphere and experienced flying the new virtual reality T-6 trainers with the innovation flight.
The five pilots also had the opportunity to see the unveiling of the 50th Flying Training Squadron’s heritage aircraft. The 50th FTS had been a part of the 71-01 class training, where Hodges, a 14th OG simulator instructor pilot, had taken the first T-38 Talon flight off of Columbus AFB runways.
“We really wanted this unveiling to be part of the event today, in particular, because of the history of this squadron and the pursuit of our heritage as a pilot training wing,” said Col. Derek Stuart, 14th Operations Group commander.
Ending the 50th anniversary event, the “First of the Finest” were read aloud their yearbook bios written while they attended pilot training many years ago. They followed their bios with a final words and sincere a “thank you.”
“It was unique in that when we came, we were the first people to be here, the base was empty at first, but today it’s very much its own small community,” Donnelly said. “I appreciate the walk down memory lane and seeing the growth from our first months at Columbus. Capt. Dunbar had really done a great job facilitating the tour and showing us the highlights of the base as it stands today.”