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1980s

BY THE 1980S, IT WAS EASY TO SEE that the Alaska Air National Guard had changed immensely from the early days of the 8144th Air Base Squadron. It had not only grown larger but evolved, gaining experience and taking on more responsibility as it matured. 

That being the case, it was perhaps no surprise when, at age 34, the organization spun off a new unit of its own. 

The 168th Air Refueling Squadron started life in 1986 as the 176th Tactical Airlift Group's Eielson-based Detachment 1. Its mission, under Lt. Col. Doug Clinton, was to build a tanker unit from the ground up. 

In the spring of 1986, members of the unit -- what few there were - began a 17-day tour of other Air National Guard tanker units. This trip had a dual purpose, one of its participants would recount later: "One, conduct interviews and make selection for the jobs ... and two, steal people." 

Evidently they were very persuasive, because the new unit was staffed by 16 officers and 65 enlisted personnel by September, when its first planes, four renovated KC-135 aerial tankers (military versions of the Boeing 707), arrived. 

Obtained from the Arkansas Air National Guard over vociferous objections from local politicians, the KC-135s were hand-me-downs, and the 168th's other facilities were antiquated. Despite this, the unit still managed to supply 70 percent of the theater's air refueling training needs in its first six months of operation. Only two years after being activated, its first Unit Effectiveness Inspection resulted in a rare "excellent" rating. 

The early days of the 168th, like those of its Anchorage parent, were not without tragedy. On Sept. 25, 1989, one of the unit's aircraft exploded on the flightline, killing MSgt. Cheryl Helgerman and MSgt. Bill Malico. Saddened but resolute, the other members of the unit pushed ahead with their mission. 

For its first four years of existence, the 168th was assigned to the 176th, which was redesignated the 176th Composite Group in recognition of its newly diversified components. By the end of the decade the 168th had already reached operational maturity. It was redesignated the 168th Air Refueling Group and began operating indepently of the 176th (the 176th would retain its "composite" designation in anticipation of adding the 210th Rescue Squadron--see page 14). Under its new designation, the 168th would fly extensive hours in support of U.S. forces in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. 

176th increases operations tempo 

Back in Anchorage, the 176th celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Alaska Air National Guard by welcoming back an old friend, as Ruth Kulis, widow of 1st Lt. Albert Kulis, came up from California to visit the base. 

That weekend "will forever be one of the most important memories of my life," she wrote in a letter of appreciation. "While you honor the Kulis family on such an occasion, you are also honoring my husband's friends who were part of the original 16 men, pilots and crews, who laid the groundwork for ... the finest organization in the Air National Guard." 
The next few years would prove her assessment true, as the Guard became, more than ever, an integral part of the Alaskan landscape. 

In 1985, an explosion at the village oil storage tank in Gambell destroyed not only their heating oil, but their primary fuel for power generation. The 144th brought the remote village a state emergency response team, along with portable generators to restore power. 

The next year, heavy rains in Cordova broke through a reinforced dike. The small town required a forty-foot section of large-diameter culvert pipe to divert the flood waters away from the town's hospital. Kulis quickly generated an aircraft and crew to supply the equipment, helping avert extensive property damage and evacuation of the hospital. 

Save the whales 

The Alaska Air National Guard would close out the decade with two of its highest-profile missions ever. 

In the days after the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 144th flew many sorties delivering oil containment booms, supplies and emergency personnel to Valdez. Air Guard members remained in place in various support roles even after the actual airlift was handed over to civilian contractors. In particular, firefighters from the 176 CES provided crash response and fire protection for the Valdez airport, where traffic had increased from 14 or so flights per day to well over 400. 

On a somewhat lighter note came the effort to save a handful of gray whales trapped in the ice near Point Barrow. Their plight captured the attention of the national media, and the 176th Group was asked to provide logistical support for the rescue attempt. The episode ended, the Airlift reported, with the whales "last seen headed south to vacation in the sun."

TIMELINE - 1980s

1980 
176th Group becomes the first Air Guard unit in the country to score an "outstanding" on a formal Aircrew Standardization/Evaluation Test (ASET) inspection. 

1982 
Preparations begin to replace the 176th's C-130Es with the newer, more capable C-130Hs. 

1984 
176th Group hits 60,000 accident-free flying hours. The unit would hit the 80,000-hour mark only four years later, reflecting its increased operations tempo and the worldwide scale of its mission. 

1985 
Kulis' new operations/training building is dedicated in memory of former AG William "Pappy" Elmore. 

1986 
A restored AT-6 "Texan" attack trainer completes Kulis' collection of vintage unit mission aircraft. 

1987 
The Air Guardian replaces the old Airlift newsletter as the official 176th Group news publication. 

1988 
The 176th Composite Group, including all subordinate units, is presented with the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for its accomplishments from June 1, 1986, to May 31, 1987.

176TH WING history