Fighter Wing anniversary: Wiegand’s service spans 30 years

This is the first in a series of profiles on pilots and businessmen who have served at the 115th Fighter Wing as the unit celebrates its 70th anniversary.

Jeff Wiegand carried out hundreds of missions during his military career, retiring as a colonel, but you also might have seen him leading the local Air National Guard Wing or as part of a flyover above Lambeau Field.

In all, he served in the armed forces for more than 30 years, including 15 years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force and 13 years in the Wisconsin National Guard, including a stint as commander of the 115th Fighter Wing before retiring in 2016.

Wiegand, now director of corporate security for American Family Insurance, found a home at the 115th, based at Truax Field in Madison, after two decades of globetrotting, or shall we say globe flying, primarily in the world’s constant trouble spot, the Middle East.

“I loved the Air Force, but I was moving every year-and-a-half to two years,” Wiegand says of his decision to transition to the Air National Guard. “I had done nine assignments in 15 years, and our boys were one and three. I came back here because 80% of the National Guard is part time and 20% is full time, so I was able to come back here and do the job I loved to do in basically my home area and not have to move.”

In joining the 115th Fighter Wing, he became part of a unit that has stood the test of time. At some point this fall, the unit and its 1,200-member staff will formally celebrate its 70th anniversary.

Different kind of conflict

Wiegand, a native of Brookfield, Wisconsin, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1989, but little did he know his flight training would be put to the test throughout the 1990s. Basic flight training, also called undergrad pilot training, meant learning to fly the F-16 aircraft, which he did from 1989 to 1991. He did not take part in Operation Desert Storm, which started in January 1991 and concluded weeks thereafter, but he became “operational,” or mission-ready, on the F-16 later that year.

Wiegand would fly that aircraft, which will soon be replaced by the F-35, throughout his career. He deployed to the Iraqi theater six times, he twice led the 115th Fighter Wing Air Expeditionary Force Aviation package of 350 airmen and 12 F-16 aircraft into combat in Iraq, and he flew more than 100 combat missions in the F-16.

In the post-Desert Storm period, he also helped enforce the “no-fly” zone imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after his forces were ejected from Kuwait. American pilots enforced a no-fly zone in the north to protect the Kurds in Iraq and in the south to protect Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Enforcing the no-fly zone was not without risk — Saddam Hussein was desperately trying to shoot down an American pilot — but it was minimized with the establishment of air supremacy on the first night of Desert Storm.

“You always want to have air superiority where you control the skies because that allows your ground forces to have freedom of movement without fear of being attacked by enemy aircraft,” Wiegand states. “We controlled the skies after 1991.”

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began in 2003, F-16 pilots supported coalition ground forces, often with close-in air support. “If friendly forces came in contact with the enemy, then they would call us in,” Wiegand explains. “A lot of times we did escalated response where if the good guys were pinned down, we would come and do a show of force — and hopefully just your presence would scare away the insurgents — all the way up to precision-attack types of operations, so it was pretty intense.”

In this kind of mission, the definition of “close calls” was a bit different because it became a different kind of conflict. While there were still higher-threat missions, it was not because there was a higher threat from the enemy shooting down coalition pilots, it was because of the possibility that civilians could get in harms way and the enemy would use such “collateral damage” to score propaganda points. “When you think about World War II, you think about good guys and bad guys, and it was a clear line,” Wiegand notes. “In this conflict, everyone was mixed together and the ground forces were trying to determine good, bad, and neutral, and we’re doing that from the air.

“So if your ground forces are engaged,” he adds, “you were not as concerned about being shot down but trying to make sure that you’re supporting the ground forces and you don’t have any fratricide [the accidental killing of one’s own forces] or collateral damage. That’s what was so challenging.”

Guarding the home front

In 2004, Wiegand transitioned from the Air Force to the Air National Guard, and spent the next 13 years with the 115th Fighter Wing. Its mission is to provide combat airpower for global contingency operations, execute fighter missions in support of homeland defense, and provide support for stateside domestic operations.

Another part of the unit’s mission is to help the state of Wisconsin with emergency response, as it did when flooding created havoc along the Wisconsin River in the summer of 2008, and it supports the state’s counter-drug program. So in addition to working for the president of the United States as a sub component of the Army and Air Force, the National Guard also works for the governors of states for domestic purposes. Its airmen are both state and federal employees.

