Forging Excellence: William Tell – Tuskegee Now and Then

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Kaitlyn Lawton
  • 477th Fighter Group Public Affairs

Editor’s Note: Due to operation security concerns, the individuals’ quotes have been referred to by only their call sign. A call sign is a specialized form of nickname assigned as a unique identifier to military communications.

After a nearly 20-year hiatus, the U.S. Air Force’s most famous air combat competition, William Tell, returned September 11-15, 2023, in Savannah, Georgia.

This competition brings not just aircrews but also maintainers, weapons loaders, intel officers, and command and control personnel head-to-head for titles and trophies. Dynamic scenarios like this enhance our interoperability as we continually adapt to dynamic operation environments in near-peer-contested skies.

A special member was in attendance this year, a member of the historical 332nd Fighter Group, the Tuskegee Airmen, Lt. Col. James Harvey III. The 332nd Fighter Group was the winner of the “Best Overall Team Award” in the first-ever gunnery meet held in 1949, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. The gunnery meet was the predecessor to William Tell.

“Harvey is a Tuskegee Airman and winner of the first United States Air Force ‘TOP GUN’ competition in 1949 (precursor to William Tell)”, said Thor, 302d Fighter Squadron weapons officer and F-22 Raptor pilot. “He was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron which was part of the 332nd Fighter Group. Coincidentally, the 302d Fighter Squadron was part of the 332nd Fighter Group for a period of time.”

The 302d Fighter Squadron was constituted on July 4, 1942, and activated on October 13, 1942, at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Alabama. The 302d Fighter Squadron was assigned to the 332d Fighter Group, although currently the 302d Fighter Squadron falls under the 477th Fighter Group. Today, F-22 Raptor pilots in 302d Fighter Squadron, are a part of the historic (Hellions) squadron that has its heritage built in the 332nd Fighter Group.

“The historical link between Lt. Col. Harvey and the Hellions is certainly notable,” said Thor. “His performance in garrison and combat left nothing to be desired and sets an example to follow.”

The 477th Fighter Group sent “Thor” as a competitor alongside many others from Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson to the William Tell competition. “Thor” was the mission commander and overall lead for the top fighter integration team which included 3rd Wing F-22s, 388th and 419th Fighter Wing’s F-35s, 366th Fighter Wing’s F-15E, and 673rd Air Base Wing’s Command and Control. 

The 302d weapons officer led the William Tell Large Force Integration mission, winning the Major Richard I. Bong Fighter Interceptor Trophy and earning an Exceptionally Qualified Spot Check from one of the exercise evaluators for being exceptionally qualified in force integration and mission command.

In the past 19 years since the last William Tell competition was hosted in 2004 at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, several things have changed such as fighter integration tactics, 5th generation aircraft with major technological developments, and near-peer threats.

“Meeting Lt. Col. Harvey was incredible. As a 100-year-old Distinguished Flying Cross recipient, he’s a living legend that truly embodies the fighter pilot and Red Tail spirit,” said Steel. “His eyes lit up when he saw the Hellion patch that we gave him, and immediately started sharing stories about flying the F-80.”

In 1942, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first African Americans trained as pilots and maintainers in the Army Air Corps. They were a part of the Tuskegee experiment testing whether African Americans could fly military aircrafts.

“The man is a legend,” said Thor. “The fact his team put up with all the nonsense, won despite having an inferior aircraft, and continued to excel as warriors afterwards is inspiring.”

Competitions such as William Tell historically ensure our forces are mission capable by testing and evaluating our ability to rapidly respond and execute Air Superiority missions anywhere on the globe.