In April 1994, after 24 years at Luke Air Force Base, the 58th Fighter Wing was replaced by the 56th Fighter Wing (FW) as part of the Air Force Heritage program. Air Force officials established the program to preserve Air Force legacy and history during a time of military drawdown. The 56th FW was one of the most highly decorated units in Air Force history, and it was named to remain part of the active fighter force while the 58th FW was reassigned as a special operations wing to Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Luke AFB 56th FW traces its heritage to the 56th Pursuit Group that first activated Jan. 15, 1941, in Savannah, Georgia. Its earlier history was marked by frequent moves, the first to North Carolina in May 1941 and then to New York in 1942. Using P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk aircraft, the unit flew air defense patrol until June 1942, when the group became the first to train with and fly the
The 56th FW left for England Jan. 6, 1943. During the following two years, pilots of the 56th FW shot down more enemy planes and listed more aces than any other Army Air Force group in the 8th Air Force, including the top two aces in Europe. By the war’s end, the 56th FW’s motto — Cave Tonitrum, meaning “Beware the Thunderbolt” — was highly respected by the allies and their enemies alike.
On Oct. 18, 1945, the unit was inactivated. It was reactivated May 1, 1946, at Selfridge Field, Michigan, as part of the Strategic Air Command’s 15th Air Force. It included the 61st, 62nd and 63rd Fighter squadrons (FS). As part of a restructuring, the 56th FW was activated Aug. 15, 1947, and the 56th Fighter Group was assigned to the new wing.
In July and August 1948, a 56th major operation involved 16 of the wing’s F-80 Shooting Stars. By way of Maine, Labrador, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland, the flight flew to Furstenfeldbruck, Germany. Although not connected with the Berlin Airlift, which was in progress, the operation focused world attention on the U.S. Air Force’s ability to rapidly deploy jet fighters during a crisis.
The wing was transferred to the Continental Air Command’s 10th Air Force Dec. 1, 1948, and the mission of the wing’s tactical units shifted to air defense. The unit was redesignated as the 56th Fighter Interceptor Wing Jan. 20, 1950. Its 61st, 62nd and 63rd Fighter Interceptor squadrons (FIS) converted to the F-86 Sabre jet in April 1950.
While the wing inactivated Feb. 6, 1952, Air Defense Command reorganized its tactical squadrons reassigning them to other wings.
Almost nine years later, the wing reactivated at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Michigan, as the 56th FW (Air Defense) with an air defense mission. The wing controlled a single tactical unit, the 62nd FIS, flying the F-101 Voodoo.
Starting Feb. 1, 1961, the wing was part of two air defense sectors. As such, the 56th FW participated in many air defense exercises, tactical evaluations and other operations. On Dec. 16, 1963, the Duluth Air Defense Sector reassigned the squadron directly underneath itself. On Jan. 1, 1964, the 56th FW was assigned to the Strategic Air Command and inactivated.
Just over three years later, the wing reactivated as the 56th Air Commando Wing at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. War then raged in Southeast Asia. Assigned to 13th Air Force, the 56th FW received operational direction from 7th Air Force in Saigon. The wing’s combat and support operations in Southeast Asia were numerous and varied. Until Aug. 1, 1968, the wing operated as an air commando organization. From Aug. 1, 1968 to June 30, 1975, the 56th FW was designated a special operations wing. Due to its efforts in every military campaign beginning with the Vietnam Air Offensive, Phase II, the wing earned several awards for valor.
On June 30, 1975, some of the wing’s subordinate units were inactivated. The wing, with combat support group (containing its security police and civil engineering squadrons), supply and transportation squadrons moved without personnel or equipment to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. The wing was redesignated the 56th Tactical Fighter Wing and assigned to Tactical Air Command’s 9th Air Force.
As part of the move, the 61st FS and 62nd FS reactivated as tactical fighter squadrons. The 63rd Fighter Interceptor Training Squadron moved from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, without personnel or equipment. Redesignated a tactical fighter squadron, it was assigned to the wing as was the 4501st Tactical Fighter Replacement Squadron, which later became the 13th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron.
In November 1979, the wing began converting from the F-4D Phantom II to the F-16 Fighting Falcon. As they converted, they became tactical fighter training squadrons. On Oct. 1, 1981, the 56th FW became a tactical training wing. On July 1, 1982, the 13th inactivated and the 72nd Tactical Fighter Training Squadron took its place.
On June 27, 1988, the 56th FW began converting from the F-16A/B models to the updated F-16C/Ds. Then another reorganization redesignated the 56th as a fighter wing Oct. 1, 1991. Its flying units once again became fighter squadrons. The 56th FW was reassigned to Luke Air Force Base April 1, 1994.
With the F-16C/Ds, the 56th FW remains the primary F-16 aircrew and maintenance training wing in the Air Force. Under the 56th FW, which retains its F-16C/D training mission, are the 21st, 309th, 310th and 425th Fighter squadrons at Luke AFB, along with the Wing. At Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base, the 550th Fighter Squadron trains F-15C pilots and reports to the 56th Operations Group.
Since 2015, the 56th FW at Luke AFB has trained pilots to fly the F-35A Lightning II. Units flying the F-35A Lightning II are the 61st, 62nd, 63rd and 308th Fighter Squadrons.