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Happy 75th Anniversary Air Defense Command, precursor to First Air Force

  • Published
  • By Paul F. Armentrout III
  • First Air Force Historian
First Air Force marks a milestone on Dec. 18, the 75th Anniversary of the activation of the Air Defense Command - the precursor to today's First Air Force. 

During early 1940, the Air Corps established the Air Defense Command at Mitchel Field, Long Island, N.Y., as the primary planning agency for development of a unified air defense system for cities, vital industrial areas, and continental bases in the United States. 

The Air Defense Command established detailed plans for a typical aircraft warning system comprised of three essential elements: radar stations, a ground observer system, and an information center.  In turn, the Air Defense Command established four Air Districts on Oct. 19, 1940, and activated the Northeast Air District (Mitchel Field, New York), Northwest Air District (McChord Field, Wash.), Southeast Air District (MacDill Field, Fla.), and the Southwest Air District (March Field, Ca.) on Dec. 18, 1940. 

These four air districts were initially charged with the defense planning and organization of their respective sectors.  These four air districts were redesignated as the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Air Forces, respectively, on Sept. 18, 1942.

When World War II broke out, the First Air Force was equipped with a total of 337 aircraft of all types and struggled to obtain supplies, equipment, and personnel to accomplish a multitude of missions.  As quickly as personnel became trained and proficient at their tasks, they were transferred to new organizations or theaters of operation. 

The primary mission of the First Air Force early in World War II became the defense of the Atlantic Seaboard, an area including many of the most populous and highly industrialized centers of the country, as well as an important ocean zone.  The First Fighter Command evaluated east coast air defense needs and established an aircraft warning system consisting of a ground observer corps, an air raid warning network, and alert fighters. 

From December 1941 until the organization of the Army Air Forces Antisubmarine Command in October 1942, it also engaged in extensive antisubmarine operations through the First Bomber Command.

Although active in dispatching combat units to overseas theaters, the First Air Force was not free to devote its chief efforts to training until September 1943, when it was relieved from its assignment to the Eastern Defense Command.  Nevertheless, in the period 1942 - 1944, 430 combat units of all types and sizes were activated, trained, or staged at First Air Force installations.  These included elements utilized in the formation of the Fifth (Australia), Eighth (United Kingdom), Ninth (North Africa), Tenth (India) Twelfth (North Africa), Thirteenth (New Caledonia), and the Fourteenth (China) Air Forces.  These units comprised more than 10,000 officers and 90,000 enlisted men.         

The post-war years witnessed continual changes within the mission, organization, and area of responsibility for the First Air Force.  The primary mission of the First Air Force remained the air defense of the Northeast.  An additional mission became the training and administration of Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units within its assigned geographic region.  However, changes within the Air Force led to the inactivation of the First Air Force on June 23, 1958.

First Air Force was briefly reactivated at Stewart Air Force Base, New York, on Jan. 20, 1966, as part of a reconfiguration of the Air Defense Command and consisted of the 21st, 33rd, 34th, 35th, 36th, and 37th Air Divisions.  During this period, the unit was charged with the air defense of over 6-million square miles consisting of the northeastern United States, Greenland, Iceland and parts of Canada.  By July 1968, the First Air Force had again assumed total responsibility for the air defense of the eastern seaboard, just as it had during World War II.  The unit was inactivated as the result of an air defense reorganization on Dec. 31, 1969.

The historic First Air Force reactivated for a third time on Dec. 6, 1985, at Langley Air Force Base, Va., under the Tactical Air Command (TAC).  The First Air Force was charged with providing a clear focus for air defense in TAC while presenting a better interface with NORAD in operational planning and execution of air defense operations.

Since that time, its mission has been to provide, train and equip combat-ready forces for the air defense of the North American continent.  Activation of the Continental NORAD Region (CONR) on Oct. 1, 1986, resulted in a new structure for the 30-year-old, binational NORAD command.  Now, the First Air Force Commander was dual hatted as the commander for both organizations and held responsibility for organizing, training, and equipping along with the operational command of air defense forces.  The creation of CONR, along with Alaskan and Canadian regions, provided an improved command and operational system for North American air defense.

The 1990s witnessed a shift in the manpower providing the forces for the Air Defense of America.  The overwhelming majority of the aircraft and personnel performing the alert mission belonged to the Air National Guard.  During the period of 1994 - 1997, the manpower supporting the command and control for this no-fail mission also transitioned to the Air National Guard at the Northeastern, Southeastern, and Western Air Defense Sectors along with the First Air Force headquarters staff.

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, forever altered the First Air Force.  The First Air Force assumed a greater role in the execution of Operation NOBLE EAGLE missions providing defense of key assets and infrastructure across the nation.  For the first time since World War II, aircraft assigned to the First Air Force flew armed air combat patrols over American cities. 

The First Air Force became the Component Numbered Air Force to US Northern Command upon its activation on Oct. 1, 2002 and in addition to the Air Defense mission provides unique air capabilities to Northern Command to meet a multitude of missions through Defense Support of Civil Authorities and other federal agencies.  Lastly the First Air Force assists in capacity building partnerships with our International partners.

Throughout the history of the First Air Force the men and women assigned have provided constant vigil over the defense of the homeland. They stand ready to answer the call for assistance in the event of a natural or man-made disaster, and like our three sister Numbered Air Forces who share this momentous anniversary; they stand ready to face the next challenge that lies ahead. 

Happy 75th Anniversary First, Second, Third, and Fourth Air Forces.