AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — The first Americans to visit this base just south of the Alps didn’t come bearing the traditional flowers or dessert. They dropped bombs.
As Brig. Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of the 31st Fighter Wing, noted Tuesday during a ceremony marking 50 years of American Air Force units at Aviano, times have changed.
Today, he said, Aviano represents “a great symbol of our joint national interest.”
Breedlove, the 37th American commander since the 7207th Air Base Squadron moved to Aviano from Giebelstadt, Germany, joined Col. Rosario Scarpolini, the Italian base commander, in looking at the base’s history.
The 50-year partnership, Scarpolini said, “created a collaboration that, especially during the Cold War, guaranteed stability and security to Italy at large and its northeastern corner in particular.”
Breedlove agreed that the base’s role during the Cold War is “probably its most important contribution,” though most of the attention the base garnered was generated decades later.
The 7207th was activated on Feb. 16, 1955. Some American units had used Aviano as temporary housing before heading on to Udine, but the 7207th was the first unit assigned to the base.
The first American troops mostly were charged with monitoring the skies and teaching Italian counterparts how to use their equipment. In 1957, the 7207th gave way to the 7227th Support Group. In 1966, the 40th Tactical Group was activated on base. It proved to be the longest tenant, changing its name to the 40th Tactical Support Wing in 1990 before deactivating two years later.
Breedlove termed the American presence until then “a very important operation, but a small one.”
That started to change in 1992 when the 401st Fighter Wing moved from Torrejon Air Base, Spain, to Aviano.
Two years later, with the base’s population growing substantially, the 31st Fighter Wing was activated.
By then, Aviano had taken a substantial role in NATO’s actions in the Balkans. Breedlove termed the base the “forefront of our nation’s endeavors overseas.”
That was especially true in 1999 when more than 190 aircraft from five countries flew sorties from the base, forcing Yugoslav forces out of Kosovo.
The base has grown substantially both in population and infrastructure since a few hundred airmen arrived in 1955. Today, more than 4,000 airmen are stationed at Aviano and the United States and NATO continue to pour millions of dollars into facilities for them.
Scarpolini, the 16th Italian base commander since 1955, said Aviano has been so successful because of the cooperation between the Italian hosts and their American guests.
“A continued Italian-U.S. cooperation can only raise national and world security to the higher and higher level we all wish,” he said.