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20 years later: Hurricane unable to topple historic wing

A pair of F-16 Fighting Falcons which were left in the alert complex lay destroyed after the hangar they were stored in was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew (U.S. Air Force photo/MSgt Don Wetterman)

A pair of F-16 Fighting Falcons which were left in the alert complex at Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., lay ruined after the hangar they were stored in was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. (U.S. Air Force photo/MSgt Don Wetterman)

Damaged control tower and welcome sign. Hurricane Andrew damaged every building on base and destroyed many. (U.S. Air Force photo/MSgt Don Wetterman)

Hurricane Andrew damaged every building at Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., and destroyed many. (U.S. Air Force photo/MSgt Don Wetterman)

Only a portion remained of the base chapel in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. (U.S. Air Force photo/MSgt Don Wetterman)

Only a portion remained of the chapel at Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., after Hurricane Andrew came through. (U.S. Air Force photo/MSgt Don Wetterman)

The 31st Fighter Wing activates during a ceremony at Aviano Air Base, Italy, April 1, 1994. (courtesy photo)

The 31st Fighter Wing activates during a ceremony at Aviano Air Base, Italy, April 1, 1994. (courtesy photo)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy --

On Aug. 24 1992, Hurricane Andrew swept across southern Florida, leaving extensive damage in its wake.

At Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., every building of the 31st Fighter Wing suffered some damage as a result of the hurricane. Many were destroyed. Naturally, the wing's personnel and aircraft had been evacuated beforehand, but the base had been so damaged that the aircraft could not return. The flying squadrons were later reassigned to other units.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, Air Force leadership decided to close Homestead AFB and inactivate the 31st FW. There was some question as to how long the wing would be inactivated. Would this be a relatively permanent inactivation? Other factors would come to bear directly on this question.

During that time, the Department of Defense was in the midst of a significant drawdown, which had actually started in 1987. The Defense Conversion Commission showed in 1993 that Air Force Active duty end-strength had dropped from a little over 600,000 in 1987, to a little under 500,000 by 1993. Commensurate with this drop in personnel many wings were inactivated. With the ongoing drawdown as the context in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, it was perhaps inevitable that leaders would decide to close Homestead AFB and inactivate the wing rather than try to rebuild Homestead. The 1993 BRAC commission later decided to realign rather than to close Homestead.

The actions of the Air Force chief of staff at the time, General Merrill McPeak, had a direct bearing on whether or not the wing would remain permanently inactivated. Initially, efforts to preserve Air Force heritage during the drawdown was disjointed, and McPeak took notice. Worried that the Air Force was in danger of losing its World War II heritage as a result of inactivating prestigious units, he took measures to protect that heritage. In one of these measures, he instituted a process by which organizations identified for inactivation would be given a heritage score. The idea was to keep units with high heritage scores active.

This process was in place by the time a decision had to be made as to how long the wing would be inactivated. When planners tabulated the 31st Flying Wing's heritage score, they saw an impressive history. They first discovered the distinguished history of our World War II predecessor unit, the 31st Fighter Group, with its 570 aerial victories, 15 campaign streamers and 2 Distinguished Unit Citations. Planners then discovered the wing's involvement in pioneering aerial refueling in 1952 - Operation Fox Peter One, the wing's alert and planning role during the Cuban Missile Crises in 1962, and the wing's impressive combat record while stationed at Tuy Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam, from 1966-1970, as well as many other accomplishments. The final score was too high for a permanent inactivation.

On the last day of March in 1994, the wing was inactivated at Homestead AFB, but it was subsequently activated in place of the 401st Air Expeditionary Wing at Aviano the very next day.

If there had not been the World War II accomplishments of the wing's predecessor unit, the wing's pioneering efforts of Fox Peter One, its central involvement during the Cuban Missile Crises, its more than 100,000 combat flying hours during the Vietnam War - there's a chance that today the wing would be an inactive unit, its history found somewhere among the millions of pages that reside at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. But, those events happened, the wing was involved, and it remained an active duty unit. In the 20 years since, the wing has continued to add other impressive accomplishments to its history.