SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — When it was time to furl the guidon at the 81st Fighter Squadron’s inactivation ceremony Tuesday, the only A-10 Thunderbolt II in the hangar was a small concrete replica of the squadron’s aircraft on display near the stage.
The stand-in would have to do: The aircraft last month left Europe, where it had been based for nearly 30 years, the last 20 at this sprawling base in southwestern Germany.
The A-10s’ departure, brought on by shifting political realities and shrinking defense funding, hastened the closing of one of the U.S. Air Force’s most enduring and storied fighter squadrons in Europe.
For 71 years, “the 81st Fighter Squadron piloted many of the most iconic and legendary aircraft the world has ever seen,” Col. David Lyons, 52nd Operations Group commander, told base personnel and civilians at Tuesday’s ceremony.
The Panthers’ history spans numerous conflicts, from World War II to Afghanistan, its pilots over the years flying the F-100 Super Sabre, F-4G Advanced Wild Weasel and F-16C Fighting Falcon, among other fighters.
The unit had its beginning stateside when it was activated on Jan. 15, 1942, at Key Field in Mississippi as a test and training squadron for the P-40 Warhawk, according to squadron history.
In 1953, the squadron transitioned to the F-86 Sabre and relocated to Hahn Air Base, Germany, with several relocations around Europe to follow before its final move in 1973 to Spangdahlem, where it was part of the 52nd Fighter Wing.
In 1993, the squadron began flying the A-10, becoming the last under U.S. Air Forces in Europe as the A-10 fleet on the Continent was whittled down to about 20 aircraft in recent years.
“At one time there were six squadrons of A-10s in Europe with over 140 aircraft and tens of thousands of Cold War ground forces preparing for battle,” the Panthers’ last commander, Lt. Col. Clinton Eichelberger, said before relinquishing command and helping Lyons furl the squadron’s flag.
“Today, the climate has changed in this part of the world,” he said, “and so has the need for conventional forces like the A-10.”
The A-10 departs on the heels of another Cold War relic: The U.S. Army’s last battle tanks left Germany this past spring after being based here for more than 60 years.
Marshall Michel, the 52nd Fighter Wing historian, in an interview after Tuesday’s ceremony, noted that milestone, significant in that the A-10 and its powerful gun were designed to knock out Soviet tanks, should the Russians ever have invaded Germany.
“This is just kind of a logical downsizing of Europe,” Michel said. “But for me personally, as a former fighter guy, it never makes you happy to see a squadron shut down.”
Spangdahlem’s 81st Fighter Squadron was the only active-duty A-10 squadron targeted for closure as part of deep Air Force cutbacks announced last year in the face of reduced funding and a shift in defense strategy from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region. Air Force officials said last year that they planned to retire about 100 A-10 Thunderbolt IIs in fiscal 2013, leaving fewer than 250 in the service’s inventory.
About 500 personnel at Spangdahlem were affected by the inactivation, including pilots, maintainers and other support personnel, according to base officials.
“Everybody says ‘bittersweet,’ but it’s really just bitter,” said Capt. Joshua Jones, one of the few remaining 81st Fighter Squadron pilots on hand for the unit’s inactivation. “I hate seeing the squadron go. None of us wanted to move or leave, and it’s always bad to close a squadron, especially one with 70 years of history behind it.”
His two years at Spangdahlem were memorable. He went to Afghanistan for one rotation with the squadron and visited about eight countries around Europe while training with NATO partners, he said, opportunities he’s not certain to find in his next assignment as an A-10 flight instructor at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
“It was a busy two years,” he said. “It’s flown by; no pun intended.”