ST. PAUL — Fittingly, the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 133rd Airlift Wing began with a brave flight.
On Sept. 26, 1920, three members of the recently formed Minnesota Observation Squadron set off from Curtiss Northwest Airport, the state’s first commercial airport located in present-day Falcon Heights, with the goal of reaching Washington, D.C., and selling to military leaders the concept of National Guard air units.
Flying lonely skies in a rented three-seat Curtiss Oriole biplane were: Lt. Col. William Garis, Minnesota’s assistant adjutant general; Brig. Gen. Walter Rhinow, the state’s adjutant general; and Capt. Ray Miller, a former Army Air Service pilot who later would become known as “The Father of the Minnesota Air National Guard.”
It turned out the trio’s 1,600-mile journey — which included a blinding rainstorm above Madison, Wis., and a stop for a chicken dinner at Miller’s parents’ house in Ohio — not only set a course for military aviation in Minnesota but also for the United States.
The seven-day flight and the subsequent three days of lobbying military officials in Washington paid off. Just under four months later — on Jan. 17, 1921 — the squadron became the first to receive federal recognition. It would help set in motion what would later become the Air National Guard across the U.S.
With that designation also came a half-million dollars in federal funding that allowed the unit, called the 109th Observation Squadron, to get off the ground and become what is now the present-day 109th Airlift Squadron, located at the St. Paul-based 133rd Airlift Wing, which is attached to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
The 133rd Airlift Wing, which flies C-130 Hercules tactical cargo and personnel transport aircraft, currently is made up of about 1,200 men and women who serve locally and globally. From World War II to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, the Wing has been called upon to help those in need.
“We’ve been involved in so many major historical events,” said Lt. Col. Dana Novinskie, commander of the 109th Airlift Squadron. “We had an interesting piece on 9/11 … and just with all the domestic operations and national disaster responses, we’ve really done a lot. And to see the robust unit that we are today, it is really something to be a part of that kind of a rich heritage.”
Last year, Novinskie made 133rd Airlift Wing history of her own by becoming the first female commander of the 125-member flying squadron. Coincidentally, Novinskie, who joined the 133rd Airlift Wing from the Air Force in 2012, was appointed to her new role just a month before the 100th anniversary of that historic flight to Washington.
Racetrack to international airport
Last week at the Minnesota Air National Guard Museum, Col. Jamie Lindman, the 133rd’s vice-commander, spoke enthusiastically of the squadron’s history, which he has researched and learned to appreciate during his nearly 20 years with the unit.
Lindman marvels at the significance at the 1920 flight — and what followed with the initial federal funding, which allowed the squadron to build two hangars at Fort Snelling and acquire nine Curtiss JN “Jenny” biplanes.
“Nothing else existed here, it was just a racetrack — Speedway Field — with a grassy area in the center to take off and land aircraft,” he said. “Ray Miller and the squadron, they established themselves here.”
By 1923, with the Speedway Field landing strip having evolved into a full-blown runway, the squadron was involved in its renaming to the Wold-Chamberlain Airport, in honor of two local pilots, Ernest Wold and Cyrus Chamberlain, who lost their lives in combat during World War I.
With the arrival of international service, the airport underwent its final name change in 1948, becoming Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“So really another part of Ray Miller’s claim to fame and the squadron’s claim to fame was developing this as an airport,” Lindman said. “Obviously, today it’s one of the largest metropolitan airports in the country. And it all started with Miller and others in the unit developing what was then Speedway Field — building hangars, establishing it as a runway. They put on what we would now call air shows, and by the thousands people from Minneapolis and St. Paul would come to view these shows. So they really promoted, and Miller in particular, really promoted aviation.”
A rich history of service
The squadron’s flying history includes four diverse missions and supporting elements: observation, reconnaissance, fighter and airlift.
The unit experienced its first death in 1926, when Lt. Edward A. Michaud was killed in an aircraft accident, according to the Wing’s book, “A Century in the Sky,” summarizing the history of aviation in the 109th and the evolution of the Wing.
Five years later, famous aerobatic pilot and first Northwest Airways pilot Charles “Speed” Holman, who was not a National Guard member, was killed while performing in an air show in Omaha, Neb.
During Holman’s funeral, four 109th Observation Squadron airplanes flew in the first recorded missing man formation, which included a vacant spot reserved in memory of Holman, who was 32.
In February 1941, the squadron was called to active duty for one year. Activation was extended after the attack on Pearl Harbor that December, and the squadron was the first National Guard unit to go overseas in World War II, according to the Wing.
Two years later, squadron designation changed to the 109th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. Their reconnaissance missions in Mustang fighters consisted of several different types, including weather, aerial, leading fighter sweep and seeking out German missiles.
They flew in D-Day operations and in the Battle of the Bulge. The highly decorated squadron flew 1,680 combat missions during World War II. They lost seven airmen killed in action during the war.
The 109th, along with the newly assigned squadron from Duluth, were activated for the Korean War. The 133rd Fighter Group, at that time, had flying squadrons not only from Duluth but also from Fargo, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D. The group trained together through the 1950s.
The 109th Airlift Squadron took on the global airlift mission in 1960, and a year later was activated and participated in the Berlin Crisis.
By 1966, and now designated the 133rd Military Airlift Group, the unit began supporting American troops in Vietnam. At this time, the 133rd, like sister Guard units throughout the country, flew three missions per month (with up to 11 at peak engagement) to Vietnam with priority one supplies including armaments, ammunition, rockets and aircraft parts that could not wait for ships.
The 109th was also one of the first Air National Guard units activated for the conflict in the Balkans in 1999. Based out of Germany, they participated in Operation Shining Hope, flying missions into Albania carrying relief supplies for refugees from Kosovo.
The pace of events quickly changed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which happened as a 109th Airlift Squadron C-130 was airborne on a routine Guard mission from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to Minneapolis. Shortly after takeoff, they were directed to track and observe the aircraft that crashed into the Pentagon. As they continued their journey back to Minneapolis, they were asked to spot the wreckage of United Airlines Flight 93 downed in a Pennsylvania field.
The attacks were a defining moment for the Air National Guard as it was thrust from a strategic reserve role to that of an operational force, and the 109th has maintained a robust deployment operations tempo since, deploying to Afghanistan numerous times as well as multiple other Southwest Asia locations.
Honoring place in history
A Centennial Steering Committee has been planning a number of events to celebrate the squadron’s milestone, including an open house, air expo and exhibit at the Mall of America. COVID-19 has postponed them indefinitely.
To mark the 1920 flight, the 133rd Airlift Wing in September hosted a celebration at what is now Curtiss Field Park at Snelling and Iowa avenues in Falcon Heights. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Shawn Manke, the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, and U.S. Air Force Col. James Cleet, commander of the 133rd Airlift Wing, dedicated a plaque at Curtiss Field to highlight the story.
Just as the Curtiss Oriole departed east in 1920, piloted by their first squadron commander, a C-130 Hercules flew overhead piloted by the unit’s first female squadron commander — 100 years to the day.
Brig. Gen. Dan Gabrielli, chief of staff of the Minnesota Air National Guard, who grew up three blocks away from Curtiss Field Park, was a guest speaker. He ended with words from Miller, which Gabrielli said “are as pertinent today as they were when spoken.”
“If a change in mission comes along — and it did many times in the old outfit as I am sure it will again in the future — accept it as a challenge, make the best of it, and every time it will turn out for the best. Be the good soldier, obey your orders, know your job, speak well of the outfit, and think to the future, not of the past.”