When he served as the commander of the 115th Fighter Wing and was out on a speaking engagement, he often would be asked why the governor needed F-16s. The answer lies in the Guard’s dual mission — force projection overseas and homeland defense here. Truax Field has an active air defense mission, and since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the wing’s patrol area has included the northern border and the Midwestern U.S.

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Homeland defense is the underappreciated part of the unit’s federal mission. “When you deploy overseas, you’re federal,” Wiegand explains. “Your commander is the president of the United States, but every single day that you’re in a state role, your commander is the governor. The National Guard is always postured for emergency management such as natural disasters and civil unrest, and I really enjoyed that about the Guard.”

The RC-26 aircraft is used to support the governor for emergency management. It’s a twin aircraft used to conduct incident assessment and awareness, or IAA, and after the floods of 2008, its cameras captured real-time visual information that helped then-Gov. Jim Doyle make emergency management decisions. “What it allowed us to do is get eyes in the sky and get information into the Wisconsin Emergency Operations Center so the governor could look at it and say we have a rising river here, or this bridge is at-risk or this dam is at-risk,” Wiegand notes. “By having that information, the governor then can prioritize resources for emergency management.

“That was one of the most rewarding things because while you are training for your federal mission, you are executing your state mission.”

The 115th also has a mobile emergency room, a civil support team, an explosive ordinance disposal unit with robots to do the dangerous work, and a fire-crash-and-rescue unit as part of its partnership with Dane County Regional Airport.

F-35’s future home?

The Air Force’s decision to designate Truax Field as one of two preferred sites for the new F-35 has the local entry in prime position to host the new aircraft, which would preserve many of the jobs that now exist at the 115th Fighter Wing. Among all 18 competitive Air National Guard wings — the units that conduct fighter missions — they selected the top five in phase I.

In the second, more subjective phase, where decision makers traveled to the wings to conduct site surveys, they pared it down to the top two preferred candidates and also identified three reasonable alternates. In addition to Madison, the other preferred site is Montgomery, Alabama, while the reasonable alternatives are Jacksonville, Florida, Boise, Idaho, and Selfridge, Michigan.

The process now has advanced to a phase III, where an EIS, or environmental impact statement, is underway on all of five potential sites. The EIS is a study of all of the potential environmental, socio-economic, and noise impacts related to the change from F-16 aircraft to the F-35s. Phase III will take another year to complete, and it will include a public hearing at which the draft EIS is presented before it comes back to the public for review and comment, leading to a final decision by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, officially called the record of decision, in the spring of 2019.

According to Wiegand, the F-35 is the quieter of the two aircrafts in the majority of flight conditions. “If you really look at the normal profiles, and I’m going to get technical here, but with an F-16, the afterburner is loud,” he explains. “An F-35, in military power, is quieter. In an F-35, the afterburner is louder, but when you look at how an aircraft flies, it will rarely take off in afterburner. From the emotional side of things, people say the F-35 is louder, but in the majority of the flight conditions, it will be quieter.”

The Badger Air Community Council has been instrumental in galvanizing public support for the F-35. The Council was formed a decade ago when a group of business leaders realized the military did not have a great deal of public representation. Wiegand now serves as its executive director and as an advisor to the board of directors.

Two years ago, the BACC became actively engaged in the F-35 project, just as the Air Force began its selection process. Early in the process, Council directors made a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit to the Pentagon, and Wiegand recalls how gratifying it was to see them engaging with U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson because they could make the case more effectively than the military.

“The BACC is a class organization,” Wiegand states, “but it means so much more coming from someone else — from elected officials, the public, and all the local communities.”

Next month’s kickoff

The 115th Fighter Wing’s 70th anniversary observance actually will kick off in June with an event on Wednesday, June 6, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., at Wisconsin Brewing Co., 1079 American Way, Verona. First Lieutenant Pierce F. Nolen, the late father of Carl Nolen, president and CEO of Wisconsin Brewing, was one of the first F-51 pilots at the 115th Fighter Wing. Wisconsin Brewing’s taproom, where a display of the elder Nolen’s military service will be on view, is where the observance will take place.

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