EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE - Three A-10 "Warthogs" slowly taxied out of an Eielson Air Force hangar Wednesday morning and roared down the runway.
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Within seconds of takeoff, each of the planes was enveloped in a shroud of low-lying clouds and disappeared into the Fairbanks skies.
Those three jets, bound for new homes in Boise, Idaho, were the last of Eielson's A-10s, the casualties of the base's realignment by the military.
Since November, the 355th Fighter Squadron's A-10s have slowly trickled out of Eielson for assignments in other bases around the country. Most of the squadron's 18 jets have been sent to Georgia. These last three, after being retrofitted with new digital components to handle the most modern weapons, will be assigned to an Air National Guard Unit in Idaho.
Their departure from Alaska signaled the final deactivation of the 355th.
"Anytime a squadron gets closed, it's a sad thing," said Lt. Col. Quentin Rideout, who commanded the 355th. "You never know if it's going to come back or not."
The 355th's former headquarters were deserted Wednesday morning. Bulletin boards, stuck with unused thumbtacks, hung empty, display cases were bare, lockers were unused, offices vacant.
"All week we've been cleaning up, giving stuff away to other squadrons, cleaning out desks, burning classified (documents)," Rideout said.
Only a skeleton crew remained Wednesday, and most of them would be packing up and heading out soon for retirements or reassignments elsewhere.
In 2005 the Department of Defense announced it wanted to effectively close Eielson, but later the Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided to keep the base's F-16 squadron active for training purposes while eliminating the A-10s.
Before Wednesday, there had been A-10s stationed at Eielson since 1981. The military brought them here during the "heady days of the Cold War," according to Bob Cologie, the chief of the 354th Flight Wing's plans and programs office.
"The Russians were flexing their muscles," Cologie said, adding that other air bases around the state also were beefed up with new aircraft at the same time. "It was a rapid buildup to meet a perceived Russian threat."
Alaska's strategic importance outlived the Berlin Wall, however, and Eielson's A-10s were deployed around the world.
The aircraft flew missions in Bosnia, Kuwait and in 2006 were deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The A-10 is a bulky jet, designed for power rather than speed, Lt. Col. Kevin Blanchard, one of the three A-10 pilots to leave Fairbanks on Wednesday, said.
Armed with a tank-busting machine gun and a battery of rockets, the A-10s support Marines or other ground troops in combat by clearing away larger artillery and battlements. The planes are lovingly referred to as "Warthogs" because the aircraft is "such an ugly airplane and the warthog is one of the ugliest animals known to man," Blanchard said.
"It was designed to fly low and maneuver terrain at the edge of the battle field," he said.
Given the A-10s typical assignments, teamed up with the Army, having Fort Wainwright just a few miles away from Eielson was a good match.
"It was a marriage of unbelievable efficiency having the A-10s stationed here to train with the Army," Cologie said.
Blanchard is hoping that Wednesday's flight won't be his last in Alaska.
The jets could return here for training exercises at Eielson.
"Alaska's airspace is a national treasure," he said. "The training opportunities here are just so stellar."
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