A Moment in Air Force History

Normally, few would be interested in an aeromedical airlift squadron that inactivated a decade ago, but the 55th Aeromedical Airlift Squadron’s story deserves retelling.

Flying aeromedical airlift out of Rhein-Main Air Base since 1966, they realigned to the 435th Tactical Airlift Wing in 1975 just as the wing took over Rhein-Main. Increased attacks on Americans overseas in the next decade caused a considerable increase in aeromedical service needs; making the 55 AAS a key unit in Europe. Many still remember them today for their Iranian hostage crisis missions.



In Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militants captured the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took the Americans captive. By April 1980, American patience had worn thin and a rescue attempt was made – Operation Eagle Claw. Confounded by numerous obstacles, this mission ultimately ended in tragedy when an RH-53 helicopter hit a parked EC-130 aircraft causing both to burst into flames. The 55th AAS was quickly dispatched to bring back survivors. A second rescue opportunity never came and the crisis dragged on until January 1981 when, after 444 days of captivity, the 52 hostages were finally released. The 55th AAS was called upon to bring the former hostages back from a staging point in Algeria to Rhein-Main. Their arrival was a world news event staged from the door of their C-9A Nightingale.



The drawdown of Rhein-Main led to the 55th AAS being reassigned to the 86th Wing. Done in a full ceremony in July 1993, unit leadership looked forward to “providing outstanding aeromedical airlift from its new home.” No one could have known this new assignment would only last three months. 



Air Force leadership made a curious decision in October 1993 to inactivate the 55th AAS in favor of a unit with a longer history – the 75th Airlift Squadron. With the stroke of a pen the members became the “Fighting Roos” of the 75th AS and were no longer connected to 55th AAS or Rhein-Main history. Their new heritage went back to airlift missions to the Congo (1960-1962) and to Vietnam (mid-1960s). The 75th AS had brought back hostages too – the freed crewmembers of the USS Pueblo from Korea (1968).



This sudden inactivation and activation led to unit heritage misunderstandings, some of which persisted through the 2003 departure of the last Nightingale and the 75th’s own inactivation. Time and the history books will erase the confusion as each unit will be remembered for their own contributions – both have so much to be proud of.

(Courtesy of 435th Air Base Wing and 86th AIrlift Wing history offices)

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